The wilds of Wyoming
by Laura Gelder | 13 November 2019
There's a thin sleet in the air and it blurs the view as we look out across the flat, green fields of the Terry Bison Ranch, settling on the bisons' immense brown bodies. Unable to melt, it looks like icing sugar on shag pile.
Just days prior to my arrival in Wyoming, on May 8, the state received a huge dump of snow – nature’s way of reminding locals that she decides when spring begins. But these tough animals seem indifferent.
Bison is the official state mammal of Wyoming and its unique shape – a huge, horned head curving up to a mighty hump back and sloping down to a relatively delicate posterior with slim hind legs – is the star of its state flag. But it’s also a poster child for conservation.
Bison once occupied most of North America and smothered its Great Plains. They also had great spiritual and practical importance for Native Americans, who hunted them for food but never wasted, using every scrap of the carcass for a purpose - skins to make clothes and tipis and bones fashioned into weapons or to build sleighs.
During the 19th century, European settlers killed some 50 million bison for food and sport, decimating the entire population to only a few hundred. But today, incredibly, bison numbers have risen to over 500,000.
Fantastic beasts and where to find them
The bison here are not free to roam the plains, but they still make an impression, standing over six feet tall, weighing more than a tonne and, if they want to, running up to 40 miles an hour. They also have very long tongues, as I discover when hand-feeding them bison biscuits. It’s a nice introduction to Wyoming but I want to see the wild ones, and it doesn’t take long.
Driving across the state the landscape is constantly surprising. We pass endless rolling sagebrush plains where prong horn antelopes graze delicately and mustang watch from a safe distance. As we pass into rockier areas we spy bighorn sheep perched up high. And in the Shoshone Forest we all swear we saw a bear’s face staring out amongst the poker straight lodgepole pines.
At first, Yellowstone feels more ethereal than majestic. The snow is still piled metres high at the side of the road and we drive through hundreds of stiff, blackened tree trunks, remnants from the 1989 wild fire which ripped through huge swathes of the park. Even more otherworldly are the plumes of smoke rising from innocuous puddles, the only indicator that a super volcano that could wipe out much of the U.S lies beneath.
Bison are everywhere, lolling at the side of the road, foraging for grass amongst patches of snow and crossing the road, creating a tailback as passengers roll down their windows to snap the beasts nonchalantly picking their way across the tarmac.
At Old Faithful it’s hard to feel close to nature, as throngs of tourists crowd around waiting for the geyser to blow its top. But as we walk the boardwalks past bubbling, bright blue pools, we see an osprey dive into the river and watch it fly up thorough a sulphurous mist, a wriggling fish in its beak.
At lunch, we must negotiate a large herd of grazing elk to get to the restaurant. The wildlife in Yellowstone is truly wild and free to roam but it doesn’t stop animals getting close to the tourists that flock here. We’re told there was once a bear who learnt he could have a lot of fun bouncing off people’s tents – not so fun for the campers though!
As we drive through the park we’re told that it's Larmar Valley where most wildlife is concentrated – huge herds of bison and elk and a healthy wolf pack. Wolves are a controversial subject in Wyoming. Having been hunted out of the state they were introduced back into Yellowstone and have thrived and even spread out, which many argue is a threat to farmers’ livelihoods.
On a crisp last morning in the park we are rewarded for our 5am start by grizzly bears. Tumbling out of the car, we slide down to the snowy banks of a glassy, still river to see one lumbering, relaxed but muscular across the opposite bank. It joins another and we watch as they paw a dead bison, frozen stiff.
Just south of America’s first and most famous national park is another, Grand Teton. It’s named after the spectacular snow-capped mountains which frame it – some apparently very lonely French trappers thought they resembled three breasts, or teats, and the name has stuck.
If it’s possible, I find this park even more beautiful. The peaks constantly draw your eye against the ice blue, clear sky and I love the groves of quaking aspen – slim, silver-trunked trees whose delicate green leaves tremble in the breeze.
Before heading back to civilisation we board a raft on the Snake River. It's fast-flowing, framed by bare cottonwood trees and presents a movie strip of characters. First is a young moose, awkward looking with its gangly legs, round hooves and over-sized snout; then comical pelicans, balanced precariously on an island of driftwood; some rotund marmots scurrying along the river bank; and finally a nesting eagle - the wildest and most American creature of all and a fitting end to my time in wild Wyoming.
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