Wyoming Hot Spot: Yellowstone in Winter

Winter in Yellowstone is a mix of snow and warm natural springs.
Winter in Yellowstone juxtaposes snow and geothermal hot spots. Photo by Heike Schmidt

The lone bison is breathing little clouds. They look like frosty speech bubbles that the chilly North Wind juggles through the crisp air, until it loses interest and blows them apart with one powerful puff. The old bull stands in the snow, quiet and motionless. The white stuff reaches almost up to the buffalo’s hips, and more fresh flakes are falling onto his shaggy coat. His massive back is already dusted like a powdered sugar cake-topping.

It’s another cold winter morning in Yellowstone National Park, with temperatures dipping to 5° F (-15° C). Here, in Wyoming’s northwestern corner, the frosty season lasts six long months.

I can see through my binoculars thin icicles extending down the bison’s muzzle, and the thick fur fringes under his mouth are frozen stiff in an icy moustache. The poor creature must be dreadfully cold.

Bjorn Anderson grins. “I bet the bison is not nearly as cold as you are,” he says. “Look, he is perfectly insulated. Not even the snow on his shoulder hump is melting.” The giant animal doesn’t move in order to save precious energy, which is difficult to replenish now, when food is scarce.

It takes a lot of strength to use his giant head as a snow plow, to dig deep down for the last bits of leftover grass. Bison are pretty smart, Bjorn surmises. And he should know, as every day he shuttles tourists through the park and past the heavyweight beasts in a canary-yellow snow coach.

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