Ill-Fated Buffalo Rescue in Yellowstone

Gathering up the calf was no doubt a dopey decision

By Rob Breeding

Enough time has passed that we are learning the details involving the Yellowstone bison calf that was euthanized last week following a tourist’s silly attempt to save the shivering, probably abandoned baby buffalo.

For starters, it may not be such a clear-cut case of clueless tourist as initially reported. Mind you, the act of picking up a bison calf and putting it in the back of your SUV so you can hurry it off to the nearest ranger station for safe keeping may be the definition of clueless tourist. But recent reports suggest the dudes actually knew what they were doing wasn’t a good idea.

They were probably acting under the impulse within many of us that compels us to help the helpless. Reports now suggest that a number of park visitors were aware of the shivering bison, and video of the calf shows it first struggling to cross a river with its herd, then barely able to stay on its feet as it wandered along a park roadway.

This leads me to believe (though admittedly, I’m guessing here) that the calf may have already been abandoned by the herd, and was therefore dead meat even before those Canadian tourists took the critter on that ill-fated joy ride.

Gathering up the calf was no doubt a dopey decision. If the tourists had been anywhere other than Yellowstone, the appropriate action would have been to just drive on. The park is a little different, however, in that at times in the summer it really does feel like a giant zoo. Visitors drive through the park looking for wildlife, and have no hesitation about stopping, anywhere, anytime, when something catches their eye.

I was driving through the park with the Elk Hunter last summer and nearly rear-ended a car that had stopped in the middle of the road — on a blind curve no less — when the occupants spotted a bear. Now seeing a bear is a cool thing, no matter the time or place, but we all could have been seriously injured if I hadn’t been quick on the brakes.

Once I realized what was going on I did something I rarely do when driving out West: I leaned on the horn. That frightened the bear and got the car in front of us moving so we didn’t get rear-ended by the next vehicle coming down the road.

So what should those Canadians have done after spotting that helpless calf? Drive to the nearest ranger station and let them know what they had seen. My impression is that managing traffic around roadside wildlife is a Yellowstone ranger’s primary job in the summer.

The rangers could have dealt with the situation appropriately, which would have meant making the same futile attempt at reuniting the calf with its herd, then taking it away to be euthanized when the effort predictably failed. They couldn’t just leave it out there wandering along the road considering the way Yellowstone tourists drive.

This is the way things work in nature, where most babies are born to be eaten by other wildlife. Too often we allow ourselves to adopt that Disneyesque sentimentality that suggests every misfit critter can somehow find the gumption to survive, against all odds, and become the leader of the pack. That just isn’t reality in the natural world, however, where misfits are born for a reason: to be easy to catch so predators eat them, instead of fitter newborns loaded with better DNA that needs to be passed along to future generations.

So I suppose those knucklehead Canadians didn’t cause the death of that calf. The herd moving on after the river crossing was really the animal’s death knell. That doesn’t make the tourists decision any less stupid, but the reality is that that baby bison was already dead before they loaded it into their SUV.

That’s just the nature of things.