Are Bison Dangerous? How Can You Stay Safe?

When you think of large and impressive animals in North America, what do you think of? Almost certainly bears of some kind, and perhaps moose as well.

a European bison
a European bison

Maybe you keep it domestic and think of impressively large bulls. Maybe you imagine the majestic bighorn sheep living in the Rocky Mountains, or the wailing call of a proud elk. But did you think of the iconic American Bison?

If you didn’t, you’re not alone; most people take them for granted. They just seemed to wander around in great herds in our national parks. But bison are big. Really big! But are bison dangerous, or aggressive?

Bison can reach heights of five feet for females, and six feet for males and typically weigh between 1 – 2000 pounds. The sheer size of these animals is both awe-inspiring and, frankly, more than a little intimidating.

There’s always going to be some risk involved when around large animals like these but are bison actually dangerous? If they are, how can you stay safe when around them?

Yes, bison are very dangerous and can be aggressive if approached, cornered, or if they feel like their calves are threatened. Bison are extremely fast, heavy, and strong and can inflict horrific injuries with their horns and body weight.

Sure, they might look like slow, dumb shaggy beasts as they serenely plod around from place to place, but you’ll see an entirely new and terrifying side of them if you get on their bad side.

Sadly, many people learn that the hard way every year and some learn it for the first and last time, if you take my meaning. You’ll need to treat bison with the same respect you would any other large animal, so keep reading and I’ll tell you what you need to know.

Do Bison Attack People?

Yes, they can and they do. Although they are rarely aggressive in a confrontational or predatory way, bison attacks are surprisingly common every year.

Concerning encounters with bad outcomes, it rarely fails that the huge beasts are reported to “snap” and go from gentle to mental in the blink of an eye, and people invariably get hurt year in and year out, and by the dozens.

At first glance, bison may appear to be very relaxed, laid-back characters – like lazy cows. As the saying goes, however, appearances can be deceiving.

Behind that relaxed appearance lurks a much more aggressive personality which can and will do a lot of damage when called upon.

They’re built like tanks, with stocky, muscular builds, big, broad heads, and short, sharp horns. Oh, and they can reach a top speed of 35 mph which they can maintain for up to 5 miles!

They’re also able to turn sharply at minimal cost to their momentum – meaning you wouldn’t be able to outrun one of these big boys.

Bison typically have to deal with very, very cold, very snowy winters, getting through the snowdrifts can be quite a problem but the bison’s big head gives it an easy way to push through them.

They can also use that big head to break bones. Their horns are, as previously stated, very sharp, and able to inflict very nasty cuts/lacerations and deadly puncture wounds.

Their heavy, muscular builds combined with their weight make them formidable opponents, but what makes them even more frightening is their unpredictable nature.

They typically mind their own business – preferring to be left alone to enjoy their grass – but they can very quickly become aggressive which is obviously very bad news for the guy caught in the proverbial crosshairs.

Where Do Bison Live?

Although they used to enjoy a humongous range in the past stretching from coast to coast and all the way up through Canada, today you’re most likely to see bison in a national park, particularly the ones out west like Yellowstone – if you don’t see them on a domestic farm.

In fact, the huge bovines are often the main attraction for some park visitors, and since they get to walk around wherever they please, including right along roads and hiking paths people use, this has led many people to try and get close for ill-advised photo ops or other stupid chicanery.

Today, you’re most likely to encounter bison in:

  • Ranches and farms in the United States and Canada
  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park
  • Yellowstone National Park
  • Badlands National Park
  • Wind Cave National Park
  • Bison Reserves and Gov’t. Sanctuaries

You’ll also find relatively large populations in the Rocky Mountain States, throughout Canada, and even in Alaska.

That being said, there aren’t really any truly huge roaming herds of bison out on the plains and prairies of America like there used to be. If you aren’t going to a national park, chances are good you won’t encounter them, but they have been reintroduced around the country in parts of their historic range.

So if you see them out on your travels, be prepared…

How Can You Avoid Being Attacked by a Bison?

If you see a bison anywhere, whether or not you’re in a national park or you encounter a new and young herd out in the wild, the very best thing you can do is simply stay well away from them!

Also, you need to pay attention if you know that bison are in the area: I’ve seen them in person before, and they are astoundingly quiet for such immense animals! It’s almost like they tiptoe around…

Under any circumstances, do not approach the bison for any reason, and if the bison is walking towards you move away from them and out of the path. Just because the bison is approaching you does not mean they are friendly or they want you to touch them.

They might be expecting you to move, and even if they’re just curious, the closer the bison gets the greater the chances of disaster!

Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security in places where tourists congregate: bison might get used to the presence of people and automobiles and walk among them with seemingly no concerns whatsoever. In these situations, people who assume gentleness are routinely hurt or killed by bison.

And, as with all animals and large animals in particular, always give a very wide berth to any mother that has a calf!

What Does a Bison Threat Display Look Like?

Bison are somewhat infamous for seeming to snap and go on the offensive with no warning, as stated above. At least, that’s what happens if you listen to some people who don’t know better.

While sudden, no-warning attacks might happen from time to time, in actuality bison will typically start showing signs of stress and discontentment before they charge.

