It is July in Yellowstone National Park. At the height of tourist season it is hot and dry and traffic is moving slow throughout the park, as visitors take their time meandering the roads, hoping to see a bear or a wolf along the way and hitting the brakes if they do spot some wildlife.
In addition to an increase in visitors to the park, the bison are in rut and the males are chasing the females up and down Lamar Valley and across the road. The buffed out males, with their snorting, bellowing and spitting ways, are oblivious to cars at the moment because all that they see is that sweet little cow, which they will follow down the road and back again.
A few days ago I was attempting to leave Lamar Valley and return to Gardiner, at about the same time that the bison began to head north for the evening. The first couple of herds were easy to maneuver through because the drivers ahead of me were just as motivated to leave as I was.
But, then I came upon a long line of cars, leading up to a large pullout on a hill that locals refer to as 'Dorothy's.' By the time I reached that pullout, nearly 40 minutes had passed and there was no relief in sight. Drivers in both lanes had their cell phones and video cameras out, capturing the many moments as bison after bison crossed the road. Even when there were no bison in the road, the cars remained blocking the road.
My patience was intact in the beginning, but as I sat and waited I remembered a man complaining on my Facebook page about spending his Yellowstone vacation stuck in bison jams. At the time I told him that perhaps he should vacation somewhere else, if he didn't have enough patience to wait for the wildlife to cross the road. I believe he un-liked my page after leaving an unfriendly comment about how I had no right telling him what to do.
Once again, in my head I started writing a blog post about bison jams and began wondering how to reach more people to share my hard-earned experience with. And then it hit me, I could use my column for National Parks Traveler to gain a wider audience. What a genius idea!
Finally, there were no cars parked in the other lane and I made my way around the seven or so vehicles ahead of me, and through the bison in a matter of seconds, while the lead car continued to linger in the road, even when it was clear of the large, brutish animals. And, so I ask you, if a driver is stopped in the road and there are no bison in front of their car, or anywhere close, and they are taking photos, who caused the bison jam, the driver or the bison?
When I first arrived at Yellowstone last October, I had already done the bison photography thing two years before and they had become the, been there, done that wildlife. Actually, I was embarrassed to be caught "wasting" my time photographing the large cow-like animals.
But, when it came to the roadways, it was their home and it was my job to respect them and ensure that they made it across safely to the other side. And, so I actually sat and waited for the bison to approach the road and cross. And I became angry whenever people forced the animals along.
But, as time went on, I began to watch the rangers and the regulars, as they gently maneuvered their way through a herd of bison and on down the road. I asked rangers what was appropriate when encountering a bison jam and was told that they didn't want to encourage the animals to linger on the road because of safety issues and so it was okay to gently herd them along. What wasn't okay was to honk a horn, rev your engine, or chase them.
Last winter I observed people chasing the bison down the road, causing them to slip on the ice and fall to their knees, sometimes resulting in leg injuries or breaks, and that was not okay because they were panicking the animals and causing them harm.
Not long ago a woman complained on my Facebook page about another woman passing a line of cars stuck in a bison jam, driving in the wrong lane, and forcing the bison to move off of the road. Well, the woman who committed that vile act was probably me because the comment came not long after I had done so on two occasions.
Yes, I had learned the secret behind the bison jam - most often it is caused by humans stopping to take photos instead of driving, or pulling off of the road. There are times when the bison get on the road and refuse to move, no matter how hard one tries to make them move, but those times are rare. My favorite episodes are when the cow steps onto the road, in front of a car, and then invites her calf for a drink.
In my heart I believe that bison are smart pranksters that know exactly what they are doing. Just to set the record straight - not long into my winter in Yellowstone I began developing an appreciation for bison and spent large quantities of time, watching and photographing them. And later, when I learned that the local ranchers hated the bison nearly as much as the wolves, grizzly and elk, I became an advocate for these large, fast and foul-tempered land mammals.
Here are some tips for surviving the bison jam:
1. Do not shoot and drive. Pull into a pullout, or off of the road, if you want to photograph the bison. Stopping in the road encourages the bison to cross and linger in the road, and holds up traffic.
2. If some bison cross and leave the road empty, don't wait for the next ones to come along, but move forward, slowly and cautiously and be aware that some bison will pop onto the road, right in front of you. Be prepared to stop if necessary.
3. Watch the bison carefully. If a bison has its tail straight up in the air, or lifted at all, and is not pooping, something has made it angry so stay back and don't do anything to further aggravate the animal. At times I have backed up and given the animal more room, which seemed to calm it down.
4. If the bison are lingering in the road and not showing any aggression, gently move forward. Most of the time the bison will move along but often if seems like they are testing to see how much that they can get away with. Just look at the amusement in their eyes.
5. When the car in front of you gets a clear road to drive on, follow closely, yet safely, leaving little room for more bison to enter the road. They are opportunists and if they see an opening, they will take advantage.
6. Do not try and pet the bison.
7. Do not try and feed the bison. Stay at least 25 yards from the animals when you are out of the car. I recommend staying further back, but once you see how quickly a bison can go from zero to 35, you will understand.
8. If a herd of bison are coming over a bridge, towards you, do not enter the bridge and spook them back. Bison can get a little crazy when frightened and will do dumb things like leap off a cliff or a bridge. Let them get across safely.
9. Never corner a bison, or any animal for that matter. When trapped an animal will do anything to get away.
10. Don't honk, rev your engine, shout, wave your arms or act aggressive in any way.
11. If you are gently trying to move the bison along and they become panicked and begin running, back off immediately. Every situation is different, and some animals react differently.
12. Use good judgment and stay safe. I read that during a period of years more people were injured by bison than by any other animal in the park.
A few words about bison: There are no "buffalo" in North America, only bison. So, if you want to sound like you know something about wildlife, call them bison.
Bison are one of the most dangerous animals that people run across in national parks and they will attack if provoked. They are not friendly, goofy, kind-hearted animals!
Bison appear to be slow moving but at speeds up to 40 mph, they can easily outrun you.
If you are visiting Yellowstone, and heading out to Lamar Valley, be aware that the bison like to cross the road to the south in the mornings and to the north in the evenings. If people are stopping to photograph the animals while they are crossing the road, it could easily take you an hour or more to drive the five or so miles through the valley.
Plan ahead and think about those who are behind you.