Story and photography by Jim Clark
Okay, here’s one for you: What did the mama buffalo say to her little boy in the morning when he left to go to school? “Bison!”
I know, corny as all heck, but it’s the only joke I can remember. Besides, bison are my most favorite charismatic megafauna of all time. I can spend hours in Yellowstone’s Hayden or Lamar Valley just watching a herd of bison grazing, rutting, playing, swimming, running, wallowing or whatever; it doesn’t matter.
The American bison is not a buffalo. The species of bovines correctly and scientifically classified as buffalo are found only in Africa and Asia. Nonetheless, I’m also at fault for referring to our bison as buffalo.
With bulls weighing as much as 2,000 pounds (cows weigh up to 1,000), the American bison is our country’s largest mammal. Don’t think that their size means these behemoths can’t run. I refer to them as rolling thunder with horns, as they have been clocked galloping across the prairies at speeds of 40 miles per hour.
Emblematic of the wildness that defined the character of North America before European settlement, bison are also a reminder of how our society nearly wiped out a single species. The current bison population in North America is estimated to be around 500,000; a far cry from the 20-40 million that roamed here prior to their slaughter in the 1800s. Today, wild herds roam not only several national parks and refuges, but also tribal reservations and private ranches.
When photographing bison, remember this above all else: keep your distance and always remain aware. Bison are unpredictable and dangerous creatures. Just watch the You Tube videos of tourists at Yellowstone being attacked and gored by what they thought were peaceful grazing creatures.
During my bison photo shoots, I use my telephotos to capture those up-close and personal images of individual bulls, cows and calves. I also use a mid-range and even a wide-angle zoom to highlight bison within their environment, a composition I refer to as a wildlife scenic.
For exposure, remember bison fur varies in tonality from a medium brown to a very dark black. Check the histogram and make adjustments to be sure these tones are not overexposed. You want to show detail in the fur, so avoid having the histogram creep up on the left side.
During the spring calving season, you’ll get the tawny brown calves (referred to as “red dogs”) nursing, jumping and exploring their new-found freedom. During the fall rut, bulls battle as they compete for cows. While I’ve not yet been to Yellowstone in winter, most of us are familiar with the extraordinary images of the frosted hairy bison in their snowy environment.
It has been a few years since I last sat on a ridge in Yellowstone admiring herds of bison as they roamed in the valley below me. I’m thinking it’s time to make another trip to that great landscape and grab another dose of bison magic.
A past NANPA president and contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer, Jim Clark is a nature photography instructor for the Chincoteague Bay Field Station, Wallops Island, Virginia. The author/photographer of six books, Jim is particularly proud of two children’s books he did with his son Carson. Jim was also a major contributor to the book Coal Country. Jim’s website is www.jimclarkphoto.com; his blog, www.jimclarkphoto.wordpress.com; and you can visit him on Facebook.