Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Mother in Distress

Sitting on the cold and wet pavement 6.6 miles North of Grant Village sits a young female Bison. There are four foot snow walls that surround her and no food in sight. She's painfully thin; her backside a mere fraction of the size when compared to her enormous head that weighs on average 100 pounds. She was one of many Bison that ventured to Old Faithful this winter in hopes of finding warmer ground and something resembling food. A little over a week ago she, along with a few other Bison journeyed over the harsh, snow covered road called Craig Pass. They were heading back towards Hayden Valley - a 40 mile journey from Old Faithful via the roads. But while her herd has moved on and made it to Hayden, this particular Bison is still 10 miles shy of the others. Surrounded by piles of her own excrement, the reality is, she is likely to never make those last 10 miles.

Most visitor's to Yellowstone will drive all the roads in the park just once. They search for wildlife along their drive and snap some photos, but they never have the chance to really develop a relationship with the wildlife. They don't wake up in the morning thinking "I wonder what happened to that limping Coyote I saw yesterday?" But being a Park Ranger, we often see the same animals throughout the year, sometimes the same individual day after day. We don't necessarily track all the wildlife as some visitors think, but rather we can identify them based on subtle differences in their appearance and behavior.

Last weekend I discovered a small female Bison sitting on the road in Grant District. I found it a little curious that she was sitting in the road, all alone, in the middle of the day. I couldn't help but notice her ribs and hips jutting out and thought to myself  "Boy, she's not looking well at all". But as a trained Ecologist and a Park Ranger who clearly understands the National Park Service's mission to preserve natural cycles, I wrote her off as the likely dinner of Wolves and Bears. But the next day, I found her in the same spot, undiscovered by Wolves or Bears. I informed some of my colleagues and we all agreed that since this particular road in the park is still closed to the public, we would leave her alone. After all, it would only be a short while before a big Old Griz discovered her. 

The next morning rumors circled around Grant Village that she was dead. I was secretly relieved because it meant she was finally put out of her misery. However, we all know never to trust a rumor. It turns out that our near-death, skin and bone Bison actually was not dead. But rather in the early dawn of a cold morning she gave birth, alone, to a calf that she had been carrying throughout the harshest of winters. During the birth a Park employee came upon her, only to find three coyotes tormenting her during the process. Without the safety of a herd, the 3 coyotes intuitively knew that she was defenseless while giving birth. They jumped and snapped at the baby bison's legs as it breathed it's first breath of fresh air. The arrival of the employee scared off the coyotes, and mom was finally able to bring a small orange bundle of joy into the harsh wild world of Yellowstone.  But rather than feel joyous my heart sank even more. Without the safety of a healthy mom or a herd the chances of survival were slim. Things were looking worse and the longer the saga continued the more of a relationship I built with this Bison. 

With a heavy heart I jumped into my truck and headed north to see it with my own eyes. Sure enough, 6.6 miles north of Grant Village lie the pair. Mom was looking worse and babe was cuddled up next her, both lying quietly on the bare pavement. As much as I wanted to do something I knew that I couldn't. This was the harsh reality of the wild animal kingdom and it happens everyday, we just seldom see it with our own eyes. 

The next morning I headed back to the site so that I could see what the dark night brought forth. I could find no tracks, no blood, no sign of the little orange calf- he/she was gone, just like that. I had the sad realization that the last few minutes of the calf's life were probably much the same as the first few minutes. 

The young mom was still alive, in the same place she had been the day prior, but this time there was no orange ball cuddled up next to her. Taking pity on her someone placed hay next to her to feed upon. Feeding the animals in the National Park is, of course,  illegal but I can understand the sympathy and compassion that someone felt. Sadly,  I fear that this gesture will only drag out the inevitable: She will not make the last ten miles of her journey. And so on this Mother's Day weekend, as we celebrate Mother's all across the world, my heart goes out to the young female Bison, who sadly will not be celebrating Mother's Day.  


  1. It must be very difficult for you to let nature take it's course. I know it would be for me. So sad, but life goes on. Thanks for being there and sharing the story on this Mother's Day eve.

  2. Yes, it has been difficult to watch. My poor mom- I made her cry with this story on Mother's Day.

  3. How Sad :**

    It shows a mother's undying love.

    My heart if broken that nature has to be so cruel to something so precious as life.

    I know it must be hard for you to see this all the time.

    As someone who has raised cattle and helped when they give birth and are sick. You grow to love them and they touch a part of your heart and lives.

    We visited Yellowstone in June 2009 and I had moutain sickness and missed getting to see most fo the park. The part I was awake for was Beautiful. Getting to see Bison, a baby bear was wonderful.

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful mom's story and I pray that it never happens again, but I know in the wild it happens everyday. That does not meant we have to like it.

    As a mom my heart goes out the momma bison :***

  4. love your blog! Excited for our trip to yellowstone at the end of may. I have never been in the spring.

  5. Your blog entry today is beautifully written. I don't know what to say other than thank you. It is a sad story, but this is nature's way. If isn't too gruesome to ask, can you let us know what happens to the mother bison.

  6. Sad, yes, but thank you for telling the story that is part of the natural process of life and death in the wild. (Via Facebook)

  7. this made me bawl...... o my goodness im in tears.. ur a very strong person for what u do i could never do that im hypervenilating im such a baby.. (lack of a better word).. :'(
    Yesterday at 12:39am ·(Via Facebook)

  8. So sad, but as you said, a harsh reality!
    Saturday at 6:25pm (Via Facebook)

  9. Here is your pulitzer for most HORRIBLE MOTHER'S DAY ANECDOTE EVR.

    But I still love you.


  10. Bri,
    Such a very sad story, yes especially on Mother's Day,yes I did cry. It was beautifully written with sensitivity. You are a stronger person than I. Glad I wasn't there. Stay strong & keep that beautiful Smile of yours. Love you. Mom