Photography In The National Parks: Avoid Those Bison (And Other Wildlife) Jams

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Not a summer day seems to go by in Yellowstone without a bison jam/Deby Dixon

Bison madness is in full swing in Yellowstone National Park with snorting, groaning, spitting, bison bulls chasing the girls (cows) down the roads, much to the delight of many park visitors who gladly park their vehicles in the road and film the action. No family vacation is complete without getting caught in a Yellowstone bison jam.

Just the other morning, at about 6 a.m., I was driving through the Soda Butte Valley area of the park when suddenly there appeared about 100 bison coming down the road towards me. I slowed way down and eased through the herd, gently urging the animals off of the road with the slow, forward movement of my car. Swiftly and easily the bison moved out of the way, and I was so relieved that there was not a lot of traffic and people stopped, blocking the road, so that they could film the animals.That easily could have created a traffic jam for 30 minutes or more. Until I came around the curve and found a vehicle stopped and completely surrounded by bison. I slipped into the other lane and went to make my way around when a hand shoved out the window, motioning me to stop. When I kept crawling along the hand suddenly reached out with a cell phone to film me passing through.

A voice yelled, “Stop! You do this every day.”

In no mood to argue or interact, I nodded and kept inching along. The driver suddenly lost interest in filming the bison, or allowing them to stand in the road as they pleased, and pulled in behind me, closely following and filming my progress as I traveled along. Of course she pulled in at the Buffalo Ranch in Lamar Valley to report my conduct while I went on.

I vaguely remember those first few bison jams and how seeing those large animals up close delighted me to no end. And, I remember stopping and waiting until every last bison had made it across the road safely. But, after spending a lot of time in bison jams, unable to reach my destination, some of the delight wore off. I began noticing some of the locals, or regulars, as they quickly and easily slipped through the bison without causing them too much stress and went on their way. It was simple; they just crept towards the big animals, and most of the time they got a look and a grunt before the ungulate stepped aside. And, every once in a while, a stubborn bull would lift its tail in warning and refuse to move until it was darned good and ready.

I often think that the bison have a sense of humor and like to see just how much that they can get away with - the way a cow might turn and look at you, get a little “I dare you” glint in her eye, and invite junior to come and nurse in the middle of the road. Bison can be pretty entertaining if you take the time to watch them.

After awhile I began to understand that the majority of bison jams were caused by people wanting to photograph them, whether the animals were in the road or next to it, and not by the bison, because if someone really wants to get through and go on their way, all they have to do is keep going. One small caveat here is that I only feel comfortable with making the bison move when there is room for them at the side of the road and not some steep cliff. And, I use special caution when the roads are icy, because the bison can easily slip, fall, and break a leg.

And so I tend to get a little grumpy at people who are clogging up the road, filming the bison, and making it impossible for other visitors to go about their business. Particularly when the bison are not on the road or there are pullouts close by. That is until I look at the faces of the people in those stopped cars and see the absolute delight that they are experiencing, and then I remember that we all have our first few bison jams and desire to see the animals up close and protect them as they make their way across the road. And so I try to wipe the judgment off my face and quietly work my way around the stopped cars, knowing that others will follow, and continue down the road, leaving them to their mandatory Yellowstone experience.

As I continued along the other morning, with the woman following on my bumper and filming my progress, I encountered a couple of small bison jams. One in particular had a couple of cars parked in each lane with occupants holding cameras and cell phones out the window, and as I went to go around one man wagged his shame finger at me and told me no. He then blocked my path and pulled up beside me and told me to chill out.

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Sometimes it just seems as if bison want to mess with us by creating jams/Deby Dixon

Every day, as I weave my way through “bison/human jams,” to continue on with my plans for the day, someone gets angry because they believe that I am harming those huge beasts. I hear it all of the time, “We are in their territory, leave them alone.” Yes, the wild animals owned this land before we came along and built homes and roads and then they began having to deal with humans and automobiles. And, I do advocate for being careful and gentle but it is never a good idea to allow any wild animal to be too comfortable on the road and close to people because once that happens then they are more apt to be struck and killed by a car that is being driven by someone who is impatient, going too fast or looking the other way. In just a week’s time this year, at the beginning of the bison rut, multiple bulls were struck and killed by vehicles, also causing heavy damage to the automobile.

Right now, as the bison rut is in full swing, many large herds of them are standing around, or traveling, in the road and the bulls have one thing in mind - to not let that girl get too far away. Loud groans can be heard as they talk in some sort of language that sounds like intense pain and agony. The animals are big, scary and unpredictable and you never know what might set them off. Personally, I would not pull up to a big, groaning bull and stick a camera in its face. Nor would I reach out to pet the animal or make any groaning sounds of my own. For such large animals they can move fast and the bison are impossible to outrun. So caution should be taken at all times.

