All Roads Lead To…

To those who know it and love it, Yellowstone is not so much a place as it is a concept—it is a bastion of wilderness and a beautiful,… reminder of all that once was pristine, bold, and untamed.

~Bob Sihler

This is the next to last in the series of reports on our truck camping trip in the month of May. No surprise to those that know us, we ended up heading toward Yellowstone by way of Grand Teton National Park, staying with friends that have recently moved to Jackson. Sam and Bright are wildlife watchers and photographers extraordinaire so it was great hearing about their plans and the many incredible things they have observed after moving west this spring. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperating as we headed out the next morning in conditions of gray skies, occasional rain and snow flurries, and lots of visitors on the park roads.

The Tetons are majestic even in gray skies (black and white photo) – click photos to enlarge

We spent the one full day in the Tetons going down some familiar roads looking for wildlife and then exploring a few dirt roads we had never traveled. A pair of Moose were being watched by 50+ people near Taggart Lake, so we stopped to take a look.

Moose yearling and mother resting in the vegetation

This is the type of image you get when you don’t have time to wait an hour or more for the critters to stand up and move around after a big breakfast, but we needed to move on. One of our highlights was a drive down a bumpy gravel road to Spalding Bay on Jackson Lake. Near the end of that road was a sharp curve with a pullout. A path up a swale seemed to lead to a potential nice view of the mountains so off we went. Elk scat was abundant and we soon found ourselves going to that next hill top to take a look. There, we saw a small pond and heard calling Boreal Chorus Frogs, so, naturally, we had to walk a bit further.

View from a small pond on our short hike near Spalding Bay

Later that evening, we had dinner with a former college classmate of Melissa’s that has lived in Jackson for many years. Our discussions included some of the realities of living in such an idyllic and desirable setting as Jackson – extremely high real estate prices and very long winters are a couple of the less pleasant things you have to deal with if you want to live in this paradise.

We bid our friends farewell the next morning and headed north to that place we think of as our second home, Yellowstone. While the previous day produced very few wildlife sightings, the drive out of Grand Teton National Park gave us two separate Grizzly Bear sightings and one of a family of Black Bears.

One of two grizzlies foraging across the Snake River at the famous Oxbow Bend turnout
A bear jam

When you see this many cars (the line of parked cars stretched over a quarter of a mile), it is generally for a bear, and this time of year in the Tetons, generally a grizzly. Traffic had come to a stop, so Melissa got out and walked ahead to see if she could see anything. She finally was able to look ahead and saw two sub-adult grizzlies out along the road edge with a crowd of people waaaay too close to them. At that point, a ranger vehicle arrived, turned on its siren while driving toward the bears, and hazed them back into the woods. Rangers then started to attempt to control the crowd (it is often easier to control the bear than the people). I picked up Melissa while our truck crawled through the cars and people. She managed to snap a quick pic of one of the bears (which had walked back out closer to the road) as we drove by under the watchful eyes of two rangers.

One of the grizzlies that was the focus of the bear jam

So, that was our experience in the Tetons, bad weather, beautiful scenery, and hordes of visitors. We anticipated even larger crowds at Yellowstone, but were pleasantly surprised. After a few stops to take in some scenic views, we pulled over along the Yellowstone River to try to photograph one of my favorite birds in the park, Eared Grebes. A stunning bird, with their dark plumage, golden ear swag, and scarlet red eyes, Eared Grebes are known nesters in the park. This was a group of a dozen or so swimming upstream in the river. Most of them had their heads tucked and their rump feathers raised (which is one way they increase their body temperature, allowing sunlight to reach their dark skin beneath the feathers). Below the waterline, their legs were paddling away to help maintain their position or move them slightly upstream over time. We sat down on a boulder upstream of the birds and waited, taking way too many photos as they gradually swam past us.

Eared Grebe on the Yellowstone River
Why, yes, I do look good

We called our friend, Beth, an education ranger in the park, to try to arrange a short visit. We met her at the old schoolhouse in Mammoth Hot Springs where she was wrapping up a meeting. A few cow Elk were grazing in the lawn (Mammoth is one of the best places in the park to see Elk). Beth had seen a calf with one of the cows before we arrived, but when we went around to the back of the building, it was nowhere to be found, no doubt hidden in the sparse sagebrush on the hill. When we rounded the corner, one cow raised her head and stared at us and then glanced up the hill, probably in the direction of her hidden calf. We stood and talked for several minutes and the cow resumed grazing, occasionally looking our way and back up the hill. I kept scanning the slope and finally found the calf, given away only by a flick of its ear.

