June, 2005 -- northern range -- Yellowstone National
Driving north up the Slough Creek drainage to camp, Mark
and I clear the hill and observe a very queer sight. Many
dozens of vehicles and certainly hundreds of people litter
the landscape before us. Cars, SUVs and even shorter
campers impede our progress. And out on every section
of roadway, adjacent hillside and close-in meadow people are
milling around, socializing and most remarkably, gazing though
a variety of sophisticated optical equipment. Most prevalent
seem to be relatively high-powered spotting 'scopes.
I pull over, as there is really no choice. I suppose
we could weave though the "traffic" but I'm really
much more interested in this phenomenon. As we make our
way up one of the short hills and to a better vantage point
(for what?) we are greeted by a friendly sort:
"Have you seen the wolves yet?," he asks.
With excitement I proclaim, "Well, no, but can we see
them through your 'scope?"
we don't see them right now, but we know that yesterday
they were visible just on the other side of that knoll,"
he stated, pointing to a formation at least half a mile
"So, hundreds of you guys are out here with the 'scopes,
just for the chance to catch a glimpse of a wolf, even
though no one has seen the elusive creature for 24 hours."
"Actually, we don't see them right now, but we know
that yesterday they were visible just on the other side of
that knoll," he stated, pointing to a formation at least
half a mile away.
"So, hundreds of you guys are out here with the 'scopes,
just for the chance to catch a glimpse of a wolf, even though
no one has seen the elusive creature for 24 hours."
"Sure, so do you want to look through my 'scope and
scan around for wildlife?"
[click image for larger
Having a certain familiarity with optics, I was overjoyed
with this offer. I actually thought I might locate a
wolf. However, after scanning for a few minutes, I became
humbled and frustrated and gave up. Before we left, I
glanced behind me and across the narrow road at a steep, but
negotiable, hill and noticed just a few intrepid souls on
it, looking through 'scopes aimed not at the knoll, but over
and beyond it. (A closer geologic formation was actually
blocking our full vision.) These people seemed very intent
and focused, unlike the party-like atmosphere prevailing below. The
light was almost gone, so I noted this scene to my friend
and suggested that we climb the hill early tomorrow.
"We're getting up at 5 and walking up that hill tomorrow
morning," I demanded. "I'm sure they'll be
some observers with 'scopes up there, and perhaps they'll
point out some wolves to us. I think those guys above
us may actually see wolves right now."
And so began my experience with Yellowstone National Park
"post wolf reintroduction."
When I was a boy, my most vivid experience occurred during
a family trip to Yellowstone. Before the interstates,
my Dad methodically drove us out to Yellowstone from the East
Coast. Our mission was to pick up my sister from her
summer job as hostess at the Old Faithful Lodge. In those
days it was a privilege to work at Yellowstone, as you actually
had to obtain a recommendation from your State's Senator or
Representative to apply. Being from Delaware this routine
was slightly easier, but still, obtaining the job represented
a certain honor for my sister and our family.
When we arrived, we were thrilled to observe and participate
in the well-known bear jams involving many bruins in close
contact with humans. Suffice it to acknowledge that although
these events seemed wonderful to a little boy, there was something
very weird and almost "wrong" with these encounters. Climbing
on cars and interfacing with stupid bear-feeding humans, these
animals were surreally zoo-like and unnatural, as also seemed
much of the other wildlife. Although none of us knew
it at the time, there was a real, quantifiable reason for
this accurate perception.
Yellowstone's main predator (11 years after what is
commonly characterized as the greatest wildlife experiment
of all time -- the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone)
the northern gray wolf, Canis Lupus, indeed now rules the
landscape. He is not only the apex predator of the Boreal
north, he is recently considered to be this area's keystone
species -- that is, the species that effects all life in the
ecosystem -- the species that creates a "Trophic Cascade"
of changing animal behavior, which in response changes plant
colonies and bird activity. The wolf, merely by his presence
and his flourishing in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,
does all this.
reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire
dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known
ever since, that there was something new to me in those
eyes -- something known only to her and to the mountain. I
was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that
because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would
mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green
fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain
agreed with such a view."
