Where the Buffalo Roam

We are now at the third in the series of Yellowstone (and Custer State Park) Ungulates… and if I remember correctly this will be the last in the set (unfortunately no moose were to be found on this trip).  Similar to the Wapiti in the previous post (link here), these beasts are so large they have two names.  Using once again my staple for all things researchy, I headed over to Wikipedia to get some details on these once common roamers of the Great Plains.  Surprising to me, the name I usually use for them, Bison, is actually a newer name than Buffalo.  I would have bet all my Double Jeopardy money on the reverse.  This particular Bison appears upset that I didn’t know that.

Bison actually comes from the Greek work for ox-like (originating around 1635).  On the other hand, the name Buffalo comes to us from French fur traders in the 1774 timeframe.  Strangely enough, they failed to give the name Native Americans used for one of their dominant food sources.  What appears to be one of those tragedies from a  lack of conservation principles, these animals definitely took a hit from hunting practices (skin market driven more than food source) which just about drove them to extinction – Wikipedia also indicates that this was a US Army endorsed activity in order to impact the Native Indian living conditions.  The good news is conservation efforts have been bringing them back and now listed as near threatened.

Linda and I have had the privilege of photographing these creatures at three wonderful places.  You can fill all your digital cards up with Bison shots at either Yellowstone National Park or Custer State Park.  They are so abundant there you eventually start ignoring them about halfway into the trip.  I always joke that trips there start out with “oh oh a Bison” proceed to  “wow, look at that one over there”, then “eh, let’s keep driving” and finally “hey, get the hell of the road so we can get to the wolves!”  Now in truth, we may progress through this transition to disinterest at a faster rate than most.  We actually live about 10 minutes from Wildlife Prairie Park which has a very nice collection of Bison and other native animals to the Great Plains.  You can read more about that park on a previous post (link here).  (looks like I already used the two name bit on that previous post – looks like I need to get some original material.)

Here is one of the local residents of Custer State Park.

Hit the jump to see the rest of the Bison collection.

Being late in the season, most of the bison had been rounded up and contained in their corrals.  To regulate the herd and manage vaccinations etc. they have a bison drive within the park.  At the time we were there, they had separated out a bunch of the calves in one large area and the bulls/cows in another.  According to the literature we had they auction these off for food and livestock purposes.  This allows them to maintain a herd level that the park can sustain and make sure they remain healthy.  It would be quite interesting to see someone try to drive this next bull (guessing due to the size) anywhere it didn’t want to go.

This is the image I think of every time I see the instamatic owners using foot zoom to get pictures for their Facebook pages.  Due to how docile they tend to appear while grazing on the land, people tend to get a false sense of security when around them.  The elk racks tend to command a little more respect than the shorter (but sharper) horns of the bison but the general lumbering of the bison give an inaccurate sense they are slow.  Quite the contrary.  Imagine anywhere from 700 to 2,200 lbs (on average) heading your way with bad intentions at 35 to 40 mph.  There is a reason why these creatures are considered one of the most dangerous animals in the parks and why the rangers are continually warning you to keep your distance!  I witnessed a similarly large bull running across a parking lot the last time we were in Yellowstone and there is now no reason to have to explain this to me.

… but they can be so darn cute

Linda gets credit for the above shot.  We were cruising through Custer when she noticed this calf rolling in the dirt.  Truth be told it was probably less an act of play than an attempt to rid itself of flees and give a dust covering to help protect it from flies and ticks.  This great shot does give a rare view of the underside of the hoof showing the two equally sized toes on each side.  And then there are the cute bonding moments.

The Custer herd we were photographing were grazing in an area covered with a large nettle of some sort which was stuck all over the bison fur.  Not having access to local barbershops I’m not exactly sure when and how these prickly pods ever make their way off – being that it was October shedding was not going to be the answer.

Here is another shot Linda obviously took.  Another one of those huge bison that seem comfortable roaming around the heat vents at Yellowstone.  There is a story with this particular shot.

First of all, the reason it is “obvious” that Linda shot this is not due to a particular style or technique but rather something much more simplistic.  This is the shot she took right before it!

Yep, that’s me with The Beast safely taking pictures from the OTHER side of the bridge gate.  David and Dr. Giselle are also with me, admiring the native wildlife in accordance with Ranger recommendations.  But the photographer responsible for the last two shots (read Linda) doesn’t appear to be with these smart safety conscious park visitors.  I wonder why that is since Linda was with us at the time (we had traveled up the path behind us to David and Dr. Giselle’s secret viewing area of the Grand Prismatic.  Turns out Linda was too impatient and opted to WALK RIGHT THROUGH THE HERD to get to the parking lot… and now you know the rest of the story.  For the curios out there I stayed behind to a) capture stunning pictures of the bison for the fans of my blog and b) I figured if she is going to take the risk of doing this I might as well go for a shot at winning America’s Funniest Videos.  Once safely on the other side I went back to trying to get gallery shots.

