Yellowstone Buffalo: Don’t Worry, If You Visit, You’ll See Plenty of ’em

baby bison

Baby Bison

When I was planning a recent trip to Yellowstone National Park I wondered if I would be able to see a bison (buffalo) if I didn’t hire a guide. Let me just assure you if you have any of the same anxiety: you’ll see plenty of them.

Entering the park from Jackson, WY, I only caught a glimpse of one off the roadside just before we got to Old Faithful Snow Lodge. When I we checked in I wondered if I should mention my exciting find. I’m glad I didn’t. It became something of a joke over the coming days how people who had just entered the park would stop dead in the road for a bison. But then you start to realize that they’re everywhere. And they usually move pretty slow. And they don’t get spooked by people unless you’re too close (the official parks definition of too close is 75 feet (23 meters)). It’s sometimes hard to keep that far away only because they’re all over the place. It was one of the few animals we ran into on trails.

The Greater Yellowstone Science Learning Center recommends trying to see them in Lamar and Hayden vallies. This is the herd (or one of them) that saved the American icon. The park was down to 20-something bison in 1902 and now has about 3,000.

We quickly became jaded, as if we had been seeing buffalo our whole lives. We had lunch with Three Guys Chillin’ they bragged they had seen a buffalo! right by the road! It was a sure sign they had just driven into the park. It became the classic marker of a newcomer to the park. When there was a traffic jam of unknown origin, we’d blame it on someone’s first hour in the park, dumbstruck by bison.

Soon, we got greedy. It wasn’t enough to see bison, we wanted to see them doing something. They delivered. Over six days in the park my husband David and I got to see bison nursing calves, herds blocking the road, bulls ramming each other, using their horns and mouth to strip bark off trees and tons of grazing or napping. In early summer they shed winter and look bedraggled. We found some hunks of their woolly fur that they scraped off on branches. We followed a ranger’s tip about a calf to a trail near Madison, but saw nothing but adults far off in the distance. But nearly every time we drove through Lamar Valley a herd of bison, complete with nursing calves, blocked our way (delightfully). The red, fluffy calves seemed to hang out together in the herd.

All around the country there are bison herds–mostly on ranches, to be sold as meat. But even the seemingly wild ones are really tightly managed, with excess bison sold off every few years. Sadly, the Yellowstone herd–the last wild herd–is heavily managed, too. The Buffalo Field Campaign documents how the federal government harasses and slaughters the bison, who migrate outside the park, to make way for local cattle ranchers. Ranchers fiercely fought the creation of Grand Teton National Park, are trying to privatize part of it and generally think visitors from the rest of America should just butt out. Ranchers claim that bison may spread brucellosis, a disease that elk are known to spread to cattle, but not bison. If brucellosis is such a big concern, the Field Campaign argues, ranchers should just vaccinate the cattle. Instead an interagency group bureaucratically decided to try vaccinating the bison with a cattle vaccine at taxpayer expense instead. The National Parks Service has told Yellowstone Insider they think it’s an expensive, ineffective plan.

Where to Go to See Buffalo

See more from the Buffalo Field Campaign

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