Bulls on Parade

Photographing Yellowstone's summer bison.   

It’s uncommon to venture into Yellowstone without encountering bison. At over 4,000 strong, they’re a dominant presence on the roads, on the trails, and throughout the Park’s verdant valleys. 

Many people pass them by in search of more toothy things like bears and wolves, but if you pay attention, bison exhibit fascinating behaviors and features that most folks miss. The highlights of the bison year—calving in the spring and the rut in late summer—are two of Yellowstone’s most exciting spectacles, and two I love to photograph.

Second only to grizzlies, the arrival of the first baby bison in the Park is eagerly awaited. Born in mid-April, the wobbly calves are up and running with the herd within hours. Soon, it seems the entire landscape is littered with little “red dogs” jumping, kicking, and cavorting. They are a joy to watch all summer long; I will often find a place to just sit and observe the herd, listening to their soft grunts and watching their gentle dance across the green meadows.

Standing on a grassy hillside above the Lamar or Hayden valleys in early August, the scene is quite different. Bison gather by the thousands for their mating season, the rut, in a sea of black dots shifting and morphing across the golden landscape. Plumes of dust rise high into the air as magnificent, 2,000-pound bulls wallow and strut.

They bellow their virility in deep-throated guttural roars, competing with other bulls for females coming into estrus. Calves follow forlornly behind their mothers, ready to scurry out of the way when a bull approaches. It’s a timeless and awe-inspiring scene, one I never tire of watching and photographing.

Jenny Golding runs the website A Yellowstone Life and writes from her home in Gardiner.