All Roads Lead To…

If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.

~Lewis Carroll

When they heard we were planning this trip, a few friends automatically said they knew where we were going. We insisted we had made no definite plans and would let the road lead us wherever we needed to go. Well, it turns out, all roads do, indeed, lead to Yellowstone (at least for us). We realized we were going to end up there about day 4 of our trip as we drifted away from the route to Michigan and turned more to the west. The magic of Yellowstone calls to us, especially this year when both Melissa’s and my scheduled trips with groups had been canceled due to the pandemic. Now, we were a bit worried about the timing of this visit as it looked like we would be arriving on Labor Day weekend and figured it might be hard to find a campsite. We came in through Sunlight Basin and tried a forest service road a few miles from Cooke City. At first, RVs were as expected – densely packed into the available sites. Then the road started getting worse and it was mainly truck or SUV campers with the occasional hardy RVer. We finally managed a spot near a marshy lake with a few free range Black Angus cows.

The sunset view from across the road at our campsite outside the NE entrance (click photos to enlarge)

This is grizzly country, and as we settled in, I pondered what I would think or do if, when I got up in the night to go to the bathroom, I encountered a large dark object nearby – cow, or bear? Oh well, I spotted neither during the night, and we were off at sunrise the next morning.

Back at our special place

We headed into the park and saw our first wildlife within ten minutes – a pair of moose! A couple of other cars had stopped, but it was quiet and the moose were not paying attention to us as they browsed.

This is one reason we love Yellowstone – the wildlife like this moose calf
Moose cow and calf as we drove in the first morning

We still didn’t know where we would stay, though we now hoped for one or two nights near the park. As we drove past Pebble Creek campground, we saw a couple of cars in line at the entrance. Pebble Creek is a place we both have always loved (beautiful creek surrounded by towering mountains and close to the heart of prime wildlife watching) but every time we have been by it in the past, the campground sign said FULL. But, Melissa knew that this is a first come, first served campground. People line up in the morning and, if sites become available, you can get in. We turned around and decided to give it a shot. Unbelievably, there were vacant sites because people had already left early that morning. We were second in line, so we had our choice of 6 campsites after the first car picked theirs. The campground host said the area had only been open a couple of weeks due to Covid closures and that might explain the lack of a larger line – people just didn’t realize it was open. On the spur of the moment, we decided to reserve it for 3 nights, realizing that on the second night things might change dramatically – the forecast called for snow!

Our lucky campsite at Pebble Creek

Our first couple of days in the park were spent driving through Lamar Valley and Little America, watching wildlife (bison herds, sandhill cranes, pronghorn, and wolves). We visited (socially distancing) our friends in Gardiner and Silver Gate and did a couple of short hikes. The park was as crowded as we have ever seen it, with huge groups of wolf watchers out in Lamar and Slough Creek (and the wolves were very cooperative).

Our favorite place – Lamar Valley
We saw wolves every day – here is a black wolf in the distance behind a few bison out in Lamar
King of Lamar
Cooperative Cooper’s Hawk
The Yellowstone River from the Junction Butte trail

We opted for what we hoped would be a less crowded route on the 6-mile one way dirt road, the Blacktail Plateau Drive. Even that was crowded, but we got lucky, and at one point saw a badger run across the road in front of us. There wasn’t a car behind us so we pulled over and got out to see where it had gone. It had a hole right next to the road and had been digging, probably searching for aestivating ground squirrels, on both sides of the dirt road. While we were standing there, the badger poked its head out and stared at us, then retreated back into the burrow. We parked the truck, grabbed our cameras, and sat down a safe distance from the hole. We spent 30 minutes or so with this guy and watched as it would come out, check us out, then run across the road (out of our sight) to dig and then run back whenever it heard another car approaching. The fact that we sat still and didn’t stare at it the whole time seemed to put the badger at ease (maybe those two are just scrawny bison) and it soon paid us little mind.

Our Badger buddy
Badgers have grizzled fur that is longest along the sides, giving it an edge of fur that looks like a hairy skirt

We didn’t want to cause a badger jam (attract others to stop and disturb the badger) so, when we heard a car approaching, we would put our cameras down and pretend to be taking selfies or landscape shots with our phones. As soon as the car passed, we would get ready, as the badger would soon pop back up, glance at us, then scurry out to hunt. We finally had to move on, leaving our furry friend alone in his beautiful back yard.

