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Legend of Sparky lives on, continues to shock visitors

Refuge’s lightning-struck bison dies at 14

Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge Photo
Sparky the Bison was struck by lightning at the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge in July 2013. Over the years, the horned mammal became a mascot for the refuge, attracting hundreds of people with his story.
Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge Photo Sparky the Bison was struck by lightning at the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge in July 2013. Over the years, the horned mammal became a mascot for the refuge, attracting hundreds of people with his story.

PRAIRIE CITY — A giant scar across his shoulders. A slight limp in his hind leg. One shocking experience only few survive.

For 12 years, the one-horned mammal stood out from the rest of the herd at the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge. Despite his passing in the last week of March, Sparky the Bison’s legend will continue to shock and awe visitors for generations.

“When I got here, I didn’t know anything about Sparky. I saw these Sparky shirts (designed by Raygun). I was like, ‘What is this Sparky Bison?’” Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge Manager Scott Gilje said. “My first time seeing him, I was like ‘wow, how did he survive that lightning strike?’ ... Sparky just kept plugging along. Adversity gets you down, but (Sparky) sucked it up and kept on moving.”

When Karen Viste-Sparkman, refuge biologist did her routine rounds to check the bison herd March 28, she could not find the legendary bull bolting around the 700-acre enclosure. She informed the staff to keep an eye out for the old bison, and soon enough, they received the news — Sparky had passed away at 14 years old.

“The cause of death, I don’t know what exactly that would be. But he was just going down hill. He was thin and weak. It was going to happen sooner or later,” Viste-Sparkman said. “Since he was struck by lightning, he hasn’t been doing the greatest. It obviously impacted his health.”

To help the staff better manage the genetics of the bison at the refuge, the staff decided to ship out all the current bison at Neal Smith in 2006, and replace them with a herd of 30 to 40 bison from the National Bison Range in Montana.

The soon-to-be legend, who was 2 years old at the time, found a new home in Prairie City.

“We didn’t know him from the rest of the bison at that time,” the biologist said. “(Sparky) didn’t have a name before that. We usually don’t name (our bison), so we can’t tell them a part. He kind of stood out after he got struck by lightning.”

And stood out, he did.

According to the refuge staff, people from all over the country would come to the refuge to hear the story of when the shaggy giant was struck by lightning in 2013, and was dubbed the name Sparky.

“When he was struck by lightning, he was gross and bloody. He was not in good shape. I didn’t think he would survive. He kind of healed slowly and the scar tissue formed over the wound,” Viste-Sparkman said. “He had an amazing story. He became sort of a celebrity. So people wanted to see the celebrity when they came out to the refuge.”

From the staff to the visitors, the horned superstar truly resonated with the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge community. Whether watching him graze the prairie or seeing him wallow in the mud to cool off during a hot, summer day, visitors from all across the globe would hope to get a glimpse of Sparky when they visited the refuge.

And when they did happen to see the horned survivor, there is no doubt that he struck their hearts.

“I have a day care and I took my children on a field trip out to see the bison one day,” refuge visitor Anita Lemke said on a Facebook post. “Sparky was right by the road. (He was) very close. We could see him from the car. The children were amazed and so enthusiastic about seeing him.”

According to staff, several community members have been preserving the legacy of Sparky. They said a visitor even left a memorial wreath on the east gate of the bison enclosure in tribute to the magnificent beast.

“People have an attachment with Sparky. He was great and hopefully it will draw more interest for people to come out here,” Gilje said. “It is sad he is gone, but I am hoping his legacy and his death bring people out here to find out what the national wildlife refuge does.”

While bison typically live to about 15 years old in the wild and up to 25 in capacity, the refuge biologist said while Sparky will be greatly missed, they are glad to see he lived to reach the age of 14.

“I was sad but kind of relieved. His life was kind of tough ... our staff is a little sad, but it isn’t going to change what we do,” Viste-Sparkman said. “He lived a good, long life.”

According to Viste-Sparkman, the international legend had three calves before he was struck by lightning. Although they are not currently living on the refuge, the biologist said Sparky’s tough demeanor and unbeatable spirit will live on in those now, full-grown bison.

“One of the (calves) went to Carroll County Conservation. I think they still have (that bison),” she said. “He was a survivor. So he passed on some of those survivor genes.”

The refuge said Sparky’s legend will continue on despite his passing. They said they are thankful for his story. They said his story helped inform hundreds of people about the refuge, sharing their mission to preserve the bison and the tall-grass prairie Sparky grew to love.

And the visitors are just happy to have known the legend and his striking story.

“Sparky, you will be missed,” Daphne Emmack Owens, Prairie City native and Colfax resident said in a Facebook post.

For more information about the refuge, call 515-994-3400, visit or find Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge on Facebook.

Contact Anthony Victor Reyes at

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