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Yellowstone National Park Photography and Narratives

To navigate to the Yellowstone Gallery click on the text link below or the link below the the narrative. Text links on this web site are designated by blue text which changes to orange as you pass over it with your mouse. Text links are not underlined. To return to another main gallery click on the large navigation text below or use the links contained in the filmstrip image map above. All site navigation is also available at the bottom of each page.


"Yellowstone Moose"
"Belize Howlers"
"Curious Grizzly"
"Dall Sheep and Storm"
"Grazing Griz"
"Lone Griz"
"Close-Up Moose"
"Moss Moose"
"Resplendent Quetzal and Nests"
"Sea Lion Battles Giant Alaskan Octopus"
"Basking Stellar Sea Lions"
"Mythic Fish"
"Sign of the Wild -- Tracks of the Wolf and Griz"

"Great (!) Zimbabwe 2001 African Eclipse and Safari" -- including Total Solar Eclipse, Wildlife and Landscape images from southern Africa

"Yellowstone National Park" -- including recent Wildlife photographs and a narrative on Yellowstone's newest passion, wolf watching

Below are direct links to the Wildlife narratives:

"Whale Tale -- In Search of the Mythic Fish"

"Wolf Watching in Yellowstone's "Off" Seasons"






















































































































































"Wolf Watching in Yellowstone's "Off" Seasons"


June, 2005 -- northern range -- Yellowstone National Park

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?"

"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."

"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 view]

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.

"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 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 view."

-- 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 appearance!)

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 something matter-of-factly.

"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:

"Do 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.

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.

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 howl.

"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 view]

"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 became comfortable.

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" indeed.

[click image for larger view]

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 investigates.

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 several grizzlies 

[click image for larger view]

(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 view]

 (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 Resources


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 restaurant, too!
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 Inn•s 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.

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