Are Bison Dangerous? How Can You Stay Safe?

The American Bison is the largest land mammal in the USA and is typically found roaming the forests of the Yellowstone National Park.

european bison

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?

Bison are very dangerous, but you can stay safe by paying attention to the environment and the animal’s body language (i.e. don’t ignore the warning signals). Keep a safe, respectful distance, and don’t approach the animal.

Bison can be Aggressive when Needed or Provoked

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.

You are Given a Chance to Back Off

Now, unlike a buffalo who 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!”

These signals include:

  • Mock charges
  • Head shaking
  • Foot stomping
  • Snorting
  • Tree thrashing (they headbutt trees)
  • Wallowing (rolling in the dirt)

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 2000Ibs battering ram with knives.

Whether you heed the warning or not is your decision but, if you ignore it…well…let’s just say it won’t end well.

Three Attacks so Far in 2022

Okay, so here’s a frightening thought: bison have harmed more people in Yellowstone National Park than any other animal.

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 so far in 2022. The first one was on May 30th, the second on June 28th, and the third on June 29th.

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!

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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