by Courtney Celley, Public Affairs Specialist at U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service | Midwest Region 


Can you imagine being struck by lightning? Sparky, a bison at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa knows exactly what it’s like! Sparky was struck in 2013, and is doing surprisingly well. We recently checked in with Wildlife Biologist Karen Viste-Sparkman to learn more about Sparky’s amazing story.

Sparky joined the herd at Neal Smith in 2006 after being transferred from the National Bison Range in Montana. As you may have guessed, Sparky earned his name after the lightning strike and is the only bison that has been struck at the refuge – although it does occasionally happen across the country.

photo of 'Sparky' courtest of Karen Viste-Sparkman/USFWS

Karen does regular checks on the bison to watch for signs of illness and check body condition. During a survey in late July 2013, she noticed a bull standing by himself. When she took a closer look through her binoculars, she noticed that Sparky looked bloody. This wasn't entirely surprising because bison bulls will often fight during the mating season and July tends to be a prime time for injuries. Upon closer inspection, it was clear that Sparky had been burned over a large area. His hump was missing hair and there was a large lump on his hind leg, which must have been the exit wound, meaning Sparky was lying down at the time of the strike.

Sparky was thin after the strike and wasn't expected to live long. Since a lightning strike is something that could easily occur in wild bison anywhere, the refuge let nature take its course. There are no natural predators in the bison area, so injured bison are monitored regularly and euthanized if they're unable to eat or walk. Sparky was standing when his injuries were discovered, which was a promising sign. Karen kept checking on Sparky and was able to watch his wounds slowly heal. With a limp, Sparky kept walking.

At 11 years old and about 1,600 pounds, Sparky is a bit thinner than the rest of the bison, but he still stands strong. Before being struck, Sparky fathered three calves. Genetic testing will tell us if he successfully reproduced after the strike, but we're hoping that he does because he's one tough bison!

If you ever find yourself near Des Moines, stop by Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge and see if you can spot Sparky. He tends to spend his time just like other bulls – hanging out in small groups or enjoying some quiet time alone.