A cow Elk watches us to make sure we don’t move any closer to her calf
The hidden Elk calf..can you see it?

We ended up going into the gateway community of Gardiner to visit with Beth and her family for a little while and to dream of some day living here. On our return to the park, we spotted a group of young bighorn sheep in Gardiner Canyon (a fairly predictable place to see them). A few of the younger sheep started playing and ran across the steep slope, causing dirt and rocks to tumble down. It always amazes me what these gravity-defying mammals can do on these cliffs.

Young Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep running across a cliff face, causing loose rock and dirt to break free

Being a holiday weekend, we had made lodging arrangements in Silver Gate, outside the northeast entrance, as we figured the few Forest Service dispersed camping areas near the park would be crowded. We spent the late afternoon driving through my favorite part of Yellowstone and seeing many of the park’s iconic wildlife. One of the highlights of this time of year is the abundance of baby animals, especially the baby bison, or “red dogs”.

Baby bison are orange-red in color for the first few months of their lives
They are either up and running and playing, pestering mom, or flat out on the ground asleep
A bull Elk in velvet

Passing through Little America and into Lamar Valley feels like being home. We had been in the park for only a few hours and already seen Coyotes, Wolves, Elk, Bison, Grizzly Bears, Black Bears, Pronghorn, Mule Deer, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, Rocky Mountain Goats, and lots of birds from Ravens to Bald Eagles. And, to our surprise, there were no crowds! As we drove through the upper end of Lamar Valley, a car going in our direction in front of us was driving slowly on the opposite side of the road. It was following what I at first thought was a Coyote off the side of road, down a slight incline. As we got closer, I realized it was a pale-colored Red Fox (giving us a “3 Dog Day” – seeing all three of Yellowstone’s canid species in one day). I attempted a pic as we drove by, but didn’t want to stop in the middle of the road with other cars nearby. We continued down the road about a half mile and pulled out at a parking area. We got out and walked over to a low ridge overlooking a small stream. We were still within sight of the road, should the fox continue along that route. The fox was trotting along at a good pace and then crossed to our side of the road and took a path along the stream. It stopped and caught a small mammal of some sort and ate it, and I figured it would continue along the waterway, looking for more furry snacks. But, it crossed over and disappeared beneath the crest of the ridge we were on. Suddenly, it popped up just below us. It paused, glanced our way, and then continued along the ridge line, passing within about 20 feet of us, seemingly unconcerned.

The fox came up the ridge and then trotted by us, giving us the highlight of our wildlife encounters for the trip
After a brief pause, the fox continued on its way, passing very close to us as we watched
What a beautiful animal!
After passing us, the fox stopped, looked around, and then continued on across the valley

That was a magical moment, just us and the fox out in our favorite place on Earth, with no one else around. A short distance up the road, we watched as a small herd of Bison waded across the creek. I always stop and watch whenever I see these magnificent beasts crossing waterways. This was an easy place to wade across, but there have been times when we have seen them struggle against the swift current of a snow-melt swollen river.

Bison crossing Soda Butte Creek

The next morning, as we drove through Lamar, we could not believe how few cars we saw. This was Saturday of Memorial Day weekend in one of the most popular parks in the nation, and the pullouts in Lamar Valley were virtually empty! We stopped and enjoyed watching a sow Grizzly and two cubs of the year playing and rolling on a snow bank on a high ridge across the valley (spotting scopes are a must in Lamar). Someone else with a scope mentioned seeing a Gray Wolf on the shoreline of the river across the valley. We scanned, and sure enough, a collared wolf was tugging at a carcass (probably a bison). For the next 15 minutes or so the wolf pulled off chunks of meat with a squadron of Ravens overseeing the operation. When she was done, she began to trot across the valley in our direction, and toward where we knew the wolf den at Slough Creek was located, about 3 miles behind us. Based on online images of collared wolves of the Junction Butte Pack, we think this was the female wolf called 907F. Once the alpha female, she has been replaced in that pack position by another wolf.

