Classes at the Yellowstone Association Institute

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, WYO.
– From the doorstep of my temporary home – a spare log cabin – I take a sip of coffee and inhale the crisp morning air. An old bull buffalo lumbers across a nearby meadow as I ready my brain for its first classroom experience in five years.

The location at hand: the
Lamar
Valley
, an untamed, river-carved swath on the northeastern brim of

Yellowstone
National Park

. Wildlife thrives here, earning the valley the nickname, “The Serengeti of North America.”

My cabin sits on the premises of the Lamar Buffalo Ranch, where the National Park Service domesticated 28 of the park’s few remaining bison in1907. After bullets and exotic diseases decimated the iconic beasts in the 19th century,
Yellowstone
‘s buffalo prospered under the sponsorship of Homo sapiens. The original 28 boomed into a self-sustaining population by the time the ranch hands left the picture in 1952. Today, 4,000 bison roam the park, a living legacy of the old ranch.

In 1979, the non-profit Yellowstone Association adopted the ranch as a campus for its field studies program, now known as the Yellowstone Association Institute. While the cynical image of a modern Yellowstone vacation includes animal-induced traffic jams, camera-toting throngs at
Old Faithful
and mad dashes from overlook to overlook, the old Lamar ranch is a hubbub-free zone and a window into the park considerably clearer than a bug-splattered windshield.

The Yellowstone Association Institute presents a predominately adult-oriented curriculum that runs the gamut from wolf watching to fly-fishing, educating more than 1,000 students annually. Courses are held in both winter and summer with a heavy emphasis on the ‘Leave No Trace’ philosophy.

Given its history, the ranch is truly the ideal setting for the class I’m taking, a three-day offering dubbed “The Bison of Yellowstone.” As with most of the institute’s courses, time will be split between two classrooms. One is inside the ranch’s central common building, once the wranglers’ bunkhouse. The other classroom consists of the park’s 2.2 million incomparable acres.

The first day of the bison course commences in the bunkhouse, and co-instructors Jim Garry and Dr. Harold Pichton each deliver some verbal background. Garry, an engaging cattleman/naturalist/storyteller of Texan descent, covers the folklore and history surrounding the bison, while “Pick,” a veteran professor from Montana State University, deals with buffalo biology. The morning lecture gives way to an afternoon excursion into the vast second classroom, where high-powered scopes serve as a vehicle to get up close and personal with the ornery critters.

There are several dozen bison in a meadow just down the road from the ranch. In order to maintain their metabolism, they graze nearly constantly – the grassy field is bustling with activity. That 50 million of these creatures once called the continent home is difficult to fathom.

The class takes place in early August, and that’s by design. This time of year marks the beginning of the annual rut – the pre-mating season ritual of males snorting, wrestling and generally acting as macho as possible as they compete for the females.

Day two takes the bison class about 40 miles from the ranch. After a half-hour ride in the institute’s bus – Garry drives while serving up dry humor and insight over the P.A. – class resumes on the wide-open floor of the Hayden Valley, the heart of the park. Several herds of bison dot the horizon, and about 100 animals are holding court 100 yards from our parking spot. Field scopes in hand, my classmates and I take strategic positions and begin to observe.

Suddenly, one of the shaggy brutes takes exception to a younger challenger and charges him. A frenzied skirmish follows as the two bison grapple sumo-style, a protracted collision of horns, shoulders and skulls. No more than 30 seconds after it begins, the battle is over. The elder victor returns to the side of his potential mate as the humbled upstart sheepishly trots off to the herd’s fringes. This particular round of natural selection, however, is far from over.

The sheer size and power of a buffalo is staggering. The males max out at 2,000 pounds and have a cruising speed of 35 miles per hour. Despite their burly bodies and slender limbs, bison are quite agile. They’ve also got nasty tempers. In the grip of the rut, they’re especially unpredictable – keeping a good distance is a must. In Yellowstone, bison attacks are considerably more prevalent than run-ins with bears.

During a picnic dinner above the banks of the Yellowstone River, my classmates and I watch as several buffalo doggedly swim across. As we begin packing up, a old bull takes to the asphalt and a small traffic jam erupts in his wake. A family of three bison – mom, dad and a calf – gallops in our direction, and we jump on the bus as a precaution. So do a few random passers-by that just happen to be in the wrong place at the right time. After the situation cools off, the bus rumbles back to the ranch.

The institute’s tuition fees are very democratic: about $70 per day. A cot in a cabin runs $20 a night, and students and staff share a well-equipped kitchen in the bunkhouse. (I stocked up at a grocery store in Gardiner, Mont., just north of Mammoth Hot Springs, before class began) There is a definite sense of community at the old buffalo ranch, and the kitchen is its social hub.

The Lamar ranch is also a study in sustainable living. It has its own well and septic system. A system comprised of two banks of solar panels and a pair of propane generators provides the electricity. Aside from a phone line, the campus is entirely off the grid, a study in sustainability.

And since the days of the buffalo wranglers, the ranch played an important role in another high-profile conservation effort. It served as the headquarters for the reintroduction of the gray wolf in the mid-1990s. Skeletons of onetime wolf corrals still stand in the hills behind the ranch. And the Lamar Valley has emerged as the best wolf-watching spot in all of Yellowstone, the domain of two thriving packs.

Jim Garry concludes the third and final day of the bison class storytelling about the legend of the sacred white buffalo. A Sioux symbol of hope, harmony and unfolding prophecy, true white buffalo are exceedingly rare. One was born in 1933. The next, a female named Miracle, debuted in Wisconsin in 1994. Seemingly mocking the odds, the continent’s herds have yielded seven additional white calves in the time since. If you believe the prophets, Mother Earth is crying uncle.

Ancient tribes considered what is now Yellowstone National Park to be sacred land, and early white expeditions were journeys into a fierce wilderness. A civilized vacation became the Yellowstone norm more than a century ago. Unfortunately, the 21st century definition of civilized involves molasses-style traffic, fast food and questions of sustainability. Against this backdrop, the old Lamar Buffalo Ranch shines.

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