The Lamar Valley

The Lamar Valley is where you’ll find most of the bison in Yellowstone. We encountered about a dozen herds, sometimes with hundreds of head.

Just north of Tower Fall we came to an intersection. If we turned right we’d head into the Lamar Valley, where we could end up driving two or three extra hours, sightseeing. Everyone in the car was all for it, notwithstanding their sore asses, so to the right I cranked the wheel.

Poachers reduced the Yellowstone bison numbers to about two dozen, by 1902. Then the U.S. Army stepped in and saved them from extinction. In August, 2018, their population was estimated at 4,527.

One of my blogging buddies, Jason Frels, recommended this drive. Jason has a photography blog, and if you want to learn some fine points of photography, or if you’re just into admiring beautiful photos, you’ll want to check out his blog. He maintains that he’s an amateur, but he could’ve fooled me. His pictures are professional looking, and he provides meticulous explanations for how he achieves them.

In winter, bison congregate in herds of about 20. But in summer they coalesce into an average of 200 per herd, with a maximum of 1,000.

But I’m just into admiring his beautiful photos, so I must admit that I haven’t learned much. I’m content with my hybrid, point-and-shoot Nikon Coolpix B700.

Older females direct the herds, while the bulls just run around fighting each other over which cow they’re going to screw. The bulls weigh about 2,000 lbs, while the cows only weigh about 1,100 lbs. Both genders have humps and horns, but a cow’s horns tend to be slightly shorter than a bull’s.

In Yellowstone, I alternated between Auto Mode and Landscape Mode, with occasional forays into the Macro setting. But sometimes I’d forget which mode I was in, and then have a hell of a time focusing. And that should help you gauge my skill level at photography.

Most bison can be found in the Lamar Valley, but we spotted isolated bison all over Yellowstone. This giant was caught napping in the Washburn Range area, a little ways southwest of the Lamar Valley.

There was a time when I was more into the camera hobby. I knew that F-stop didn’t stand for, “Fuck! Stop and get a shot of that!” I had a comprehension of things like depth-of-field, aperture, and shutter speed. And I usually shot in Manual Mode. So sometimes when I’m reading Frel’s blog, I have a vague idea of what he’s talking about. But mostly, the fine points of shutterbugging have escaped my memory, and left me feeling grateful for Auto Mode.

Buffaloes can run up to 35 mph, and can jump over objects five feet high. So maintaining the required 25 yard distance from them gives you a sporting chance to escape a charge.

My Nikon has a fantastic 60X zoom, that will put you right on the horns of a buffalo, a mile away. And this came in very handy on our spin through the Lamar Valley, because this area is loaded with bison.

The rutting season is in July and August. And we indeed got stuck in a rut, waiting around hoping for these two lovers to put on a show. But she wasn’t having it.

All the park literature warns you to stay well clear of these shaggy beasts. At least 25 yards. But with my powerful zoom lens, I doubt I got any closer than 26. Actually, we unintentionally got much closer than that, because these big galoots have a funny habit of crossing the highway and causing huge traffic jams.

Why did the buffalo cross the road? To get to its photogenic side.

My wife took this photo with her cell phone, while I was driving. We were the warp in the woof of a traffic jam. These two bison are waiting for us and others to pass before taking their turn to weave their way across the road.

We witnessed massive herds, containing hundreds of bison, stippling the valley like the stubble on my wife’s unshaven legs. And these herds in Yellowstone are descendants of the original herds that have thrived here since prehistoric times. They have not been hybridized by interbreeding with cattle, like many other buffalo. Nope, these are the real McCoys.

The gestation period for buffaloes is about the same as for humans, about nine to nine-and-a-half months. In fact I’ve known a few humans who’ve given birth to buffaloes. At least that’s what I surmised when the proud parents showed me their “cute” baby pictures.

The bison are a sight to behold, but even without these animals, this would have been a sensational drive. The Lamar Valley is lush, with rolling green hills surrounded by higher mountains. And through the valley winds the Lamar River, a blue ribbon about 20 to 30 feet wide, banked by verdant tall grass, and smattered with riparian boscages.

Some Yellowstone bison are infected with brucellosis, which they can spread to livestock. During winter they often wander into Montana to graze on range land. Ranchers feel nervous about this, and sometimes kill these bison. This has resulted in much controversy and debate.

It was like a scene from history, going back to the days before our wide-open spaces filled up with people.

After humans, wolves and grizzly bears also prey on adult buffaloes. This tired old bag of bones seems like an easy target. Perhaps I should have warned him.

We drove all the way to Silver Gate, Montana, which is a small tourist trap a few miles past the park’s northeastern entrance. We returned the same way, to drink in this valley again. And though our asses were quite sore upon our return to our campsite, we were glad we did it. We considered this to be the most scenic of all our drives through Yellowstone.

So thank you, Jason Frels, for the suggestion.

A typical scene from the Lamar Valley.

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