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Part 1. People are stupid

Recently I saw a video of a woman and a bison. The bison was lying next to a walkway in Yellowstone National Park. The woman stopped to pet it on the head as casually as if she was petting a favorite horse. As if brushing off a fly, the bison tossed its head at her. She stepped back and made a face, as if scolding it, then reached out and touched it again. Again the bison tossed its head. Amazingly, the woman walked away without being gored, trampled, or obliterated by the 1000-pound wild bison.

 

Part 2. People are stupid

Driving down a narrow canyon somewhere I can’t now remember in Colorado I came upon a bighorn ram with a beautiful full curl. It was late November, the end of the rut. The ram was standing on the double yellow line, broadside to traffic, with no apparent interest in anything but the slope in front of him. At the time, I still had my Tercel, a car seemingly half the size of the ram. I had never seen a bighorn sheep before; I shut off the engine and watched.

After several minutes, a brand-new, bright red, dual rear-wheel, Dodge Ram 2500 diesel came up the canyon. The ram did not move. The truck sat a minute and then slowly rolled forward. The ram held his ground. The truck moved another few feet forward.

The ram politely stepped back one step, and then one more. The truck began to inch ahead. The ram took another step back, lowered his head, and let loose with all of the power of the rut directly into the front quarter panel of the shiny truck.

I laughed, of course. The expression of the man driving the truck was beyond description.

The ram, head held high, stepped back; clearly, he won this round. Another step back. The truck driver writhed in his seat, livid. It seemed his instinct was to immediately get out to check damage. Instead, he decided to move ahead. Was it an attempt to flee to safety? The ram stepped back again, lowered his head, and connected with a new spot on the front quarter panel.

Concealed weapons permits were not big then and I wasn’t yet fully aware of how many people carried weapons in their rigs. I writhed in my seat, in mirth. What more could a girl new to the west ask for than a show like this?

I don’t remember what broke the stand off. The ram finally turned into the canyon below the road and the truck continued up the canyon.

 

Part 3. Sadly, I count as people

A few years later I was working on the National Bison Range in Montana. I spent my days hiking everywhere, mapping plant communities, taking photos, enjoying the wildlife.

Early one morning, while the world was still cool and snakes were not warmed up, I found a den. I was standing on a slope deciding whether to go up or down. I turned up, picked up my foot, heard a rattle and just continued spinning back down to the point where I began. I turned to look. Two large snakes, two to three feet long, were coiled side by side. Next to them was a ball of snake babies. The babies were a wriggling mass. As I watched, one of the larger snakes disappeared into a hole under a rock. The babies, one by one, extracted themselves from the ball and followed – nine in all, each about 10 inches long. As the last baby went into the hole, the second larger snake followed.

Rattlesnakes are fascinating and fabulous. They are also much maligned and persecuted creatures. People go out of their way to run them over, shoot them, burn them out, and kill them with any handy tool, shovel, or ax.

A rancher, well into his 60s, once told me that he had been killing them since he was a kid. “I used to see a hundred or more a year. Now, I don’t see more than ten a year.”

“That’s because you killed them all,” I responded.

“Well, yeah, I guess so. I hadn’t thought about that.”

Really. He said that.

Back to the Bison Range. One day, after a long, hot day of hiking around on the range, I was driving the loop road on my way to the maintenance shop. Climbing onto the flat above the river, there was a rattlesnake in the middle of the road. It was about 3 and a half feet long, basking in the sun, unperturbed by my truck. I went around it.

Then, I stopped. I looked back. Some stupid tourist will either run over it or will try to get too close and get bitten. Damn.

There were half a dozen elk antlers in the back of the truck. I collected them as I hiked and added them to the visitor center pile every few weeks (…or took them home. One of those two things, I can’t remember which). I fished out the longest one and walked back to the snake.

I told the snake it was a bad idea to lie in the middle of the road and maybe it should move to the side. It shifted back, not coiling, but changing from a long line of snake into a wavy line of attentiveness. I reached out with the antler and gently prodded it. The snake moved away, closer to the edge of the road; I prodded it again. It moved off the road a foot or two.

Just a little further, I said. You’re too likely to go back to the road when I quit poking at you. Another prod, another few feet.

One more time, just a few more feet, I thought. By now, the snake was moving backward but was also in a full coil. Yes, of course, I know what this means. I reached as far as I could with the antler, using my natural length to keep as much distance between us as possible and I gave it one.more.poke.

It struck; I leaped. We both turned and went our own ways. We both stopped and looked back.

They say the striking distance of a rattlesnake is more or less equivalent to its length. The snake was three and a half-ish feet long. My arm is three feet, the antler was three feet, I’m six feet… the math may or may not have worked in my favor but I went with it.

I remember throwing the antler into the back of the truck and saying out loud, “Headline at 11:00, biologist struck by rattlesnake while saving stupid tourists.”

I can imagine the snake going back to its snake buddies and telling them, “you would not believe what happened to me today.” I know I did. And, we both lived to tell the tale: people are stupid.