This story has been corrected to say a bison cow (female) can weigh up to a half of ton.

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — A bison expert in South Dakota has this advice for the public about approaching wildlife: “Feel with your eyes.”

The public may be tempted to get close to bison, especially calves, or other wildlife and their babies but it’s wise to keep their hands off wildlife and respect the animal, said Dr. Jeff Martin of the Center of Excellence for Bison Studies at South Dakota State University. Martin is an assistant professor of bison biology and management and a bison extension specialist within the Department of Natural Resource Management.

On May 20, a man appeared to help the calf after noticing that the animal had been separated from the rest of its herd while crossing a river in Yellowstone National Park. Park officials later reported the calf was euthanized after the herd rejected the re-introduction of the calf the herd. 

An unidentified white man in his 40-50’s, wearing a blue shirt and black pants, approached a newborn bison calf in Lamar Valley near the confluence of the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek. HELLEN JACK, VIA NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

The National Park Service said the incident is under investigation.

Martin said the calf likely did not need human assistance.

“Bison are a gregarious animal. They love being in a herd. They are a herd animal,” Martin said.
“Any lost animals would usually be sought after by the rest of the herd, especially when they are calves. It’s very likely the rest of the herd would have come back for that calf and in search of it so it could join up its mother.”

Even if an animal, especially a calf, or young animal, seems to need to help, it’s best to not help and keep your distance, Martin said.

“Unfortunately in this instance, it’s like with any other wildlife, what we see and try to tell people, if you see a baby in distress, try to leave it alone,” Martin said. “It is very likely the mom will come back. Same with like a little bird chickling that falls out of its nest. Try not to get your scent on it because it will likely not be accepted by the mother if you get your scent on it.”

Generally, animals, including birds, can smell better than humans, Martin. They can smell when humans are around them, they don’t like us, Martin said.

“Babies are incredibly adorable and cute. It’s best not to handle them,” he said.

Bison and humans have a long history in which humans are the predator, Martin said. The bison smelled the scent of their predator on the calf.

“They are scared of us,” Martin said. “They are going to weigh the general good of the whole herd against the good of one individual. That’s why they reject that one individual that smells like a human because it smells like a threat.”

The public may be used to seeing bison in a state or national park, even several feet from their vehicle. Bison may often appear to be calm and used to people but it would be a mistake to believe these are not wild animals, Martin said.

Often, people may mistake docile with tameness, Martin said. “They are still the largest land mammal on this continent.”

Bulls can weigh a ton and cows can weigh up to a half of ton, he said.

Generally, the public needs to remember that wildlife are not tame, Martin said.

The public is going to see more calves and other wildlife young into early June.

“Intervention by humans, especially untrained, are particularly dangerous, for not just the animal but also the human,” Martin said. “It could be that you get in between the mother and its calf. You may not see where the mother is. She may want to attack to get her calf back at that moment.”

Martin said there is a noted trend in an increase in a tendency for the public to want to get too close to wildlife, including bison.

Since he isn’t a social scientist, Martin said he can’t offer an evidenced-based theory on why humans are getting too close to wildlife. He does offer some speculation.

People may believe the bison or wildlife do not care about the human activity around them, so people want to get “a little bit closer, a little bit closer, a little bit closer, maybe I can just give it a scratch under the chin.” And that’s when something (bad) happens, Martin said.

“In this (Yellowstone) case it’s fortunate that the human was not attacked by the mother,” Martin said.

If humans continue to be aggressive in their approach to wildlife, bison for example, it could lead to some changes in how herds are managed in public areas.

Martin was only speculating on possibilities and not any plans for public herds in any state or federal public area.

There may be a need for some future countermeasures to aggressive tourism that could keep humans farther away from bison, he said.