Collared wolf heading back across Lamar Valley with a full belly

Somehow, the wolf managed to cross the road without anyone near us seeing it (a local guide drove down and said he saw it from another pullout as it crossed the road just beyond us). We turned, and there she was, headed up the steep slope and over the ridge. We drove over to the Slough Creek den site and pulled into a location away from the groups of wolf watchers, hoping to see her come across the road and swim the creek to head up to the den. The den is easily visible through spotting scopes, about a mile away from where you park along the Slough Creek dirt road. While we waited, we observed several pups playing with a few of the adult wolves around the den. I noticed some people just down the road looking back behind us toward a low area hidden from our view by a small hill. I thought the wolf might appear, but she did not. We later learned that those people had indeed seen the wolf come down that gap. She must have seen the people on the road and turned around. The next thing we know she is magically across Slough Creek and regurgitating a meal for the excited pups! I spoke to several of the wolf watchers and they did not see her cross the road or the creek. These wolves are very good at avoiding people. We stayed a while longer enjoying the view of the wolves, and then headed back toward Lamar Valley.

On our trip through the valley that morning we saw a small group of people sitting along the road with cameras pointing down-slope toward a large burrow. We paused and asked and they said it was a badger den. On our way back, a larger crowd had gathered and we could see the badger was out. Since there was no place to stop, we just drove by slowly and Melissa took several photos out her window. The one below is my favorite as it shows one of the cubs looking up at the adult.

Badger den in Lamar Valley – just look at those claws on the adult! (photo by Melissa Dowland)

Though it was very windy, we did a couple of short walks to get away from the road and were, as is almost always the case, totally alone in our favorite place.

Wolf tracks in the sagebrush flats
Uinta Ground Squirrel giving us the side eye as we walk by its burrow

After dinner in Silver Gate, we came back into the park and saw a couple of cars pulled over at a bridge across Soda Butte Creek. A young bull Moose was the attraction. We go out and spent a few minutes admiring it from the bridge until one person decided to walk towards it and spooked it.

Young bull Moose in the northeast portion of the park, the best area to see these magnificent animals

Our one full day in Yellowstone had been full of wildlife sightings. We even had an elusive “octo-ungulate” day, seeing all eight of the ungulate (hoofed mammal) species in the park – Bison, Elk, Moose, Mule Deer, White-tailed Deer, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, Rocky Mountain Goat, and Pronghorn (Moose, and especially White-tailed Deer, are the toughest to see). In less than 24-hours, we watched wolves at their den, enjoyed seeing baby bison frolic in the sagebrush, had an amazing encounter with a fox, and saw almost every other type of wildlife the park offers. We wanted to make this day stretch on as long as possible as we knew we were headed East the next morning. As has happened so many times in the past, Lamar Valley put on a stunning show for us as the daylight waned. I always like to think the park is somehow thanking us for the visit and reminding us to return. And we can’t wait until we do…

Reflections of Lamar in a roadside pool
Sunset over the Lamar River

Watching Wolves

It was clear to me in an instant why nearly 100,000 people say they come to Yellowstone each year just to see wolves.

~Frank Clifford, in Howling Success

I have been going to Yellowstone since the early 1980’s, a decade before wolves were reintroduced. In my early trips, it often seemed like I had the northern range (areas like Little America and Lamar Valley) to myself. There were no major tourist attractions on the road out to the northeast entrance – no geysers, no canyons, no lodges or restaurants. Some days it seemed it was just the wildlife and me. After Gray Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995, visitors suddenly “discovered” that part of the park as it was, and probably still is, the best place in the park (maybe even the world), to observe wolves in the wild.

I always feel a bit of pressure to make sure my clients see a Gray Wolf, and this trip was no different. The first couple of days with them were wolf-less. Luckily, the abundance of Grizzly Bear sightings took some of that pressure off. Then, on our first trip through Lamar Valley, in dwindling light, a black wolf crossed the road in front of us and gave our group a great view as it moved off across the sagebrush flats near the river. Over the next couple of days in the northern range, we saw a distant wolf on an elk carcass and watched as a large Black Bear claimed the prize without incident, and saw two wolves feeding at a Bison carcass far across the river in Lamar.

wolf escorted away from bison carcass

A Gray Wolf being escorted away from a Bison carcass

On the group’s last morning, we witnessed some amazing interactions at that same carcass. When we first arrived there were two wolves just leaving the carcass, and they were being herded by a group of several Bison that seemed none too pleased that these predators were dining on one of their own. The Bison eventually pushed the wolves away and convinced them today was not a good day to continue feeding. Meanwhile, a Grizzly came down out of the woods and eventually claimed the carcass, in spite of being initially held off by the same agitated Bison. Quite a Lamar farewell for my group – a Grizzly Bear, two Gray Wolves, and a protective herd of Bison interacting in the same field of view of our binoculars.

