Ungulates. The most boring animals on earth. All they do is stand around and chew their cud.

~Hal Brindley

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).

We saw huge herds of Elk near Gardiner and out in Paradise Valley, north of the park (click photos to enlarge)
A magnificent bull Elk along the Old Yellowstone Trail Road

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.

Attracting wildlife to your school yard is probably not a teacher workshop they need in Gardiner

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.

There were large herds of Pronghorn on the Old Yellowstone Trail Road out of Gardiner
Male (top) and female (head down) Pronghorns. Males have prongs on their horns and a black patch along the jawline and neck area. Females can have horns (most do) but they are shorter and lack the prongs..

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).

A buck Pronghorn watching a photographer who has left his car and is walking toward the animals

Below is a Pronghorn rump in action…

A calm rump patch
A “hey dude, why are you getting out of your car for a photo” rump patch
The aforementioned photographer crept closer to the Pronghorn, eliciting this displeased response (see how raised the white rump hairs are)

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.

A bighorn ewe in the golden light of late afternoon

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…

The first ram I saw was lounging on a snow bank chewing its cud
This ram had everyone’s attention because of its perch on the top of the cliff. I walked down away from the small cluster of roadside photographers and found a spot where the ram was silhouetted against a patch of blue sky through the tree limbs
From another angle, the ram’s horn curl was on full display

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.

Two bull Bison in the lower Baronette area
This old bull was plowing snow with his head to reach grasses underneath
Here is the Bison carcass that had been picked clean by wolves and scavengers. You can see the thoracic vertebrae are long, giving the Bison the humped appearance. This provides attachment points for the massive neck and shoulder muscles Bison use to snow plow through deep snow to access dried grasses.
I watched this bull for about 15 minutes before it raised its head out of the snow for this pic
The other bull was covered in snow as it fed (these photos are cropped images from photos taken with a long lens from the roadside)

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?

Elk and Islands in the Sky

Elk meadow in Cataloochee Valley

Cataloochee Valley (click photos to enlarge)

I had an outing this weekend with a great group of folks in Cataloochee Valley and up on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Our goals were to observe the elk during the mating season ritual called the rut and experience the beauty of the mountains during the fall leaf season. I’d say mission accomplished on both. It was overcast and cool on Saturday morning as we drove into the valley. We were greeted at the entrance by one lone bull elk and a little farther down the road a large crowd of visitors at the first elk herd.

Bull Elk in Cataloochee Valley

Bull Elk in Cataloochee Valley

One large bull was busy herding his harem of cows and occasionally chasing off a small spike bull that was feeding some distance from the herd of cows (but apparently not far enough away for the big bull). Early morning is one of the best times to see the elk as they tend to be feeding and, during the rut in September and October, interacting with one another.

Bull Elk bugling

Bull Elk bugling

Each year at this time males in their prime (usually 5 to 8 years of age) gather small herds of cows and calves and aggressively defend them from other bulls. This is done by a series of displays: bugling, a hauntingly beautiful and surprisingly high-pitched call; thrashing bushes and other vegetation with their antlers; and occasionally engaging in sparring matches with other large bulls by locking antlers and shoving in a show of strength.

Bull Elk checking a cow in his harem

Bull Elk courting a collared cow

When the cows come into estrus, the mating begins. A cow is receptive for mating less than 24 hours. She won’t be willing to mate again until her second estrus cycle arrives in 20 days so bulls are constantly checking on the cows in their herd. Bulls can be quite aggressive toward cows as they herd them, but then during courtship their behavior is decidedly more gentle. He may approach her and lick her to check her receptiveness and, if she is ready and willing, mount her to mate. This day had no actual mating or fights with other males, but the bull stayed busy, bugled often, and looked exhausted at times (bulls may lose 20% of their weight during the rut).

Palmer Church

Palmer Church

The rest of the day we explored the woods and stream sides and walked around some of the many historic structures in the valley. Several houses and barns, a one room school, cemeteries and a church are all that remain of a once thriving community that had to leave when the land became part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934. There are auto tour brochures available for a nominal fee at the information kiosk near the valley entrance that give a detailed history of the valley and some of its notable inhabitants.

Bull Elk

Bull Elk with fall color

Late in the day we found ourselves (along with hundreds of other visitors in often car-clogged roads) watching the elk as they returned to the fields after being in the shade of the forest much of the day.

Mist along mountain ridge

Early morning mist along Blue Ridge Parkway

The next morning most of the group wanted to head up onto the Blue Ridge Parkway for some fall color so we headed out and started heading north from Balsam Gap. The cool night and humid atmosphere had created ideal conditions for mist and low hanging clouds, a photographers dream for this time of year on the Parkway.

Ocen of clouds in valley below Blue Ridge Parkway

Ocean of clouds in valley below Blue Ridge Parkway

At first, we saw only patches of mist hugging some ridges. As we climbed in elevation and the road shifted to the other side of the mountains, an ocean of clouds spread out above the valley floor with isolated peaks popping through the gray sea. This type of scene has given rise to the name, Islands in the Sky, for these mountaintops protruding above the misty sea of clouds. It also refers to the unique ecological communities that are adapted to the cold conditions atop our highest mountains.

panorama from Richland Balsam

Panorama from Richland Balsam

As we continued north, the warmth of the sun caused the sea of clouds to recede leaving us with an unobstructed view of row upon row of ridges speckled with fall colors.

Yellowstone Falls 1

Lower part of Yellowstone Falls

Our final stop was a short hike down to Yellowstone Falls, one of the more popular hikes along this section of the Parkway. After winding through a thicket of Rhododendron and Mountain Laurel, you come out on a beautiful series of waterfalls. The hike is well worth the steep climb back out. And here’s something to consider next time you visit a popular waterfall. If you are at the top of the falls and look down and see a group of people with cameras looking up at you, try not to stay too long out in the open…they may be waiting for a chance to get a photo or two of the scene without people in the picture. As we parted ways, I think we all were appreciative of the sights and sounds we had experienced on this magnificent fall weekend. I look forward to the cooler weather and changing landscape and wildlife that the new season will bring.

Here are a few more photos from the trip.

Barn siding

Boards of historic barn in Cataloochee Valley

Young bull Elk with velvet on antlers

Young bull Elk with velvet on antlers

Rough sawn board on Palmer barn

Rough sawn board on Palmer barn

Mountain Ash berries 1g

Mountain Ash berries

Sassafras leaves

Sassafras leaves

Red Spruce against ocean of clouds

Red Spruce against ocean of clouds