Our photographer group of seven saw them around eight in the morning.
We were in Lamar Valley, at the north of the Yellowstone National Park. There are frequent wildlife sightings, including the gray wolf, bighorn sheep, bison, coyote, and elk. A three mile long two-lane road going from east to west penetrated the Valley, which was covered with knee-high snow and surrounded by mountains. At 8,000 feet altitude, it’s easy for cold air to accumulate here. Last year, it was 50 degrees Celsius below zero.
It was considered warm that day: only 10 degrees below zero.
About a hundred feet away from the road, they lay motionless, resembling two dark, volcanic rocks.
It was a bison cow and her calf. Being the only two black spots in a boundless white plain, they were especially eye-catching, but they also looked exceptionally lonely.
We carried our 40-pound tripod and camera on our shoulders, walked off the road, and slowly approached them in the snow. We could see the little bison calf lying on the ground, breathing very slowly. Snow fell on his face. He was so powerless that he had no strength to shake away the snow, which formed patches of white on his forehead. If not for the occasional breath which created a white mist, we would have thought he was dead. The mother bison sometimes licked him and sometimes caressed his head with her snout.
It all looked so peaceful until we took a closer look.
Just fifty feet away from them was a pair of light brown coyotes. They seemed to be asleep, but occasionally, they would stretch and yawn or look around without a care in the world. However, they would shoot greedy looks at the small bison from time to time, as if they couldn’t wait for their next meal. Every time they glanced, though, the mother would stand in front of the calf and glare back at them.
Several ravens and magpies circled the bison at low altitude. From time to time they called, as if they were trying to signal the gray wolves to come.
We set up our long telephoto lens about 100 feet away from the bison. From the viewfinder, we could see clearly that the mother bison was using her horns to gently lift up the head of the calf from the ground. Each time, her horn was able to lift the calf’s head by just a little, but then she would lose her grip. The baby’s head kept falling back onto the ground.
The mother did not give up. Sensing that she would lose her grip again, she tried a new strategy by attempting to get the calf to lean on her body..
After dozens of tries, the mother bison exhausted all angles and poses, yet she still failed to help the calf stand up again.
I watched the calf’s head keep falling onto the ground again and again. Every time he fell, it was like a big rock being dropped into the water, as snow splashed all around him. I felt sorry for him.
The road in Lamar Valley during winter was not busy at all. Every few minutes, a single car would drive by. We had been in the snow for a while when we saw a Jeep slow down and stop. The driver, who looked to be in his 60′s, rolled down his window. He asked, “Is that the mom and kid?” We nodded. He said, “They have been here for three days and nights. They were originally with a herd of bison in the number of hundreds. But a few days ago, this calf was attacked by gray wolves. He was injured and shed a lot of blood. The mother did not follow the herd, and stayed here with her kid. ”
Three days and nights in the same place, with no food, and no protection from the herd, they must have been exhausted.
An hour later, the mother still kept on trying to lift the calf up, and each time the calf fell down again.
It was obvious that the calf had no strength in his neck. He lay in the snow in an awkward, bent position without the ability to straighten it.
Suddenly, the mother gathered all her strength for a last try. She drilled her horn deep into the snow below the calf’s jaw. Then she slowly lifted his head up, ever so carefully. We saw that she was able to raise the calf’s head much higher than previous attempts. We held our breaths and prayed for them.
Just when the calf was close to standing, his jaw slipped from the grip of his mom’s horns. His little head rotated backwards, and like a slow motion movie, his long brown hair floated in the wind, his tongue involuntarily stretched out due to fatigue, the snow on his face melted into water droplets that slid away, and he fell heavily onto the ground, making a huge splash of snow.
The mother bison desperately bobbed up and down, and kept howling. I saw saliva fly out of her mouth during the violent swings of her head. This was the first time that I felt a deep pain in my heart as I pressed the shutter of my camera.
The mother bison finally decided to give up. She slowly walked away from the calf, with each step being very painful. She faced the reality that this ending was unavoidable.
After 20, 21, 22 steps, she stopped. She could not help but take a look back at the calf. Then, in 5, 10, 15 steps, she dash back to the calf. She gently kissed the face of the calf. Her eyes showed a deep tenderness. She once again repeated lifting up the calf’s head, ten times, twenty times, thirty times. She gave up, walked away, yet each time she could not help but come back to the calf.
The coyotes were getting impatient and started to come over. The mother dash like a rocket towards them before they could do anything. She stood twenty feet in front of the calf facing the coyotes, firm as a mountain. With the strong wind, her brown hair was floating like a flag, her eyes staring at the coyotes, there would be no retreat. The confrontation continued for several minutes. The coyotes did not dare to mess with the mother bison.
The two coyotes suddenly looked up and started to howl together. At that moment, dozens of howling calls echoed from the mountains behind us. It was from their companions, who sounded closer and closer, as if they were all running down from towards us, but strangely, we did not see anything on the mountain. The howling sound became shorter and more rapid, as if they were talking to each other. There were at least twenty howls reverberating throughout the valley. We felt a chilling sensation on the back of our necks. I imagined facing these types of aggressive and scary calls for three nights. Then I realized that undergoing this experience required a lot of courage from the mother bison.
A few minutes later, the mother was still standing firm and the coyotes had no other option but to stop and lay down again.
As the bison mother continued to try to lift the calf, the calf just became weaker and weaker. An hour passed, and no matter how much the mother pushed him, the calf was not responding anymore. His breathing began to slow.
The mother had to give up. This time, she really left the calf, and stopped a hundred feet away.
Within a minute, one of the coyotes walked about 200 feet away from the calf, and waited there. The leader of our photography group said that coyote was probably looking out for gray wolves. The other coyote then walked quickly to the calf, and started to bite him.
The coyote stood on the body of the calf, and took bite after bite of the calf’s thick hair then spit it out. The calf had not died, and it tried to kick the coyote but without any avail. The coyote was a bit shocked at first but then ignored the struggling afterward.
Unexpectedly, the mother bison walked towards our direction and stood within 80 feet. She looked at us, as if pleading for help. I would never forget the look in her eyes. Wild animals rarely approach human unless they are desperate. Yellowstone laws ban visitors from approaching any animal within seventy-five feet. The park rangers were checking on us constantly that day. We could do nothing but look on sadly and helplessly.
The coyote started to bite the calf’s flesh. We could see his face fully covered with the calf’s blood. The calf was still breathing, but had been unable to fight back.
The mother left us. She walked three hundred feet away and looked back at the calf. Seeing the flesh and blood of her child, she just stood there as if frozen. One hour passed, and she was still motionless.
After another hour passed, a herd of a hundred bison suddenly approached from the top of the hill in a single row, crossing the road from afar, and gradually walking towards the bison calf’s body. They forced the coyotes to step back.
They were all very quiet. The whole valley was quiet. They all seemed to look at the mother’s direction.
They might have been the herd of bison that the mother and calf belonged to.
There, 300 feet away, the mother still stood motionless, staring at the calf…
And that was how I experienced the winter of Yellowstone, how powerless we were in the face of nature, and how fearless a mother’s unconditional love could be.
I later heard that the park rangers removed the bison carcass within 24 hours. So there was no longer any trace being left there. But the story lived on.
And all I could do was to capture the moment with my words and photos.
Written by Tin Man Lee
Critiqued and Edited by Lew Andrada
Winter Yellowstone Workshop with Chas Glatzer
The photo of bison mom(cow) and kid(calf) won an Editor’s Choice Award in 500px.com