Bison running on road fuels speculation that Yellowstone volcano will erupt

Bison crowd the road in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Neal Herbert/Yellowstone National Park

What do the animals know? Can their behavior portend natural events such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions?

That question remains debatable in the wake of a swift and seemingly urgent bison migration that was videotaped recently inside Yellowstone National Park.

What is known, however, is that people are quick to jump to conclusions, and that, thanks to social media and the simplicity with which people can steal the video footage of others, stories can spin wildly out of control.

The bison story is a case in point.

In at least two versions of the same footage, the bison were “running for their lives” from the mountains onto a paved road that leads out of the park. The great beasts were frantically fleeing the park, bloggers cautioned, and possibly signaling an imminent eruption of the so-called super-volcano, a vast magma chamber on which part of Yellowstone sits.

Screen grab from video

“They detect something vast and deadly,” survivalist/blogger Tom Pupshu wrote in a post for a YouTube video report that he uploaded on March 23, several days after the first video footage of the buffalo stampede was posted. “The Yellowstone Supervolcano is the only thing there that would fit the bill. Watch the animals and watch them close, they will always give you a heads up before an event. Very strange, is the caldera about to blow?”

Stories have carried headlines such as this one, from the Epoch Times: “Yellowstone Volcano Eruption in 2014? Are Animals Fleeing Park As ‘An Alert’?”

Bison gather on road; photo courtesy Yellowstone National Park

But here’s the twist. The original footage, uploaded on March 14 by Yellowstone Association sales associate Leo Leckie, was titled “Yellowstone Bison … On the Run!” (Video posted above. )

Leckie explained on his YouTube description that the herd was running from Mammoth Hot Springs deeper into the park, not fleeing the park. “If the herd matriarch gets the urge to run, she will… and the entire herd will run to keep up,” Leckie wrote.

This week he told the Los Angeles Times, “Those bison were running for the sake of running. There was nothing chasing them. There was no mudslide. They were just running.”

But copies of his footage carried other descriptions. “Yellowstone Buffalo Running for Their Lives!” read one copy, which as of Friday had garnered more than 1 million views.

Further fueling speculation that the running bison were signaling a major event was a 4.8-magnitude earthquake (later downgraded to a 4.7) that shook the park last Sunday. It was the strongest quake to hit the area in more than 30 years.

On Monday, the park, compelled to try to stifle rampant speculation, produced a “Rumor Control” video, featuring public affairs specialist Al Nash. (Video posted above.)

Nash explained that the earthquake produced no damage or injuries and was uncommon only in its strength. It might not even be linked to volcanic activity.

“We see between 1,000 and 3,000 earthquakes here a year,” Nash said. “It’s just part of the geologic situation that we find here in Yellowstone.”

Nash explained that bison, elk, and other animals will migrate out of the park to lower elevations each winter. This is nothing out of the ordinary. “When the snow melts off and things start to green up, those very same animals will walk right back into the park,” Nash said.

Of prospects of a super-volcano eruption, Nash said there have been no verifiable signs that an eruption will occur anytime soon. But that’s not to say there isn’t a lot of activity beneath the surface.

“Frankly,” Nash said, “We are just a few miles above some real hot magma. That magma serves as the heat that fuels the geysers and hot springs and fumaroles in the park. It’s that engine that allows for the unique things that we see here in Yellowstone. [But] we have seen no signs that the Yellowstone volcano is about to erupt.”

If only the bison could talk. Then we might truly get to the bottom of all this.

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