Want to See Bison at Yellowstone? You’re Likely Not Prepared.


In the deep green pastures of Yellowstone National Park, where the air is crisp and the tall grass dances in the breeze, lives the bison, a large, majestic animal with chocolate brown fur — and a delicate temperament that could turn from pleasant to dangerous in seconds.

Bison have injured more people in Yellowstone than any other animal, a national park official said. Last weekend, an 83-year-old woman from South Carolina was gored by a bison that was defending its space, park officials said. She sustained serious injuries after being lifted about a foot off the ground by the animal’s horns. The incident remains under investigation.

It was the latest in a string of tragic events at the park involving visitors and bison, which are social animals that live in herds. In April, a 40-year-old man was injured after harassing a herd of bison and kicking one of the animals in the leg. Last July, a 47-year-old woman sustained significant injuries after being charged and gored by a bison. Just weeks earlier, a man pleaded guilty to one count of feeding, touching, teasing, frightening or intentionally disturbing wildlife after interacting with a newborn bison calf, which had to be euthanized.

Episodes like these occur too regularly, said Jon Grinnell, associate professor of biology and a bison expert at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. “I think it’s a sign of how unfamiliar people are with dealing with wild animals,” he said. “They think they are tame things that will respect them, and they won’t always do that.”

Still, visiting Yellowstone to learn about the animals could be beneficial, Mr. Grinnell said. “If the only exposure to wildlife is through the internet, that’s going to teach them some dangerous behaviors,” he said. “It’s much better to respect the animals and give it space and not have to have that selfie taken with the bison bull.”

The bison at Yellowstone make up the country’s largest population, about 5,000, on public land. Herds, which can range from a few dozen bison up to hundreds, freely roam over Yellowstone and into some nearby areas of Montana.

We spoke to two bison experts about the dos and don’ts of encountering the animal at Yellowstone.

There is no need to be fearful of bison, but humans should keep a healthy respect for them from a distance, said Jeff Martin, assistant professor of bison biology and management at South Dakota State University. Mr. Martin said that park visitors should practice observing bison in awe because “they are incredibly large and appear to be a relic of the past.”

Bison are massive, about twice the size of domestic cattle. Male bison, known as bulls, can weigh more than 2,000 pounds, Mr. Grinnell said, with temperaments that can easily switch from placid to aggressive, especially during the breeding season, which typically runs from mid-July to mid-August.

“Not a chance,” Mr. Grinnell said, adding that bison can run 35 miles per hour.

Despite their size, bison are agile animals that can turn on a dime. “They’re really sort of front heavy,” Mr. Grinnell said. “So they plant their front feet, whip their rear end around, and they can go the next direction they want.”


None. Call the park office and let a wildlife biologist, who is a trained professional, deal with the situation, Mr. Martin said.

Coinciding with summer travel, bison are busiest from Memorial Day through Labor Day. In the early part of the season, new mothers have calves on the ground. “They are highly protective of their babies,” Mr. Martin said. “Do not go near them, because they don’t want anyone near their babies.” Then later in the summer, bulls become territorial of their soon-to-be breeding mates, he said.

Remain calm. Do not walk toward them, and instead begin backing up, Mr. Martin said. Do not stare at them in the eyes. If you happen upon them on a trail, follow the same directions. “Don’t make a big deal of it,” Mr. Martin said. “They’re not bears, you don’t need to be yelling, they know you’re there.”

National Park Service officials said visitors should stay more than 25 yards, or 75 feet, away from large animals like bison, elk, bighorn sheep and moose when encountered near a campsite, trail, boardwalk, parking lot or other developed area. People should stay at least 100 yards, or 300 feet, away from bears and wolves.

Mr. Grinnell recommends lying still on the ground and hope the bison goes away so medical help can reach you.

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