Last week I photographed a bison struggling his way up a narrow stream. Four feet deep snow spilling over the banks. I was reminded of how my respect for these hardy beasts had changed over the years.
When I first came west, I was excited about animals new to me. Moose, bear, bighorn even elk. Bison were like cattle to me, and I knew cattle. Some of my earliest recollections were of grandpa reciting Longfellow’s “The Village Blacksmith” while he hand milked his six cows. Later I would play in the barn where my dad milked a dozen cows at a time in a modern milking facility. When I was 15 I took out a loan at the bank and bought four calves. I raised them until they were ready for market. Oh, I knew cattle.
In Yellowstone, bison were everywhere. More part of the scenery than wildlife to me. Slowly though I began to notice things. The highest game trails I traversed had bison tracks. During winter they would use their massive heads to plow the snow, opening up the ground forage, not only for their grazing but also for coyotes and other wildlife that came after. Then one winter morning I arrived at the cliffs past Hitching Post just as a pack of coyotes drove a young elk off the steep crags. Within seconds they were slashing at the now injured elk, ripping fur and flesh. Somehow the elk got to its’ feet and dragged himself and the coyotes across the road in front of me to a small stream on the other side. There it plunged into the icy water, shedding its’ attackers to stand bloody and exhausted. Not far away a small herd of bison had watched the drama as I had. Now, in unison they moved towards the injured elk to surround it and drive away they coyotes. Hours passed and the bison continually repelled every advance made by the hungry canines. Now as darkness was slowly closing in, a large bull in the herd moved to stand inches from the elk. For a full minute they looked into each other’s eyes, then the bull moved away, taking the herd with him. The next morning the young elk was just bones and hide.
In the late 90’s a rough winter descended on Yellowstone. Much like the one we’re having now. Every bison left the valley except two bulls. They both starved. Those who left the park were killed by the hundreds. When spring finally came and the remaining bison returned to the valley I felt a deeper understanding for the great beasts. They were truly survivors.
A few years later I witnessed a wolf attack on a cow bison and her young calf. There were eight wolves and I thought the calf would be taken in minutes. But that cow fought. Kicking and whipping her head to and fro. She kept the wolves at bay. All the time keeping the calf safely under her chest. Thirty-five minutes later the battle was still going on. The tireless cow had been in constant motion the entire time. Suddenly the bison and calf bolted into the trees, wolves close behind. I could no longer see the action and will never know how it finally ended as it was a good mile away.
One winter not long ago I witnessed a small band of bison moving through the willows near the Confluence. Eventually they approached a bison carcass that was a couple of months old. Here they stopped and sniffed and licked at the bones. Even rubbing their heads on the hide. I had heard of elephants visiting fallen comrades. That seemed to be what the bison were doing now.
Now when I see bison, especially the ones struggling to endure another rough winter, I find myself pulling for them. Even feeling a kinship.