Death in Yellowstone

Joseph Bullington - Enterprise Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
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Photos courtesy of the National Park Service

A bison carcass in Lamar Valley, June 8, in Yellowstone National Park.

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A grizzly sow and her three cubs and two wolves compete for a carcass in Alum Creek July 1, 2010, in Yellowstone National Park.

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A grizzly cub feeds on a bison carcass in Hayden Valley, July 8, 2015 in Yellowstone National Park.

This story starts with a feather. Then another — downy and white, caught in the brown grass.

It’s a familiar story in Yellowstone National Park, and you can guess what comes next: Something up ahead is dead.

The trail thickens and the feathers turn gray, more feathers than you thought one bird could have, feathers everywhere, spread under the sagebrush in fluttering piles, caught like confetti in the fingers of junipers.

Finally, after 30 yards or so, the story reaches its conclusion. Beneath a big sagebrush, what’s left of the goose — not much. A pair of wings, a rib cage, a lot more feathers. Nearby the shells of two eggs, large, white, broken.

* * *

This past weekend, my mom, my accomplice, Ariety, and I drove down to Yellowstone, parked the car in the Mammoth campground and didn’t move it again until we headed home the next evening. We spent the two days exploring little more than the square mile or two across the road to the east of our camp — the Gardner River valley, the Lava Creek Trail. I had ideas of a long walk, deep into Gardner’s Hole or something, but my mom and Ariety know that what’s important is not how far you move in a landscape but how much care and attention you give to each footstep and moment. That’s the way to really see things. I begrudgingly had to admit they were right.

It’s easy in Yellowstone to get trapped on the highways, putting down mile after paved mile in search of some thing you never do find, no matter how many “attractions” you photograph. Millions of unsuspecting tourists get snared in this trap every year. But if I didn’t know it before this weekend, I know it now: You can see more in one square mile on foot — hell, one square yard — than you can in a thousand miles in a car.

We saw a lot of things in those two days, and most of them were bones and hair and poop. A hundred stories written in bones and hair and poop, all different and the same.

We followed clumps of mule deer hair to a secluded, windless nook shielded by hills on three sides. The ground beneath the canopy of oversized sagebrush was padded by two thick, circular carpets of deer hair. Most other signs of what happened there were gone, and we were left to wonder whether the two deer had been ambushed in their beds or if they had been dragged there and devoured by something — maybe a lion.

In another place, we pieced together a year-old skeleton and debated whether it came from a young bison or young elk. The head and too many bones had been dragged away for us, in our greenness, to be able to tell.

Another death story, also, haunts you while you walk in Yellowstone — your own — ready to fulfill itself should you step carelessly.

We humans are accustomed to strut about unchallenged, top dog, the master species on a wild Earth held in check by our trellis of tools and weapons.

But in wilderness like Yellowstone — refuge of grizzly bears, mountain lions, wolves — wee humans, stripped of our weapons and extracted from our armored vehicles, stand on equal footing for once. Or maybe a few steps below. While there, you’re forced to acknowledge your own place in the food web, admit that your carbon will one day, soon or sooner, belong to someone else.

Unlike the goose or baby bison, your death might be memorialized in newspaper headlines or make its way into the revised and updated version of the book “Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park.” But if that consoles you, keep in mind that books decompose, too — rather quickly.


Beside the broken Canada goose eggs, we found the fading traces of another, older story: Four bits of mammal vertebrae, weathered to nubs but still sinewed together, next to half a hoof.

And beneath it all, we saw another story, older yet. The story of wildness — so simple that we often overlook it, so fundamental that, try as we might, we cannot eradicate it: Death feeding on life, life feeding on death.

Once you know that story, you cannot help but read it everywhere. A fox fills his belly with goose egg and trots away silently, having staved off hunger for another day. New grass breaks through buffalo dung alongside mushrooms. Bacteria eat the insides out of a sparrow that died in the backyard and turn the bird, in time, to soil from which a sunflower grows.

When you read this story enough — death feeding on life, life feeding on death — you begin to notice something interesting: It’s a story without a beginning or an end. Or maybe beginning and end, life and death, become the same thing, sides of the same truth, faces of the same beauty.

Maybe it doesn’t even count as a story — maybe it’s just what’s happening.