Twice in the last couple weeks tourists have been severely injured by American buffalo (or more correctly, American bison) in Yellowstone National Park. In both instances the injuries occurred because the tourists ignored multiple park warnings and approached far too closely to the animals.
As someone who spends a lot of time in Yellowstone and other places where large wild mammals live, I can comment on this from personal experience.
First, I will say that when I’m in places like Yellowstone I spend most of my time searching for apex predators; that means Grizzly bears, wolves, cats, and the like. And it’s extremely rare that I feel threatened or in danger around these animals, even when I’m in relatively close proximity to them.
Predators obviously require a high level of respect and awareness, but usually they just go about their business while I go about mine. That’s the idea anyway if you’re a wildlife photographer.
The animals of the Rocky Mountain West that truly frighten me are (1) bull elk during the rut, and (2) buffalo at any time of year. I’ve had near misses with both — usually when I wasn’t paying close enough attention to something going on behind me.
If you’ve ever looked into the eyes of a testosterone-infused bull elk at a distance of 6 ft, you know what pure wild fury looks like. The last time it happened to me I was too petrified to move (or take photos.)
Likewise, the look bison sometimes get in their eyes sends shivers down my spine. This usually happens during the early-autumn breeding period, but bison are completely unpredictable and they can go off at any time of year.
Case in point: The photos below are of a Yellowstone bison taken in May of this year, just when the big bulls should be peacefully munching on the abundant new grasses and ignoring the cows with their newborn calves.
But for some reason the bull pictured below was mad as hell. He was all alone on a hillside, with nothing and no one bothering him when he just freaked out. Let me tell you, watching a one ton animal go airborne is quite a sight. And it happened two days in a row!
The first shot is from the evening of May 7, 2015; the last few were taken 24 hours later on the same hill. I apologize for the quality of the images — especially the last one where the bull clearly had his eyes on me and is on the dead run. He was probably 60-70 yards away from me when he started running, but man they can move! Frankly, I was thoroughly scared at that point and was more concerned with creating space than taking photos.
If you get nothing else from this story, at least you are now forewarned that bison are always dangerous. And the animals in Yellowstone and all our other national parks are wild in the truest sense of the word. The only thing predictable about them is their unpredictability.