Ungulates. The most boring animals on earth. All they do is stand around and chew their cud.
It seems there are not a lot of quotes out there about ungulates (hoofed mammals) but I found this one in a clever blog post by someone that I know through social media. I agree with him, that ungulates often get overlooked by a lot of people when there are charismatic mega-fauna like wolves and bears around, but they shouldn’t be, as they are fascinating and beautiful in their own right. Yellowstone has eight species of ungulates (hence the title), seven native to the region (Elk, Bison, Mule Deer, White-tailed Deer, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, Pronghorn, Moose) and one introduced to the area (Rocky Mountain Goats). On this trip, we managed to see the seven native species. It isn’t easy to spot a white goat high on a mountain slope in winter! Not many years ago, the toughest two of the ungulates to find in the park were Moose and White-tailed Deer (Mule Deer are the dominant of what are usually considered deer in the park). But, the past few years we have been seeing more of our familiar white-tails, and this year, was a relative banner year for Moose (more on them in a future post).
Here are some tales (and tails) of some ungulates we observed…
Many of these grazers move to lower elevations in winter due to the usual heavy snow in much of the park.They tend to congregate in the Northern Range due its lower snow pack and in areas near or beyond the North entrance at the town of Gardiner, MT. Indeed, one of the hazards of staying where we did, several miles north of Gardiner, was that we had to run the gauntlet of roadside Elk every morning and evening in darkness (definitely not a critter you want to encounter with your vehicle). These large members of the deer family undoubtedly gain another advantage by relocating to these areas in winter as there are probably fewer wolves due to the human presence (although that means they do encounter hunters).
The town of Gardiner lies in a rain shadow area and is below 6000 ft in elevation, so it tends to have milder winters than most of the park. It is amazing to me how the wildlife adapts to the town (and vice versa). One example is the use of the school’s athletic field as a hangout and grazing spot for Elk, Bison, Pronghorn, and a variety of other critters. I like to think that one unique form of detention at this school involves going out to the field and removing the scat piles before a game.
One ungulate, in particular, tends to leave all but the lowest elevations of the park (near the North entrance) every winter – the Pronghorn. Though they are common in Lamar Valley in summer, they all migrate over 25 miles to spend the winter near Gardiner or even farther north. Deep snow makes it difficult for them to browse and greatly diminishes their primary defense against predators – their speed. They are the fastest land mammal in North America, reaching burst speeds of a little over 60 mph and capable of sustained speeds of 45-50 mph. This makes them the second fastest mammal on Earth, second only to the Cheetah (but Pronghorns can keep up a fast speed longer than a Cheetah). Their large eyes are located on the sides of their head to allow for all-around viewing. And they have a large (for their size) heart, windpipe, and lungs, allowing them to get plenty of oxygen and blood supply for their high-octane movements.
Since vision is such an important trait for Pronghorns, and since they live in herds in open habitats, they have another communication signal used to alert other herd members of danger. If a Pronghorn sees a predator, it raises the white hairs on its rump, making a large white patch visible for considerable distances. They also release an alarm odor from glands on the rump (it supposedly smells like buttered popcorn – probably why you never see Pronghorns at the movies…they would be freaked out all the time).
Below is a Pronghorn rump in action…
I stayed in my car and spent about 45 minutes watching the Pronghorn feed. This is what I really like to do – watch wildlife going about their daily lives. Staying in your vehicle or sitting quietly helps wildlife feel more at ease and allows them to continue feeding, or doing whatever, undisturbed.
Along the same road, there was a large group of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep grazing at the foot of the ridge-line. Many photographers stopped to get photos and one grpup, unfortunately, hiked over to the base of the ridge and obviously disturbed the herd as they moved up the slope. I saw this behavior way too often in the park this time.
On another drive down this road, I had to stop to let a small band of ewes and young cross the road in front of me. I managed one portrait as they sauntered across.
Among the most photographed animals I saw on this trip were a group of bighorn rams hanging out at the usual small cliff near the confluence of Soda Butte Creek and the Lamar River. This is consistently a good spot for sheep in the winter as I guess the small steep rock face provide just enough protection as an escape from potential predators like wolves. The cliff is a short walk from a pullout and you can get decent images from the roadside, which doesn’t seem to bother the rams at all. Here are a couple of examples…
More on the magnificent horns of these rams in a future post.
Finally, a few images of the iconic Bison, America’s National Mammal (designated as such with the passage of the Bison Legacy Act in 2016). It joins the Bald Eagle as a national symbol and represents an amazing comeback from the brink of extinction. Bison numbers went from an estimated 30-40 million roaming North America in the early 1800’s, to fewer than 1000 individuals less than 100 years ago. The causes of this precipitous decline included uncontrolled market hunting (Bison hides were highly valued) and a concerted effort by the U.S. military to remove Native American tribes from the land by taking away their main food source: Bison. Some Bison found protection on private ranches, In Yellowstone, the numbers dwindled to about 24 Bison that survived deep in the park’s interior. In one of the first efforts to try to restore a wild species, park officials in Yellowstone began to manage the remaining herd and enhanced it with wild Bison purchased from private owners. The herd was ranched in Mammoth and then in Lamar Valley at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch. Today, the park’s herd numbers about 5000. More information on Bison and the history of management in the park can be found here.
I have always had an affinity for Yellowstone Bison (I blame the movie Dances with Wolves), so I try to spend some time alone on each trip with these iconic creatures. I managed to spend over an hour one day with two large bulls, watching them feed in a picturesque valley below the towering Baronette Peak. Snow was falling, and then patches of blue sky would appear, and then more snow. None of it fazed the Bison as they plowed through the snow with their massive heads.
I’ll end with one of my favorite teacher quotes from my museum workshop days, penned by Donna, after spending time observing a herd in Lamar Valley…
What must it be like to be a Bison, to own nothing yet have everything?