The past few weeks I've been researching a possible trip to Yellowstone National Park this fall. It's a place I've always wanted to photograph and I need photos for a new book so hopefully this will be the year. While I was researching the trip I came across a page on the park's official site that gave some very serious warnings (including a video of elk attacking cars) about keeping yourself safe from wildlife and vice versa.
I take those kinds of warnings seriously (and so should you) because I've seen wildlife in parks do some very unpredictable things. Last year we revisited the Neil Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa, a wonderful prairie preserve that has a free-roaming heard of bison. There are signs when you're entering the bison area that warn you that these are wild (and big--they weigh in excess of a few thousand pounds) and unpredictable animals. People take the signs for granted though and somehow think the bison know that you're visitors and they'll remain calm in your presence.
Don't count on it. While we were driving (very slowly) up a gravel road, suddenly we saw a heard of 40 or so bison heading right for us and as they got closer, their pace picked up substantially. Within seconds they traversed several hundred yards and were heading right for our car (and the car in front of us--see the photo) and in a few more seconds we were completely surrounded by huge, snorting, excited bison. I have no idea what sent them off on a tear or why they ended up on the gravel road around us, but to unexpectedly be engulfed by dozens of two or three thousand pound wild animals (with horns) is a weird and insecure feeling. I have almost no fear (but lots of respect) of most wild animals, but this was still an unnerving experience--and we were in a car! I remember thinking that our Ford Explorer probably wasn't much of a match for one of these guys running at full speed. To make things even more edgy, there were a number of babies in the herd and parents are much more unpredictable when there are young nearby.
Fortunately the animals remained very calm and ended up just grazing and feeding their young almost within arm's reach. We sat for about a half an hour watching and photographing them at super close range and wondering what was next. Then, on some secret signal from one of the herd elders, they left as quickly as they'd come.
If you're traveling to a wildlife refuge this summer, pay attention to the warning signs, even if other people don't. Your lives and the animals' depend on it.
10 hours ago