Above: Bison Herd in the Road to Mammoth. Photo by NPS Neal Herbert
What do I do if buffalo are blocking the road? Is it safe to drive into the herd? And, can I pet a buffalo?
Bison, casually called buffalo, are so accustomed to cars and asphalt roads that they seem to know the right-of-way. Driving slowly behind a group of bison plodding along a two-lane road, you can certainly maneuver around them whenever it’s safe. Bison, when they do travel on the Grand Loop or other roads, usually don’t stop in the middle of the road, either. However, our city slicker impulses may be to beep the horn if one bison decides to hold everyone up. Be patient for bison to make their way off the road, or just simply go around them, but please save the honking for the city.
As for petting a bison? Don’t do that! Grown and calf bison may look fluffy and genteel, but they aren’t very nice playmates. The male bison (bulls) weigh 2,000 pounds, while smaller female (cow) bison are roughly half the size, and they prefer keeping to their herds and guarding their calves. You won’t like a bison when he or she is angry, either. Despite their bony, 6-foot-tall frame, their herd instincts make them sensitive to outsiders, aggressive and easily agitated, and they can run up to 35 miles per hour if they feel like chasing you away. They’ve been known to throw grown men ten feet in the air like ragdolls with a just hook and jerk of their horns. In short, when encountering a bison, stay at least twenty-five yards away—or else.
J. Scott Donahue is a freelance writer and essayist with a passion for alpine climbing, trail running and other hard things. He writes for YellowstonePark.com and Sierra Club, and recently graduated with an MFA in Nonfiction Writing.