-- Aldo Leopold from the Sand County Almanac
"We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green
fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known
ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes
-- something known only to her and to the mountain. I
was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because
fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters'
paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed
that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a
-- Aldo Leopold from the Sand County Almanac
This famous quotation and related literature was perhaps
the beginning of the American lament involving the human-caused
annihilation of the wolf from Yellowstone during the early
20th century. In many ways this line of thought and associated
(correct) assumptions about wolf's impact on larger ecosystems
catalyzed the idea of reintroduction. Below I've listed
several resources that describe the ramp-up and details of
the 1995 reintroduction; one of the most marvelous and unpredicted
consequences of this highly-successful project has been the
actual visibility of the wolves by humans. Rick McIntyre,
Wolf Project member and helpful expert daily year-round presence
along the northern road, notes that he's seen more wolves
in Yellowstone in just a few years than he ever saw in Denali
National Park over more than ten years. (The Wapiti,
or American elk, the wolf's main prey, were, from the very
beginning, acutely aware of the wolf's new-found Yellowstone
I've broken camp and in the running car at 5 A.M.; a groggy
and complaining Mark appears but is not all that happy. We
drive perhaps two miles down to the hill we had noted last
evening, park and begin the ascent. No one is around,
but soon we are joined and quickly overtaken by two young
women. We exchange greetings and offer to carry their
gear, which include sophisticated spotting 'scopes and a radio
antenna with associated electronic mumbo-jumbo. They
graciously reject our offer and, with Mark and I soon following
badly, the four of us reach a small plateau and stop.
"Are you guys here to observe wolves?," Erin asks.
"Yeah, sure," I spout.
"If you wish, once I locate them, you are welcome to
look through our 'scopes."
She pulls out the antenna and hooks it up to a radio-type
device. She turns on the switch and rotates the antenna
until she appears to get a signal. Then she calmly aims
up the 'scope (this takes perhaps 15-20 seconds) and mutters
"Oh, it's 453M and another sub-adult, with two of the
pups," she radios to an undisclosed person or persons. (It
turns out that many of the wolf-watchers have been solicited
to carry radios and report their observations to each other
and the Wolf Project. Because of this dedication there
exists a giant data-base of wolf observations -- many viewings
by ordinary people -- this effort is unprecedented in the
annals of wildlife research.) After Erin's female companion
takes a look, she turns to Mark and asks:
you want to see the wolves?" (Are you kidding?) He
peers through the 'scope.
"Do you want to see the wolves?" (Are you
kidding?) He peers through the 'scope.
"Oh, I see them, he exclaims with great excitement,
and one's howling. I can't hear anything, though."
"Hush, and wait," Erin exhorts.
sure enough, seconds later the faint low bay of the wolf
is heard by all of us; it's quintessential voice of real
wildness delayed only by the impediment of distance. We're
almost a mile away.
And sure enough, seconds later the faint low bay of the wolf
is heard by all of us; it's quintessential voice of real wildness
delayed only by the impediment of distance. We're almost
a mile away.
Now it's my turn. I look and also "see" them
"How do you know which ones they are?," I ask.
"Well, two of these, the sub-adults, are collared, and
we know their radio frequencies. They are members of
the burgeoning Slough Creek pack. But you can identify
one of them visually if you look closely. What do you
see? How might you describe the wolves?"
"Well, the adults are both gray in color. The pups
are both black. (note: Most of the Yellowstone wolves
are black. Some are gray, and the four Hayden Valley
wolves are astoundingly white.) Oh, one of the adults
limps. His left rear, I think."
"Yes, that's 453M -- he hurt his leg trying to take down
a bison last winter."
