The summer of 2022 was an active season for human casualties in Yellowstone; in a matter of two months there were three incidents of people being gored by bison. Each – frankly an avoidable event — was attributed to the tourists disrespecting the size, power, and personal space of the bison. Yellowstone National Park advises to stay at least 25 yards away from all large animals, including deer, bighorn sheep, and, bison. These unfortunate tourists came within ten feet, resulting in an attack and a spectacular Youtube videos filmed by unsuspecting bystanders.
I visited Yellowstone in July hoping to spot a bison, an elk, and hopefully also a grizzly and a black bear. Shortly after entering the park and driving through the vast green meadows, I noticed herds of bison scattered in the distance poking green-grassy carpets like little black pin-heads. This post-card worthy view was not exactly fulfilling — I wanted to see a bison up close and see her fluffy mane and spiky horns.
I decided that by loitering around the Old Faithfull, not only could I see a bison but also other wonders of the park and I could use the amenities including bathrooms (very important) and a coffee bar. I grabbed a cappuccino, stepped out onto a wooden boardwalk around the Old Faithfull, and waited for the geyser to erupt.
I sipped my cappuccino and recalled an interesting anecdote about the early visitors to the park. They would throw their dirty laundry into the geyser and patiently wait — about 90 minutes later, when the geyser erupted, freshly cleaned articles would shoot up from the hole in the ground. Ecologically, I am glad that we can no longer do our laundry in such a violent way but there is a part of me that would love to watch an explosive geyser washing-machine.
Looking around I could see a few singular bison roaming the geyser basin area — they looked like gentle docile cows that did not pay much attention to the tourists around them. Uniformed rangers kept a close eye on both the mellow bison and the rambunctious tourists, making sure that the two do not mingle too close to each other.
I am not the one to sit too long in one place and a 90-minute wait for the Old Faithful to erupt was simply too long to sit still. I spoke with my father — who is my old faithful traveling companion and we decided to investigate the geyser basin. He would bike on the paved road and I would take a jog down a narrow dirt-path; we would reunite at the Biscuit basin a few miles away.
Taking extra water, each of us took off on our individual missions. On my way, I stopped to take a video of three chipmunks chasing each other around a fallen tree trunk. They were having a fantastic time playfully running in and out of wooden hollows. Once they spotted me, they ran away into the surrounding woods, and I jogged on.
In just a few steps, I noticed a couple Asian families with their bicycles stopped in the middle of the path. There were about nine of them of various ages energetically discussing the topic of the moment which was a bison lying about 25-yards away in the middle of our path. I looked to the right and noticed three young people circumnavigating the bison certainly getting closer than the prescribed 25 yards. It was obvious that the bison was observing their progress with interest. The people moved slowly and calmly but their actions encouraged the bison to stand up. This made the rest of us happy, maybe the animal will walk away and unblock our progress. But he did not move, just stood there in the middle of the track watching the three hikers who by then stepped back onto the path a few yards past the bison and continued towards the Biscuit basin.
The rest of us decided to conduct an impromptu summit. Should we repeat the actions of the three brave, albeit foolish tourists? Or let the bison be, turn around, and go back to the paved road? Opinions varied — the men were for circumnavigation, the women were against, and the kids just wanted to do something and go one way or another.
I mustered a little courage and decided that I will try circumnavigation. I cautiously stepped off the path and while maintaining a safe distance proceeded towards a patch of trees. My though was that if a bison takes off after me at least I have the trees to hide behind. I kept my eyes on the animal who kept his eyes on me. As the beast tracked my progress, my courage evaporated and I returned to the place where the two Asian families were watching my adventure.
“He seems pretty calm,” the father of one family said to me.
“He might appear calm, but I am not comfortable being so closely watched by him,” I replied and then added, “maybe he will move his fuzzy butt of the path so that we can pass.”
“Nah, it does not appear that this thing is ready to move,” responded the man.
The families once again conversed, but the opinions did not change — the men were for, the women were against, and the kids just wanted to move. At this time the bison started to wag his tail, and one of the women exclaimed, “he is going to attack us.”
Another eagerly agreed, “a ranger in the visitor center told us that when they wag their tail, or snort that is a clear sign that they are about to attack.”
At this point both families: men, women, and children got on their bicycles and swiftly biked away, never looking back, and only leaving a cloud of dust behind them.
I stood there wondering if all the commotion further agitated the animal and now, I was the only remaining target. I kept my eyes on the beast and slowly started to move away from the animal. He kept his eyes on me. I lowered my gaze worried that if I look into his eyes, he could interpret that as a battle-call. I kept backing up and once the distance between us increased, I turned around and started running at my top speed.
Having to backtrack, added another 45-minutes to my adventure. Yellowstone has a spotty cell phone coverage and I was unable to communicate the delay to my father. Even if I would have signal there was no telling if he could receive the message. I finally caught up with my father and explained my tardiness. While previously we had a hard time understanding why so many people were gored by the bison this season, now we knew. There is definitely a natural curiosity that humans have, compound that with the calm appearance of the animal, and add an occasional poor judgement and there is a perfect recipe for a human tragedy (the bison usually come out unharmed).