Yup, I think it did.
Every year, we race to Yellowstone at the conclusion of my school year in order to find grizzly bears before they head to higher pastures in search of cooler weather. Usually, our window is two weeks or less before grizzly sightings start to dry up.
In the summer of 2014, we had some luck on our side.
A bad winter meant a deeper snow pack at higher elevations, keeping the bears lower for longer. And while it wasn’t a banner year for bears, we were seeing grizzlies later into the summer than usual.
Still, by mid-July, the pickings were slim and we prepared to head north in search of other animals.
How did he die? It was from old age/hit by a car/struck by lightening (nobody really knew how he died, but that didn’t stop the famous Yellowstone rumour mill from spitting out “facts”). But really this is aside from the point.
What was exciting was not that a bison died, but that the bison died within a few hundred yards of the road.
Now, I understand that this might not be everyones idea of great news, but it truly was the perfect parting gift from my favourite place in the world.
A dead bison – especially a large dead bison – is like putting out the bat signal to Gotham City. Every red-meat loving animal from a twenty mile radius would smell this bad boy and make their way to the carcass.
And, of course, the more animals feeding, the more bears – namely grizzly bears – I would be able to see. Out of season. Near the road (where it is safe to observe a bear on a carcass).
Did I mention the bison conveniently died near the road?
So, at 4am, Simon and I awoke for our last day in Yellowstone, a day of standing on a (cold, initially, and then swelteringly hot) roadside staring at a dead animal with the hope that live animals would enjoy a feast.
Unfortunately for us (me), the bison was not quite as considerate as I first thought. He didn’t die in the middle of a sagebrush field, but on the edge of the forest line. While I hate harsh sunlight, I hate harsh sun mixed with harsh shadows even more.
Making matters worse was the fact my teleconverter wasn’t working, meaning what was already a fairly decent distance for my camera to capture properly in bad light became just that much harder to nail.
But I wasn’t complaining. The few professional photographers remaining in the park were all close friends. And the rangers on hand for the jam (really, a long drawn out stake-out is a more appropriate term), Eric and Nate, are two of the best in the business. It was going to be a good day.
We waited and waited, however, and nothing was showing up.
Simon went for a coffee. And then breakfast. And then a walk. And then a nap.
He missed nothing.
Meanwhile, those who remained at Dead Bisonpalooza had the fun job of helping spell off the rangers in telling people that what we were enjoying was a dead bison. Nothing less, nothing more.
Those were some interesting looks we received.
But all of the waiting eventually paid off when a massive grizzly strolled up to the carcass. And I do mean massive.
The bull bison was well over a thousand pounds and this bear wasn’t dramatically smaller. In fact, one story making the rounds (a ranger did confirm this one) was that the bear was a relocated boar from Idaho, weighing over 800 lbs (massive for Yellowstone) and 28 years old.
He was also a happy bear.
This freshly dead, slightly sun-marinated hunk of meat was looking about as delicious as Nick’s Prime Rib to a human.
The grizzly went about ripping open the stomach and taking out the innards in the way some people consume spaghetti.
But like a vampire, he hated light and his appearances were short, if sweet.
In between showings, coyotes would show up and wolves made an appearance on the periphery. (Ironically, the wolf was chasing an elk… Wolves: You know there is a dead bison right in front of you that won’t make you work hard to eat it, right?)
However, the grizzly was the main star. And likely because of one particularly fun sequence.
Upon not being able to access the best organs, the bear started digging out the bears stomach like it was a ground squirrel hole. Finally, when he cleared enough space, he entered inside the chest cavity in order to get the choice meat.
As the grizzly exited the bison, a man standing next to me – who happened to show up at that exact moment (why do some visitors always ask what you’re looking at, when 100 people are clearly looking in the same direction toward a specific spot that is easily visible to the naked eye?) – looked through his binoculars and, with a slack-jaw, exclaimed: “Did a bear just walk out of that bison?”
Well, yes sir, he did.
Just another great day in Yellowstone. Gotta love grizzlies. And bison. That die close to the road.
If you want to see what a truly great photographer with a working camera caught during this sequence, read Judy Lehmberg and the Yellowstone Daily’s take on this excellent encounter.