[click image for larger
"Are they more visible in the winter?," I ask?
"Think of it, black animal, white background. Duh!"
We watch for at least an hour, learning from these very patient,
friendly and extraordinary researchers and observing the four
wolves as they slowly and methodically make their way across
the open plain above the knoll that obstructed the view last
night. We learn that these are the last two pups to be
moved from the second den to their summer range, up the Slough
Creek drainage. It's the responsibility of the non-alpha
adults to chaperone the pups. Ascertained from the consolidation
of many observations, it is thought that the rest of the 15-member
pack are already at the destination.
Soon other people come to observe, but our vantage point is
superior. I'm not really sure they can see these wolves
from below (although the trekkie-like observers always seem
to be having a great time!), but we have a perfect viewing
point here on the hill. Mark and I eventually leave;
the young women will watch and take field notes all day.
This winter idea intrigues me.
As we make it through the park, we eventually stop at the
Yellowstone Association's bookstore adjacent to Norris Geyser
Basin. A friendly (living!) Edward Abbey look-alike is
working the counter. We select some items, including
Dr. Douglas W. Smith's seminal Decade of the Wolf -
Returning the Wild to Yellowstone. (Note the
incorporation of the word "wild" -- this peculiar
use suggests that the presence of the wolf actually renders
Yellowstone more wild, more complete. And surely it does.) I
also browse, but do not purchase Dr. James Halfpenny's
Yellowstone Wolves - In the Wild. Great pictures,
I note to myself.
"Edward" asks, "Might you want to join the
Yellowstone Association? You'll receive a discount."
"What does the Association do?," I ask.
"Well, they offer classes, including winter classes,
and they support education and research, and purchase items
such as spotting 'scopes and radios for use by dedicated volunteers,
researchers and Ph.D. candidates."
I join immediately.
January, 2006 -- Billings, MT
After flying into Billings, MT my wife Cheryl and I drive
the imported SUV rental-mobile through the canyon and under
the arch defining the northwest entrance to Yellowstone. We
enjoy an elegant dinner and stay at the venerable Mammoth
Hot Springs Hotel that night. The northern road is open
all year -- our destination is the Lamar Buffalo Ranch facility
just east of Slough Creek and in the center of what has been
described by many as the Serengeti of North America -- the
Lamar River Valley of northern Yellowstone National Park. We
are to attend Dr. James Halfpenny's class "Yellowstone's
Wolves," January 18-20, 2006.
Early on Wednesday the 18th we leave Mammoth and drive up
the northern park road, open all winter from Mammoth Hot Springs
to Cooke City, MT. just outside the park at the northeast
entrance. We ascend to Blacktail Plateau on easily negotiated
snowpacked roads. It's cold and beautiful, a veritable
winter wonderland. We pass many majestic elk and bison
at close range as we make our way to the Lamar Valley. We
actually stop along the route and are delighted to observe
wolves on several occasions. I believe it could be members
of the same Slough Creek pack that Mark and I saw last summer. We
mistake a coyote for a wolf as well, but quickly correct this
notion as we watch. Wolves are much larger and more robust,
and possess massive front legs and very large feet. They
have a very different gait than coyotes. We end up learning
additional ID skills in our class.
The snow's not all that deep, which is why, as we learn in
our class, the elk particularly stay here along the "northern
range," as it is known, all winter. And where there
are elk, there are wolves -- a full eight working packs on
this stretch of ground alone. We learn throughout the
next few days that the original Canadian elk-eating wolves
(several dozen only) were initially released very near the
Lamar Ranch in what is called a "soft release." They
were kept in three large, acres-sized enclosures until they
This method has been so successful that the wolves have multiplied
many times over, and have stretched their packs throughout
the huge (four times the size of Yellowstone National Park
alone) Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Some "lone"
(non-pack) Yellowstone wolves have even been seen in Colorado!
