Stuck in a Rut

Last August, we hit a particularly bad bison jam on the road that cuts through Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar Valley. Humans rarely have the right-of-way in this bison-packed section of the Park, and our bus wasn’t going anywhere.

A ranger swaggered up to the driver’s window. “Is everyone in this bus over the age of 17?” he asked. The bus rumbled with laughter. You see, in late summer in Yellowstone, love is in the air as the bison go through the "rituals" of the rut.

The 12 of us in the Yellowstone Association Institute’s “Bison of Yellowstone” field seminar had a front-row seat to the entertainment of bison courtship. MSU emeritus professor of wildlife Harold Picton and professional storyteller Jim Garry guided us through the rut and other bison issues in the classroom and out in the field during the three-day class.

During the rut, the bulls become more aggressive as they assert their dominance to impress a mate. We often saw bulls sparring head-to-head with each other. Bulls and cows urinate and frolic in dirt wallows to mark their territory. Through a process called flehmen, the bulls curl back their lips to smell the cow urine and determine whether the cow has high enough levels of estrogen to breed. From our vantage point at roadside pull-offs, we gazed at the rut like peeping toms.

The pheromones hung thick in the air, but the most obvious sign of the rut was audible—rutting bison groaned, grumbled, and grunted. Even as darkness fell at our base camp at Lamar Buffalo Ranch, we could still hear the rut soundtrack from our cabins. According to Picton, the act of copulation usually occurs under the cover of darkness. Indeed, during our nighttime wildlife viewing, we often saw the cows and bulls pairing off at dusk.

During these evening and morning “safaris,” a host of other critters ventured in front of our scope or binocular lens. We saw coyotes chasing wolves, and we saw pronghorn, elk, deer, and raptors.

Garry and Picton have taught Institute courses for a combined 47 years, and they never answered “I don’t know” to our persistent questions. In the classroom, we covered bison physiology and contemporary issues like brucellosis and population management, and enjoyed a few of Garry’s Native American bison myths. Garry emphasized how bison myth should be incorporated into contemporary scientific and political debate. That myth revolves around the vastness of the Plains and the West, where accounts of bison herds stretching from horizon to horizon and taking three days to pass were not uncommon. “To see such a sight is to see into the mythic world,” said Garry. “We need bison to preserve the myth.”

Picton and Garry also stressed how our attendance at the class would eventually help reconcile the clashing sides in the debate over bison management. “Everyone has a say in this because it’s a national park,” said Garry. “By showing up, you have made yourself a part of the process.”

Whether you fancy bison, wildflowers, ghost hotels, or geology, Yellowstone Forever, founded in 1976, probably has a class on the topic. To learn more, call 307-344-2293 or visit

Gateway Towns

As a frozen Yellowstone springs back to life, so do those famed gateway towns—West Yellowstone and Gardiner. Here's a look at what's lined up for spring.

West Yellowstone
Equinox Ski Challenge
24-hour Nordic ski race with 6-, 12-, and 24-hour divisions for relay teams and solo entrants. Supports the West Yellowstone Ski Education Foundation and Manaia Youth Programs. 406-209-3533 or visit

Cycle Days
Cycle free in Yellowstone Park before it’s open to motorized use. From West Yellowstone, ride to Madison Junction and to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone or Mammoth Hot Springs. Rollerbladers and hikers welcome.

Chamber of Commerce Annual Spring Cycle Tour
Challenging ride begins in West Yellowstone and winds around Hebgen and Quake Lakes. Not up for 64 miles? Take the shuttle. Registration includes t-shirt, feed stations, and dinner.

Train Day
Marks 100th anniversary of West Yellowstone. Historic presentations, walking tours, and rides in historic touring buses. Evening music by Montana Mandolin Society. Yellowstone Historic Center 406-646-7461 or visit

Painted Buffalo Roam Again!
Twenty-six handpainted buffalo cows emerge from winter quarters and are corralled for a week at the West Yellowstone Museum. Ten new calves will join them.

Art show at the Union Pacific Dining Lodge.

Janet Clarkson Memorial Triathlon
Annual event benefits the West Yellowstone School's Scholarship Fund and American Cancer Society. Held at Madison Arm Resort on Hebgen Lake. Minitriathlon with 1,000-meter swim, 13.3-mile bicycle ride, and 5.7-mile run. Call Jack Clarkson at 406-646-9328 or visit


Yellowstone Days
Celebrate Yellowstone's heritage with three days of activities that will guide you from Livingston through Gardiner and into Cooke City.

Gardiner Father's Day Rodeo and Dance
Annual NRA Gardiner Rodeo at the Jim Duffy Arena on Highway 89. Dance follows Friday-night rodeo at the Community Center/Eagles Hall. For advance tickets, call Kellems Saddle Shop 406-848-7776.

Yellowstone Guides & Courses
Yellowstone Forever is a dominant force in local field seminars, but other organizations also have plenty to offer.

Off the Beaten Path
You can choose from a number of programs that capture the essence of Yellowstone with these all-inclusive multiday adventures. Check the website for the spring schedule.

Yellowstone Glacier Adventure 
Want a custom trip in your favorite field of interest? Enjoy the magic of Yellowstone Park with a professional National Park Service/Forest Service licensed guide.

Yellowstone National Park
Check the updated website this May for upcoming events, specific dates, times, and locations.

Safari Yellowstone
Take a spring or summer safari in Yellowstone. With experienced guides, all ages and abilities are welcome to enjoy a safari in the park. Private and customized trips are available.