How I Got That Shot: Wolf-Bison standoff at Otter Creek in Yellowstone

A wolf from the Canyon Pack stalks an ailing bison at Otter Creek in Yellowstone National Park. (©Meg Sommers - click to enlarge)

A wolf from the Canyon Pack stalks an ailing bison at Otter Creek in Yellowstone National Park. (©Meg Sommers - click to enlarge)

By Meg Sommers

This image, “Standoff,” is one of many I took over a three-day period that I watched a wolf and bison together in their life-and-death struggle.

It happened at Otter Creek in Yellowstone National Park in October. The female bison (known as a cow) wasn’t feeling very well. You could tell that just by watching her. She was lethargic, and never moved very far away from a small meadow she had chosen. Had she felt better, I would have expected her to join the bison herd less than a mile away.

It was also pretty clear that the wolf knew she was vulnerable. All the cow wanted to do was rest. The wolf, then the beta from the Canyon Pack, acted as if he had all the time in the world. He would let the bison rest, resting himself in the nearby shade. Then, at an interval known only to him, he would test the bison by moving in close. The bison would summon all of her strength and get up. The wolf would circle her, and usually she would kick or give some other indication that she was still willing to fight. The wolf would lay down again and wait.

Eventually the bison would lay down as well.

I first came across this standoff one afternoon on my way out of the Park. I watched for three or four hours and left anticipating that the rest of the pack would assemble, and that the bison would be killed sometime during the night. It often happens that way.

I came back the next morning before dawn and waited for the light. Much to my surprise, the bison was still standing. The wolf was in the trees — about where he was when I left the day before. This went on and on for the entire day. And at dusk, she was still kicking, literally. There was no sign of the other pack members all day. I went home and came back again the next morning before dawn.

It was 12 degrees out, and since it was October, I still wasn’t used to the cold, especially while just standing around waiting. It was not until almost dark that 3rd day that the bison just couldn’t get up and the wolf saw his chance.

The next morning, at first light, there was a big grizzly on the carcass. Within an hour, the Canyon pack arrived with the beta leading the way. The bear, who probably had been feeding for some time, tolerated the wolves’ approach and then retreated into the pines for a nap. The rest of the day was a smorgasbord of carnivores coming in to feed. Bears, wolves, coyotes, ravens and eagles to name a few.

I can’t leave this subject without mentioning the great job the Canyon District rangers did during this time. There was only a narrow spot from which to photograph this scene, and that happened to be on the bridge at Otter Creek. While we weren’t standing in the road, our feet and tripods were right off the road. It was somewhat precarious with traffic still traveling the road.

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"Standoff" was shot with a Canon EOS 7D camera with a 600 mm lens and 1.4 extender at an exposure of F9 at 1/160 of a second shutter speed at ISO 1000.

By mid-October though, the traffic had thinned substantially, and the rangers made the decision to close the lane where we were standing. They stationed a ranger at the site for 2 days, directing traffic so that the group of photographers and other onlookers could have the best view. Had it been August, with heavy traffic, they could not have done that. They would have been forced to close the standing area on the bridge to one and all.

So I can tell you from this experience (and others) that when they can, rangers enjoy providing the opportunities for all of us to witness nature on one of its most basic levels.

Meg Sommers is a wildlife and nature photographer who also works as an attorney and part-time judge in Cody, Wyo. She teaches a wildlife photography course in Yellowstone Park for the Yellowstone Association Institute.


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7 thoughts on “How I Got That Shot: Wolf-Bison standoff at Otter Creek in Yellowstone

  1. I remember this standoff, other photographer friends were also watching. Not as much as Meg was able to capture though. I have taken a photography course with Meg and scheduled for another one, great photographer and teacher!

  2. Absolutely amazing! I’m totally jealous. I used to work in Teton Village at one point. I miss it dearly.

  3. This was a wonderful picture of nature taking care of nature. As much as we humans would like to protect the underdog, we get in the way. Thanks for the opportunity to see nature at work and thanks for her patience in taking this picture.

  4. Yellowstone rangers are tops!
    I watched a griz/wolf pack encounter unfold over a dead elk. The wolves never drove the bear away, but they provided quite a show. They got some sharp nips on his butt, as I recall.

  5. Great shot, I think I was there on 10/10/10.
    Got some good photos of the stalking, but not of the conflict.

  6. Great shot Meg! I was watching this unfold on the internet and I couldn’t get up there until the morning after the kill. I had a sick kid at home and it was killing me not to be up there.

    Meg is right about the rangers at the scene. It is really great when rangers are relaxed in spring and fall when they can actually let photographers get a little work done. There are too dang many people around in the summer for them to do such things.