If you encounter bison on or near the road and want to watch them or take photos, I recommend pulling off the road, if possible, where you can easily and safely watch or film them for as long as you like, without worries about blocking traffic. If there is no place to pull off, check your rearview mirror and make sure that there are no cars behind you before stopping to take a few quick photos and moving on. But, if there are cars behind, the best thing to do is to keep going until you can pull completely off of the road.

All rangers, regulars, and locals that I have spoken to on the topic of “bison jams” agree that the best thing to do is to keep moving forward, slowly and carefully, and if the car ahead of you is going through, stay right behind it because the minute you stop to take a quick photo, one of those ornery bison will step onto the road in front of you and laugh. Don’t honk your horn, yell at the animals, or try to chase them, just ease them out of the lane of travel.

Stopping in the road in Yellowstone is illegal, as it is anywhere, but more than that it is rude to other visitors who might need to be somewhere at a certain time, or have other plans for their day. Nearly everyone stops for a minute when they spot an animal and want to take a quick photo before moving on, but most make sure that they are not blocking traffic before doing so. I stop in the road to take photos, if no one is behind me, but have found that I need to watch behind me more closely because one of the law enforcement rangers seems to find me every single time. Some people get away with breaking the rules and some of us don’t - it is best to know which category that you fall into.

I have heard nothing about the complaint made against me, and would like to think that the ranger took the opportunity to educate those visitors about bison jams and stopping in the road to film the animals. But just in case, I was able to get the name and number of the people who were right behind me and so happy to have lucked upon another driver who knew how to safely get through the jam.

“You did nothing wrong,” they told me.

Enjoy the park and the bison but do so safely because they are wild animals and every once in awhile a wild driver goes through who has no tolerance for stopped vehicles or animals on the road. We can all help each other enjoy the park by using a little respect and common sense, and following the rules. Get your photo, but do so safely,and then move along.

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Approach bison jams carefully, with an eye both on the bison and on traffic/Deby Dixon

Traveler footnote: This advice about dealing with bison jams in Yellowstone applies just a well to bison and bear jams in Grand Teton National Park, mountain goat jams in Glacier National Park, and bear jams in Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks.

Comments

Bison, Bear and other Wildlife Jams are a part of the Yellowstone experience that will only be resolved by adding more pull outs at key points and widening the roads to allow for safer traffic patterns. Until then -- we all have to be considerate of new visitors seeing their FIRST bison, bear, elk or whatever. Patience is the key. As for the Author of this piece -- her advice is geared toward the visitors she considers impeding her from getting to her OWN photo shoot -- wolves, etc. She can't even abide by her own advice --- she says "Stopping in the road in Yellowstone is illegal, as it is anywhere, but more than that it is rude to other visitors who might need to be somewhere at a certain time, or have other plans for their day".... and later on allows herself to violate the advice she gives the rest of us by saying that she herself stops "in the road to take photos, if no one is behind me, but have found that I need to watch behind me more closely because one of the law enforcement rangers seems to find me every single time." That's a little self-serving. I have a lot of respect for her skills as a photographer -- but find her advice on bison jams unbalanced and serving her own interests. There are all kinds of visitors with varying levels of experience with wildlife. Be safe...and have patience with your fellow visitors...and don't get in Author's way...she has her OWN photos to take -- so get out of her way...she can't be bothered by tourists.

Thanks GrizzlyDan. Have never met a photographer who does not occassionally stop in the road for photo ops when they won't be impeding traffic. None of us are perfect, nor do we do a perfect job of following the rules and so I felt it best to use full-disclosure - I am not perfect. I do, however, attempt to be courteous and respectful by moving out of the way of others, pulling over whenever possible and not blocking traffic. The key is that most people do not realize that it is okay to keep going or to drive around the bison and so many wait and wait for them to move when they would rather be getting to their destination. Enjoy your parks!

Thanks for raising an important topic. These bison, bear and moose jams can be a difficult situation for everyone involved. For visitors who have never seen these animals in the wild, the temptation to stop and look, even if there's no safe place to so, is more than many can resist. In many cases, other drivers caught in such tie-ups aren't sure whether to try to pull around or wait it out. While I understand the reluctance to pave even more of the landscape (and the cost), I agree that in places like Yellowstone, some additional pullouts where the terrain allows them to be placed fairly easily would help.

The result of these roadside wildlife situations can be hazardous to motorists and animals. A few weeks ago, we were in Waterton Lakes N.P. (just across the border from Glacier), when a sow grizzly and two cubs ambled out into the road right in front of us. I was glad I had time to stop and avoid an accident; I put on my flashers to warn a vehicle coming up behind me, and tapped the horn to encourage the bears to proceed.

The second vehicle came up behind us and stopped, but then a third (apparently a "local" based on his Alberta tag) came up behind, and had no intention of waiting. He zoomed around us faster than was prudent and nearly hit the adult bear, who had decided to continue on across the road. A close call for all.

