Right of Way

Before my wife, younger son, and I made our trip to Yellowstone this summer, we did like so many other families do before major trips and spent some time reading about the park, its unique features and characteristics, places of particular interest, and potential hazards to avoid.  I even watched a few videos about Yellowstone, both professionally-produced and amateur.  Of course, one of the major elements that brings millions to this park every year is the wildlife, and for most visitors, the principle of “the bigger the better” holds true.  Most of us want to see a bear, at least from a safe distance, but they tend to stay away from the roadways — we were lucky enough to see a mother and her cub the last day we were there.  The elk and moose are quite impressive in the size category too.  We saw several elk but not a moose.

The largest creature in the park, at least by weight, is one that is not very shy at all.  According to the National Park Service website about Yellowstone, this park “is the only place in the United States where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times. Yellowstone bison are exceptional because they comprise the nation’s largest bison population on public land and are among the few bison herds that have not been hybridized through interbreeding with cattle. Unlike most other herds, this population has thousands of individuals that are allowed to roam relatively freely over the expansive landscape of Yellowstone National Park and some nearby areas of Montana. They also exhibit wild behavior like their ancient ancestors, congregating during the breeding season to compete for mates, as well as migration and exploration that result in the use of new habitat areas. These behaviors have enabled the successful restoration of a population that was on the brink of extinction just over a century ago.”

We knew that bison often made their way to the major roadways in the park and that traffic could be stopped for significant periods of time for herds of the animals to pass.  What we didn’t expect was that sometimes the bison actually use the roads as a path, slowly ambling their way along the pavement, almost as if they are curious about the visitors and have arrived for an inspection.  There are close to 5,000 bison in the park, so sightings of large herds are frequent.  Professional and amateur photographers come out before daybreak to claim their favorite spots on small hills in the bison hotspots, such as Hayden Valley, to get the best shots of the beasts in their natural environment.  However, as we discovered on our first day at Yellowstone, you can get a pretty good close-up photograph of a bison from the window of your car, as so many visitors have been doing for years.  I took this one from my window as we waited for a group of the animals to clear the road.

Yellowstone bison

Notice that these hooved creatures are following the center yellow line, almost as if it were a trail marker.  They were walking along slowly, seemingly with no fear or even regard for the nearby vehicles and their occupants.  The dangerous assumption by some park visitors is that these are harmless animals, but as calm as they seem to be, they can become extremely aggressive and dangerous if approached or if they feel threatened.  Park literature and signs are abundant warning people to stay a very safe distance from all wild animals in the park , especially bears and bison.  Several visitors are seriously injured each year from foolish encounters with bison.

As these massive animals passed our car, I was taken with how they brought everything to a standstill, commanding the right of way.  They marched through like royalty participating in a parade — the trooping of the colors as it were.  In many ways, the park is theirs, along with the other multitude of species that call Yellowstone home, as it should be.  I wish people would always keep in mind that we are only visitors, and as such, we should be on our best behavior to ensure that places like Yellowstone are preserved and treasured.