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Prime time for wildlife Gray wolves are Yellowstone’s star a

Post by pawnee » Sun Feb 15, 2009 9:19 pm

Prime time for wildlife Gray wolves are Yellowstone’s star attraction
Winter brings wildlife – bison, deer, elk and the star attraction, gray wolves – close to the road at Yellowstone National Park

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. – We were expecting to see plenty of wildlife on a winter outing to Yellowstone National Park, but – silly us – we thought we might have to get through the entrance first.

But as we drove through the gateway community of Gardiner, Mont., toward the Roosevelt Arch, the century-old ceremonial north entrance t o Yellowstone, we were distracted by the action on the gridiron at Gardiner Public School. A herd of bison covered the field.

Beyond, more bison grazed on the school’s front lawn. Bison lounged on the sidewalk at its main entrance. Bison wandered among the cars in the parking lot.

“Those kids must have to be awfully careful going to and from class,” my wife remarked. More people in Yellowstone are injured by bison than fall victim to grizzly bears – though numbers for both are very low.

A few snapshots, and then it was through the Arch for the short drive to the entrance station. More bison grazed just inside the park boundary. Interspersed among them were bands of elk and pronghorn antelope. Within the next two hours, we also would see bighorn sheep, mule deer, coyotes, a bald eagle and more bison – all from the road.

Summer visitors to Yellowstone also expect to see wildlife. But most don’t realize that winter can be prime time for wildlife viewing. Deep snow in the high country drives elk, deer and bison down into the open valleys, where the weather is milder and they can more easily paw or push snow aside to get to the dried grass beneath.

And where the grazing animals gather, predators follow – particularly the gray wolf, which has achieved star status since its reintroduction to Yellowstone in 1995. At any given moment on any winter day, dozens of binoculars and spotting scopes are sweeping the Lamar Valley in northeast Yellowstone from pullouts, looking for any sign of wolves.

This is home turf for my wife and me, since we live only a three-hour drive away, and we tend to visit Yellowstone more in winter than in summer. We enjoy telling stories of being serenaded by wolf and coyote howls echoing off the mountains, of watching a coyote stalk and pounce on a mouse by listening to it scurrying under the snow, of inadvertently skiing so close to a bison that we could watch his bloodshot eyes zero in on us – and of not exhaling until we had put a safe distance between us and the bison.

But there’s more than wildlife in Yellowstone in winter. The frigid air enhances the steam spouting from its famous geysers, making them even more spectacular. Its plateaus and broad valleys are made for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing; some scenic drives in summer are designated cross-country ski trails in winter.

Most of Yellowstone is closed to auto traffic in winter, but the part that is open to cars offers some of the richest wildlife-viewing opportunities in the park. It runs from the park’s northern entrance at Gardiner to the snowbound community of Cooke City, Mont., at the northeast entrance (the road beyond Cooke City is closed in winter).

En route, it passes through the Lamar Valley, which some have called America’s Serengeti. This is where most of the park’s wolf-watchers hang out.

But even areas closed to auto traffic remain open to visitors, via snowmobile or snow coach. Visitors can travel by snow coach to Old Faithful and ski the circuit around the Upper Geyser Basin, the largest geyser concentration in the world. After skiing, visit the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, a modern hotel that invites visitors to curl up in comfy lounging chairs in front of lobby fireplaces.

Those staying in gateway communities can also take snow coaches into the park on day trips. Cross-country skiers can access scheduled ski drops and pickups for specific trails from in-park hotels.

And for those staying near the north entrance, winter is the best time to try that special Yellowstone experience called hot-potting.

As you drive the five miles from Gardiner to Mammoth Hot Springs, you will cross the Gardner River. You may notice a big parking lot to your left – seemingly serving nothing. It’s not marked, but this is the best opportunity in Yellowstone to take a dip in a wild hot springs without having to hike for 20 miles first.

Park rules require that you walk upstream about a half-mile from the parking area to where the footpath reaches the river. Here waters from the Boiling River hot spring mix in pools with cold water from the Gardner River. (Note that hot-potting is allowed during daylight hours only.)

You won’t be alone. And take care in how you dress – there are no changing rooms (but bathing suits are required), and you’ll have that hike back through the snow and wind after your dip. But the experience of soaking in steaming hot water in a river during a snowstorm is one you will never forget.

