My family and I came to Yellowstone in the hopes of seeing bears, but it was an intrepid bison and his baby calf that stole our hearts.
By Chris Umpierre
The determination in the bison’s eyes is something I’ll never forget.
The mammal had a right front leg injury and was walking with a limp when my family saw him in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park this summer. The 6-foot-tall, 2,000-pound bison had an orange reddish baby calf with him.
I sat in awe as this courageous, light brown bison did everything in his power to move. He had to rock his head back and forward just to walk. His right front leg flailed with each step. You could see the pain shooting through his body, but he never stopped. Not once.
As a father of two young children, my heart went out to him. Here was an injured father using every last bit of energy to take care of his 2-month-old baby calf. The duo was only a few feet from the roadway. We could look deep into the elder bison’s eyes. The determination on his face was palpable.
Wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone in 1995, and I’m sure the bison was thinking about those predators. He knew his injury had created a serious issue for not only his safety but for his 70-pound baby. But the look of his steely eyes told me he was going to go down fighting for his child.
Fighting for his baby calf
Unaware of the seriousness of his father’s maladies, the baby calf bounced and played in the yellow daisies. He grinned at the funny tourists in the black rental car. He was probably wondering why his father was taking so long.
My children, ages 5 and 2, leaned from their seats and gestured to the calf. “Daddy,” my eldest daughter said, “Look at the baby!”
My eyes, however, were locked on the father. We didn’t know what happened to him or how he got injured. We just saw him limping and doing everything in his power to keep moving.
It was here, in this idyllic setting, where I came to understand the beauty of our national parks and how animals are so much like us. Family was everything for this majestic bison. Whatever had happened to his body could wait. First, he was going to do everything in his power to make sure his child was OK.
It’s how my wife or I would react if put in the same situation. Taking care of offspring and looking out for their safety is innate for all of us, from the largest mammal to the smallest.
We’re not sure what happened to this incredible father and baby. They kept trudging along the roadway as we drove away. My family and I drove to a nearby park ranger station in the hopes of notifying a ranger but it was empty at the time.
As difficult as it is to say, it’s not clear if anything could have been done. As visitors to national parks, we know we should only observe and not leave trace of our appearance.
The bison: America’s national mammal
The story of the father bison and his baby was just one of several moments my family was blessed to see on our first trip to Yellowstone. In three days of driving around America’s first national park, we saw hundreds of bison. They were mostly clustered together in herds.
We saw them nosh on grass. We saw them cross the road. We saw them bathe. We saw them nuzzle with their calves. We saw them play in the water. We saw them wag their tails to shake off flies.
Yellowstone’s bison population is estimated at 4,900, the largest bison population on public lands anywhere in the world. The American bison, which was recently named the national mammal of the United States, have lived in the Yellowstone area since prehistoric times.
Yellowstone, in fact, is the only place in the United States where bison have continuously lived since prehistoric times. I’m so proud this country fought to keep the bison from going extinct. Seeing these animals in person is worth the trip.
Observing a wolf in the wild
In addition to bison, my family was fortunate to see a young wolf. My father-in-law was driving on one of Yellowstone’s winding roads when he suddenly screamed: “There’s a wolf!”
Excuse me? Did you say wolf? Yes, a wolf. The announcement woke me from my nap.
My father-in-law made a U-turn and there he was: a gray wolf. The wolf couldn’t have been more than 4 years old. He was by himself, working his way through vivid green and purple wildflowers.
We wondered why he was by himself and what he was looking for. We wondered if his parents or pack were nearby.
As the wolf climbed a small hill adjacent to the road, everybody in the car roared with excitement.
Hours earlier, we had spent the majority of our morning looking for wolves through a known Yellowstone lookout point. Dozens of other tourists showed up, too. Longtime Yellowstone observers said they had seen a wolf and bear through their long-distance telescopes in an area about 7 miles away.
The wolf they saw, however, looked miniscule through the telescope viewfinder. We looked through their telescopes and only saw trees and brush. We thought our hopes of seeing a wolf were slim, but then came my father-in-law’s fortuitous observation.
This young wolf was probably 10 feet away from our car. The young wolf tracked up a small hill and stopped in front of a small rock. He sat there and studied the cars winding through the road. No other cars stopped. This show was only for the lucky family in the black Ford Expedition.
Up close with a pronghorn
We were also fortunate enough to see pronghorns. At one point, I exited the rental car and walked in the direction of a grazing pronghorn. I was maybe 300 feet away. I got closer. Took pictures. Moved closer. Took some more pictures.
Then the pronghorn raised his head and looked at me. Uh oh. OK, time to go back in the car, I told myself.
Later, we were driving when we saw a pronghorn 5 feet from the roadway. The pronghorn had a brown coat on his back and a white underbelly. His black horns stood tall.
The pronghorn was noshing on some yellow daisies. My mother-in-law motioned to my children: “Look girls, he’s eating!” At that point, the pronghorn looked up, locked his eyes on us and stomped his right foot.
It was like he was saying, “Guys, let me eat!”
Deer trudging through a Yellowstone river
On our last day in Yellowstone, we came upon a trail of stopped cars. This happens a lot in Yellowstone. It’s usually because a) there is an animal on the road, b) there is an animal near the road or c) there is an animal in a tree or hill.
With rain pouring down, we parked our rental car on the side of the road and found what the hullabaloo was about.
Three deer were walking in a nearby river. With water up to their knees and rain falling down, the deer slogged their way through the river. I looked through the viewfinder on my Nikon camera and couldn’t believe the sight. How many times can you get this close to deer?
Once again, these beautiful Yellowstone animals were teaching us the meaning of family. These deer weren’t walking by themselves. They were a unit. They were together. Humans and animals want to be with others. It is in our DNA.
It was a revelation to see these deer taking care of themselves and making sure everybody made it through the river. As they walked, the deer glanced from side to side. They were looking for predators, I’m sure. The wild is not for the weak.
Lessons from a courageous bison
It is the same reality the tenacious father bison and his baby surely met.
I hope the father bison found his herd. I hope he healed his leg. I hope the father and baby are well. Unfortunately, we will never know.
Nevertheless, I can’t stop thinking about them. I can’t stop thinking about that bison and baby, the wolf, pronghorn and deer. I can’t stop thinking about all of the animals we saw on our majestic trip.
My family and I came to Yellowstone in the hopes of seeing bears, but it was this intrepid father bison and baby that stole our hearts.
Seeing the bison care for his offspring was unforgettable. Watching other bison look out for the herd was remarkable. This was better than any class for my children. Animals, as we learned, can teach humans a lot about life.
Family comes first. Love is in us all. Determination and willpower goes a long way. Those are just some of the lessons we learned deep inside Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley in the summer of ’16.