Thursday, July 29, 2010

Life or Death?

Yellowstone National Park, May 14, 2010

The water is nearly still on Blacktail Ponds. Red-winged blackbirds sing and several ducks are courting. While we are parking, a herd of about 100 bison cows and calves head upslope from the open valley, cross road to our left and continue upslope into the lodgepoles. The calves are full of bounce. They run in circles and crazy loops as fast as their stocky legs will carry them. Round and round their mamas. The mamas are steady in their pace.

By the time we park another herd at the eastern end of the pond is heading upslope too. Bison move a lot. Grazing in new areas is gentle on their range.

Suddenly both herds switch directions and come thundering back. It is exhilarating. Hooves pound and bovine grunts fills the air. Tails high, the bison stream down the steep slopes both to the left and the right of us. The parking pull-out has an even steeper slope and is a safe oasis between the two groups.

Once the herds reach the valley floor, the herd to our right tightens and turns left in order to push through the narrow space between the pond and the toe of the slope beneath the parking pull-out. One cow gets pushed too far to the outer edge and takes a flying leap over a narrow bay, a thin loop of one of the connecting ponds.

Splat! Her front feet made it across the water, but not her body. In she slips, into the pool that often drowns elk and bison when they break through the ice. But there is no ice today, just water.

We immediately realize she is in organic soup, not water . She is a couple of feet from shoreline, yet only her head and shoulders are above the pool surface. For awhile she struggles in the glop without any progress. Finally she inches to the bank. A brief rest while she puts her head on the grassy edge. Still no footing.

Most of the herd galloped beyond the ponds, but two cows pause and look back. The smaller walks down to the shoreline and touches noses with the one in the pond. The second, a large cow, snorts repeatedly and stands off at a distance. Time passes ever so slowly. We have no confidence this will have a good outcome.

Four other bison approach from the east, but the two on shore take offence and push them away. After about half an hour of waiting, the two companions walk off to join the herd far down the valley.

The poor bison in the pond tries one shoreline edge after another. She leaves a long, brown, trail of stirred up organic matter as she struggles her way along the pond edge. Over to the left edge…. … more struggling …. back to the right side. About an hour has passed. She succeeds in pushing into a narrow slot. Her head barely shows between the two grass edges. Clumps of the sod break free, but still no safe footing. Turning around looks impossible, but somehow she turns, her muzzle barely above the surface. I think to myself, “Maybe a quick end would be a kindness. She could struggle for hours before dying.”

Back out into the glop she struggles and slowly makes her way across this pond, towards a larger one. She has tested virtually every soggy foot of impossible edge of the nearest pond and two bays. But now she appears to be on a mission, slowly swimming to the opening that leads to the next pond. Dale and I are mentally willing her to continue in that direction, to where we have been hoping she’d go. It takes several minutes cross the near pond and into the next, but she now swims in water, not organic soup, and in a direct line to one of the few spots along the far shoreline where ground eases into the water. Two pairs of Canada geese and a couple of ducks are rattled as this big beast slowly swims past.

The spot she swims to is a soggy mess too, but there is hope. She finds footing and slowly gets more than her head and shoulders out of the water. Sloppy mud. Difficult footing. Still a struggle, but gradual progress. She rests half in and half out. Finally a front foot is on reasonable firm ground and she starts to pull herself out of the mud. It is not easy, but she perseveres.

By now the pull-out is crammed with eight cars and more are stopped on the road. A collective cheer go up and a huge sense of relief. She is out!

I thought she’d be exhausted. She struggled for one hour and 25 minutes, but she heads towards her herd about half a mile away. She even breaks into a trot, hurrying to catch up. Once among her herd she receives a royal welcome. Some sniff the mud on her and some get into friendly head butting. They seem as happy to see her as we are to see her safe.


  1. wow, what a story, it couldn't have had a better ending. I was almost afraid to read the end.

  2. What an outstanding drama to see. I am glad it had a happy ending.

  3. Wonderfully written, nail-biting stuff. This is one of those wildlife situations where you feel privileged to be witnessing the drama, but wish you weren't, all at the same time!

  4. Whew! Intense! Gotta love happy endings and it is heartwarming to see the conncection among other species.

  5. Printing this out for sure and stuffing it in my prayer book. This is so inspiring!