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When we arrived at Yellowstone Canyon in the dead of night we were driving very slowly, the various small critters eyeing us from the side of the road indicated only by our headlights being reflected in wide retinas close to the ground every now and then – the world around the beam from our headlights was pitch black. Suddenly, a huge dark mass became visible on the other side of the road; a lonesome bison bull was ambling down the street towards us. More than one of the four of us yelled a little with shock and giddy excitement, and we passed him much too quickly. So quickly, in fact, that we decided, after the initial shock had subsided a bit, to turn around and have another look. We did, and when the bull appeared again, now in front of us, he was still dark and huge, and still completely unfazed by our presence. Just takin’ a stroll down the Yellowstone highway, minding his own business.

Well, we thought that was a special encounter with a shy wild animal. However, during the three days we spent in the park, we happened upon at least a dozen bachelor bison bulls grazing by the side of busy parking areas, promenading over the Fishing Bridge among the tourists’ cars
or just enjoying the scenery.

Did you know that the bison (zool.: Bison bison bison) aren’t actually native to the area of Yellowstone NP? They were relocated here from their original homes on the plains when it became apparent that they weren’t going to make it on their own because… er… well, because they were being actively decimated for a number of reasons I won’t delve into now.

There are between 3.000 and 5.000 bison in the park at any given time, so it’s little surprise that you run into them every once in a while. But beware, they will run into you if provoked, even though they seem slow and docile most of the time. It’s easy to be fooled by their just chillin’-attitude but they have been known to charge at people and even cause deaths in the past.

We encountered a bison herd on our second day in the park.

There were at least a hundred animals (lots of mama bison with their calves) crossing the road or grazing beside it. Almost as many tourists were stopping their cars and whipping out cameras and tripods.

This, by the way, is a very common occurrence in Yellowstone NP. Here may be one of the few places in the world where you actually get excited about traffic jams, because it usually means that someone has seen something and you might too!

The bison were so close to the cars that you could almost just lean out the window and pet them. If they smelled any nicer, that is. And if it weren’t for the rangers trying their darndest to keep everyone from doing anything foolish like getting out of their cars and walking barefoot in the grass among the bison.

(dramatization with elk and shoes on)

I have to admit that we were a bit taken aback by the rangers’ strictness. They were almost uncourteous towards us tourists. But looking back, I think it really is a piece of work making sure that some bison mama doesn’t inadvertently kill an unsuspecting doofus who’s trying to have his picture taken hugging her calf. And no, I wouldn’t put that past some of the tourists. The bison really seem a lot like sweet-tempered cows. Which makes it imperative for the park rangers to try and keep the tourists away from them as strictly as they have to in order to prevent the animals from endangering people – and ultimately vice versa, I guess.

That goes for pretty much all of the animals in the park. People have been known to walk up to bear cubs and try to pet them, for crying out loud, never wasting any brain power on the possibility of the inevitable Mother Bear being around. Those situations don’t tend to end well.

And so the rangers try to keep tourists and animals separate in an effort to keep the animals as wild and as shy as possible. As the bison and the elk demonstrate, however, the animals have already gotten quite used to humans as a part of their natural habitat.

Maybe that will pose a real problem in the future, if the animals lose all their fear of humans and come into the campgrounds and other residential areas, just to have a look around – and maybe a bite.

For now, Yellowstone NP is a really good place to do some animal-watching, though. We met coyotes, grizzlies (very far away, but still), mule deer, a plethora of birds, and a truckload of elk while we were there.

This one (with a small harem) was smack-dab in the middle of the residential area near Mammoth Hot Springs

Only the moose eluded us. There are bulletin boards at all the visitor centers where you can post your animal-sightings, and it looks like it just wasn’t moose season in September 2011. Only two groups claimed to have encountered moose during their hikes in the very North of the park.

There’s an article on about.com by more versed Yellowstonians than myself, listing some of the best viewing spots. Check it out if you’re planning on visiting Yellowstone NP.

My top tip: Wherever there is a huddled bunch of tourists with tripods anywhere (I had never seen so many telescopes in one place before), make sure to stop and ask somebody what everyone’s watching. Don’t roll your eyes and be all independent backpacker; just seize every opportunity you get to meet the wildlife, even if it means that you have to endure the company of like-minded people.

Popular animal-watching spot Hayden Valley

You might not see the grizzly mama with her two cubs from the road or during a hike, but it’s really worth the while to stop at the popular viewing areas, whip out your binoculars, and watch the bears rip apart a deer carcass from a safe distance.

So these bears were really, really, r e a l l y  far away. But I actually feel like I met a grizzly mama and her cubs! And even though I tend to roll my eyes and pretend to be all independent backpacker, I didn’t mind it one bit that I had to share this experience with thirty other people who had called my attention to the bear family in the first place.

By the way, everyone watched very uneasily as the woman you see here walked a few steps off the turnout and towards the watering hole, even though the bears were still a kilometer or so away.

It seems like most of the visitors to Yellowstone NP do have the right attitude towards the animals after all. Their being some of the last actually wild animals is their main appeal and definitely worth preserving.

And if our egos are bruised by ferocious rangers in the process, that’s a dang low price to pay.

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