It’s summer in the American West, which means droves of tourists from all over the world are hitting up its legendary national parks – many of them hoping for some up-close looks at the region’s iconic fauna. 

Given a couple of recent bovid-on-tourist bodily collisions, it’s probably worth taking a moment to stress that if you're watching American bison – probably the most iconic of that iconic fauna – its best not to get too close.

Bison may look docile, but these mega-herbivores can pack a punch. Image: Jason Vines

On June 28, a bison rammed Patsy Holmes on a boardwalk at Mud Volcano, one of the Yellowstone National Park’s geothermal basins. The blow – a mighty “whomp,” as Holmes described it to KSTU Fox 13 News – shoved her into her husband and the two both fell down, though ultimately their injuries were minor.

Two days later in the North Dakota Badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, meanwhile, a 65-year-old man nabbing sunset pictures along the Buckhorn Trail found himself charged by a bison he’d been photographing. The resulting whack not only gave the guy a torn thigh and sundry bruises: It also knocked him out cold.

Upon coming to, the worse-for-wear photographer made it to the trailhead, but ran into another bison there and had to retreat up a nearby butte. His cries for help drew a group of campers, who found the intractable buffalo holding court in the vicinity. “Unable to haze the bison away, one of the campers discharged a handgun into the ground, scaring the bison out of the area,” a Park Service news release reported. (Firearms are legal in the park, though you’re not allowed to discharge them.)

A few bison attacks result from plain old bad luck, but most arise when people suppress common sense and get much, much too close to the biggest land animal in North America. People have long invaded bison personal space for snapshot purposes, and our era’s selfie craze hasn’t helped matters. In 2015, five people were gored by bison in Yellowstone in separate incidents – three of the attacks directly stemming from the victim crowding the animals for a picture.

Park officials have warned against the dangers of Bison selfies.

Certainly some of that foolhardy behaviour can be attributed to underestimating the bison’s athleticism, power, and cantankerousness: essentially equating the shaggy, humped beast with a dull-mannered cow. (As Patsy Holmes told Fox 13 of being toppled by the Yellowstone bison, “We just weren’t scared of him, and I think that’s the mistake ... people need to realize they’re wild animals.”)

Well, to emphasise: A bison is not a cow. Domestic cattle have been bred for placid grazing and packing on pounds. Bison, by contrast, are tough-as-nails beasts with hardcore Ice Age roots, designed to withstand the blizzards, droughts, wolves, and grizzlies of the North American grasslands. Despite their immensity – bulls may weigh a ton – they’re remarkably swift and agile, capable of racehorse speed and vertical jumps of some 1.85 metres (6 feet).

(Incidentally, ever seen a bison on a trampoline? Here – now you have.)

Not only can a bison outrun you, but it can make surprisingly tight turns, as these videos – educationally posted on Yellowstone National Park’s website – attest:

If you need a further lesson in buffalo firepower, just watch a pair of juiced-up bison bulls brawling during the late-summer rut.

To state the obvious, bison aren’t stomping around national parks looking for people to body slam. They aren’t afraid to show us who’s boss (sometimes they show SUVs who’s boss, too), but they’re not typically going to go out of their way to do it. Grant these magnificent prairie titans the respect they’re due and give them space – at least 23 metres (75 feet).

It's basic bison etiquette, in other words: the formula for avoiding the mother of all head-butts.

Header image: Justin Carone