National Parks,  Wildlife

Photographing Wildlife on a Bison Carcass – The Cycle of Life at Yellowstone National Park

Every year about 9% of the Yellowstone Bison population do not make it through the long, harsh Yellowstone winter.  They die of old age, disease, injury, winter exposure and predation. 

Bison are amazing animals. Here is a link to more interesting information on Bison in Yellowstone National Park from the National Park Service. 

Topaz Labs

While it is sad to see that many Bison die over the winter at Yellowstone, their carcasses feed a large variety of mammals and birds.  Photographers and wildlife watchers watch for Bison and Elk carcasses as they provide a terrific opportunity to view and photograph a large variety of wildlife. 

Wolves, Grizzly Bears, Black Bears, Coyotes, and Red Fox can all be seen feeding on carcasses.  Raptors such as Golden Eagles and Bald Eagles are also commonly seen feeding on carcasses. 

A multitude of ravens also always seem to find the carcasses and harass other animals feeding on the carcass. It is interesting to watch the Wolves chase the Ravens when they get fed up with their behavior.

Coyote on a Bison Carcass
Coyote on a Bison Carcass

Word Spreads Fast

A carcass isn’t found near the road very often. So when one is located near the road, the word spreads fast among the local human population and crowds gather quickly.  People from other areas of Montana will rent rooms in local towns to get to the carcass early in the morning for good photo opportunities.

Parking spots can be difficult to find in the area that a carcass is located. This is especially true in the winter when less pullouts may be available.  The rangers will frequently patrol the area and ensure people are not parked or standing on the road.

So when you hear of or locate a carcass, it is good to arrive early and stay for the day.  Animals such as wolves and bears will frequently feed in the morning and sleep nearby during the day and come back out in late afternoon to feed again. However, other wildlife like ravens, coyotes, bald eagles and golden eagles will visit throughout the day.

Members of the Wapiti Lake Pack on a Bison Carcass
Members of the Wapiti Lake Pack on a Bison Carcass

Animal Interactions

Carcasses are also a terrific place to witness and photograph the interaction between animals as a variety of wildlife may visit the carcass throughout the day.  Some of the interactions you may be able to see and photograph are:

  • Wolves chasing off the ravens
  • Packs of animals like coyotes and wolves feeding on the carcass at the same time.  This can sometimes lead to spats between animals as they position themselves on the carcass.  I’ve seen and was able to photograph as many as 7 coyotes on a Bison carcass at the same time
  • Eagles taking off and landing on and near the carcass
  • Coyotes warily approaching the carcass
  • Wolves chasing the Coyotes out of the area
  • Bears and wolves competing for the carcass
Stare Down, Bald Eagle and Raven on a Bison Carcass
Stare Down, Bald Eagle and Raven on a Bison Carcass

How to find a carcass?

  • Look for large crowds.  Once word of the carcass spreads, the crowd can grow quickly.  You may need to drop the passengers off while the driver looks for a parking spot
  • Look for long lenses. If people are photographing with long lenses instead of using spotting scopes, the carcass could be close enough to view and photograph
  • Ask people what they are seeing?
  • Monitor posts on Yellowstone Facebook groups the night before and the morning of your visit.
  • The locals and many photographers subscribe to a newsletter called Yellowstone Reports which publishes a daily report of activity in Yellowstone.  There is a small fee to subscribe to the newsletter.

Written by Martin Belan

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