As my friend Joan and I traveled through Yellowstone, we saw bison everywhere, in herds, small groups and sometimes in pairs or alone. Quite often this was on the road, so that we needed to be aware it might take us longer than planned to get to a particular place.
The many reports of human-bison encounters which I had seen and read about over the years made me quite aware of how dangerous it can be for a person to come close to a bison. They are huge animals – adults weighing between 1,200-2,000 pounds and standing 4-6 feet tall. If provoked or alarmed, they can be quite dangerous.
I was not above making derogatory comments about how thoughtless people took risks when they approached bison. For example, one day we stopped along a road and watched bison crossing the Yellowstone River, swimming with difficulty against the rapid currents.
Some park visitors had stopped down the road and a couple got out and descended into the valley, headed for the river. They apparently were hoping to get some close-up photos and I made some disparaging remarks about how they were taking unnecessary risks and should turn around.
A few days later, however, I discovered that not all encounters are the result of thoughtlessness.
Joan and I had stopped at a valley overlook where Park authorities had laid out a walking trail. It was a good distance from any hills and several people were out hiking the trail. As we both like to walk, we decided to go down to the trail as well.
As Joan walks faster than me and because I stop often to photograph, she went on ahead. I meandered along taking photos of plants, birds and what I thought were prairie dogs, but which were likely Uinta ground squirrels. There were some bison far down the valley, but they were mostly heading up into the hills, so we felt ok walking on the trail.
After a while, I was nearing the river and wanted to photograph some green-winged teal. As I approached their spot, Joan came walking back to my surprise. I’d thought she would go on for a while, but she said some people ahead of her were following the trail as it ascended a hill, and they were not that far from some bison. She didn’t want to be around any mammal-people encounters so she decided to return. I said I’d come back when I had photographed the ducks.
The sun was shining nicely and the teal were swimming back and forth. I checked my vicinity and saw no people or animals; the rodents had gone into their dens.
As I stood taking pictures, I suddenly heard a soft sound behind me, kind of like a grunt or snort. I slowly turned right with my camera still held up to my face and found myself facing a small group of bison with the lead male watching me from some yards away.
This is not the bison that faced me: I was not taking photos or making any noise at this point!
Joan had been watching from above the valley at the parking place along with a couple other people. She’d seen the bison come up over a hill and walk toward me, but she was too far away to let me know. I never heard them – or smelled them as the wind was blowing in their direction.
Not the bison who was examining me!
Joan considered calling 911 but phone coverage can be spotty. She also briefly thought about how to get medical help if something happened but hoped a ranger would come quickly as they did seem to magically appear all over the park when needed. We saw them often when groups of people stopped at roadsides.
Again – not the bison who was examining me!
In the meantime, I quickly considered my options. I can’t run; even if I could, it would be useless as bison have been clocked at 40-45 mph (65-70 km/h). I knew enough not to challenge the bison in any way, quickly looking away so I wasn’t gazing into the male leader’s eyes. I kept the camera with its long lens up in front of my face. Slowly, I pivoted back left towards the direction of the river, facing away from the bison. Then I stood completely motionless (camera still up in front of my face). I don’t know how long I stood there but at some point, I heard movement further away to my right and dared a look. The bison leader and his group had decided that I posed no threat and they had moved on down the valley.
I waited, still standing stock still, until they were a good distance away. I had to take a couple photos of the – now far off – group and then began walking as quickly as I could manage down the return path.
Photo heavily cropped; they were very distant!
My feelings were mixed: shock at what had happened, relief that I had known what to do in order not to provoke the bison, and elation that I had survived the close encounter unscathed. It also taught me that not all human-bison encounters are the result of complete stupidity – I was on a path laid out for visitors, there had been no bison nearby when we began walking, several other people had been on the trail and so I hadn’t suspected anything could happen. I likely won’t hike any paths at the park again if bison are in sight, even far away.
I continue to be in awe of the magnificent bison. I’m glad my love of wildlife and instincts helped me through a safe encounter and this will certainly be one of my most vivid travel memories. And I’ll continue to be as careful and watchful as I can when I go out into nature.