Warning! Bison Jam Ahead!

Warning! Bison Jam Ahead!

A bison jam. Now there’s something you don’t see every day. Sure, you know all about traffic jams, especially if you live in a car-clogged city like Seattle. But a bison jam? That sounds more like a Montana/Wyoming kind of problem. And so it is.

While preparing for my recent trip to Yellowstone National Park, I must have read about it a hundred times. The bison live here. You don’t. So don’t expect to go flying through the park without coming across the occasional herd of bison ambling down the road like they own the place – because they do. You don’t get to honk at them, or shoo them off the highway. What you get to do is wait until these majestic animals have moved out of the way, and then you may proceed.

Bison SUV Standoff, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

A bison stands in the road, seamingly oblivious to the SUV trying to pass, in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

The bison is the largest land mammal in North America, with males (bulls) weighing up to 2,000 pounds (900 kg). Yellowstone, home to an estimated 4,600 American Bison, is the only place in the United States where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times. The largest bison population in the country on public land resides in Yellowstone, and it is one of the few herds free of cattle genes.

Bison Jam, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

A group of bison completely block the road, in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

So besides being big, what are bison like? They look pretty slow and docile, and kind of fuzzy. Do you think I could put my toddler on top of one and take a cute picture?

Don’t even think about it! While it is widely suggested that some have actually tried this, it has never been proven. But what is known is that careless tourists get too close and get gored or tossed into the next zip code all the time. (Try as I might to get some good photos of airborne humans, I could not find a tourist dumb enough to try this. Winter visitors, it seems, are just too smart.)

But I did observe, and become part of, several bison jams during my week in Yellowstone. Now if you know anything about Yellowstone, you know it’s huge. The world’s first national park occupies 2,221,766 acres, and resides in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, an area occupying from 12-18 million acres in the states Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. So with all that space to roam around in, why in the world would the bison routinely want to hang out in the middle of the darned road?

Bison in Snowfield, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Bison forage for food under the snow in the Lamar Valley, in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Well, it all has to do with conservation. Energy conservation. In the winter, when the snow gets deep, the bison have no choice but to shovel snow to find food in the form of plants buried under the snow. That takes a lot of energy compared to the calorie content of what they find under there. So when it comes time to move on, the last thing they want to do is plow through more snow. So they do the same thing you would do in that situation – they take the easy route. And the easy route is the nice flat, plowed road.

Bison and Calf, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

An adult bison leads a calf down the road, in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

So by all means, come out to Yellowstone in the winter and check out the bison and other wildlife. But remember, the bison were here first, and they have a tough enough time in the winter trying to survive. So drive carefully, watch out for wildlife, and when you do come across a jam, be patient. Take out your camera and snap a few shots. Just don’t try to take a selfie with the beasts!

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4 Responses to “Warning! Bison Jam Ahead!”

  1. John Gill says:

    Hi Ed,
    This one was particularly awesome! Each time I receive an update it really lifts my day.


  2. Ron Anderson says:

    Entertaining and educational….thanks for the smile this morning, Ed

  3. Stella says:

    Great snow images. I would like to see the selfie you took for scale!