Friday, April 1, 2011
An indecisive leader. This cow was at the head of a small herd crossing the river and had picked out a spot on the opposite bank to climb out when -- how unexpected! There was this stupid photographer standing in her way. Not at all sure how dangerous he might be, she hesitated and the rest of the herd stopped behind her while she dithered.
I hadn't meant to be so obnoxious. I just saw the elk in the river and thought "cool picture." It wasn't until I had snapped a couple that I realized what was going on -- I was a strange animal standing in her path and the elk were being extra cautious about me.
It's a funny thing about elk, and bison and bears and moose as well. They get used to seeing people in certain places, especially along the roads. They'll scarcely notice. I remember reading a magazine article once where some young environmentalist claimed, "If you look at photographs of animals in Yellowstone, you can see the fear in their eyes from the crowds!" It's nonsense, of course. Even if you could accurately judge an elk's emotions from a 1/250 seconds glimpse of its face, the fact is that wildlife can become quite accustomed to humans.
I've often seen elk grazing right alongside the roads in some place like Gibbon Meadows, where they had a mile or more of unoccupied meadow to retreat into if the people bothered them. Or the herds that regularly descend on Mammoth Hot Springs and its manicured lawns, scarcely less human-infested than Old Faithful itself.
Speaking of Old Faithful, I recall one summer when an old bull bison decided he liked the shade between the Bear Pit lounge and the Inn's back door (a busy door, since the parking lot in the back is much bigger than the one in front of the Inn). It lasted about a week or two, with the rangers blocking off the sidewalk whenever the bull showed up; the crowds certainly didn't intimidate him in the least.
But as I said, that's in certain places. Hike just a little ways from Mammoth and that same herd of elk will not allow you near them; I've had elk stop and stare at me from half a mile away, and then turn and run over a hill. I'm about the size of one large wolf, if it stood upright, which seems to be enough to alarm an entire herd of 500-lb cows. Even a herd that wouldn't blink at an entire busload of 200-lb Americans unloading a few steps away, had they been down the hill in Mammoth. But they do get alarmed. Some places they expect people. In other places they don't, and in those cases they don't have the same expectations of harmlessness. It's almost as if they don't recognize that it's the same sort of animal in the woods as it was by the road.
The cow above had just come from the side of the river opposite the road. She was coming from the backcountry into the frontcountry and I don't think she was prepared to see people at all. So it triggered all the attentive caution that is natural to heavily-predated animals. "Wait! What's that in front of me? I don't know, but it's looking at me. This could be trouble; better stay put until I see what it's going to do...."
I didn't want to be an asshole, so I snapped the last photo and scurried back to my car. The elk finished their crossing in peace.