BY PHIL KNIGHT
“Oh my gosh, this is incredible!” exclaims Bill H., one of my clients from Canberra, Australia. Like most people, Bill is overwhelmed at seeing his first grizzly bear. Actually, FOUR grizzly bears. Peering through a spotting scope, he is transfixed as he watches the bears enact an age-old drama high on Yellowstone National Park’s Specimen Ridge.
“Why are they running away?” asks Bill’s wife, Linda. She has noticed that three of the bears are making tracks away from the fourth, larger bear. After considering for a moment, I explain. It is mating season for grizzlies, and a large male bear has become interested in a female. Trouble is, she has two large, nearly grown cubs, and all she wants to do is keep them away from the male bear who could injure or even kill them. The male keeps trying to get closer as the female bluff-charges him and the cubs run farther up the ridge.
Even though I have been guiding in Yellowstone since 1999, I too am thrilled. Seeing grizzlies in the wild never gets boring. Lamar Valley, in the northeastern part of the park, offers some of the most exciting and accessible wildlife watching in North America. This is one of the few places in the world where you have an excellent chance of spotting grizzlies, black bears, and wolves right off the road. Spot a moose the same day (this is less likely), and you have scored Yellowstone’s “Grand Slam.”
I recall such a day this spring, when clients were glued to the bus windows at every bend in the road, and we could hardly make another mile before seeing more critters – bighorn sheep on the shoulder of the road, a big herd of bison crossing the highway bridge over the Yellowstone River, osprey fishing the Lamar River. “Is it always like this?” asks Linda. Well, no it’s not.
When to Go
Wildlife viewing in Yellowstone is great year-round, but spring is just incredible. Young animals are everywhere – elk and bison calves, bear cubs, wolf and coyote pups, sandhill crane ‘colts’ (yes, that is really what the young birds are called – long legs, go figure), goslings and ducklings, young eagles learning to fly, young ravens demanding to be fed. The weather here in the spring can be pretty challenging (dress for cold, wet weather), but the wild animal show is worth every raindrop and snowflake.
Summer wildlife viewing is also good. Although temperatures can get fairly hot during the day, it always cools off at night. The best wildlife viewing is very early or late in the day (big furry animals don’t like heat).
Fall is a great time to see wildlife in the park, especially when the elk become very active during the “rut” (mating season). And of course winter is long, cold and snowy in Yellowstone, but it’s the prime time for wolf watching since the animals are more active and are easily seen on the wide open, white landscape.
As a guide in Yellowstone National Park, I’m in Lamar Valley a lot. Not only do we spot the sought-after critters with claws and fangs, we almost always see plenty of bison, pronghorn antelope, and elk. Coyotes slip through the sagebrush thickets like grey ghosts, hoping to stumble on a pronghorn or elk calf. Red foxes sometimes show themselves, trotting through the meadows, totally unconcerned about the people peering at them. I once watched a red fox walk BETWEEN the legs of a woman looking through a spotting scope.
My favorite sightings involve interaction between two or more different species. I’ve watched as pronghorn and coyotes play what appears to be a lively game of tag, which may be a game for the trickster coyotes, but is most likely a deadly serious attempt by the pronghorn to protect its hidden offspring from the predators. You may see a whole assemblage of predators and scavengers if you are lucky enough to spot an animal carcass, such as a wolf-killed elk or a winter-killed bison. A protein bonanza like that is going to bring in wolves, bears, coyotes, eagles, ravens and magpies, all trying to get a piece of the meat pie before someone else does.
Wolves frequently appear on this natural stage, drawing hundreds of people each month excited to glimpse North America’s top predator. In the spring wolves are busy caring for their pups. The pups remain secluded at the den site until they are a few months old, but they start to become visible in late spring as they roam further a field in the company of adult wolves. Members of the Lamar wolf pack often cross the road at the east end of Lamar Valley, near the confluence of Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek, as they head into Lamar in search of elk, their favorite prey.
