It happens to the best of drivers and the most cautious of motorists. That’s all Jeff Nelson was trying to explain in a post showing his brand-new Subaru all smashed to heck from a close encounter with a bison in Yellowstone.
Many commenters empathized and said they’re glad he’s OK.
But for all his openness, Nelson has also been buffaloed by internet know-it-alls who are all-too-eager to rattle off a list of things he did wrong from the comfort of their keyboards.
They’re Called Accidents For A Reason
“I was coming around blind curve. I had my fog lights on and my brights on. Like I told the park ranger, I don’t know my exact speed at the time, but I was doing, maybe, upper 30s the whole way,” Nelson told Cowboy State Daily about the encounter last week. “I saw nothing until contact.”
Nelson is not your typical Yellowstone moto-tourist. The Salt Lake City resident has been visiting the national park for decades.
He takes videos and photographs of wildlife. He is well-versed with the variety of species in the park and where he is most likely to encounter them.
“The day before the accident I was watching a female black bear playing with her two cubs,” Nelson said. “The day of the accident, I was up in Lamar Valley area. I'm there quite a bit for the wolves. The best time to see them is right before sun goes down.”
That’s why Nelson was driving back to Island Park, Idaho, where he has a cabin, at night. It was about 9:30 when he came around a tight corner in a heavily wooded section of the park off the Grand Loop Road near Beryl Springs.
Nelson’s new Subaru Outback was equipped with the latest technology in safety features. It’s a big reason he bought it.
The vehicle had EyeSight, a windshield mounted driver assist that acts as an extra pair of eyes. Nelson said he felt his car’s pre-collision braking system kick in, but it was too late.
Nelson struck one bison, breaking its leg, then another that rolled up on top of his vehicle. Both animals were later euthanized by park law enforcement.
The Subaru’s airbag never deployed. Nelson said that should be an indication he was not driving too fast. He told this to the investigating ranger who made out a report shortly after the collision.
“There was a bridge near where it happened. I turned on my hazards and was able to drive out of the road, across the bridge to a pullout,” Nelson said. “A bunch of people drove by before a guy in a newer Ford Bronco stopped. He called 911 from down the road where there was better cell service.”
A park ranger stepped off 110 paces from impact to where Nelson finally came to a stop and questioned the driver about his speed. Nelson said he was sure he was not doing more than 40.
Like most sections of roads within Yellowstone National Park, the posted speed limit is 45 mph. No reduced speeds are suggested at night though many prudent drivers find themselves instinctively traveling within the stopping range of their headlights.
In a separate but related post on the same Facebook page Nelson posted on, Monica Critchfield shared that she witnessed the accident and confirmed Nelson was driving below the speed limit.
Nelson said he was heartbroken over the death of the bison.
“I had this car, like, two weeks. I just turned 52 on the 18th, and this is my first accident ever,” Nelson said. “So, yeah, it was a big punch in the gut, but I feel worse about the buffalo.”
Nelson asked the ranger what would be done with the bison. They said the carcasses would be taken to a remote location in the park so the meat could be harvested by predators and scavengers. Rangers never leave roadkill alongside the highway because it can attract other animals to the road.
Nelson got a lift to West Yellowstone from the tow trucker driver who told him it was practically a “nightly occurrence” for him to be called into the park for a wildlife-vehicle collision.
It was about 12:30 a.m. when Nelson got to West Yellowstone. He couldn’t find a room available for under $500, so he decided to just roll out his sleeping bag in the back of his smashed up Subie.
The next day he walked to the airport and rented the last car they had and drove back home to Salt Lake.
Haters Gonna Hate
Posting details of the accident was Nelson’s way of trying to make a PSA testimonial of his experience. If a well-informed, cautious driver like he could manage to hit a Yellowstone critter, so could anyone.
“It’s crazy how invisible they are at night,” Nelson said of the bison he hit.
Unlike deer and elk, bison are much darker in color and tougher to spot in low light conditions. Similar to moose, a bison’s eyes do not reflect much light, at least not as much as other ungulates. Finally, bison are large, weighing up to 2,000 pounds. And while they don’t usually jump into the road from cover, they don’t yield much once there.
“Look, I know I didn’t do anything wrong other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was an unfortunate crappy situation,” Nelson said. “But some of the hate I got, that I wasn’t being cautious enough. I was offended. And that takes a lot for me.”
Nelson’s post of the accident was made to Yellowstone Insider Hub, a Facebook group page filled with users sharing photos and videos of bears, wolves, bison and the rest of the more than 200 species of wildlife that inhabit the park’s 2.2 million acres.
He wanted the image of his busted-up Subaru to serve as an eye-catching awareness campaign of the dangers of driving in Yellowstone, especially at night.
“No matter how cautious you are, you cannot predict what an animal is going to do,” Nelson said. “I am thankful I was being cautious. It could have been a lot worse. I'm glad I was in that Subaru. It kept me more safe than maybe another vehicle would have.”
As costly and crummy as Nelson’s experience was, it’s the lives of the two bison that he still thinks about.
“I loved that Subaru. It had the turbo in it and everything. It was practically brand-new,” Nelson said. “But I’d give anything to have those buffalo back.”
Jake Nichols can be reached at: Jake@CowboyStateDaily.com