Yellowstone I: Wolves and other Critters   2 comments

Part of a small herd of bison begin to feed on a frosty morning in Lower Geyser Basin at Yellowstone National Park.

I visited Yellowstone again this year.  I spent a week+ there last August, and returned this year for late autumn there.  I spent a chilly first first week of October.  Mornings were icy, afternoons sunny and brisk.  Plenty of people were there, considering the season, but almost exclusively on the roads.  Trails were almost empty.  This post will focus on the wildlife.  I’ll post later on the (sorry) state of the Park Service, as well as the geysers & other thermal features.

Last year was the first time I had been to the park since the reintroduction of wolves in the 1980s.  Yes, it had been a long long time.  I saw some wolves on a kill last August, but they were so far away that no pictures were possible.  I went back this year, to try and get closer.  And boy did I!  Of course buffalo, and also elk, are your most likely large wildlife sighting in this park.  Also, recent times have seen an increase in fox.

The setting sun illuminates a resting pronghorn in the lamar River Valley of Yellowstone National Park.


A bison grazes the late autumn grasses on a cold sunny Yellowstone morning.

I started in the northern part of the park, concentrating on the Lamar River Valley.  This area is an excellent place for wildlife, and feels pretty wild compared to, say, the Old Faithful area.  My first morning in the Lamar I woke at sunrise and quickly found a sizable group of wolf-watchers parked at a picnic area in the upper valley.  They all had their spotting scopes, their long glass, etc. etc.  I normally don’t like these gatherings; I want to photograph the people’s behavior rather than the wildlife.  But this time, since it was quite early, there were no tour buses (beep beep beep backing up) or other nonsense going on.  So I went for it.

There were four wolves not too far away, and they were prancing and playing.  Still, they were a bit far for my 400 mm lens, so I just enjoyed watching them through binoculars.  As they finally departed, the lead wolves howled for the others to catch up.  The howling, echoing off the cliff walls that border the Lamar Canyon, and with the crackling cold air, was just plain magical.

There were plenty of pronghorn in the Lamar.  During one hike, three of them jogged over to me in the wide open valley, curious as to what this creature was.  Since these animals can run at over 60 mph, much faster than any predator, they can afford to indulge their curiosity and get pretty close.  Pronghorn are a unique animal, the only species left of a group that evolved in North America millions of years ago.  They are NOT antelope (a creature of Asia and Africa), though they resemble them.  When they evolved, the now-extinct American cheetah still prowled the west.  This accounts for their speed being ridiculous overkill for today’s predators.

I camped two nights in the awesome Lower Geyser Basin, taking star pictures at night.  I woke one morning a frigid steamy atmosphere, and soon spotted a herd of buffalo emerging from a hollow in the hills where thermal features were particularly concentrated.  They had obviously spent the night on the warm ground there, and now wanted to enjoy the rising sun’s warmth (which I certainly couldn’t feel!).  A few of the big bulls were last to emerge, one by one, and I got some good shots of them.

I saved the best for last.  Now there was an occasion a very long time ago, in Alaska when I was in my early 20s, working in the interior on recon expeditions looking for gold.  I was climbing a bare tundra hill, a stiff wind in my face, when I crested the hill and stopped short.  At first I thought it was a stump, but I saw that 25 yards or so ahead was a sitting wolf, facing away from me.  He was enormous, the biggest wolf by far that I’ve ever seen.  He was light colored with a beautiful coat that was flecked with red in places (like the tips of his ears).  He was scanning the valley below.

I made a small noise while reaching for my camera and he whipped his head around.  I’ll never forget his surprised look!  He immediately ran down the far slope, onto a small saddle several hundred yards distant.  He did not run like a dog, but sort of glided, not appearing to exert himself but covering the ground very quickly.  He sat down again, looking up at me, and let out the first wolf howl I had ever heard (to that point).  After he tipped his snout back down and quieted, I tried my best to imitate him.  We spent about 15 minutes howling back and forth before he just turned and trotted away.

On a frigid morning at Yellowstone National Park, a big bull bison emerges from his warm geothermal bed for the night.

Back to Yellowstone.  I stopped, just before noon, at a nondescript wide spot in the road just south of Madison Junction.  There was an old disused powerline right of way (no more line though).  So I took my little dog Charl (a shih tsu), who had not been for a walk yet that morning, and we went for a short stroll.  I grabbed my camera as an afterthought, which had the 24-105 mm on it.  Nobody stops here, so I didn’t bother with a leash for Charl.  Rangers will definitely ticket you for an unleashed dog, but he’s old and always stays close.

A large bull elk appears to be just as surprised as the photographer upon bumping into each other in the forest of Yellowstone National Park.

We were heading back to the van, only about 100 yards from the road, when we turned a corner and saw him at the same time he saw us.  A black wolf, obviously not young with his gray highlights, stopped short, surprised by our meeting.  He stood for a moment, looking back and forth from me to Charl, then back to me, then more intently at Charl.  My poor little half-blind partner did not even realize he was less than ten yards from his wild brethren.  But I certainly was, and quickly took a couple steps forward, scooping up Charl.  This got the wolf moving, but he didn’t leave right away, giving me a chance to snap a few shots.  At 105 mm there is no reason to expect a decent shot of a wolf, but mine aren’t too bad.  After he trotted away, I paced off the distance that had separated us; it was about 12 yards, and Charl was closer!

An older alpha male wolf in Yellowstone National Park is unsure how he happened to get so close to the human.

I was on a high all that day, so much so that I walked into the visitor center at Canyon and told the young female ranger what I had seen.  She wasn’t too interested, strangely,  but as I described him she brought out pictures and we identified him as the alpha male for the Canyon Pack.  He was an older wolf, not all that big, and had been alone inside another pack’s territory.  I suppose there is more to being the alpha wolf than brawn.  He has years of experience on his side, wisdom.  I take much encouragement from this encounter.  I’m not a spring chicken anymore, and just like him I need to rely more on my experience than my strength.  This is not a bad thing.

2 responses to “Yellowstone I: Wolves and other Critters

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  1. Thanks a bunch Lyle. He was a big surprise, that’s for sure.

  2. Amazing wildlife trip – loved the photos and the story about the wolf.

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