Discovering the trail is magical; unpacking it all is the hard part.
My fourth trip following bison tracks from past to present is over. The unpacking part starts now: not just camping and photography gear, field sketches and notes, but also new perspectives and stories from people who know bison history and bison from intense exposure.
I followed this trail to inform an artist-in-residence project. I have met historians, archeologists, geologists, bison managers, rangers, restorationists, communicators, and interpreters. I have put thousands of miles on my car and truck. And I have only started. Bison trails are more straight and true than their historic path from the Ice Age to today.
It wasn’t until I picked up a book at First People’s Buffalo Jump in Montana that I learned about the Pablo-Allard herd and Canada’s contribution to saving wild bison. It wasn’t until I talked to a historian at Elk Island National Park in Alberta that I learned there was once a Buffalo National Park that failed miserably. At Elk Island, the superb interpreters revealed how challenging it is to manage bison on defined land base within fences. Despite a robust relocation program that most recently airlifted bison to Banff National Park, Elk Island completed public outreach on alternatives to control the population, including hunting in the park.
One constant is the type of people involved with bison. They are passionate, committed, and generous with their knowledge. They want people to be drawn to bison, to make them an integral and eternalpart of our natural heritage. “Bison nerds” are a small but tight international group committed to making sure that these animals don’t disappear forever. They are ecologically extinct — there are no free-roaming herds — but conservation herds shaped by nature still dot the landscape.
Since these large, migratory animals spread across North America, driving grassland ecology, the bison trail leads to a variety of landscapes and places, .
Plains Indian tribes followed these animals across North America, leaving their own trail, including camps, kill sites, and ritual locations. My first visit to a buffalo jump led to places where I could understand communal hunting, from Madison Buffalo Jump to the superb Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. This World Heritage site is the best preserved in the world with a phenomenal interpretive center.
Buffalo led a huge parade of life in their wake as they shaped the landscape. I caught sight of many creatures that followed bison, but wondered about all the animals that disappeared with wild bison.
Along the way, I have met so many wonderful, caring, and friendly people; walked so many beautiful landscapes; imagined the sounds and sights of prairies once teeming with life. It is hard to unpack it all and assemble the important bits into a story that will inspire others to experience the buffalo trail for themselves. But I will try.
I have returned to Yellowstone National Park a half dozen times. I’ve backpacked, hiked, taken classes and certification training at the park. I’m a member of Yellowstone Association and a monthly donor to the Yellowstone Park Foundation. But after my trip to the solitude and freedom of American Prairie Reserve, my visit to Yellowstone made me feel like the child of an unpredictable and inconsistent parent.
Yellowstone is having a rough year during the centennial celebration of the National Parks. Record numbers of visitors arrived at the park. One hundred years after the military got poaching and illegal mining and logging under control, the 22nd death in a hot spring occurred. Some decided to ignore the many signs around hot springs: six people caught on video off trail, four Canadians strolling on Grand Prismatic Spring, and tourists who bundled up a baby bison in the back of their car to bring it to warmth, leading to its being put down.
And YNP has a controversial image as wildlife stewards. The park was under fire again after they announced a huge cull of bison under a controversial agreement with Montana to ostensibly reduce potential of brucellosis transmission to cattle (which has never happened, and oh yeah, elk carry brucellosis too, but let’s not talk about that). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed delisting grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem, likely under pressure to show success of the Endangered Species act, and coincident to applications for trophy hunts by Wyoming and Montana. YNP had to tiptoe around that during public comment periods in 2016.
So you can hardly blame YNP rangers and the Park for being worn thin. When I drove into the park, a grizzly kill site at Dunraven Pass had created an obstinate parking lot of vehicles on the road with people running toward the site saying, “It’s just like you see on TV!” The crowd was blocking a fuel tanker truck trying to mount the hill and pass.
But after politely stopping for a bison herd that stepped into the road (one hoof was on the yellow line, but no bison in my lane), I found a ranger screaming up the hill, honking his horn furiously to send a young calf out of his way and waving at me to continue. It was complete ranger road rage, and this after we passed several temporary flags warning us to be patient with extensive delays for wildlife on the roadways.
Yellowstone is sending mixed and soft messages that don’t speak clearly or directly to tourists. “Wildlife are dangerous and unpredictable” blames wildlife for being- well, wild. How about, “You can get yourself killed by wildlife”? That puts blame where blame belongs. How about being specific about how to drive around a bison herd? I wasn’t sure whether moving on would send the animal into the car it was passing or start a stampede.
And the YNP ommunications folks want your pictures for social media, which encourages you to take more interesting and unique pictures, that just get you into trouble. This effort to get people to avoid taking selfies with wildlife is- well, just dumb. Do you think people really will skip the picture with the live bison to get a selfie with a giant stuffed toy? And why give it a name that flies in the face of trying to convince people wildlife are wild?
Even the tour operators aren’t following rules. I saw a Yellowstone yellow bus tour stop and let people out to chase this grizzly for a picture. (Note to Ranger: I snapped his photo with my Canon HS60-XS superzoom from a pullout down the road and decided to change my hiking destination from a nearby nature trail).
I sat at the Canyon Village Fountain Grill counter eating a salad and listening to four women talk about how that ranger shouldn’t have been yelling at one of them. “I was sensible,” she said. “I knew what I was doing.” A few minutes later I realized that her tour bus had stopped to watch a grizzly sow and cubs, and she had separated from the line of people out of their cars on the road to come up behind them for pictures, effectively hemming them in. No, not sensible, but remember, she was on a tour. Tour operators may have to sacrifice a tip to keep their customers in line- I saw it happen in Costa Rica, so it can happen here.
Yellowstone, you need to be a better, more consistent parent with clear rules, and stop blaming the “kids” for- well, being kids. Understand the temptation to reach a hand out of a car and feel a bison passing by with your fingertips- no, not smart, but these magnetic creatures suddenly feel within reach and touch.
And you need to be willing to call out deliberately ugly or dangerous behavior. There are great photographers, but legions of amateur long-lens photographers who bait and harrass animals for photos. There are people who throw food and objects at animals and feel entitled to camp anywhere they want. The Park Service might want to consider some good old-fashioned shaming for punishment, not just standing nobly silent or saying obliquely that rules don’t allow you to step off the boardwalk onto the thin crust of a boiling hot spring.
And prioritize safety, not natural wonder. Your Web is organized to require someone bedazzled by images of thermal features and wildlife to click on a section called “Safety”. Do you really expect people to do this? Maybe recharacterize the whole park as the Serengeti of the U.S. with boiling acidic cauldrons waiting to eat you alive. Yes, there will be people who step into the cauldron or reach out to pet the wild animal, but it won’t be the majority who are now encouraged to “Marvel. Explore. Discover”.
I know we visitor people make honest but dumb mistakes or can be stupid (okay, the baby bison incident was beyond the pale). Sometimes we’re just bedazzled and tempted by the marvel of nature that we increasingly only know in electronic form. It’s happening all over the world, and will only going to get worse as we are more isolated in cities, and tempted to sin by more new technology (drones are already a problem and virtual reality is next). You’re going to have to sit down as “parents” of the park and have a tough love conversation about what you need to do to protect people, wildlife, cultural resources, and the environment.
Maybe it’s not communications that will fix the problem. Maybe it’s confining people to ranger-led tours and shuttles. I would pay for it, and go with you. But honking and yelling at people who are trying to do the right thing, and soft-balling risk while asking people for cool images- well, you’re kinda asking for what’s happening.