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