Watching a Baby Bison Die

This spring, well-meaning tourists tried to rescue a Yellowstone bison calf from the cold. It didn't end well. What happens when we put our human narratives on the wild.

Yellowstone National Park is my backyard. Relatively speaking. I’m 100 minutes from the West entrance. I’m so close, I have the luxury of enjoying the park before the tourists arrive. My husband and I bike Yellowstone with our boys before cars are allowed to enter in the spring. We camp there before Memorial Day too. Then we avoid the park like the plague until October when the tourists leave and we have the park to ourselves again.

We know the best routes for big game. That’s why we have 10-bear days. (10 grizzly and black bear sightings in one day.) We know the best ice cream is in Mammoth, the worst bathrooms are at Paintpots and wolfies always hang out in Lamar Valley. Those are the diehards who watch wolves year round.

We joke in good fun with the rangers about when they feed the wolves and how many years until deer become elk. Neither scenario really happens, but other tourists ask questions like these all the time.

We know this, but what does happen in the park isn’t always good fun. I have footage of a grizzly sow and two cubs eating an elk calf while an elk cow watches from a few feet away. The audio track has to be buried at zero when I edit the footage because all you hear is a ranger yelling, “Lady in the purple pants move back,” over and over again.

Purple pants is oblivious to the warning and keeps moving in for a front row seat like she’s at the movies, but this isn’t the movies. It’s the wild. And we must let it be regardless of how moved we are by what we see. Do not feed, touch or take the wild. It is not ours to take. Two tourists thought otherwise in early May.

“They were demanding to speak with a ranger,” says Karen Richardson, park field trip chaperone from Idaho. “They were seriously worried that the calf was freezing and dying.”

Richardson watched a father-son pair pull into Yellowstone’s Lamar Buffalo Ranch with a bison calf in their backseat. The tourists thought the calf was too cold. Yellowstone is cold.

We take winter coats regardless of the time of year and consider ourselves lucky survivors if we go one whole trip without wearing them. That calf was only going to see more cold as the short summer waned. Now it won’t see any cold. Returning it to the herd didn’t work.

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Matt Miller)
Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Matt Miller)

“Interference by people can cause mothers to reject their offspring,” the park stated in its news release about the incident. “In this case, park rangers tried repeatedly to reunite the newborn bison calf with the herd. These efforts failed.”

Mothers don’t understand this. I’m a mother and I don’t understand this. I’m also not a bison. I’m a human. Placing human emotions on an animal doesn’t work. I’ll admit I struggle with resisting the urge to do it, but I do it. So do my boys.

We have our own baby bison moment. The sight never leaves my mind. I know my boys remember it too because they mention it every time we stand on the banks of the Firehole River.

It’s May 2011. It’s a sink-em-deep snow year. The drifts so significant, we can’t see the fire ring in our campsite let alone make a fire. It’s cold as usual, but it’s not crowded and we count on that.

Bourbon colored bison calves are stumbling along with their herd across the river from us. We watch them while we skip rocks. My human nature quickly picks up on the herd’s motherly traits. They keep their kids back behind them in the safe zone just like I do. The babies nap. The moms stand guard. The babies are hungry. The moms feed them. All seems right. Then the herd starts swimming and all goes wrong.

Photo © Kris Millgate
Photo © Kris Millgate

I sense trouble as soon as the first calf starts swimming. The current is too cold, too swift. The calf is flailing. The urge to rescue rages in me, but I stay put. So do my boys.

The calf comes up for air then goes under again. This happens five times.

My grip on my sons tightens. Jumping in that river in early spring is suicide. Why don’t these hairy moms know that? What could possible motivate an icy river swim that risks the lives of babes right now?

Panic pitches high in my gut. I look to the herd. I don’t know what I expect to see. A stop. A head turn. Something. I couldn’t even pick out the mother.

On the sixth rise, I know it’s over. The calf’s shiny black nose isn’t inhaling deeply anymore. It silently sinks. Its head doesn’t surface again. I stand on the bank crying. It’s a horrible moment. I realize I’m silly for expecting a human response from the wild just because I saw them guard their kids like I do.

I look down at my boys and realize something else. Sometime during those gasping-for-life moments my boys started holding my hand instead of me holding theirs.

