Buffalo at Mammoth Hot Springs YNP
Photo credit L.M. Hoskins
I was traveling on my way to a fish and wildlife meeting in Cody, Wyoming from Ogden Utah. Since there is no direct driving route to Cody, I decided to take the scenic route through Yellowstone National Park. As fate would have it, I hit road construction south of Island Park, Idaho on highway 20 on my way to West Yellowstone. I sat in the sweltering 90 plus degree heat for over an hour before resuming to the west entrance of the park. It was already late in the afternoon by the time I paid my $ 30 entrance fee to travel through the park to Cody. Not too many miles into the park I encountered more road construction signs so decided to avoid additional road construction by taking the northern loop to Mammoth Hot Springs and then swinging back to the south to Fishing Bridge to exit out of the east entrance to Cody.
It was near 7 pm when I came to a major tourist traffic jam at Mammoth Hot Springs. There was a heard of elk milling along the road and I could see a cow and calf just standing right in the middle of the road holding up the traffic flow. Instead of waiting in another long string of cars, I clicked my blinker on, pulled onto the right should for about a hundred feet and entered the Mammoth Hot Springs parking lot where I parked my Toyota 4Runner.
Instead of waiting in my car, I exited to walk the wooden walkway around the springs to enjoy my time waiting. I hiked up the winding boardwalk admiring the springs and travertine deposits along the steep path until I began descending down the walk on the south side of a small hill. A young married couple with two small children hurried up the trail towards me.
“Be careful, there is a buffalo lying next to a juniper tree near the trail just below here.” The man cautioned me.
“Alright.” I replied. “Thanks for the warning!”
I slowed my brisk pace and peered down the wooden walkway as I went. When I came around the next major curve in the trail, I spotted the buffalo bedded down by the juniper tree. However, it wasn’t a big buffalo, it was a calf that was just a few months old. It looked straight at me and tilted its’ head at a slight angle and grunted. I stared back at it as our eyes made contact. Suddenly, it was like we were connected in some mystical way.
In my mind I heard the buffalo talk as it rose to stand up. “Would you scratch behind my ear?”
My jaw dropped down as I continued to stare into the buffalo’s eyes. “How is it that I can understand you?” I blurted out.
“You are Cherokee are you not?” The calf answered.
“Well.” I stammered. “I am really an American mutt. I am mostly Scotch-Irish, but my maternal great-grandmother was part Cherokee I think. How did you know?”
“I had a dream that told me.” The calf answered back and then nodded his head in the direction of my shirt. “In my dream I saw a watcher with a trout on his shirt just like yours. The Creator told me that he would help me.”
“Did you just call me a watcher?” I asked.
“Yes, here in this place there are many watchers that do silly things. Some get too close to the herd and we stomp them and gore them. But just north of here is an invisible barrier where the silly watchers turn into watchers that kill us and eat us. Somehow the watchers on the other side of the barrier turn into predators like wolves and bears and don’t do silly things.” The buffalo explained.
“Well, if you call us watchers, what do you call yourselves?” I inquired of him.
He tilted his head slightly more. “We call ourselves something that translates to ‘Beings with the thundering hooves. The Cherokee called us Yansi. Years later the horse riders called us buffalo. Nowadays the watchers call us bison. I think I like the name of buffalo the best of what we are called by the watchers.”
The buffalo started slowly walking towards me again. “Would you please scratch behind my ear? A bug must be in there.”
I held out my hand and started backing away from him. “Stop!” I insisted. “I cannot help you. My smell will get on you and your herd will kick you out and abandon you!”
The buffalo stopped walking and dropped its’ head. “It is too late. I have already been kicked out of the heard and have to fend for myself.”
“How did that happen?” I probed.
The calf let out a big sigh as he began telling his story. “Earlier this year when I was born I heard a story of a great wildlife biologist named Yohanan that encountered the herd years ago. He was traveling through the park and was admiring our herd while talking on his phone. One of the elder cows overheard him say that he worked for predator control. So she waited until he was done talking on his phone before slowly approaching him. As she approached, she did everything she could to mentally connect with him and luckily he was open to her thoughts. Within a short time they were communicating very well. In exchange for key inside information on wolves, bears, and sage grouse, Yohanan agreed to control more of the predators attacking the heard. Yohanan became a hero and legend among the buffalo. So when he traveled through the park a few days ago, the old cow yelled out, “There he is! It is Yohanan our hero!” It was at that point that I made my fatal mistake. I immediately ran to meet this wonderful wildlife biologist. I ran right up to him and asked him to scratch me behind my ear as I had a bug in it that day as well. He reached out and scratched it as I had requested while I stared at him in admiration. A true living legend he was.”
“That sounds like a good story.” I answered the buffalo calf.
“No, not for me. For when I tried to return to my herd they exiled me because I smelled like a watcher. I pleaded with my mother that it was Yohanan’s smell, but she said it did not matter. The rule of the herd was supreme. My path was sealed as an outcast even though it was a foolish mistake out of ignorance.” The calf painfully explained.
“Well, I cannot help you. Even though I am a biologist, I am a fish biologist. And my supervisor gave me clear instructions not to pick up any baby bison when I traveled through the park to the meeting. So I simply cannot help.” I said defensively.
“Oh no!” The calf retorted back. “I know you cannot take me and help me. I would not fit into your car and I cannot ride on top. But you can help me in other ways. There is a place at the bridge where watchers are not allowed to fish from anymore. In that place you will find very small likenesses of buffalo. Get one and take it back to your supervisor so that watcher can display it in their office. Instruct everyone that works for that person to remember my fate and keep me in their thoughts and prayers. Perhaps the Creator of all will have mercy on my plight and assist my survival through the coming months and years. That is all that I am asking of you.”
I pondered his instructions for an instant before responding to his request. “Yes, yes I can do that. Should I give your likeness your name?”
“Yes.” The calf replied. “That way you and your fellow watchers will have your thoughts focused on me. My name is Tar Eye Pad Eye La. I was named after a famous range manager among you watchers.”
I told the buffalo goodbye and started heading on down the hill when he hollered at me.
“Wait!” The buffalo commanded. “I have one final request. Could you scratch my ear?”
I walked back over to the calf and began scratching his ears. The calf gave a short, low grunt of contentment as I scratched and then spoke again to me.
“You are not as good at scratching as Yohanan, but pretty good you are. Thank you and thank you for fulfilling my humble request!”