I have the privilege of being invited to paint each year at the beautiful Medano/Zapata Ranch in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. It is home to a herd of over 2500 American Bison. Most of the time you can’t get very close to these magnificent American icons so when a little bison was found alone out on the range and needed to be rescued everyone on the ranch couldn’t stay away and talked of nothing else. One of the ranch hands gave him the name Gordon. So it seemed very natural when one of the ranch guests suggested someone should write a story about Gordon.
I was immediately intrigued. Sometime later when I began thinking about a story for a little bison it came to me that this little bison didn’t know what he was because he was not with a herd and there was no other bison around to teach him. He couldn’t go back into the herd. It would be impossible to get them to accept him. So he had to go on a journey of self discovery and find a place where he fit in and could be happy.
The Medano/Zapata Ranch is protected by the Nature Conservancy and is dedicated to preserving the animals and their habitat. So, in developing the story it was great fun to discover animals that were indigenous to the land and have them meet Gordon. Through them he would learn about the ranch and find out eventually who he is.
I loved drawing and painting Gordon but I had to learn something about a baby bison first. I soon discovered that baby bison are born sometime between April and June. A very young bison is reddish in color and is called a calf. It is easy to pick it out from the adult bison who have dark brown coat. The baby bison stays close to it’s mother for about one year and she protects and teaches it many things to help it survive. Later on, around September it’s coat begins to turn darker brown, it’s shoulder hump begins to appear and it’s horns begin to grow. It begins to eat grass and plants. The young bison continues to grow for three or four more years, until it becomes an adult.
It’s scary to think how close we came to no longer having this awesome animal around today. The herds that once numbered in the millions were reduced to fewer than one thousand by the late 1800s. Due to many people who worked hard the herds have grown back to where the bison are no longer in danger to becoming extinct.
So if you do travel west during the summer months take the time to look for the red colored babies in a bison herd. Have fun watching them run jump and play as all baby animals do and give thanks that this magnificent animal is still here and once again roams parts of the west.