It’s possible you’ve already seen these semi-famous images of a grizzly bear chasing a burned bison down a Yellowstone highway. Someone sent them to your inbox or posted them on Facebook. Possibly, you saw them on the local news or while trolling any number of regional, national or international websites.
They’re everywhere now, which is all pretty astonishing to Alex Wypyszinski, the amateur photographer who captured this hunt last May, while driving between Madison Junction and Old Faithful.
“I recently Googled myself and found my photos at sites in Poland, Albania and Portugal,” he said. If you Google “bison AND grizzly AND Wypyszinski,” you’ve got about 10,800 ways to check them out. If you go a more generic route and plug in “bison vs. bear photos,” things get crowded at around 1.82 million results.
Wypyszinski, 63, worked for 18 years at Rutgers University as director of the Sea Grant Marine Advisory Service. He now lives in Florida and, for the past eight summers, he and wife Maryellen have been working in Yellowstone – she as a nurse and Alex with the post office at Old Faithful. They’ve been working on their “bucket list”–and living in Yellowstone was high on their list of things to do.
In the early morning hours of May 24, Wypyszinsski had dropped his wife off at work and was driving the stretch of road that runs along the Firehole River near Fountain Flats.
“I was watching the mist in the valley to the east and taking some landscape shots,” said Wypysziski, who always has two cameras with him in the park. “That’s when I heard a clippity-clop sound. I turned and had quite a shock.”
About 300 yards behind him on the highway were two fast-moving brown blurs, which he quickly figured out were a grizzly bear chasing a bison.
“That bison was not a pretty sight,” he said. “I was shocked by its condition.”
What Wypyszinski saw through the lens of his Sony point-and-shoot was a running bison with red legs. They weren’t bleeding, he realized, but the scalding burns of an animal that had broken through the crust into a hot spring.
“The whole area is riddled with hot pools and springs,” he said. Wypyszinski had seen other bison in Yellowstone with missing fur and scalded flesh on their legs, so he knew immediately what had happened to the bison on the road.
He also knew that in late May, grizzly bears are enormously hungry after hibernation. This bear was trying to chase down an injured bison for breakfast.
“I figure the bear and bison ran about a quarter mile down the highway,” said Wypyszinski. He jumped into his Pathfinder and the chase passed by, then he shot several more images through the windshield as they continued down the highway.
Suddenly, he said, the bison veered off to the left, into the woods, while the bear veered off to the right. The chase was over. The bison would live for another day, to be put down by park rangers for its injuries.
When Wypyszinski’s heartbeat and breathing returned to normal, he drove to work at the Old Faithful post office.
“I didn’t think anyone would believe me about what I’d just seen,” he said. “I really wanted to see what images my camera had captured on a computer screen.”
What he saw was breathtaking, so he printed out one image and hung it up in the post office.
Pretty soon, interpretive rangers were crowding over the photo and asking for copies, which Wypyszinski provided. Soon, he’d pinned up a collage of the images.
By the end of the season, his wife entered his photo into an employee photo contest; Wypyszinski won.
The award meant his photos would be posted on a Yellowstone employee website, which is when the phone calls and emails started coming in – many convinced there was some sort of PhotoShop skullduggery involved.
In late October, KTVQ (Billings) staff saw the photos on Facebook, contacted Wypyszinski and posted the images on the Q2 website.
“I think this is going to be a bit longer than 15 minutes of fame,” said Wypyszinski. The images and story of the photos spread throughout Montana television stations and beyond, to Field & Stream, CNN, the Huffington Post, the Telegraph, Toronto Star and on and on and on.
“I’ve lost count,” mused Wypyszinski, of the number of phone calls he’s fielded from reporters or the websites that have posted his photos.
“I may wind up kicking myself, but I haven’t asked for much money,” he said. He has eight years’ worth of digital images and wants to write a book about his Yellowstone experiences: “Shooting At Things In Yellowstone,” or photo tips for visitors.
His new-found fame won’t change his plans terribly much, however. Alex and Maryellen plan to be back in Yellowstone next spring, where they’re starting to get used to the culture shock. “People out West are really nice,” he said.