Wildlife: In the eyes of Yellowstone bison

Do the eyes have it? Or don’t they?

Darkness has fallen on Gardiner, Mont., as our burly Sequoia turns north on U.S. 89. With it, a sense of trepidation.

“This,” says Sheamus, one of four passengers on a Cycle Greater Yellowstone route tour, “is the worst time to be on this road.”

The 56 miles north of Yellowstone National Park are a wildlife menagerie — and minefield. Elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn and other critters routinely graze and linger along and on two lanes of asphalt.

And in mid-spring, an even more ominous obstacle looms, at least in the Gardiner Basin above Yankee Jim Canyon: Yellowstone bison. Many are still finding nourishment in the greening grasses of the basin, biding their time before joining the rest of the herds back in the park.

They are as dark as the night itself.

“Bison are especially dangerous,” I said, “because their eyes don’t reflect headlights.”

I’d heard this many times, and indeed eased past the giant shadows of Yellowstone bison in the park many times without the slightest hint of a bison-in-the-headlight look. Somebody even explained it to me scientifically, though the details have escaped my memory.

So informed, we left the brightly lit outskirts of Gardiner and past a flashing sign cautioning us of wildlife on the highway ahead — which was a little like letting us know there’s water in the river. My passengers leaned forward, ever alert.

Within minutes we saw our first eyes: Elk. Then deer. And sheep.

Soon we saw more reflections, unlike any I’d ever experienced. Dozens of them.

“Can’t be bison,” I said.

Soon the outlines of giant, shaggy beasts filled our field of vision. Sure enough: Dozens of Yellowstone bison, glaring at us through the darkness, some on the road.

I braked, perplexed and wary at the same time. But, but …

“I’ve got some research to do,” I said as we eased past.

Turns out that Yellowstone bison eyes DO reflect light. Where they got their reputation is in their utter disregard for passing vehicles. While elk and deer in particular are prone to looking at oncoming lights, bison usually go about their business.

Many of these just happened to be looking our way: Thankfully.

It was a lesson learned, fortunately not the hard way — and a reminder to be extra cautious when driving in Greater Yellowstone in the spring, when so much wildlife is still in the low country, filling up on the first green-up.

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