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How do Yellowstone Bison survive harsh winters?

“Two million winters have shaped a creature who attempts to survive here long after others have fled–the bison. A muscular hump supports a massive head, a snow plow that clears away drifts and uncovers buried grasses. A dense coat and layers of fat stave off the punishing wind and cold. These beasts carry winter with them every step. They’re the descendants of survivors from a past world.”

And according to this Smithsonian Channel video from the program Epic Yellowstone: Fire and Ice, “if it wasn’t for a hidden herd in the deepest reaches of this National Park, bison would have been wiped out in the late 1800s. Today, thousands of them thrive.”

bison in the snow
See how Yellowstone bison are biologically built for surviving harsh winters and learn a bit more about their history there. The narration is accompanied by beautifully filmed slow-motion footage that ends as they begin to migrate. Where do these incredible creatures go when it’s too cold, even for them? From YellowstonePark.org:

During the winter season, bison head to lower ground in the north area of Yellowstone. The snow and temperatures are milder there, and it’s easier to feed on grass under the snow. This can mean that hundreds of bison migrate to Lamar Valley, Mammoth Hot Springs, Old Faithful area and sometimes cross Yellowstone’s border into private ranches in Montana. To avoid contact with livestock, states work with Yellowstone to keep the herds near the border and direct livestock to other grazing grounds. This also helps the bison have a shorter return to Yellowstone in warmer weather.

migrating bison
bison in the snow from afar
The quiet one-minute clip below, by Karen Moureaux, captures how a lone Yellowstone bison forages for grass under the snow. Plus, from NPS.gov:

Yellowstone is the only place in the United States where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times. We know they lived here in centuries past due to fossils, oral histories from Indian tribes, and the stories of the earliest travelers to this region. Yellowstone bison historically occupied approximately 7,720 square miles (20,000 sq km) in the headwaters of the Yellowstone and Madison rivers. Today, this range is restricted to primarily Yellowstone National Park and some adjacent areas of Montana.


For more bison history, watch this next: Buffalo ≠ Bison. Plus, more Yellowstone.

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