Bison, Prairie Dogs and Thunderstorms

Hello! Danielle again, here to tell you about the BIOBus crew’s adventures in Grasslands.

Today we ventured from our normal location, the East Block of Grasslands National Park, and drove to explore the West Block of Grasslands National Park. There is no direct route between the two blocks, so we had to drive north above the parks, and then head west. The whole journey between blocks took about two hours, and is a very scenic drive, filled with grasslands and amazing little small towns. A lot of these towns looked like they were built for the scene of a Western movie, which was amazing to see and we could really feel the history behind the towns. We stopped off in a town called Val Marie to get some Grasslands merchandise, including postcards to send back home, and we stopped in at the West Block Visitor Center.  The West Block is the more popular of the two blocks because of the wildlife diversity they have. East Block has the incredible badlands landscape as well as the fossil histories, and West Block has a bison population of around 350, thousands of prairie dogs, a small population of burrowing owls and rattlesnakes, making it the more visited of the two blocks. We were directed towards a scenic “Eco-drive” along which we would pass through the park, in hopes of finding bison which were reportedly near the road, and prairie dogs, who had various burrow locations within the park.

This group of bison were too close to the road for us to pass by, so we decided to take some pictures with them, from a safe distance of course!
This group of bison were too close to the road for us to pass by, so we decided to take some pictures with them, from a safe distance of course!

As soon as we entered the park we encountered a lone bison, just standing near the road. The general rule for the safe distance away from bison is: If you cannot cover the bison with your thumb in your field of vision then you are too close. Bison can be very skittish and charge vehicles if they feel threatened, so the rule of thumb was one we were adamant on following. Soon after we passed hundreds of little dirt mound with little black-tailed prairie dogs chatting and squeaking excitedly to each other. These adorable animals have historically been the subjects of poisoning, shooting, plague and flooding, to the extent where they now occupy only 2% of their historical habitat, so seeing so many of them in one place was incredible.

Soon afterwards we found some more bison, just over 20 of them, and they were right on the road, so we had plenty of opportunity to take pictures while we waited for them to move along so that we could pass safely. The bison also have a sad history, once 60 million strong across the North American plains, they were hunted to near extinction in the 1800s, and now there is a massive conservation and recovery effort to try and boost the number of wild bison, seeing the amount we did was an amazing privilege and definitely humbling.

A closer look at the American Bison (Bison bison) of the West Block of Grasslands National Park.
A closer look at the American Bison (Bison bison) of the West Block of Grasslands National Park.

We also could not miss the opportunity to sample, because we are scientists! We got on some of our gear, and hopped on down to a nearby creek for some aquatic sampling. There were bison and deer tracks all along the river, and we even found some crayfish that had been stamped on by the bison coming to the river to drink.  We had to cut our sampling short however because of an encroaching thunderstorm, and we began to head back to our current lodging at Poverty Ridge.

We did not get all the way to Poverty Ridge where we were camped though, the thunderstorm flooded our road, and – on the advice of a safety official – waited half an hour for the water level to recede enough that we could drive across safely. We ended up finding a campsite not too far from that point, as it was not safe to continue driving.

Signing off from the rain-pounded BIObus!

Danielle

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