“I’ve jumped in the back of stranger’s pickup trucks to avoid being trampled by an elk,” Yellowstone National Park’s Tara Ross tells Outsider for our exclusive chat.
The park hosts one of the healthiest elk and bison populations in North America. Indeed, Yellowstone’s conservation efforts are largely responsible for saving both species from extinction. And after more than three decades as a Yellowstone ranger, America’s national mammal still inspires just as much awe in Tara as they did upon her first encounter.
“Being up and close with bison in the middle of their rut is unbelievable,” Ross continues.
“Let me tell you, when they’re rutting in the fall, the traffic jams are beyond crazy in the areas where they usually go. They are massive, their heads are right there beside your window, and there’s an unreal danger to it all. There really is,” she emphasizes.
Bison and elk bulls aren’t specifically looking to mow down tourists during rut, but they will come after anything (or anyone) they perceive as a threat or obstacle. And as national Park visitors continue to become more brazen about snapping selfies with wild animals, the fights and chases that break out with bulls, Tara says, are specifically what makes the megafauna so immensely dangerous.
“The males will beat down each other for mates. Then, a bull will chase a cow until she can’t run anymore. Chase and chase and chase – until the female has no steam left.”
It goes without saying that anything in the way of a 2,000 pound, 6-foot-at-the-shoulder bull doesn’t stand a chance.
Every Spring, Out Come Yellowstone’s Most Protective ‘Mommas’ for Calving Season
Once mates have paired off and the deed is done, both elk and bison cows will carry their young throughout winter. Then, come springtime, the park sees one of the most incredible calving seasons on the planet.
“May or early June is when we see the babies,” Tara cites jovially.
She loves seeing the adorable calves more than words can convey, but she’s also acutely aware of the dangers of calving season, too. In many ways, even, Tara believes the spring “mammas” protecting their young are even more dangerous than the bulls during fall rut.
“It still amazes me every year how maternal animal mammas are with their young. How dangerous they are with their young around. The danger can be unreal, truly. Because of what they will do to protect their babies. There’s no hesitation!” she continues.
Tara thinks of elk cows specifically when anyone asks about calving season. “I’ve had so many encounters with mamma elk. Cow elk can be so aggressive.”
On one occasion in Yellowstone National Park, Tara had nothing but a sapling between her and a raging cow.
“It was like every movie you’ve ever seen, you know? Where there’s a person trying to get you, and so you go back and forth and back and forth behind a tree? It was exactly like that. And it was terrifying!” she laughs.
“The cow elk will see you at a distance and they will come at you and chase after you hard, just to protect their calves that are bedded down somewhere far away from you, even.
“I was jogging before a shift a while back, and here comes a momma elk barreling out of the woods! She was going to get me. And they are so big!” she recalls excitedly.
Tara specifically remembers the cow elk stomping her hooves something fierce during the encounter.
“You know how a Tennessee walking horse has that specific trot? Where they kick their legs up high and slam them down? That’s what the cows look like when they come at you!” she recalls.
Yellowstone National Park Bison Will Do Anything to ‘Protect their Babies’
Yet despite her close encounters with cow elk, nothing tops “how maternal the momma bison are with their young,” Tara says. “How dangerous they are, and what they will do to protect their babies.”
In Yellowstone, the world turns much as it has for eons. The cycle of seasons dictates everything. From fall rut into snow-laden winters to the calving during late spring and early summer. “Everything about the cycle of life is so amazing,” Tara sighs. “In Yellowstone, it’s just on display.”
And for this, alongside countless other reasons, Yellowstone National Park’s Tara Ross has the best job in the world. Danger and all.