On our last day at Yellowstone, the temperature plummeted and depending on the elevation up to a 4-5″ snowfall fell the night before.  This left a nice frost layer on the lower elevations including the backs of the grazing bison.  The camera was unable to pick up the nice shimmer effect this had on both the animals and landscape but at least we have the memories.

What is a LifeIntrigued blog entry without a picture of an animal with its tongue out (if you didn’t notice the trend of compositions with animals looking back across their bodies, surely you recognized the large number of animal shots with their tongues out).  This one must have had a cold or trying to get some relief from all the buffalo chips in the area.

This shot provides additional validation of the inherent dangers those horns pose.  It doesn’t take much thought as to why Yellowstone’s Mollie’s Wolf Pack produces the largest wolves being that they rely on Bison for their main food supply.

This is one of those images where I wish there was a mulligan.  It was taken at the same place Linda took our picture above.  The bison were coming down from the field to drink from the stream but they were directly between my glass and the sun providing a harsh situation.  I was able to recover some of the detail, but should have done some hiking to see if another angle could be found.

Okay, time for some audience participation! (photos, facts and now interaction – what more could you possibly want in a blog post… except maybe nomograms).  Anyway, once again Linda’s opinion will be withheld so as not to taint anyone’s perspective.  Take a look at the shot below and then jump back to the second picture in this post.

Do you prefer the shot with the gap between the bison’s head and the tree or with it pressed directly against it?  (and yes, these questions are all designed to assist in the selection for the upcoming photo competition season where I plan to maintain my NON-UB status for another year.)

Hope you enjoyed this last post in the ungulates series.. stay tuned for the next series which just might have some nasty claws

Oh, and as always, feel free to check out our Smugmug gallery to see all the pictures (link here)

13 thoughts on “Where the Buffalo Roam”

  1. Nice photos! Massive creatures—I’d like to see these things running at each other to butt heads.

    No gap is better, by far. And the answer to the previous question is…nomograms!! Here are some donkey nomograms: http://www.maths.bris.ac.uk/~MAZJCR/jontyUseR.pdf . I would think it wouldn’t be too hard for you to come up with some buffalo nomograms, if you really cared about your readers.



  2. Actually while we were in the car I spotted two large bison galloping towards each other. Out came the camera but just before they were going to hit, they both stopped and turned back to grazing – total photo bust. So, no gap. how interesting – still awaiting some other input on that but kind of the way I was leaning but it looks kind of painful. Leave it up to Ron to find a nomogram pdf that references donkeys (as well as his work over at MyReckonings). I had an internal chuckle when I saw that – earlier yesterday I spent a large part of the afternoon chasing and catching the neighbor’s mule that escaped from its pen to lots over. The weather was nice so out came the ATV and trail creating implements – off to the back of the lot to start cutting a switchbacks in the big hill. All of a sudden I hear a ruckus on top of the hill and out comes this mule. It proceeded to follow the my trail line (crapped on it as well!) and then took off into the woods headed North. I chased it up and down the ravines until I got it cornered thanks to a lake. Linda came down with a rope and eventually the stubborn beast allowed us to haul it up to another neighbor’s house who corralled it and contacted the owner to come get it. For fat and stubborn it was sure nimble out there .. mule on a mission.
    Per the other comment, maybe a guest blog is in order!

    Thanks for stopping by


  3. Maybe—how does this nomogram grab you?

    Click to access Ex_photo_exposure.pdf

    Note that this allows you to _predict_ exposures for future times and conditions, which a DSLR cannot do. You can solve for any unknown variable by working from other known ones. You can also determine ranges of values based on equipment or times available, since a nomogram is really a visual model of a whole system.

    Instructions are found in Example 2 at


    This was created by a fellow nomographer, Leif Roschier, who also made this awesome depth of field slide rule:


    He also provides a cool nomogram as an alternative to this slide rule at the end of his PDF about the slide rule:

    Click to access depth_of_field.pdf



  4. You know, photography seems like an excellent field for nomography – basically exposure is playing the triangle of ISO/Aperture/Shutter Speed which would play nicely on a graph but adding the month (time) aspect is amazing. That depth of field calculator would also work very well on say and IPad (hint hint) allowing the user to move the individual pieces with a flick of the finger – again a very nice use of old computing concepts. So now if I had a nomogram of birds and their migratory path, coupled with these nomography exposure aids I’d be looking at some definite gallery shots (speaking of which we went back to Emiquon tonight to capture a bird I had photographed for the first time yesterday – went back to get some better shots… more to come on that for sure!

    Hey thanks for all the nomo links – pretty cool seeing their use in my particular field of interest.


