Reverence of the Bison – Mourning a Death

A coyote tries to sneak back into an elk carcass but the bison block him.

These bison refuse to let a coyote feed on a recently dead elk in Yellowstone.

The other day while watching an elk carcass in Yellowstone, I saw something I’d never seen before. I’ve been on many carcass stakeouts before but something during this one changed the way I perceived the natural world.

While trying to figure out what may have killed this seemingly healthy elk, a coyote ventured in. I knew he wasn’t the culprit but he was definitely going to capitalize on someone else’s hard work and feed. He approached cautiously but quickly with his nose to the air. I didn’t see any competition around except for a small herd of bison so he seemed on easy street for a bit anyway. The savvy coyote fed quickly and moved off with a nice, choice flank steak and disappeared into the grass. So I went off to scout the hills for wolves and see what I could find.

I returned a short time later and found the herd of bison had moved in close to the carcass. I wondered if they had just haphazardly grazed upon the death or sought it out. Having not been there as they moved I was left to speculate. Then I noticed a behavior that stopped me in my tracks.

The bison seemed to actually be acknowledging the dead elk. Several had gathered and were obviously curious about the affair. They had went from grazers to mourners. Something about this dead elk had changed their perpetual feed mode and caused them to tread lightly and methodically around this dead elk. They sniffed the carcass, the immediate area and the wind. My first reaction is they were examining it for predation and weighing their immediate risks being in the area but something was different.

They eventually bedded all around the carcass. A cow bison seemed to pay extra attention to the deceased and even laying down with her head just inches from the dead elk. Just as all seemed just, a lone coyote slinked in through the dead grass. His intentions were pure and simple, feed. As he approached, all the bison surrounding the dead elk rose and a young bull from the outskirts charged the coyote. They were protecting this last bit of respect for the dead. I’ve seen bison do this with their own but never with another species. I was amazed at their quiet ability to dominate the landscape and what they thought deserved another moment of silence.

Later in the day I watched the same scenario unfold again. As the bison grazed across a death site they became very reverent. They proceeded cautiously and with seeming intent. Something had happened there and it deserved a moment of curiosity and respect. I was struck with this behavior. I came to see a predator return to a kill and walked away with the reverence of the bison.

Bison bedded beside and protecting a dead elk in Yellowstone National Park.

These bison bedded down by a dead elk and protected it from the coyotes.

Now the coyotes……that’s a different story!

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