Lesson learned - if you're going to pull out into the "wrong lane" and bypass other vehicles stopped in such jams, do so with caution.

Great point Jim, about using caution when pulling out. It is important to find out why everyone is stopped and make sure passing can be done safely for animals and humans. Sure glad to hear that the bears survived that crossing.

And, I agree about more pullouts and parking. The park recently re-did the Calcite Springs/Tower road where numerous black bears like to hang out with their tiny cubs, which is a huge draw for people. With this in mind, more parking and wider shoulders might have been wise. Also, we have lost many pullouts this year to horse trailers that have their own designated parking areas, which were enlarged, and can park in regular lots as well, while we can not park in their lots when not being utilized. The park service expects us to park properly but we don't have sufficient space to do so.

Are the park roads to be treated like every other public road?

Is it ok for you to cross double yellow lines and cut in front of over 15 cars patiently waiting for the bison to move out of the way? I am a YNP visitor and I have seen you in action, Deby. I suggest anyone that has been in a bison jam taking photos and video review them for evidence of a black Nitro barreling her way through a herd.

I ask you wait your turn and stop trying to own the park. We are all visitors. I know one day I'm going to read about a calf being hit because it came out from between two cars the very moment you raced by. (You don't inch along)

{Ed. note: this comment has been edited in accordance with our code of conduct.}

When John Townsley was superintendent of Yellowstone, he was on the way to an important meeting with a carload of bigwigs. They came across a bear or elk jam and one of the bigwigs suggested they push through it. Townsley just sat and waited. He told the impatient Important Man that most of these people have never seen anything like this and never will see it again. "Let's allow them to enjoy it," he said.

There are times when some frustration bubbles up in me when I hit another jam. But then I remember how very fortunate I am that for me, a once in a lifetime experience has become commonplace.

Hi "ovadue," thanks for your thoughts and comments. Just this morning I came upon a bear jam and encountered some vehicles crossing the double yellow line to go around those that were parked in the road and to get off of the steep, blind curve where there could have easily been a worse accident. Even though my lane was clear I chose to stop and wave the others on through so that they could get away from that curve and they seemed to appreciate my gesture.

If you choose to sit in the bison jams then that is your choice. I choose to do as I have been taught by others to go around if possible and safe, instead of becoming part of the problem in blocking the road. It is apparent that this would be a no win situation for me because going around insults those who are looking to find fault while blocking traffic would insult those who know I have been here for two years and should know better. I am sure that you have noticed the other regular visitors, wolf watchers, law enforcement, maintenance personnel, tour guides, horse trailers, interp rangers, etc., also going around the bison jams. And, most likely have encountered law enforcement using their air horn and announcing over their PA system to keep moving or to go around the bison. We all just try to do the best that we can and, believe me, I do get stuck in many jams for long periods of time. And, winter is coming up and I will be spending a lot of time while waiting for the bison to get down the icy roads, crossing my fingers that none of them slips and falls. Take care.

Lee, I am imagining John Townsley delighting in being out in the park, instead of behind a desk, and enjoying the wildlife. I agree that we should never try to take the joy of the experience away from other visitors but that doesn't mean that we have to participate. Going on and getting out of their way, without saying anything, can be the kind thing to do.

Deby, don't get me wrong. I often ease my way through jams if it's safe to do so. I was just urging patience with other visitors.

But if I ever witnessed a ranger using an air horn or siren to break up a jam, I'd be thoroughly ticked. In my day in the park, if anyone had done that, they'd have been kicking their Stetson down the road. I hope that is still the case.

Lee, it is wise to consistently remind everyone to have patience with other visitors and to remember that so many people will only get one chance to see Yellowstone. I do better some days than others but always come back to the fact that it is much easier to be nice than it is to be mean - takes way less energy.

Yes, the air horns are now used frequently during the animal jams. Not so much in Lamar but once in awhile. But, in Canyon the use of air horns and PA are out of control, in my opinion. In every type of jam - instead of getting out of cars and talking to people directly, they are disturbing everyone by going down the road and talking on the PA. It is quite a racket and seems unprofessional. But, what do I know - those are just my thoughts on the subject. I don't stand out, watching and listening to nature, only to be disturbed by LE speaking over the PA. Maybe the park has determined that this method is the best for crowd control? Feels more like we are at a riot, demonstration or concert than a national park.

I spent a few days in Yellowstone, and I used to take the Bison jams as a minor annoyance, but that was when I could easily get to the park. I was just out there on Sunday in Hayden Valley, and boy was that fun watching not only bison enganging in the rut, but also the tourists. A ranger was at one of the jams, but he wasn't using a PA or an airhorn. Just keeping people from getting gored or stomped by a bull defending his territory. I didn't mind sitting in a bison jam, or even being a part of that experience this time around. Just seeing real bison again was a treat in itself. And the bison and even elk population looks very healthy this year. I have never seen so many bison in the park.