Close Encounters of the Bison Kind

Theodore Roosevelt National Park Bison 2

A bestial growl, almost feline in nature, first caught our attention. Somewhere off in the distance, a cacophony of grunts and bellows followed. We listened for a short time before deciding a couple of things: the noise originated from within our campground; a large group of animals were responsible; we had no idea what kind; if we wanted to find out, we’d have to go investigate. Grabbing my camera we headed for the door.

As campgrounds go Cottonwood, in the South Unit of Teddy Roosevelt National Park, is fairly large. Although it has “only” 76 RV spots, each site is well wooded with plenty of space between. The abundant tree cover prevented us from seeing what we are walking toward. The growing noise indicated we were getting closer.

Our first, and up until that point only, encounter with bison happened in Florida’s wonderful Paynes Prairie State Park. Sightings of their small herd are somewhat rare, and we were delighted to cross paths, literally, with one large bull. We watched him for a long time, and never heard a peep out of him. Bison, for all we knew, were mute. Now we know better.

Back at Teddy Roosevelt, we made steady progress toward the grunting. Eventually the trees gave way to a tent camping area and a large field beyond. Crowding the field and pressing against the tents, fifty or more talkative bison had settled in for an early lunch. The thought of being in one of those nylon ‘shelters,’ surrounded by a herd of thousand pound animals, made us glad for the R.V.

Although bison appear slow and docile, the males do get ornery during the summer breeding season. When motivated, they can gallop at a 35 mile-per-hour clip. We did our best to keep a respectful distance.

Bison at our livingroom window

But while we kept an eye on the animals in front of us, a large male approached us from behind. Not wanting to stand between the herd and this hulk of hair and horns, we slid to the right trying to give everyone as much room as possible. It was then we saw the second herd, just fifty feet ahead.

Surrounded on three sides, we decided to keep moving. Choosing a course between the second herd and the lone male we made our way deeper into the campground, and eventually out of trouble.

Back at the RV, the grunts, groans and bellows continued for the rest of the day and all through the night. By morning the noise intensified and it was clear the animals were heading in our direction. Before long we were once again surrounded by a herd of bison; but this time from within the safety of our R.V. We watched them graze on grass by our tires, and saunter past our picnic table to the large field in back. There they stayed, in the shadow of the mountains, for most of the afternoon before disappearing into the wilds of the park, never to visit us again.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Mountains and bison seen from our bedroom

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11 Comments on “Close Encounters of the Bison Kind”

  1. RambleFeet October 12, 2011 at 7:51 am #

    Great pictures and good writing. I certainly wouldn’t want to have a herd near my tent!

    Several years back I hiked into an area where bison were calving – being faced down by several bison shoulder to shoulder was one of the more unnerving moments of my life. They are definitely beasts to be reckoned with.

    Are you going to make it up to the North Unit of TR? Which direction are you headed next?


    • Brian October 12, 2011 at 8:32 am #

      Thanks for the comments. We didn’t get up to the north unit, unfortunately. From Teddy we’re making our way south for the winter – SD, CO, NM and finally TX with quick side trips to WY and NE along the way.


  2. theplaceswevebeen October 16, 2011 at 9:15 am #

    Interesting post and great photos! I love it when nature just creeps up on you like that.


    • Brian October 16, 2011 at 9:21 am #

      Creep up on us they did, from all sides too. 😉 Thanks for stopping by!


  3. Suzy October 16, 2011 at 12:20 pm #

    That would certainly be intimidating to encounter bison not in a vehicle and up that close! Glad you guys were behind some metal and steel. The chance encounter makes for some great photos.


    • Brian October 17, 2011 at 8:14 am #

      Hi Suzy,
      It was a little unnerving to be surrounded by the beasties like we were. Only the second ecounter were we safely inside.


  4. earthriderjudyberman October 22, 2011 at 12:09 pm #

    Awesome photos, Brian. Many of the sites are on my bucket list. Look forward to more posts.



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