Watching the Badger along Blacktail Plateau Drive

Sunday afternoon was hot, as hot as it gets in Yellowstone. At 6 pm it was 88 degrees. The next day, with the prediction calling for falling temperatures and snow, we headed to camp early to set up and wait out the storm. By 6 pm Monday, the temperature was 38 degrees and snow and sleet was falling.

Pebble Creek Campground in snow

There was about 2 inches of snow on the ground and the temperature was 18 degrees as we drove into Lamar the next morning. What a change from the heat and humidity of home. Lamar was beautiful with fresh snow and the wildlife didn’t seem bothered. Th biggest change we saw was a group of Sandhill Cranes strolling in the flats of the valley flipping buffalo chips (poo piles). There is a large community of invertebrates associated with buffalo scat and several species (I have seen Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Clark’s Nutcrackers, and Ravens) will flip over the drying chips looking for an insect snack. The cranes methodically made their way through the garden of chips, flipping them over, and occasionally pecking at something underneath.

Pronghorn buck in Lamar

We had visited our friends, Dan and Cindy, the day before and Dan had asked if we wanted to go with him to check on some camera traps he has set up outside the park. Dan is a wildlife photographer and his stunning photographs appear in a new book called Pika Country, about how climate change is impacting one of the most fascinating small mammals of the high mountains.

Dan’s photography appears in this new book about Pikas and climate change

He is also a filmmaker and guide and is working on a new project about the Beartooths, the incredible mountains outside the northeast entrance to Yellowstone. We have had many adventures with Dan over the years, so we said sure. It turns out he had set camera traps on a squirrel midden, an area where Red Squirrels bury cones for their winter food supply. Other critters, most notably Black and Grizzly Bears, search out these middens and steal the pine nuts (especially Whitebark Pine Nuts) hidden below ground by the industrious squirrels.

Beartooth Butte

Dan had seen bears in this area and was hoping to capture some on camera. But he is wary of going into that area alone. He casually mentioned this is a little like visiting a carcass (a no-no in grizzly country), in that it is a food supply for hungry bears, so having several people (all with bear spray) is a better idea. We drove out to the site, parked, and headed into the trees, making a lot of noise as we walked so any bears in the area would hear us.

Bear excavation of a squirrel midden

The area around the midden was dug up in several places and one camera had been jostled by something, knocking it loose from its strap. When we got back to the car, we played the cards on the laptop and got footage (you’ll have to wait for his film) of both Black Bears and Grizzlies digging up the cones. And there were fresh Grizzly tracks in the snow!

The next morning was cold (15 degrees) and clear as we drove south through Yellowstone headed for Grand Teton National Park. I love Yellowstone, but the Tetons are certainly one of the more majestic landscapes I have ever seen. The Tetons seem to jump out of the flat sagebrush plains that surround it and reach for the heavens. There are 8 peaks over 12,000 feet in this range which stretches about 40 miles. One of the most iconic views is from Oxbow Bend, an old meander cut off from the nearby Snake River. We passed through mid-afternoon (it is best viewed at sunrise and sunset) and crowds were lining the pull outs enjoying the scenery and perhaps hoping for a view of the park’s iconic Grizzly mama, #399, and her four cubs. There were large flashing road signs warning drivers to use caution as this zone is a bear crossing area (never seen that one before). By the way, 399 is probably the most famous bear in the world and has her own Facebook and Twitter accounts!

The Tetons from Oxbow Bend

Now i know how most tourists feel that have only a short time in a park – so much you want to see and do, but you must keep moving. Our incentive was finding another camping spot for the night and there were a few forest service roads we needed to check out. The snowfall was heavier here and left lots of broken trees and mud on the formerly dusty roads. Luckily, we passed a forest service ranger driving in the opposite direction who kindly stopped to chat when I waved him down. He advised us to not head any further up this road as it was very muddy and some trees were down. He suggested we follow him to a nearby road he was going to check that had some marked dispersed campsites. That was a very lucky encounter as it no doubt saved us a lot of time and hassle, and the campsite we found proved to be not too shabby, especially the view!