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. – It is a sunny winter afternoon, and Simond Raymond has a problem.

His flight home to Yverdon-les-Bains in Switzerland leaves this evening from Bozeman, Mont. But at the moment, Raymond is standing in the snow of the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park, 120 miles away.

He must get his rental car over 30 miles of twisty mountain road, much of it snowpacked and icy, before even reaching the main highway, then another 90 miles, including a mountain pass, to the airport.

How late, he asks, can he delay his departure from Yellowstone? How far can he push his luck before he must leave? After 10 straight days of watching wolves, how many more minutes can he squeeze in on this snowy, remote roadway, in hopes of just one more sighting?

Still, he assures me, it has been a successful trip.

“We’ve seen wolves every day,” he says, smiling. “Sometimes the weather is very bad – but we saw the wolves.”

Raymond fits into a category of Yellowstone visitor that did not exist 15 years ago – the wolf-watcher.

After being wiped out in the park early in the 20th century, 31 gray wolves were reintroduced in 1995 and 1996. They flourished. Today, more than 350 of their descendants roam the park and surrounding area, preying on the abundant elk, deer and bison.

When they were first released, some experts predicted they would fade quickly into the Yellowstone backcountry and sightings would be rare.

But the opposite happened. Wolves quickly learned that humans seldom left the ribbons of asphalt through the park, and that binoculars and spotting scopes fired no bullets. They learned to ignore people, as long as they weren’t approached, and Yellowstone’s “frontcountry” – that area visible from the road – simply became another part of their turf.

Wolf-watching began almost immediately after the first wolves were released from acclimation pens, and some people became addicted. They have become a subculture of Yellowstone – enthusiasts from afar who devote their vacations, and locals who devote their days off – to watching and recording wolf behavior in the park.

The combination of wolves cavorting close to the road and a dedicated cadre of amateur wolf experts has helped make wolf-watching one of Yellowstone’s favorite activities. Longtime wolf-watchers usually are happy to share their expertise with other visitors, explaining wolf activity and often offering to let visitors use their already-aimed, high-powered spotting scopes.

And winter is a prime time for watching wolves. Deep snow in the high country drives elk and deer down into the valleys. Wolves and their prey are easier to spot against the snowy background. And crowds are almost nonexistent.

The best wolf-watching is in northeastern Yellowstone, in the Lamar Valley. While success in finding and viewing wolves involves both persistence and luck, it is not a difficult pursuit.

Like other predators, wolves are most active early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Given Yellowstone’s short winter days, being in the Lamar Valley early and late is not onerous, but it requires a measure of dedication. Once there, watch for people clustered around spotting scopes on tripods in roadway turnouts. They will be your best sources of information.

Don’t be abrupt or demanding in seeking their guidance. Wolf-watchers are not paid to be tour guides; they are in the Lamar for their own enjoyment, and their expensive scopes are for their own use. A friendly and respectful approach can yield tips, stories, pointers and a chance to watch wolves through their spotting scopes; demands may draw nothing but a shrug.

If no wolves are visible, ask around. Many hard-core wolf-watchers stay in touch by two-way radio, and they may know of activity elsewhere in the valley. They might also know of a wolf pack frequenting a different part of the valley at a different time of day; plan to be there.

For those who want a more structured approach, a great option is to enroll in a course offered by the Yellowstone Association Institute.

The Yellowstone Association,, is the nonprofit educational group affiliated with the park that operates book stores at visitor centers around the park; its institute offers courses all year ranging from one to several days on various Yellowstone topics, including wolves.

The association maintains a field station in the Lamar Valley called the Buffalo Ranch – buffalo were indeed raised there a century ago, when a different philosophy governed the parks – complete with winterized cabins for rent. Classes are based there and at Mammoth Hot Springs; courses are limited to adults and, in some cases, teenagers. Prices vary, but average roughly $150 per person per day, plus lodging.

Living only three hours from Yellowstone, my wife and I make frequent trips to the park in winter, and our wolf sightings over the years have been memorable.

There was one occasion when we watched with delight as a full pack of wolves played “king on the boulder” less than 50 yards from the Lamar Valley road. One wolf stood atop a 3-foot-high boulder while others in the pack charged and leapt, trying to knock him off and take his place. Their play went on for hours, to a thrilled audience.

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