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Buffalo in the Snow

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  • Buffalo in the Snow

Montana, 1969

These buffalo plunging through deep snow were photographed in Montana in 1966. I was fairly new at National Geographic but had been assigned to photograph wildlife in the winter in Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone then had a herd of about 400 buffalo that park management was trying to gather to check for brucellosis, a contagious disease that in cattle can cause cows to abort their calves. I was flying at about 500 feet in a Bell two-seater helicopter piloted by Bob Schellinger, renown for his mountain rescue work and then working for the park along with fellow pilot Elwood “Swede” Nelson. The day’s objective was to find groups of bison that inhabited the park’s Hayden Valley. When spotted, we’d drop down to skim along at tree level trying to drive them into a lane created in some timber leading to a corral trap built along Nez Perce Creek. Once contained, they’d be worked into chutes and blood tested. In the case of this picture a small number of buffalo had swung around to face and seemingly challenge us and in the combination of the deep snow and the downdraft from the helicopter the swirling snow created an almost watercolor-like palette for my Kodachrome transparency.

Flying with Bob was a great pleasure. He was a superb pilot and a very nice man with a dry sense of humor. At night we used to shoot pool at a bar in tiny Gardiner, Montana where we lived in a place called the Town Motel right at the edge of the northwest entrance to the park. Bob Schellinger died in a crash several years later while attempting a mountain rescue. My essay, “Yellowstone Wildlife in Winter,” the first essay I wrote as well as photographed for National Geographic was published in November, 1967. I’ll always remember the raw wilderness beauty of Yellowstone in the winter. I consider “Buffalo in the Snow” one of my rare but iconic images of wildlife.