Are Bison Dangerous When they Encounter People?

One of the most beloved and iconic North American mammals is the American bison, sometimes called the American buffalo.

These impressively large, seemingly ponderous bovines once enjoyed a range that stretched from coast to coast where they traveled in gargantuan herds.

a bison
a bison

After being nearly hunted and slaughtered to extinction, they have happily made a resurgence but are still predominantly limited to one of several reserves and national parks where sightings are enjoyed by thousands of visitors every year.

They’re also increasingly common in certain other regions where they are once again roaming wild. This begs the question:

Are bison dangerous if you should run into one?

Yes, bison are dangerous, territorial, and become aggressive if you get close. Their speed, brute strength and horns make them deadly threats when provoked, and they will fight when harassed, or when young are threatened.

An adult male bison can stand over 6 feet (1.80 meters) tall at the shoulder, and weigh more than 2,000 lb. (900 kgs), and despite their sluggish behavior are surprisingly athletic and capable of agile maneuvering.

Yes, I am as enamored with these magnificent creatures as the next person, but a rash of ill-advised photo ops has led to people trying to get ever closer to these magnificent beasts.

The result has been a surprising amount of human casualties, more than those inflicted by most other wild mammals, including bears. There is more to learn about bison if you want to steer clear of them, keep reading.

Man gets out of car to taunt bison at Yellowstone

Encounters with Bison

For the average American, a bison is most likely going to be encountered at one of our national parks, particularly Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, or large herds of bison still roam.

However, efforts to reintroduce wild populations to their historic range are underway in various parts of the country, and the animals have even been exported to other parts of the world, particularly Russia, or populations are being introduced.

Never mind that, because no matter where you should run into an American bison they should be treated with the greatest possible caution. These animals only appear slow, dumb and docile. They are not, like many bovines, come to think of it.

Although it is a rarity that a bison will surprise someone from a concealed position, or that you will not be aware of their presence owing to their great size and typical hurting behavior, you would be a fool to approach them for any reason.

Victims of bison attacks typically got hurt because they approached them, either for some selfie opportunity, or in a hideously misguided attempt to touch these massive but undeniably appealing animals. The bison don’t like it, and when they get sick of annoyance by humans they will attack.

Bison on the Attack

It is worth considering the physicality of the bison before we get to the exact methodology of their defensive behavior. The American bison is absolutely massive for a bovine; the second largest on Earth.

It is also one of the heaviest and most heavily built mammals on the North American continent, packed with slabs of muscle. If you have never seen one in person, you might be terribly misjudging just how big these critters are.

Males can easily top 6 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh on average around 1,750 lb, those specimens weighing in excess of 2,000 pounds are far from uncommon.

When you are dealing with an animal this big, it is easy to understand why you might think them slow or lethargic.

Heck, just look at them. It seems all they do is plod around for a few hours at a time grazing before laying down for a nap or a roll in the dirt.

Don’t be fooled. Though their typical grazing or traveling behavior is carefree bordering on lackadaisical, their temperament is anything but when they are threatened.

A bison running flat-out can maintain a speed of 35 mph or more for upwards of five miles. No human on earth can maintain such a pace, so once you’ve ticked off the bull (rather, the bison) you’re going to get the horns.

Speaking of horns, both males and females have them and they aren’t just for show or scraping trees. Those single, tapering points belie their intended purpose as defensive weapons and bison attacks typically result in dreadful goring and trampling injuries.

Don’t think you can just jink out of the way of a charge, either. Bison can turn on a dime despite their immense size.

Lest you think I’m overstating the dangers that bison pose, compared to other, typically feared wild mammals such as the grizzly bear, know that bison rack up considerably more casualties year to year.

The grizzly bear is an especially good comparison because both creatures are common inhabitants of national parks that people are most likely to encounter under a variety of circumstances.

One study collated data on bison attacks between the year 1980 and 1999. They determined that in Yellowstone National Park alone bison injured way more people than bears did during the same period.

Bison charges injured nearly 80, though deaths were still mercifully rare with only one being attributed to bison-inflicted wounds. Bears accounted for only 24 injuries and two fatalities.

I know you are probably thinking your chances of being attacked by a bison are extremely low, and they are, but with few exceptions all of these attacks were provoked when people got too close.

Steering Clear of Bison

Avoiding bison and ergo bison attacks is pretty simple. Most places, they aren’t even around anymore, though they used to number in the millions way back in the day before they were nearly exterminated.

Today, unless you go to one of their dedicated preserves or a national park where they are present, you probably won’t run into one at all.

Regardless, all that is needed to avoid a bison attack is to stay well clear of these animals, particularly males during the rutting season and any female that has calves.

Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security when you see footage of bison delicately tiptoeing around vehicles parked on a road or grazing just a scant few yards away from people who are standing nearby taking pictures.

This is atypical behavior, and these animals have only become acclimatized, more or less, to the presence of people and automobiles through long exposure.

They can, and do, become enraged and attack when someone makes a sudden movement, a loud noise, or seemingly for no reason at all. In short stay away from them!

So long as you give them a wide berth most bison won’t do anything to antagonize you, and indeed they don’t want anything to do with you. Admire these great beasts from a safe distance.


The American bison is an iconic and majestic animal, nearly a national symbol. Thousands upon thousands of visitors to our national parks admire these great beasts every year, but nonetheless they remain a formidable and dangerous creature that must be respected.

Bison have been responsible for dozens of injuries and a few deaths over the decades, typically resulting from a close encounter that the animal would rather avoid.

So long as you keep your distance from these great bovines you shouldn’t have any issues, but if you try to draw near for any reason you’ll be taking your life into your own hands.

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