Yellowstone, surviving animals, and The Last Curlew
by Rob Tiller
Week before last I got to visit snowy Yellowstone National Park, most of which is in Wyoming. My hope was to find and photograph some of the big animals that live there, like bison, wolves, elk, coyote, fox, deer, bighorn sheep, eagles, pronghorns, swans, and bobcats. I got pictures of all of these, except the bobcat, and also saw a river otter and a pine martin that had just killed a snowshoe hare.
The trip was led by master photographer Charles Glatzer, and the four other photographers had lots of wildlife experience. We traveled in vehicles especially equipped for the snow and ice, with tires that came up to my chest. Our two driver-guides were cheerful and accommodating, and one, Christi, was impressively knowledgeable about wildlife and the park.
It was very cold at times – down to 5 below zero. Even with gloves and warmers, a few times my fingers were too numb to feel the camera shutter button. I was conscious of the risk of frostbite, and stayed just clear of it.
Yellowstone is big and varied, and it resists easy summaries. There are mountains, canyons, rivers, and valleys. It is unique in its volcanic activity, with geysers, hot springs, and thermal vents spewing smoke. It has the largest concentration of non-human mammals in the lower 48. Sometimes the animals are plentiful and easy to see, and sometimes not.
Bison, almost extinct at the beginning of the 20th century, are a signature species that in recent years has been successful in the park. I got to see many of them. The most exciting moment was when a pack of wolves (I saw 5) attacked a herd of about 20 or so bison.
As the wolves tried to take down a smaller, slower bison, all were running for their lives. I thought they were going to cross the road 50 yards ahead, but then they turned and charged straight toward us, and passed right beside our vehicle. The wolves were unsuccessful, but they stayed around for a few minutes to catch their breath.
I was sorry to hear that hunters are legally permitted to “harvest” bison who wander into public lands outside the park boundaries. The wolves of Yellowstone, with an estimated population of fewer than 100, are also being killed by hunters when they venture outside the park.
It really is a strange, sad thing that some humans find it fun to inflict suffering and death on these creatures, and are allowed to do it. Children generally start life with curiosity about and affection for animals, and view them as living beings like us, with their own feelings. Our culture then socializes us in the opposite direction. Regarding non-human animals as of no moral consequence, and fit objects for murderous sport, is presently considered normal.
Like almost everyone, I was taught that humans are superior to animals, and that animals exist merely for the pleasure of humans. Eventually I arrived at a different view, which is this: humans are animals with certain unique attributes, but no special right to exploit and mistreat other animals. Every animal has its own talents and its own inherent worth. Each is entitled to respect.
With that understanding, it becomes a lot easier to think about non-humans’ lives, customs, and cultures. They survive in harsh environments, and know how to live simply in the present. They could teach us a few things.
On my trip, I reread The Last of the Curlews, by Fred Bodsworth. It’s a short, beautiful novel about an Eskimo curlew, a shorebird species that was once abundant and is now extinct. The book describes the last of these birds as it migrates between the Arctic to South America, struggling with the elements and searching for a mate. Bodsworth helps us better understand our planet through the lens of a single bird.
I haven’t had a chance to go through all my Yellowstone pictures yet, but I got a start, and found several I liked. I’m hoping to make it through the rest in the next week or two, and to share a few more.