Story and photos by Kathy Lichtendahl
A couple days ago my husband and I were headed home from a meeting in Gardiner, Montana by taking the preferred shortcut through Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley. As we approached the confluence of the Soda and Lamar Rivers, we noticed two young bison standing on a small island in the middle of the rushing water. One of the youngsters plunged into the water in an attempt to cross the Soda and was quickly swept off his feet. A look of panic came over his face as he struggled to turn and regain his place on the island. Luckily for him, he was successful and he and his partner then crossed the wider and slightly safer Lamar to more solid ground.
That experience, plus the sad story regarding the bison calf that had to be euthanized by Park Rangers brought back a memory from almost twenty years ago in almost the same place.
For those who don’t know the story, on May 9, 2016, a Canadian tourist in Yellowstone witnessed a very young bison being swept downstream as it attempted to cross a river with the herd. Fearing the animal was abandoned and cold, the tourist loaded the young calf into the back of his vehicle and drove it to the nearest Ranger station. Despite the best efforts of the Park Service to reunite the animal with its herd, it was repeatedly rejected and eventually euthanized.
Sometime in the late 1990’s, my husband and I decided to do a short day hike on the east side of the Lamar River to a spot we enjoyed exploring. It was this same time of year – late May – but at that time, tourists were basically unheard of in the shoulder season and we had the entire valley to ourselves. Or so we thought until we heard a thunderous noise from the west side of the river and looked up to see a huge herd of bison stampeding in our direction with what appeared to be two riders on horseback in the rear. We later found out that the two were Rangers that were attempting to dart and collar a number of the bison for a study that was taking place.
The animals were about a mile away and we had plenty of time to get ourselves into a safe location but we were amazed to see that they didn’t even appear to slow down as they reached the banks of the Lamar and hit the fast moving water. It was exhilarating to watch but then we realized with horror that two tiny red calves were being swept downstream and away from the herd. As the large animals disappeared up and over the hill, still running full speed, the small bison were pushed on shore close to our location. It was devastating to see them shivering and crying, all alone on the bank of the river. Even so, my husband and I knew we could do nothing so we continued on, unable to stop thinking about the poor babies and talking about how they were almost certainly destined to be a meal for a grizzly bear or the newly introduced wolves.
We turned around a short time later and headed back to our vehicle, once again coming upon the young calves along the shore. By now it was about a half hour since they had been left behind and they were drier but still obviously in distress. As we approached the area we again heard an unexpected thunder of hooves, this time coming from the east. Again we sprinted to a treed area, putting some distance and stout aspen trunks between us and the approaching bison. And then we watched in utter amazement as over the hill appeared three animals: two cows in front and one large bull in back.
The cows went straight to their calves and began nuzzling the young animals who immediately started nursing. My husband and I watched with mouths open in amazement and tears running down our cheeks. After a few short minutes the mothers nudged their babies into action and all five animals headed off in the direction of the herd.
Would the mother of the young bison swept away last week have returned for it? We will never know. But as nature photographers we have the chance to witness animal behavior up close and personal more often and in more locations that most people. I believe it is our duty to inform and educate the general public when the opportunity presents itself and the time is right.
Light in the Valley, LLC
Clark, Wyoming 82435