Where the buffalo roam

Showing respect for large wildlife aids both man and beast


I looked up to see a man and woman frantically running for their lives from angry bison. As they ran, the woman fell to the ground while her knight in shining armor ran for the hills, and the bison, which hereafter will be referred to as buffalo, caught up to her, fully prepared to stomp her helpless form into dust. “Now this is what I call news!” I thought to myself.

Anyways, the news report went on to say the two had crept to within 25 feet of the buffalo before they charged, which was reminiscent of another Yellowstone tourist in the news years back who tried placing his child (must have had lots of them) on the back of a wild bear for a photo op with similar results.

Why did these folks do that? I don’t know for sure. I don’t recall seeing a sign at Yellowstone National Park that said, “Please leave your brain at the gate.” We’ll get back to our misguided tourists in a moment, but first, I have information on this type of encounter that might add some depth to the story.

Adult buffalo, or “tatanka,” as the Lakota natives referred to them, stand six feet tall, weigh 2000 pounds, can outrun a horse in both short and long distances and once roamed all but the east and west coastal regions of the United States. I’m a big fan of buffalo and enjoy traveling the vast beauty of the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming just imagining uncountable numbers of them scattered into the horizon—grazing, running, scuffling and generally doing what buffalo do.

A dozen years ago, my wife and I took a trip to Bozeman, MT, to visit our son, David, who lived there at the time and, hopefully, to see some buffalo along the way. To increase our odds for an encounter, we detoured through a corner of Yellowstone, and as we descended into the expansive meadows, we scanned the scenery intently. After a frustrating time of seeing nothing but a few scroungylooking elk and a mixed bag of fur-bearers, we finally spotted a few buffalo a halfmile distant loafing along a creek bed. I pulledACCESS off the road and jumped out to snap pictures which, if published, would be titledBUSINESSES “Black Dots in Field,” then got back into the van, our hopes to see buffalo satisfied.

Strapping on my seat belt, I glanced up before pulling back onto the roadway only to see nothing but brown in the rear-view mirror. While I was busy looking west to grab pictures, a grizzled old bull lumbered out from behind a ledge to the east and now stood almost close enough to fog our windows. I took more pictures from the safety of the van and have them still if you’re needing a picture of a buffalo nose. But from this experience, I can tell you that 25 feet away is too close for a picture of a buffalo. It’s too close even if you are sitting in a blue Chrysler minivan.

My wife did not have to tell me, “Stay in the van, Leo! Please, stay in the vaaaaan!” Fact is, she couldn’t have gotten me out of the van with a baseball bat. Let’s just say, the Park Service did not need to put up signs reading, “Don’t touch or ride the buffalo” for my benefit. There was a time when such a sign would have been handy, though.

I’ve noted before that when I was a kid, my aunt and uncle boarded a smallish grizzly bear named Peanut on their farm for a summer, and it masqueraded as an evil Shetland pony of all things. Given the total lack of horses at our farm (or grizzlies pretending to be evil, boy-eating horses) it was a tantalizing temptation for me and a couple neighbor kids, Dennis and Charlie, to break the monotony of life without video games by attempting to ride Peanut. Even though a successful ride was defined as a few seconds of terror before being bucked off, we “rode” Peanut several times over the course of the summer.

We did not need a sign to know that Peanut did not like us—we knew it, but apparently, we didn’t really think about that part. And had we thought about it, we would have recognized that riding Peanut was a good way to “git yursef kilt,” as they say. But I was only nine or so—thinking wasn’t my strong point. In fact, when I was that age, it was perfectly acceptable to be stupid at that age. But I’m older now and know better.

Now back to the newscast which flashed to another commentator, who said, “Bison are unpredictable wild animals and one shouldn’t get too close.” Unpredictable? Unpredictable? To that I suggest one try taking an up-close picture of a snapping turtle sometime. Or try riding the next Doberman pinscher you meet on the street, or sneak up on a camel or a hippo and push a camera in its face—the outcome is predictably unpleasant. Yes, buffalo are predictable, and they act like most any other living creature would act in similar circumstances.

Remember, too, that in just over a century, we reduced the buffalo herd from 60,000,000 to 325. If my family tree was messed with like that, I’d be more cantankerous than buffalo are; that is, if they are indeed cantankerous at all. And if that buffalo had given that tourist a little stomping (which it mercifully didn’t), I would understand. But that’s a nice thing about buffalos— they don’t want to stomp out tourists. They just want to be treated with respect. With that, Yellowstone would do well to put up a sign saying, “Please treat buffalo and deer and sheep and bears and chipmunks and beavers and birds and fur-bearers and scroungy elk with respect.” Maybe then these encounters wouldn’t happen anymore. I think there is a lesson in that somewhere.

Leo Wilenius lives in rural Cook, MN, with his wife Lindy. He is retired from Lake Country Power in Mt. Iron.

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