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Keeper of the bison

By Jamie Balke Columnist

My brother and I recently took a quick overnight trip to Yellowstone National Park to visit some old friends. It was wonderful to spend time together in a place that holds a very special place in my heart.

We stayed at Old Faithful with the ranger who supervised my internship with the Student Conservation Association during college. This internship was the most fun that I’ve ever had working, and my visit brought up all sorts of old memories.

In particular, it made me think of the entertaining day that a senior ranger asked me to “babysit” a bison. This bison was an older bull that opted to stay near the Old Faithful Inn rather than head over to Hayden Valley for the rut. A stately gentleman, he had decided to spend some time grazing next to an entrance of the historic hotel.

I was asked – with all of my intern-in-a-volunteer-shirt-with-a-radio-glory – to go keep an eye on the situation and make sure park visitors maintained a safe distance from the powerful animal. I walked over, not entirely sure what to do. After ensuring the employees of the hotel knew there was a bison right outside the building, I posted up in a good position to make sure both the public and the bison could steer clear of each other.[/]

This was when the fun began. The first group of people to approach me asked in all earnestness if I was the keeper of the bison. At first I thought they were kidding, but they persisted, inquiring how I had arranged to have the bison close to the hotel for public viewing. I honestly believe they thought I had walked him over on a leash. Some discussion about the wildlife in national parks followed.

The morning passed without further incident, and after a while it started raining. At the urging of another ranger I went to get my jacket, believing the bison to be in a safe location. By the time I made it back with my rain gear, he had high-tailed it over to a busy intersection. The babysitting had become a two-person job. My backup and I worked hard; intercepting, wildly gesturing and gently pleading to keep people at a safe distance.

As the bison mostly stood in place – occasionally munching on grass – I was approached by a young woman who desperately wanted to pet the animal. Again, I thought she was joking. However, it seemed every time I turned my back to talk to another visitor, she had gotten a few feet closer to the animal and I had to ask her to step back.

Another woman asked me if the bison was a statue or mechanical. She and her husband had been having a debate, and she wanted me to settle the matter. Imagine her surprise when I advised her that it was neither.

Another visitor asked what my plan was if the bison charged. Joking, I responded that my plan was to run. Not finding me funny, she asked me what she should do. In another futile attempt at humor, I said she should probably keep up. The questions continued in this manner until the bison eventually moved on.

Although some of the situations surprised me, I was happy people felt comfortable trusting me with their questions. Exploring Yellowstone and talking about the park are two of my favorite pastimes, and I felt lucky that observing a bison and having the opportunity to share that experience with equally excited visitors was how I spent the day.

Passing a lone bison in a field on the drive back to Bozeman this fall, I felt a little sad that now it’s unlikely someone will ask me if I am the keeper of the bison.

Jamie Balke moved to Bozeman in the fall of 2009. She can generally be found behind the cover of a book, meandering down a trail or desperately trying not to kill houseplants.

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