Stories & Essays

The American Bison

We spent the day driving up through Grand Teton National Park and out the East entrance towards Dubois. We didn’t go to Dubois, though—there was no time for that. We made it as far as Togwotee Pass on highway 26.

We stopped at the lodge to eat chips & salsa in the saloon. A woman walked in and said to the bartender “this place used to look like a brothel back 30 years ago”. All I could think was, “used to?” The ruby red wallpaper and dim lights still said brothel to me (but a brothel with good food, apparently).

Once we left the saloon, we headed back south through Grand Teton. It was a little after 4 pm. My friend suggested we drive over to Antelope Flats Road in the hopes of seeing pronghorn. We turned onto the small road, going through wide open fields. As we approached Mormon Row (a group of historical barns & homes from Mormon settlers), we didn’t see any pronghorn. We did spot something else, though.

“I think those are bison,” my friend said. I saw a couple of brown silhouettes near the road in the distance. “Look how many there are!” my friend exclaimed. I let my focus come away from the handful of bison I saw on the road and opened my eyes to the rest of the landscape around us—there were bison everywhere!

As we drove closer, they got bigger. We passed a few on the right, babies following their mothers closely. Another small group were noticeable as they grazed further down the road. We looked to our left and we couldn’t even count them anymore. We pulled over into the parking lot at Mormon Row to watch from the truck.

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A handful of bison were roaming about 30-50 feet in front of us. I got out of the truck and stood behind it as I looked towards the buildings where a huge group of them were hanging out, eating, mingling, resting. A few other cars full of people had arrived in the parking lot to ogle and ooh and ah. A couple of women with cameras began to approach the herd; they were much closer than 25 feet. “You girls are getting way too close!” another woman yelled from her car. They backed away ever so slightly.

My friend and I stayed in or near the truck, far enough away that we wouldn’t be in harm’s way if one of the bulls decided to charge. Most people were smart enough to stay near their cars and watch, but there were still plenty of people who thought it would be okay to go up near the bison to “get the right shot”. It’s all about getting the best picture, I guess, to prove you were near the bison. Some people just won’t accept that you don’t have to get dangerously close to get a good photo.

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We left the parking lot for a bit to see the other bison in the area. We came back and parked further away to ensure we were away from the tourists poking their cameras into the bison’s faces. A lot of people had left by then, apparently bored by the largest land mammal in the U.S. now that they had gotten their pictures. A few other cars were left along with us, all of us sitting or standing on our cars for a good view. A couple of bulls began to fight, butting heads, slipping and sliding, running through the middle of the herd. A couple of younger bulls tried mimicking them, practicing their fighting skills.

It was mating season. Not only did that explain the males fighting for attention, but it became very apparent when a few of the bison started to “get it on”, or at least they tried. And by “they”, I mean some of the males tried to get it on, forcing themselves on unsuspecting females. I’m no zoologist, so I can’t comment on the bison mating process from a scientific standpoint, but I can speak as a woman. The female bison were trying to eat, the babies were trying to milk. Then comes along a giant bull who won’t take no for an answer. After repeatedly attempting to mount this poor cow, after this female moves away every time, he keeps trying. He even chases and scares away the baby who’s trying to feed. All of the human females watching just continued to exclaim, “LEAVE HER ALONE!” One woman even said, “just like a man”. I concurred.

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My friend did her best to count all of the bison within sight. She came up with a range of 100-130 bison. We were surrounded on all sides by over 100 bison. Sitting in the truck and just watching them, all around us, was such a magical feeling. Observing their actions, their feeding, their mating rituals even, something money can’t buy. Although, a few guided tours began to show up over an hour after we arrived, so apparently some people were buying this experience after all.

After sitting there for a couple of hours, we decided it was time to move on. We drove back down Antelope Flats Road, still no pronghorn in sight. We saw a gaggle of people standing on the bridge near the visitor’s center. “There must be something there,” my friend mentioned. We stopped, walked to the bridge, and saw the moose everyone was watching, barely noticeable. We just wanted to tell everyone about the herd of bison a 5 minute drive away, but instead we caught our glimpse of the moose and left.

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