Further, the wolves have genetically "turned over;"
that is, the original collared releasees have all died, but
many have passed on their genes to new generations of wolves,
and have spread out geographically. Although it is not
known for sure, many biologists believe that the Greater Yellowstone
Ecosystem is actually at capacity as far as wolves are concerned. The
elk population originally dropped quickly but has now stabilized. The
plants (including willows) along the riparian zones have made
a huge comeback, as have animals and birds that frequent this
area. This is because the elk no longer possess a comfortable
free range along the willow bottoms; they must be wary of
wolves and hence generally inhabit higher ground. Carrion-eating
species like ravens, bald eagles and even grizzlies have flourished
on wolf prey carcasses. A "Trophic Cascade"
[click image for larger
Throughout the class we view wolves and other wildlife during
the dawn and dusk hours and attend classes at the ranch during
the other times. We stay in modest cabins with two beds,
heaters(!) but no bathroom. Those facilities are a short
walk away, but this minor inconvenience is largely trumped
by the fact that the "head" has a heated concrete
and tile floor, with the full compliment including multiple
showers and electricity. Heaven!
One morning we learn the rudimentary basics of tracking (Dr.
Halfpenny is the world's leading authority on animal tracking)
and then walk out to a bison carcass in the valley. A
kill is much like a CSI puzzle, and Jim guides us through
the likely story of this death. I am surprised by the
"cleanliness" of the area. The many visiting
animal scavengers have used all of the unfortunate bison. When
we leave the carcass, a curious bison visits the area and
May, 2006 -- Yellowstone National Park
This spring Cheryl and I attend another of Dr. Halfpenny's
classes, this time in conjunction with James Garry (bear expert
and shapeshifting storyteller) and biologist Dr. Kerry Murphy
(wolverine, lynx and puma researcher). It is a class
featuring Yellowstone's predators, including wolves of course,
but also grizzlies, pumas and wolverines. We visit another
(this time elk) carcass (the clues are more difficult without
snow!), a "soft" and safe wolverine trap (biologists
caught and collared two last winter) and are introduced to
the newly-formed 14-member "Unknown" wolf group. (A
group has not yet passed on its genes, a pack has.)
Along the way Cheryl and I encounter many bears, including
[click image for larger
(one at very close range), moose and many birds (including
loons, bald eagles and rare nesting sandhill cranes). We
also witness very-recently-borne rust red bison babies, struggling
to keep up with mom and also continuing to feed.
[click image for larger
(Bison are so group-driven and large that wolves rarely
"get" a calf. In the spring class we observe
bison "circling the wagons" to deter wolves. The
wolves wisely leave them alone. A huge bison could easily
injure or kill a wolf by kicking -- probably the main reason
bison are generally not wolf prey.)
Down near Old Faithful the winter snow is so deep that the
only possible wolf meals are bison -- so Mollie's Pack specializes
in such prey. The members of this pack are among the
only bison-killing wolves known. We learn much more from
this class, and decide to sign up for Halfpenny's marvelous
"Polar Bears of Churchill, Manitoba" experience
starting this Halloween, on location of course. I wonder
if it will be cold?
Yellowstone's "off" seasons are winter (December
through early March) and spring (late April through late May). The
above narrative hopefully has described why these times are
special. Actually, one of the main reasons the "off"
seasons are desirable is that there are much less people visiting. During
summer the bison are a pain -- they block traffic and slow
everyone down. (What's the rush?) In winter they
are a majestic, powerful presence on the landscape, presenting
stunning images among the white landscape. In spring
they are wonderful family animals, delighting all who observe
their new offspring. Winter in Yellowstone is harsh,
unforgiving and beautiful in its starkness. Witnessing
the howl of a wolf (often multiple wolves) against this backdrop
is a profound experience. In spring the canines are on
the move, gathering together, supporting the alpha female
and the den, and making multiple kills to feed the pups.
