Up Front and Personal with Bison

Pardon my stupidity but I always assumed that bison and buffalo were one and the same.

Bison have their way at Yellowstone National Park. (Tom Vartabedian photo)

I never knew they led separate lives until I traveled to Yellowstone National Park and saw for myself. I was told by a tour director that buffalo are extinct and what we’re apt to see grazing on our sacred lands are indeed bison. [Note: In fact, buffalo are not extinct, although they nearly became extinct in the 19th century].

According to my guidebook, bison are sometimes called buffalo, but don’t ask them that. I don’t think they know the difference. If bison could talk, they’d tell you they’re the biggest land mammal in North America, and that the term “buffalo” may be considered a misnomer.

In a typical year, more than 3,000 bison roam the grasslands of Yellowstone. Bulls are larger in appearance than cows and sport thicker beards. For their size (up to 2,000 pounds), they’re agile and quick, capable of speeds greater than 30 mph.

I was also told that more park visitors are injured by bison each year than by bears.

So what would prompt me to leave the safety of a bus and approach the herd? A once-in-a-lifetime photo, that’s what.

“Be cautious,” said the tour guide. “You never know what will set them off and come galloping after you. Don’t get closer than 100 yards of them.”

As the coach came to a halt by the side of the road, the door opened, discharging some rambunctious shutterbugs like myself. A 300 mm telephoto lens was hardly enough to get a close-up of these beasts.

As a newspaper photographer for 40 years, I’ve lived in the world of chance. And I’ve paid the price for a good shot, having been upended by a skier once on a slope, and again by a 300-pound tackle in football because I roamed too close to the sidelines.

I’ve been chased by a fox, encountered a wolf flashing his teeth, and nearly slid off a ledge on Mount Washington trying to negotiate a picture of hikers. I’ve stood in the middle of a pileup to capture an accident scene; gone through blazing buildings to shoot fire fighters in action; and photographed the biggest manhunt in New England crime history.

Bison? What can they show me that I haven’t seen already, except a face-to-face sneer. Okay, this wasn’t the York Wild Animal Kingdom or some zoo where animals are contained. This was about captivating wildlife and an opportunity to connect with nature’s element.

“Remember, keep your distance,” the guide reminded us.

The warning sign went right by me. As I stutter-stepped closer to my subjects, so did others in our tour group. Before I knew it, I was leading an entourage of photographers with their cameras cocked.

“Just a little bit closer,” I felt. “Hey, what’s good for Buffalo Bill was good for me. He didn’t get his nickname for nothing.”

All I wanted was one good “shot” to include in a travelogue I was preparing. Somehow, a scene with bison grazing on an open field didn’t quite hack it for me. So I took a chance and made my approach, not realizing the danger I had invited, or the safety of others who followed me.

It was a veritable “field” day as I chose my subjects at will and got the close-ups I had wanted. One bison even approached another and snorted something in his ear. I don’t know bison talk but if I were to guess, I would suspect him telling the other to strike a “gameful” pose for this human with the camera.

After getting my desired pictures, I made my way back 100 yards to the bus where my wife was yelling bloody murder. As for the tour guide and the driver, I could read their faces. They were none too pleased with my action.

“You could have gotten yourself killed,” they said, giving me the jaundiced eye. “We’re responsible for your safety. You put the others at risk.”

I was mired in guilt, knowing I had done wrong. It sort of made me the bad guy on this trip. Any chance of stopping the bus for an impromptu shot had vanished.

But, alas! The bison didn’t take too kindly to my reprimand. Just as the bus prepared to leave the scene, out stepped one bison on the road, followed by another. The entire byway turned into a bison crossing and they dallied along at their own pace, stalling all traffic going both ways.

In fact, the lingering bison stood their ground for a good 20 minutes, letting no one pass until the rangers showed up and got them moving.

My impression became obvious. These bison lived up to their ancestry. They had everyone “buffalo-ed.”

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Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.
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