Now, unlike a buffalo that will just charge and attack the source of irritation, a bison will give you ample opportunity to back off and go away.

They will give off warning signals to say: “I’m unhappy, I don’t like you, go away!” Be on the lookout for:

  • Shaking or nodding motion of the head
  • Stamping of the hooves
  • Raising of the tail
  • Wallowing (rolling in the dirt)
  • Tree thrashing (they headbutt trees)
  • Snorting

These are sometimes, but not all the time, accompanied by a loud bellowing call which is always a threat that tells you to “back off!”, and in no uncertain terms.

Assuming these displays don’t work, what follows next is a charge. Now, it might be a false charge or it might be a real one.

You don’t have much time to figure it out, because an adult bison in good shape can go from standing still to clearing nearly 30 feet per second and accelerating in under a second. Bison also have incredible endurance, so don’t even think about outrunning one.

Another warning signal, oddly enough, is their tail. When they’re calm and relaxed, it rests against the body flicking back and forth. When they’re agitated, on the other hand, it stands up straight.

These warnings are meant to give you a chance to stop and consider whether you want to risk severe injury or death.

I guess you could say the bison has a sense of sportsmanship in that he’s giving you a chance to back off and avoid getting squashed by a 2000 lbs battering ram with knives.

If a bison starts to charge you, whether or not it’s a false charge, you’re already in a bad position. If you are fortunate, it will stop or break off, but if you aren’t, it will try to run you down.

Bison are Among the Most Dangerous Large Animals in North America

In fact, statistically, bison are responsible for more attacks and injuries on people than most other North American wild animals. This number includes bears, elk, wolves, and other constant inhabitants of the same national parks bison live in!

Bison have killed almost a dozen people since 1980 and inflicted many dozens of substantial or maiming injuries.

According to a 1994 report by the Journal of Wilderness Medicine, there were 56 bison attacks on humans between 1978 and 1992. A more recent study from 2018, recorded 25 incidents between 2000 and 2015.

This year has already seen three bison attacks on humans. Yes, you read that correctly; there have been three attacks on humans in 2022.

Now, you may be wondering why these incidents have happened so close together and the answer is simple: photography.

Something to keep in mind is that the rut (mating season) occurs typically between May and July.

As the Summer tourist season gets underway, the park will have a lot of visitors and what do all those tourists have in common? That’s right, a camera!

Taking pictures is a huge part of any vacation but oftentimes, people will take serious risks to get that so-called perfect shot.

How to Stay Safe in the Company of Bison

One of the most common triggers for a bison attack is people getting too close to the animal in order to snap a cool photo. So, how close is too close?

Well, park regulations state that visitors should keep a distance of at least 75 feet from any large animals (300 feet for bears and wolves).

The victim in the May 30th incident was within 10 feet of the bison that attacked her and received a nasty puncture wound in addition to being chucked 10 feet in the air.

Getting too close isn’t the only trigger. Other things that could trigger an attack include:

  • Catching a bison by surprise
  • Approaching the bison in a group
  • Failing to retreat from an approaching bison

So, how do you stay safe in the company of these magnificent beasts? Well, for starters, keep a safe, respectful distance from them.

Stay alert and pay attention to what’s going on around you so that you don’t surprise them by accident.

If you start seeing any of those tell-tale warning signals, get out of dodge! This is an important one: DON’T APPROACH THEM!

What Should You Do if Charged by a Raging Bison?

If a bison is giving you any threat displays, you need to move away from it as quickly but as smoothly and as calmly as humanly possible.

Sudden movements or a rapid flight can provoke a charge from the bison. In short, if the bison isn’t actually charging don’t turn your back on it and don’t run, but move away.

If, however, the bison starts to charge you need to get the nearest and heaviest object between you and the bison as quickly as possible. This might be a sturdy tree, a large vehicle, or anything else that can hold the beast back. Make no mistake; they can easily bulldoze smaller obstacles out of the way, sometimes with fatal results.

If you don’t have any large obstacles, but there’s something you can climb on top of, try to climb quickly and get out of the bison’s reach assuming that the object cannot be knocked over. Bison can’t climb trees, unlike some bears, so if you can get up off the ground you should be safe.

For whatever reason, you can’t get away in time or the bison is on top of you before you react, you need to ball up and protect your head and neck however you can. Don’t try to fight back, because that will only prolong the attack. The bison only wants to put you down, or disable you as a threat, before leaving. They are herbivores, not meat eaters, so they won’t try to kill you for food.

Expect to be crushed, slammed, tossed and trampled. Once the attacks stop, don’t be so quick to get up until you are sure the bison has moved away.

Always Get Help After a Bison Attack

One curious phenomenon that happens all the time with bison attacks is that people, having survived a close encounter with one, seem not too much worse for the wear and dust themselves off, omitting any sort of medical attention. Some of these people have perished.

This is a bad move because, in your adrenalized state, you might not realize the nature and severity of your injuries. Internal injuries are especially likely from bison attacks owing to their size and strength, and what you mistake for soreness or tenderness could actually be a fatal internal injury.

Considering you just got thrashed by an animal that’s the size of a pickup truck, I think a checkup is in order.

Bison are wild animals, and you are in their territory, not the other way around. You leave them alone and they’ll leave you alone.

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