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November 15, 2012

Poor Tom's Almanac: Up front and personal with bison

Pardon my stupidity, but I always assumed that bison and buffalo were one and the same.

I never knew they led separate lives until I traveled to Yellowstone National Park and saw for myself. I was told by a tour director that buffalo are extinct and what we’re apt to see grazing on our sacred lands are indeed bison.

According to my guidebook, bison are sometimes called buffalo — but don’t tell them that. I don’t think they know the difference. If bison could talk, they’d tell you they’re the biggest land mammal in North America and that the term “buffalo” may be considered a misnomer.

In a typical year, more than 3,000 bison roam the grasslands of Yellowstone. Bulls are larger in appearance than cows and sport thicker beards. For their size (up to 2,000 pounds), they’re agile and quick, capable of speeds greater than 30 mph.

I was also told that more park visitors are injured by bison each year than by bears.

So what would prompt me to leave the safety of a bus and approach the herd? A once-in-a-lifetime photo, that’s what.

“Be cautious,” said the tour guide. “You never know what will set them off and come galloping after you. Don’t get closer than 100 yards of them.”

As the coach came to a halt by the side of the road, the door opened, discharging some rambunctious shutterbugs like myself. A 300-mm telephoto lens was hardly enough to get a close-up of these beasts.

As a newspaper photographer for 40 years, I’ve lived in the world of chance. And I’ve paid the price for a good shot, having been upended by a skier once on a slope and again by a 300-pound tackle in football because I roamed too close to the sidelines.

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