Today, bison number in the hundreds of thousands, but most are restricted to isolated protected areas, production herds and private lands across a fraction of their former range in North America. A conservation success story, yes, but one that still needs an extra push if we hope to truly restore this species to the American West.
Putting your hands on a bison is a truly amazing experience. They are thickly covered in hair, with big heads and broad shoulders. Males have “beards” that sway from left to right as they move, noticeable even from a drone positioned hundreds of feet overhead. All this hair is great when you’re not wearing gloves (like me) and explains, in part, why they were so valued by indigenous peoples. Their pelts provided warmth amidst blustery winds and cold winters on the plains.
See if you can spot the male bison in this drone footage. Look for their “beards” that sway left to right as they move.
While seemingly gentle from a distance, bison are wild animals and can be aggressive and unpredictable when provoked. They deserve respect, with horns and hooves that can inflict damage. So, how do you put your hands on a bison without risking serious injury or death? And why would you choose to do so?
As part of an effort to better understand how bison move and use the landscape, our team at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute is studying collective movement behavior, or how groups make decisions and move together as a unit. This means that we need to fit animals with some sort of tracking device. Traditionally, we fit animals with GPS collars that are secured around the neck. However, this type of GPS collar is expensive, which means we can only track a small number of bison at once.
In January, the SCBI team (which included me, project lead and wildlife ecologist Bill McShea, and landscape ecologist and on-the-ground lead Hila Shamon) traveled to American Prairie Reserve in Montana to assist with fitting as many bison as possible with solar GPS ear tags. These inexpensive tags (less than $50 each) are developed by mOOvement, an Australian manufacturer. They weigh about 30 grams, or roughly the weight of a AA battery, allowing us to attach them to the animals’ ears. Initially developed to track the movements of cattle, American Prairie Reserve has expanded their use to bison. With any luck, the devices will collect the hourly position of each bison for the foreseeable future.