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Know the West

When bison gawk back, it's smart to back down


Each time I visit Yellowstone National Park, I watch people ignore park regulations (and common sense) that say you should keep a distance of at least 25 yards from a bison. It's almost as if folks think they're in a giant petting zoo. Maybe the video I saw once of a man being gored by a bison and tossed into a tree should be required viewing upon entering the park.

Instead, a gate attendant hands out a bright yellow sheet of paper that warns: "Many visitors have been gored by buffalo." It's certainly true: Between 1978 and 1992, 56 people were injured by bison in Yellowstone, two of them fatally.

Maybe I'm overzealous when it comes to wildlife-watching etiquette, but spending a lot of time outdoors has taught me that the behavior of wild animals is always unpredictable. So, last fall, when the attendant at the entrance to Yellowstone handed me that bright yellow sheet of paper that instructs visitors "Do not approach buffalo," I thought, "You don't have to tell me not to approach any animal that weighs 2,000 pounds and can run 30 miles per hour!"

The next day, when I saw a small herd of bison grazing in a field adjacent to the Storm Point trailhead, I recalled that warning. But since the animals didn't seem to be reacting to our presence, my friend and I continued our hike around the edge of Indian Pond, a former Native American campsite high on the forested bluffs above Yellowstone Lake. It was an easy hike, except for having to dodge puddled piles of bison poop. It is true that some places were crisscrossed with hoof prints shaped like two giant kidney beans curving toward each other, but we quickly forgot about the bison as the trail rose into the forest and began to skirt the bluffs, revealing views of the lake.

Then, farther down the trail through an opening in the trees, I saw something move — one horned, shaggy head, pointing in our direction, followed by another. That sheet of paper, I suddenly realized, had omitted some vital information: what to do if a bison approaches you.

We stepped off the trail, backing into the trees just as a bull pulled up even with us, looking like a massive and woolly Volkswagen car. He was so close I could see bits of grass tangled in the coarse hairs of his mantle; his eye was as big as a tennis ball, and it stared at us, unblinking. I held my breath, feeling my own eyes widen. Then, a cow and calf crowded up on the bull's flanks. The bison swung his head around as if to show us his horns.

Instinctively, I looked down at the ground, remembering something I'd read about how some animals interpret staring as a challenge. That movement startled the calf into skittering all over the trail, which in turn alarmed the rest of the 10 or 12 other bison that had arrived; suddenly the ground began to rumble. The last bison in line whirled and ran back the way it had come. We waited, unsure of what to do, with bison in both directions on the trail. But soon the last one returned to catch up with the herd, crashing through a fallen tree in its path. The crack of its hooves against the wood reverberated like gunshots.

When we were certain all the bison were gone, we resumed our hike, but their tracks continued on the trail, and I was concerned about being caught between bison and the cliff's edge. I remembered how some early Native American tribes hunted by using fire and harassment to stampede herds over cliffs; this time, we were the ones who could be pushed over the edge.

I'd never had these kinds of thoughts while gawking at bison from inside a vehicle. It's no wonder humans devised ways to hunt them while minimizing close contact with such massive beasts. They may appear placid while grazing, but being close to a small herd while it was on the move showed me how deceptive that image is.

As we drove away from the trailhead, I looked back to see several bison resting in the grassy field, faces turned toward the lake. I wondered what visions were going through their heads. That day, a bison had gawked back at me. I hoped I'd left a better impression than those people who walk up to them using a camera for a shield.

Debra Mihalic Staples is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Littleton, Colorado.