The Tetons at sunrise from our campsite

One of my other highlights from the trip that lacks a photographic record (like the elk that night in the Bighorns) was the sky that night. Even with a little haze from wildfire smoke, the night sky was as brilliant and filled with stars as I can ever remember. At daybreak, we broke camp and turned the truck toward the East.

A Bevy of Badgers

Badger – to bother, harass, or annoy…persistently; on and on; without stop; relentlessly; over and over; endlessly.

Badger habitat

Wonder where that verb comes from? Whatever its origin, this is the summer of the Badger in Yellowstone. The animal, that is…a persistent, relentless digger that roams the sagebrush flats in search of prey. This year I saw the most American Badgers I have ever seen in my 25+ years of visiting the park. They live in habitats similar to this in the area called Little America in Yellowstone’s northern range,.

Uinta Ground Squirrel near Badger den

Uinta Ground Squirrel near Badger den

The usual prey here is the omnipresent Uinta Ground Squirrel, itself a proficient burrower. Last year our teacher workshop encountered a Badger in this same area so I brought my group there this year in hopes of seeing another. As we approached, I spotted an adult Badger waddling across the trail carrying a ground squirrel.

Badger head peeking out of sagebrush

It quickly vanished in a large hole at the base of a boulder, only to reappear a few seconds later to peer through the sagebrush at us. It disappeared back into the burrow, only to come out again and move to another hole nearby.

badger digging

Badger digging

There it quickly began throwing dirt as it dug and soon disappeared into that hole. Badgers are well adapted to their digging life style: they have nicitating membranes on their eyes to protect them from dirt and debris; they have small ear canals; their body is flattened and their neck muscular, which helps in the digging process; they have long, sharp claws and their toes are partially webbed; and the loose skin may help them turn in tight tunnels. And burrow they do – they rarely use the same burrow for sleeping or resting more than a few times (except for burrows with young) and they are constantly digging for prey so a single Badger is estimated to dig well over a thousand burrows in a year.

And for some reason, Badgers are super abundant this year in Yellowstone, including a well-photographed den near the road in Little America. The female must have moved her young into that den after I arrived because the second time I went through the area ( a week after the first) the park had placed signs and cones along the road to help keep people a reasonable distance from the den. And every day for the next several there was a “badger jam” at that site with lots of long lenses waiting for some action.

Badgers at den 3

Badger adult and young at den along road

I joined in the jam for a few minutes to snap some shots and let my group do the same, and then we moved on, as I prefer to be away from the crowds to watch wildlife whenever possible.

Badgers at den 1

Badger baby nipping at adult at den site

Badgers have been widely watched this spring in the park with two well known incidents happening in front of visitors. In two dramatic cases, a Badger had raided a den site and fought, evicted, and killed the young of a Coyote and of a Red Fox. I had seen images of one incident on a web site I follow and wolf watchers told me about the the other they had witnessed at a Coyote den in Lamar Valley. Coyotes are supposedly one of the major predators on Badgers, especially the young, but here was a case of the reverse. And Badger numbers may be up, in part at least, due to the decline of Coyotes on the northern range after the reintroduction of wolves.

Badger burrow

Badger burrow

I returned to the secluded Badger burrow we had found earlier only to find no badger so I waited. I finally walked away from the hole a hundred feet or so just checking the area when I spotted the familiar black and white pattern of a Badger face in the sagebrush. The Badger had apparently moved the young to another burrow near the original one. This time I was able to get quick shots of both an adult and a young gazing out at their world through the vegetation.

Badger adult

Badger adult

Badger baby

Badger juvenile

Their is a certain satisfaction in observing wildlife with no one else or just your group around. I visited this “private” badger group a couple of times and was rewarded with a close encounter with this family of weasel relatives as they shuffled around their den site, grunting ad snorting as they went about their daily lives. I enjoy this type of wildlife encounter the most – one where you really get the feel of an animal as it behaves the way it normally does without interference from crowds of people. On your next wildlife watching outing, I hope you are as fortunate.