I lived in Yellowstone for a bit. I worked as a wrangler taking out horse rides, so I was very hands-on with the animals and have a goddamn mental encyclopedia of facts (useful or otherwise) in this here noggin’. (AMA. Seriously. You want cowboy history? I got your cowboy history. I got your weirdly specific stories about stagecoaches in Yellowstone.) Like. This is all off the top of my head. Part of my job: when animals got too close to the guests and their horses, I (or another wrangler, but usually me cause it’s cool as hell thank you very much) would move it away. That was the coolest part, tbh.* So I have decent knowledge about the animals, and experience encountering them riding around on horseback like our boys in the game. Especially ‘cause I took lots of rides off-duty where I wasn’t with a big group.
TL;DR: wolves and grizzlies are not nearly as big a problem irl. Wolves > grizzlies, probably. But the most notable difference is the bison. It’s the bison you don’t want to mess with if you’re riding around by yourself.
So here’s my experience with some of the animals featured in the game:
BLACK BEARS These guys were super easy to deal with. The game is spot on with them! Once they notice you, they’re gone. Even with cubs. They’d rather get them to safety, I suppose. I always remind people that mauling someone takes energy to maul you, and a person on horseback is much bigger than/more imposing than any black bear. At least from the bear’s pov. Why take the risk? Why waste the energy?
GRIZZLIES They won’t fuck with you unless you’re too close, or if they have cubs. The game did grizzlies and wolves kinda dirty— neither species is gonna spot you (especially on horseback) from 200 yards away and charge. You’ll find most bear incidents happen when someone’s caught them off guard. That’s why bear safety tips involve making lots of noise! You’re not saying, “Hey! What’s up! Food here! LET’S RUMBLE.” Give them plenty of notice that you’re around so they have a chance to get gone. The NPS even recommends wearing a bell while you hike, and shouting all around every so often. If you’re with buddies, don’t be afraid to project while you chat. Seriously, they’d rather bolt.
Fun fact: a black bear is more willing to abandon a cub when in danger. They breed more often and have more cubs per litter than grizzlies, so they can afford it. Grizzlies will defend their cubs to the death. But again, the advantage goes to those with a stronger flight response.**
WOLVES Same as bears. When you see people glorifying wolfdogs like they’ll be some glorious sidekick, the wolf side actually makes them super flighty. Whenever people asked about wolfspotting, I told them to try at their own risk. Not because they’d get mauled, but because you need to get out there at sunrise (very early in the summer) and the likelihood you’ll find them is pretty slim.***
Note: I’m not badmouthing the game. Not at all. I love how the animals keep you on your toes. Great for the immersive experience, you know? If anything a small side effect could be one akin to what Jaws did to sharks, but I think most of us are able to know lots of things about the game’s world is exaggerated. Predators included. Seriously, no grudge here. 🙂
BISON MAIN TAKEAWAY cause I'm afraid this will get long: They won't seek you out. They'll mostly bluff charge if you get too close. But what sets them apart is how they're UNITS and THEY HAVE NO FEAR. No natural predators besides wolves, and even those have a very hard time with bison and rarely bother. These guys? It’s funny to me how the in-game bison are strictly (well, I’ve run into one lone bison but his behavior wasn’t any different) confined to herds and always run away from you. Irl, the bulls are brutal. Any cows and any group of three or more bison generally scare off just fine. But a solitary bull, which is pretty much any bull outside of the rut (outside the rut, you’ll find very few bulls sticking around with the cows). The area immediately outside my corral operated… oh boy. Big hotspot. They hang around in these sandpits they dig called “wallows,” and they’re pretty damn territorial. Even if they’re wallow-less they demand personal space. Like. The strategy for moving them is “chase it away, or get it to chase you so you can lead it away from the other horses.” They’re more dangerous than people think, too. Average bull weighs around 2,000 lbs, but they can still run at a top speed of ~35 mph. To put that into context, the average bison could outrun the fastest horses. Highest bison speed ever recorded was 42 mph, which is insane. I rode the fastest horse in the corral and it’s still dicey. Luckily it’s mostly bluff charges before they decide “fuck this noise,” and scoot, but I’ve been chased and charged a few times. Honestly, the worst is when they don’t move at all ‘cause great, how do we get everyone past this thing? That sucks cause they can jump crazy far and high, too. Estimated 5 or 6 feet from a standstill. That’s 5 or 6 feet far and high. They had to make the fences taller at Canyon Corral cause bison kept getting in the pens to get to the hay. I’ve frisbee’d my hat at them a few times. Perks of that wide cowboy hat rim, and it’s harmless. But yeah, they’re the biggest charge risk aside from badgers. Fuck badgers. But what do bison have to fear from us? They’re tanks. We are soft. They’ll even fuck up our cars. Those are always fun videos.
How this could translate into the game: You do NOT want to navigate them without caution or take a blind turn and find yourself too close for comfort. Since the bulls were fairly isolated they were more spread out making them easier to run into than you’d think. I doubt bison incidents were rampant in that time period irl, but the nature of the game means bumping up the threat of wildlife like they did with the wolves and grizzlies. I think it could have been fun for people to get too close to bison in their first playthroughs thinking they’re harmless and suddenly there’s a big horn-sized hole in Arthur’s stomach and the DEAD screen flashes.
Needless to say I spent a lot of time in the game trying to isolate a bull and see if it’d charge, but alas.
Anyway, the general rule of thumb is give herbivores 25-50 yards, and 100 yards for predators. As long as you show some respect, stay aware so you can afford them some room, and aren’t actively a dick, you should be fine.
