A tense bison encounter in Yellowstone

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Bison in Yellowstone.
Bison in Yellowstone. Photo Credit: Randy Patrick

When I first arrived in Montana for one of Tauck's special Ken Burns' Yellowstone winter wonderland tours, we watched a video clip with the famous documentarian talking about the exhilaration of experiencing a "three-dog day" where you spot a wolf, coyote and a red fox.

I crossed my fingers and hoped I would be as lucky as I was on my first safari, when we spotted the Big Five on our very first day.

Unfortunately, the first two days were only two-dog days, although we did spot some wolf tracks had a few exciting false alarms where coyotes looked like wolves from afar.

However, on Day Two, we did have an exciting -- though scary and somewhat troubling -- bison encounter.

As we made our way toward the Hayden Valley we came across a lone bison in the road. We had already encountered several small groups of bison and were expecting that this one, like the others, would slowly move out of our way.

However, as we inched forward to maneuver around what tour director Zack Pennington estimated was a 2,000-pound bull, it became clear that he wanted no part of us on his road.

When we veered left, so did he. As we moved right, he did the same.

Then his tail started moving, a sign he was becoming agitated. And he began running back and forth in front of and slightly beside us, appearing to be on the verge ramming our snow coach.

We finally made our way past, hoping he would settle down before the rest of our group, in a snow coach behind us, came through.

What we didn't know was that a group of snowmobilers had moved in between our two coaches. Fellow traveler Eric Powders captured on video what came next: several very close and scary encounters as the bison charged the snowmobilers who had stopped, then two-by-two sped through openings to rush past the huge bull. One sideswiped a snow bank and nearly tipped over.


While fascinating -- and lucky that no humans or animals were hurt -- it was also an example of just how delicate the balance is between visitors and wildlife in national parks.

Pennington said it is unusual for bison to get that wound up by vehicles on the road. And while we had followed all the rules for bison encounters, it was troubling to see the bull running and charging because during the winter you never want to see bison expend any unnecessary energy, which they need just to survive.

Fortunately, until a few weeks ago, it had been a fairly mild winter in the park. So hopefully, as Pennington said, the big guy was just frisky and used to doing whatever he wanted -- including not sharing the road.

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