Charged By A Bison!

They weigh up to a ton and can barrel along at 30 miles per hour. That's a lethal combination of strength, weight and speed . . . as our author lived to tell. (January 2008)

A bison like this one charged author and wildlife photographer Keith Sutton. The burly bull took out Sutton's tripod and camera. But Sutton scrambled to the top of his pickup, and safety.
Photo by Keith Sutton.

For two weeks, my 16-year-old son Josh and I had traveled through the Great Plains. Much of our time was devoted to wildlife photography.

At Desoto National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa, we snapped shots of raptors, warblers and other interesting birds. North Dakota's Long Lake NWR gave us a chance to photograph sharp-tailed grouse, pheasants and jackrabbits. In the Badlands of South Dakota, we got up-close views of prairie dogs, bighorn sheep and pronghorns.

The one animal I was most eager to photograph, however, proved elusive. I wanted to capture some good images of wild American bison. But these great shaggy beasts were always out of range. We saw dozens, but none close enough to photograph.

Heading back home, as we crossed the South Dakota-Nebraska state line, I saw a sign for another wildlife refuge: Fort Niobrara.

This one wasn't on our itinerary, but I decided to detour through it anyway; I was road-weary, and an hour or two of wildlife watching would be a welcome respite.

Fort Niobrara is 19,131 acres of wildlife habitat along the Niobrara River in north-central Nebraska. The ranger at the visitor center said we could drive the 3 1/2-mile, self-guided tour route and expect to see a wide variety of birds, mule deer, elk, prairie dogs -- and bison!

I hadn't expected to find more bison on our trip home, and was thrilled that I'd get another chance to photograph these massive beasts.

Best of all, we arrived during rutting season. The big adult bulls, aloof most of the year, drifted among the groups of cows and calves.

The ranger said it would be easy to approach them in a vehicle, and that we were likely to hear the bulls bellowing as they pawed the earth, chased each other and fought.

Using a map, the ranger showed me where he'd last seen one of the refuge's biggest bulls. An hour later, Josh and I found the huge animal tending a group of cows and calves. We drove within 100 yards of the herd. To my great pleasure, they acted as tame as Holsteins at a milking barn as the bison shuffled along an old hogwire fence.

That fence, however, presented a problem. The bison weren't in an enclosure, but photos with hogwire in the background would make it look that way. I decided to leave the truck and approach the animals so I could zoom in with a telephoto lens and exclude the fence from my images.

Wary at first, I instructed Josh to keep the truck running just in case we had to make a quick getaway. But my fears seemed unfounded. The bison paid me no heed.

The enormous bull, an animal weighing close to a ton, found a wallow, rolled on the ground, and stirred clouds of dust. He continued dusting as I moved within 100 feet and set up my tripod and camera.

I cast a cautious glance at him again and found him on his feet now, but still not aggressive . . . or so it seemed. I put my eye to the camera's viewfinder, zoomed in on his massive head and snapped a picture.

When I look at that photograph now, it terrifies me. That old bull, a gigantic shaggy animal with an enormous bearded head, had his eyes locked on me. And although I perceived him to be quite docile when I took the photograph, now I can see he probably had rage in his heart.

In the brief time since I approached him, something in him had clicked -- some blood instinct, primitive and wild. But I failed to notice that.

And when I snapped the camera's shutter, the bull snapped as well.

Only a second after taking that photograph, I looked up again. To my horror, the bull was almost upon me. In less time than it takes to tell it, he'd covered half the distance between us.

I thought I was dead.

I veered sharply just as the bull crashed through my camera gear. The bison seemed momentarily surprised and slowed a bit, giving me time to scramble up on top of our truck.

I shouted to Josh: "Go, son! Go!" But all I could hear was the grinding of gears and hysterical laughter.

I turned to see the bull standing in front of the pickup, pawing huge clods of earth from the ground and shaking his head like El Toro in a bullfight. I feared he would charge again and turn our truck into a heap of scrap metal.

Yet Josh found the scene strangely funny. He took much longer than I thought necessary to regain his composure and back the pickup a safe distance away.

To a 16-year-old, I suppose it was humorous, watching his fat old dad run in wide-eyed terror as a hump-backed bull the size of a van chased him on top of the truck like a hound treeing a squirrel. When it was over, I laughed a bit myself.

But such episodes don't always end in laughter.

Consider, for example, the case of Jacques Dumont. Were he still alive, this 21-year old Frenchman might tell you how foolhardy it can be to approach a bison.

Dumont was in Yellowstone National Park, standing six feet from a solitary bull. As friends took his photograph, the bull charged.

Dumont was gored and tossed 10 feet in the air.

If Marvin Schrader were still alive, he might explain the danger one faces when photographing these symbols of the American frontier. Schrader, his wife and their three children, were near Old Faithful when they spotted a bull in a meadow. Schrader was 20 feet from the bison, taking photos, when the animal charged and gored him to death.

If Ernest Barna were still alive, he might tell you a bison photograph isn't worth the price you'll pay to get it. This 76-year-old Michigan man was photographing bison in South Dakota's Custer State Park when a bull approached.

Other people nearby ran for their cars, but not Barna. The bull walked past Barna, nudged him, then turn

ed and gored him in the side and threw him. He died soon after.

People like me, Dumont, Schrader and Barna are often lulled into a false sense of security because bison appear so slow-moving and peaceful.

Yes, these massive ungulates can weigh up to a ton. But they can sprint up to 30 miles per hour, making them a lethal combination of strength, weight and speed.

In fact, records from Yellowstone National Park show bison are the park's most dangerous wildlife. Bison there have charged people more than 80 times since 1978. In 10 instances, people approached within 51 feet -- in one case, two feet! -- to pose with or photograph bison.

In every case, the bison made contact with the people they charged. Two of those people died.

I didn't know about these bison attacks when the bull charged me in Nebraska. I didn't know bison sometimes kill people.

Fortunately, I'm still alive to tell about my close encounter with that massive buffalo. Jacques Dumont, Marvin Schrader and Ernest Barna are not.

Later on, I read another story that's strangely reminiscent of my own bison encounter.

In July 1843, John James Audubon, Owen McKenzie and John Bell were hunting bison near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers. McKenzie shot a big bull with a rifle at close range, twice.

The animal seemed finished. Audubon and Bell approached.

" . . . As we came near, he worked himself slowly round to face us, and then made a lunge at us," Audubon wrote in his journal. "We then stopped on one side and commenced discharging our pistols with little or no effect, except to increase his fury with every shot.

"His appearance was now one to inspire terror, had we not felt satisfied with our ability to avoid him. However, even so, I came very near being overtaken by him . . .

"I placed myself directly in front of him, instead of veering to one side, not supposing that he was able to overtake me; but turning my head over my shoulder, I saw to my horror, Mr. Bull within three feet of me, prepared to give me a taste of his horns.

"The next instant I turned sharply off, and the Buffalo being unable to turn quickly enough to follow me, Bell took the gun from Owen and shot him directly behind the shoulder blade. He tottered for a moment . . . fell forward on his horns, then rolled over on his side and was dead."

Audubon and I were lucky.

Let me give you some important advice. Stay away from bison. Stay far away.

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