  5. Once again, the parting of the buffalo incident was blown completely out of proportion. The buffalo were casually grazing far away from the trail. They never even once looked my way as I strolled to the car and they cared less that we were there. So I left Brian to cower on the bridge while I headed to the car for some water and a snack. He eventually got up the courage to follow me scurrying along as the buffalo dozed away. Oh the crazed donkey almost fell asleep as I slipped a rope around his neck with Brian waving his arms 10 feet away.


  6. Thanks for clarifying that, Linda. It matches my imaginings of those situations perfectly. From what I can tell from the picture in this post, it looks like Brian may actually be trying to hide behind The Beast, like a kid behind a skinny tree. So I appreciate that you got a picture of Brian there, but I wish there was a video of Brian and that mule. I would post it here in my guest blog post.



  7. Whoa Whoa Whoa.. back the donkey up here. I have two witnesses that can collaborate the bison parting story … David? Dr. Giselle? a little help here. I am pretty sure Linda had to brush aside one of the tails to get past. I would have had a picture of it, but I put the Beast down so I would be prepared to dash into harms way scoop up my bride in distress and carry her off to safety with total disregard for my own safety. Only when the coast was clear did I actually retake up my position behind the camera – and there was no HIDING!

    And now to the mule. I waged battle with that damn mule for about 10 acres worth of woods putting my smaller frame up against a near 2 ton beast with bad intentions. Run, push with all my might against the creature, find myself nearly knocked to the ground only to get up and do it all again. After 30 minutes with no relief in site from my wife who apparently decided to have a siesta I had to dig into the reserves. Eventually she came up whistling a little diddy, throws me the rope and says deal with it. Which I promptly called up my Boy Scout training, fashioned the appropriate knot and lassoed it all by my lonesome. Once it was under control, I tossed the other end of the rope back while I went for help! My own brother doubts my story.. like a dagger, like a dagger


  8. Ok, so, as a person that was also there… I do remember the general topic of “Do you think it is safe to go?” being discussed and before we heard Linda’s vote, she was already on her way through the herd. And, “far away”? Hmmm… guess that’s a judgement call, but I’d say the path itself was about 15 feet wide, and there were buffalo (so much more fun to say than bison) eating grass on both sides right at the edge of the path.

    Maybe I lacked some fortitude that day, but when you see 1500 pound beasts less than 10 feet away, I sure wasn’t going to rush the crossing! There was probably a herd of about 40 to 50 there, and there were also some “younglings” as well. I wasn’t so worried about the older ones, but thought that, since the young ones were there as well, some of them may get a bit antsy if we accidentally crossed between a mother and child.

    Truth be told, it was actually kind of cool to be stuck in the crossing, as you got to see how magnificent these creatures are and watch them at leisure (since we weren’t running through any time soon!). That’s something that you can’t experience when driving through the park and getting them angry while taking pictures with “the beast” from a car. Speaking of which… I’m surprised you didn’t mention the one that started trotting towards the car when you were taking pictures of the herd that was on the road and along side the road – that one even surprised me a bit with his approach and Linda did take off pretty fast that time… hehe!

    Personally, even when we finally DID cross, I was a bit nervous, as I’ve seen those videos in the visitor’s center showing how fast a buffalo can move when upset / angry, and how they can flip people in the air without breaking a sweat.

    To my large buffalo friends… you will always get the utmost in respect (and distance) from me!



  9. Thank You Thank You Thank You Thank You. There you have it boys and girls an accurate third party account of what actually occurred on that frightful day! So what we are seeing here is a path that is 15 feett wide lined with wild beasts with bad intentions just waiting for an excuse to stampede. I should also point out that Skids basically lives in the backyard of Yellowstone and our resident expert on all things dangerous in Yellowstone.

    I completely forgot about the trotting bison. I was actually less worried about the car than I was Linda getting the idea to run out and pet it! But you were right, she opted to hit the accelerator instead to all our relief.

    Appreciate taking the time to set the record straight. Comments will be open all day tomorrow to accept apologies from all the doubters.


  10. Well, OK, I accept this neutral comment. 15 feet wide?? Linda, you are one brave Iowan! I would’ve been back on the bridge, myself, for sure, but providing good cheer and encouragement of course. So, Brian, you get a pass, and Linda, you get some kind of medal.

    I’m sitting right now at night on my front porch in suburban Chicagoland typing this on my iPad, and a whole lot of coyotes are going crazy in the next block, and I have no intention of taking a walk.

    Thanks, Skidmarks. BTW, if you ever do get a picture of an animal chasing Brian, there’s good money in it for you.



  11. Yeah, she gets a medal alright – the highly coveted Person Instigating Danger Medal named in honor of the almighty Stu (a name so long people tend to shorten it). How did you manage to wrestle the iPad away from your family? or is there more opportunities with you youngest working now (ha).

    and lastly (and most importantly) – THERE IS NO BOUNTY ON SHOTS OF ME! … just remember I’m packing plenty of cameras too if you want to play that game (and there is no escaping the BEAST)

    Meanwhile I’ll just be hanging out here basking in my victory light


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