More on predators v herbivores: -I read a stat recently that I can’t remember exactly but in the last fifty years, there have been 79 bison-related injuries versus the 19 bear-related injuries in Yellowstone. Bison caused twice the amount of deaths than bears.
-Elk will fuck you up. Don’t get me started on those guys. Pro tip: if you’re going into the park, don’t wash your car. The bulls have been known to spot their reflection in shiny cars and charge ‘em.
From here on out it’s just some of my fav trivia that I’m assuming you’d be into if you made it this far:
-To the bears’ credit, the bear stat probably dropped dramatically after 1953 when they finally outlawed feeding the wildlife. Prior to that they had several designated bear feeding attractions where they’d set up some bleachers around a “bear dump” (see: a garbage pile) while tourists watched the bears gather round and feed. One of these locations was behind the (now burned-out/non-existent) hotel at Canyon, and behind the corrals you can see leftover trash from the kitchen where staff would toss trash to see some bears after work. My fav is the little teacup.
-Even worse, there was a trend between the 1910 and 1913 that was a little challenge to “get hands on a bear.” Basically, you chase a black bear and get two hands on it and you’ve got lifelong bragging rights. At least two people died from it, and three were mauled. And those are only the reported incidents, and just those in Yellowstone.
-The predator populations was seriously decimated starting around RDR2’s time. The government encouraged people to hunt down wolves and cougars especially because they were terrible for farmers. Pests. By the 1920s wolf spottings in the US were nearly zero. Another justification was clearing out the predators so that “only the gentler creatures may enjoy the land.” Cue: overpopulation in elk
They even made a big project out of reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone in 1994(?). Project Wolf released around 20 Canadian timberwolves into Lamar Valley, and the ecosystem flourished for it. The elk and bison population were under control. Even if they don’t hunt bison often, they’re their only natural predators and keep them on their toes, making them migrate instead of overgrazing which leads to ruining riverbanks since the vegetation holds it together, and you can imagine the importance of the rivers. Super interesting and worth a google. Within 15 years, the wolf population went up to 50 and today it’s estimated over 100 wolves live within Yellowstone’s boundaries. Fuck yes. They spread too and are fucking with farmers again, so they’ve become a hot political issue in Montana, Idaho, etc.
-Canadian Timberwolves were chosen despite their being 40lbs bigger than the native Yellowstone wolves on average because they needed a population that could control the elk species. They found a pack known to take them on. These wolves ~figured out they can go after bison soon enough.
-I like that the game included the issue of the systematic bison slaughter. That was huge. In Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, you can see the old Buffalo Ranch where they bred and eventually released bison in the 50s. Bison were much bigger than they are today because they’re mostly beefalo— those involved with the effort decided to crossbreed the bison with cattle to expand the gene pool since there were less than 500 bison left in the wild by the 30s. Now there are roughly 4,500(-ish, iirc). About 1,500 over the park’s carrying capacity. Come on, wolves. Keep up.
-Thanks to the overpopulation (and low-key reparations) a few local tribes participate in a “culling” where they have a certain quota of bison they can legally harvest once they migrate north out of the park through Gardiner.
-We can’t just ship bison out of the park to bring the population back up because the YNP herds are overrun with brucellosis. It’s shitty. Check it out if you wanna get sad.
-A few ranchers tried to snatch up (yes, steal) all the bison they could once they realized they could hold a (semi-)monopoly once the bison were gone from the wild. The government allegedly strong-armed them into handing most of them over for the repopulation effort. Good, tbh.
-Back in the 80s, they planted Kentucky Blue Grass on the lawns of the buildings at Mammoth. That’s a big no-no cause it’s not native to Wyoming, and it had a big consequence: it’s super sweet, so the elk flock to it. I told guests it’s the only place in the park you’re guaranteed to see wildlife. I’ve had too many people ask me, “Are those the tame elk?” Ugh. Not only are you (almost) guaranteed to see elk, but also tourists that assume they can walk right up to them for a selfie. You’ll see a bunch of rangers stationed there just to keep them away, and those same tourists will creep back up once the ranger’s turned their back. Same goes with any animals that get within sight from the road. Traffic jams and idiots with selfie sticks galore. You’ll regularly see entire herds of bison crossing roads and taking their sweet time. Let ‘em. Pro tip: if you’re going into the park, don’t wash your car. The bulls have been known to spot their reflection in shiny cars and charge ‘em.
In conclusion: ppl r dumb
*IMPORTANT: We don’t go around wrangling bison (or any wildlife for that matter) at will. In the spirit of safety and being respectful, we would take the guests off trail to give them room if we could. Called it “using the real estate.” There’s also an art to it, and we make sure each individual has watched veterans do it enough that they feel confident that they’re capable of minimizing the hazard. Trust me, no one respects those guys more than we do. After all, it’s their land and we’re basically squatters in it.
** Disclaimer: What I said about the predators doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep your distance. Be safe; you don’t want to fall victim to an exception. And be respectful!
***First you have to drive around (probably in Lamar Valley) to see some veteran career wolfspotters (there’s a little community that communicates by radio enabled by serious equipment in their vans to give each other tips) on the side of the road. Even then, it’s touch-and-go. If you do find a group, bring a heavy duty scope, or ask nicely to use someone else’s. The people there are super friendly and happy to share the experience! But you need the scope because they easily stay a good 300-400 yards away.
Feel free to correct/fact check me. I’d rather eat crow than walk around with inaccurate info. Also feel free to add on, of course.
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