Gray wolf male

A large gray-colored wolf crossed the road near me in Lamar Valley

So, even though the group did witness some excellent wolf behavior, I still felt a tad guilty about what they had missed in my first two days in the park before they arrived. On the second evening, while parked in Lamar Valley, looking at a carcass of a roadkill Mule Deer that had been feeding various scavengers all day, I glanced out in front of the car and saw a wolf headed toward me. It was one of those rare moments when there is almost no one else around and a wolf suddenly shows itself.

Male wolf scent marking

The male wolf marking his territory

It quickly became apparent this was the alpha male of the much diminished Lamar Canyon pack, a wolf known to researchers as 925M. This pack now has only two adult wolves and an unknown (as yet) number of pups.

06 Alpha female, Lamar Canyon pack

Wolf 06 crossed the road near us in June, 2012

It was in June two years ago, when I was with another group, that we were thrilled by the presence of what is probably one of the most famous wolves in the history of Yellowstone, a wolf known simply as 06. She was then the formidable alpha female of the Lamar Canyon pack, whose territory encompassed much of the prime wildlife habitat of Lamar Valley in the northeastern portion of the park. In December of 2012, she was legally killed by a hunter about 15 miles outside of the park boundary. After the de-listing of Gray Wolves from protection under the Endangered Species Act, states adjacent to the park opened hunting seasons. As with other wildlife, wolves do not recognize park boundaries, and on one of her packs’ forays just outside the boundary, 06 was killed. Another collared male of the pack was also killed that same hunting season. The end result was the disruption of the pack (the alpha male was the father of the remaining pack females and thus he left to start another pack). The current alpha female of the Lamar Canyon pack is the daughter of 06.

Gray wolf male 1

925M is the alpha male of the two-member Lamar Canyon pack

The alpha male is easily recognizable as he is a large, collared male wolf and he has a floppy right ear. After crossing the road near me, he marked his territory, and then paused and glanced around at the few cars that were starting to gather.

gray wolf male 3

925M pauses for a quick look before heading up the hill

Although brief, it was an incredible encounter with a beautiful wolf. It will be challenging for a pack with only two wolves to raise their pups and defend their territory. But, reading Yellowstone Reports since my return shows that they have been successful thus far, with recent kills of a Mule Deer and an Elk. It will be interesting to follow this pair over the next year.

wolf coming to carcass

A light-colored Gray Wolf heads to a carcass in Gibbon Meadows

As if the encounter with 925M wasn’t enough, there was yet another wolf sighting the day before my group arrived. Coming through Gibbon Meadows, I saw a group of cars stopped and pulled over to catch a glimpse of a very light-colored wolf (probably a member of the Canyon pack) before it disappeared into the trees. The pack had killed an Elk and was coming and going to the carcass, which was hidden in the trees near the pullout. Later that same day, I returned to the site and waited. There were three Bald Eagles and some Ravens on the carcass, but no wolves. Just about when many in the crowd (including me) seemed to be getting ready to head out, the light wolf trotted out of the woods and headed our way.

Wolf on carcass in trees

The wolf pulling meat off the carcass

The wolf went directly to the carcass and was seen pulling and tugging at the meat.

wolf carrying morsel from carcass

Wolf carrying morsel from carcass

After several minutes, the wolf walked out of the trees, carrying a piece of the carcass under the watchful eyes of some Ravens.

wolf departing carcass

The wolf appeared quite full after feeding on the carcass

The wolf walked out in the meadow and used its nose to scrape a shallow hole. It dropped the piece of meat into the hole. I heard several comments echoing my thoughts….as soon as that wolf walks away, those Ravens will be all over that meat.

Wolf laying down near cache

The wolf laid down next to its cache

We should have given the wolf more credit….it walked a few feet away and then laid down next to its cache of food. After staring at us for a few moments, it laid flat for a good, long nap, but probably still had one eye open in case the Ravens got too close. After watching it for another 15 minutes or so, I decided to head north for the afternoon, feeling lucky to have seen another chapter in the life of a Yellowstone wolf.