“It’s okay mom,” the youngest says. “There will be more babies.” While the oldest offers, “Think about something else. Anything else.”

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Matt Miller)
Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Matt Miller)

Easier said than done, but it will be done. Eventually. I still see that calf’s head going under when I look at the Firehole River, but I don’t cry anymore.

A dynamic wiser than me was in play that day. I just know it. Doesn’t make it easy, but it makes it right. Bison live in the place I visit. They know better.

Yellowstone is my backyard, but it is their home. We should respect their home and their right to survive in it as they see fit. It is unfair of us to try to control or even understand what’s going on among the animals. We’ve lost that right. We are not wild enough anymore.

Millgate is an outdoor journalist based in Idaho Falls, Idaho. See more of her work at

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  1. Lindi Biachi says:

    Saving an individual animal that needs help is what even other mammals try to do… Many stories of other species “mothering” an orphan

  2. Leiza Rea says:

    Sorry, but I don’t blame the tourists nearly as much as the park officials who killed the bison calf instead of taking it to a sanctuary. If humans are supposed to be so much more evolved than animals, why do we try to solve stupid mistakes with even more stupidity?

  3. Michael Furtman says:

    Excellent piece, Ms. Milgate, though you will certainly be chastised by some who would have been just as stupid as those tourists. Of course, they’ll also berate the NPS for not starting a petting zoo for them, starting with the ill-fated calf.

  4. Bonnie Hughes says:

    Thank you for taking the time to explain in such simple yet eloquent terms the things we have forgotten.

  5. Adana Pavel says:

    The wildlife is beautiful, but at the same time cruel. Irony, perhaps, but that’s nature. The only thing that makes it irony is our humane perception. Maybe we should remind people that in the wildlife, there’s this thing called “natural selection”.

  6. robert dowling says:

    kris millgate. great story, obviously tough for you to recount and I would venture, tough for most humans to read and maybe really understand mother nature. I watched the last several months a particular bald eagles nest on webcam by the pa wildlife people, wherein they layed 2 eggs, one hatched, but the fledgling only laste 1-2 days and passed, the other egg never hatched (their experts said it was not viable) but the bald eagles tookd turns sitting on the egg for I think well past the time allotted (mother nature had not told them to move on this year yet) . finally it looks like it is over forthis year-they say every year is not a success. saw them at night and day, in snow and ice and wind, most of their time dealing with this part of their existence was not pleasant in terms of weather. my point I guess of all these words is-the pa game people at the end of their infor. to watchersis simple-NATURE ISNT ALWAYS PRETTY. I guess if people want pretty 24/7 do not watch nature. my comments I hope are not construed as against ms millgate but others who want nature to be like us, they are not and never will be. thanks. bob.

  7. Cliff Hill says:

    I enjoyed the essay by Kris Millgate on Death of a Bison Calf, May 24, 2016……….all except the last two sentences. She’s entitled to her opinion on human wildness, but I thought it gratuitous.
    Cliff Hill

  8. Cindy Guarnieri says:

    What a heart-warming poignant piece this is. I felt everything you were saying and feeling. I would want to save an animal in distress also – of course I would. I would want to jump into action, or call out to someone who could. My heart would sink and I would cry too if I saw an animal being hurt or dying. That would be a horrible experience for me. Too bad they had to euthanize that baby Bison, though. I don’t agree with that at all. That poor baby didn’t even get a chance to experience life as a Bison. Couldn’t they send it to a sanctuary, where it could have been cared for and grow up??!! And then released back into the herd?

  9. Karen Windchild says:

    thank you for this. Makes me cry too.

    I am an artist working in NM, building herds of adobe buffalo as a prayer to the earth; to the bison spirits that were here once and now , almost gone, but returning; to all the beings on this planet our home and mother, that we may live in harmony and balance so that all may thrive.

    For those interested, find my page on Facebook: The Adobe Buffalo Project, a journal of my journey in this effort to speak out through adobe and buffalo.

  10. Roberta Kravette says:

    Beautiful story Kris. We all love wildlife – but sometimes watching it be wild hurts. Letting it be wild is responsible and right. Your boys sound wonderful.