Spring also brings out the (real) mythical bears of Yellowstone. In
our class, Jim Garry enthralls us with the tale of the Bear
Mother. This myth appears in the construct of many bear-aware
native cultures throughout the world. It is a story of
both mistrust and hope. Because, as the fable goes, the
bear is our teacher -- we are thrilled to observe and learn
from him in the wild. But because humans tricked the
Mother bear and her mate, she no longer trusts us, so we,
as observers, must be vigilant, for the bear could injure
us as we did her mate.
Yellowstone's bears are very accessible in the spring, partly
because they are on the move and feeding, and partly, I think,
because there are far fewer visitors. There actually
may be fewer tourists in early May than there are in January,
but both times are very quiet.
In Yellowstone's "off" seasons you may even be forced
to spot your own wildlife, as opposed to the old tried-and-true
method of seeking out a traffic jam and then ascertaining
what the people are looking at. Try not to follow Rick
McIntyre around. Instead, in Yellowstone's "off"
seasons you may have the opportunity to truly reconnect with
your own wild inner self. So, as the sun goes down pull
over (alone!) at the "confluence" (of Soda Creek
and the Lamar River) and listen closely. You may very
well witness the profound soulful howl of the symbol of the
newly wild Yellowstone, and perhaps, in spring, if you "glass"
the slopes, you may spot a lone griz grazing in the fading
light. You are experiencing the magic of Yellowstone's
"off" seasons. Don't tell anyone, it can be
our little secret.
Yellowstone Association Institute -- offers classes
P.O. Box 117
Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190
A Naturalist's World / Yellowstone Wolves - In the Wild
-- offers wolf book, yearly wolf pack charts and classes
Dr. James (Jim) Halfpenny and Diann Thompson
PO Box 989
Gardiner, MT 59030
Decade of the Wolf - Returning the Wild to Yellowstone
-- Dr. Douglas W. Smith -- wolf book
Sand County Almanac -- Aldo Leopold -- seminal
self-realizing nature book, right there with Thoreau's Walden
and Abbey's Desert Solitaire
Lodging and Comments
In the winter the only entrance to Yellowstone that is open
is the northwest one, south of Gardiner MT and into the park
under the arch at Mammoth Hot Springs. The best flights
from Colorado are to Billings; you can rent a vehicle and
drive to the park easily in an afternoon. 4WD is not
required but might be a good idea. Rent low-profile and
watch the wind! There are good lodging choices in Gardiner
and at the Historic Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. Great
The winter drive across the northern range is not unlike perhaps
the winter drive through South Park toward Durango, in Colorado
-- but no passes. It is plowed, and is the only park
road open during the winter. Beyond the Lamar River Valley
and just outside the northeast Park entrance is Cooke City,
MT, a wild advanced snowmobiler's heaven. The winter
road access ends here. There are accommodations and dining
opportunities in Cooke City, but I'd obtain a reservation
in winter. A good side trip might be the snow coach experience
from Mammoth to Old Faithful, although we didn't try it. If
you like to ski or snowshoe, Yellowstone may be the American
king of overnight XC ski and snowshoe opportunities!
In late April many of the remaining Park roads open, but the
typical south entrance (toward Grand Teton) does not open
until mid-May, so the recommended entrance for driving Coloradoans
would be the Cody, WY entrance. From there you must drive
a bit to get to the northern range, but you could stay at
Old Faithful either at the Snow Lodge or Old Faithful Inns
cabins -- the latter are actually quite reasonable and beautifully
situated along the Firehole River. We actually saw a
member of the Nez Perce wolf pack just north of the Old Faithful
interchange! Gardiner, Mammoth and Cooke City accommodations
and services remain consistent, but Cooke City is very, very
quiet after the sledders leave. We saw a moose walking
right down the street! For accommodations inside the
Park (including most campgrounds), reserve through Yellowstone
National Park Lodges at 307-344-7311.
Copyright Willis Greiner,
2006. All rights reserved.