One morning we rolled up to Slough Creek and witnessed an incredible drama. As I set up the spotting scopes, Ann, one of my clients tagged at my sleeve. “Phil! What’s that wolf doing? Is that an elk calf?” I grabbed my binoculars, and there was the “06 female”, well known as the alpha female of the Lamar pack, in the process of killing an elk calf. She quickly dispatched the calf and left it. “There’s the mother!” I whispered as my clients gathered at the scopes. We watched in awe as the hunting wolf chased the elk into the river. Normally this would give the elk the advantage, but not this time. The wolf was able to get a hold of the elk’s neck and drag her down, drowning her in the river. It’s rare to see a lone wolf kill an adult elk, but there it was.
How to Find the Critters
The easiest way to find wolves (and bears) is to find the roadside gathering of people looking through spotting scopes and huge camera lenses. Stop, get out of your car (turn off the motor) and politely ask what they are seeing. Most people will gladly point out the wildlife, and may even give you a glimpse through their scope. Bring binoculars, and at least one spotting scope (telescope) mounted on a tripod. The scale of the landscape means critters are often a mile or more away, and you may not even see them without the binoculars. Use the binoculars to scan the meadows and forest edges. If you spot something interesting, get busy with the scope. Zoom out to full field to find the animal, then zoom in for a close up view. It’s even possible to shoot photos and video through a spotting scope with a small point and shoot digital camera. This requires no adapter, but it does require a very steady hand.
Some people are surprised to learn that you are more likely to see abundant wildlife from the road than on the trail. This is because the wildlife is accustomed to seeing people and cars on the road, but not so much in the backcountry. Also, the roads and parking spots are laid out so you have great vantage points across the wide-open valleys, plus you can cover more ground in a car and see more of the landscape. By all means, get out on the trail and take a hike, but don’t expect to see as much wildlife. And keep your bear deterrent spray handy!
Beyond Lamar Valley
Lamar Valley is by no means the only (nor always the best) location to see wildlife in Yellowstone. Drive the road from Gardiner, at the park’s north entrance, through Mammoth Hot Springs to Lamar (about 35 miles; the only road open all year in Yellowstone), through Yellowstone’s Northern Range, and you may see so many critters that you are hard-pressed to ever get to Lamar. The area around Tower Junction is sometimes known at the “Bearmuda Triangle” due to the frequency of road side sightings of black bears. The Slough Creek area, just west of Lamar Valley, is a haven for elk, bison, wolves, bears, waterfowl, and birds of prey. Further south, over snowy Dunraven Pass, is Hayden valley, near the famous Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Hayden can be as lively as Lamar, especially in the spring. Watch for members of the Canyon wolf pack, courting grizzly bears, white pelicans and birds of prey such as Swainson’s Hawks.
There are many tour companies that offer wildlife viewing trips in Yellowstone. The most in-depth programs are offered by the nonprofit Yellowstone Association Institute. Consider signing up for a day-long private tour or a multi-day, “Lodging and Learning” experience. You’ll enjoy learning about this incredible wildlife paradise from a professional guide and naturalist. See http://www.yellowstoneassociation.org.
In Yellowstone, all you have to do is show up and spend some time, and you are going to see some amazing things. Every time I go there I see something I have never seen before – courting grizzly bears wrestling, an elk calf up to its back in a cold river while nursing, a bull bison strutting along with an entire sagebrush shrub stuck behind his horn, a coyote optimistically pursuing a bighorn sheep ram. Make your plans to head for Yellowstone in the spring – you won’t be disappointed.
Yellowstone’s Northern Range Wildlife Checklist
Yellow Bellied Marmot
Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep
Uinta Ground Squirrel
Black billed Magpie
Red Wing Blackbird
Phil has been rambling the wilds of North America and the world for most of his 52 years. His interest in wild animals and remote country has taken him into the back of beyond in the US, Canada, northern Europe, Russia, Chile, Argentina, Australian, New Zealand, Antarctica and elsewhere. Phil loves to share his knowledge of Yellowstone with people from around the world. He has gotten into all sorts of trouble while defending forests from chain saws and bulldozers, and has fallen out of several trees.
Phil has written two books – Into Deepest Yellowstone and Seasons in the Sky, both of them personal narratives about exploring remote places on foot. You can order the books directly from the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.