Yellowstone in Wyoming, but also Idaho and Montana - a park of many personalities. It presents one with hundreds of dilemmas. It can take days, weeks, years, and return visit after return visit to see it all as the ways to be enthralled are limitless. I'd guess, the most popular pull for visitors are the hydothermal features, like Old Faithful. But that's just the beginning with 1000 miles of hiking trails, vast wildlife viewing opportunities, plus the usual lineup of wonderful park activities like camping, biking, boating, fishing, scenic drives...
Yesterday was our first day in the park. We drove from Mammoth Village, where we are camped, to Cooke City. Although I have been to Yellowstone before, my visits were only "drive throughs". We saw the obligatory bears, buffaloes, moose, elk and Old Faithful. Hello-goodbye and off we went. This trip is different. We're here for several days and although it's cold, with a number of roads closed due to snow, we are exploring wherever we can.
Ice on Thistle's skylight...
Last night I couldn't sleep because of the animals. My excitement for the wildlife, our close encounters, the camaraderie of the moment, all of it! A friend we met in camp, Matt, studying wildlife management at Montana State University, told us Yellowstone is the nation's largest collection of large-scale wildlife. He's here for the weekend to locate bear, and he has.
There are people lined up along side the roadways, at key locations, with high powered binoculars and telescopes so they can watch the sandhill cranes dance, observe big horn sheep or antelope, locate coyotes, deer and fox, spot grizzly and black bear, but especially to study the wolves, introduced back into the park in 1995.
Early in the day, as we were looking at Pronghorn antelope on a hillside, I saw a movement with a different shape and color. I studied it for just a moment and then exclaimed, "it's a wolf!" We watched for about 10 minutes, as the wolf traversed the hillside, before he dropped out of view. No photos. In our array of cameras, not a one has adequate telescoping capacity for wildlife.
Our excitement aroused, we continue on. Buffalo are thick in the park, with a population of about 5,000. 5,000 or five, seeing free range buffalos is quite a thrill. This morning there were five in our campground.
At one of our stops two photographers, well outfitted with top of the line equipment, pointed out a group of sandhill cranes across the marsh and showed us a photo of a mating dance they had captured. Then they told us a little about this spot, where the soil is sink-soil that can trap the large animals. Once an animal is stuck he's the next animal's dinner. The wolves and cougars feed freely.
Along the route we also saw elk (although according to park personnel most of the elk are outside the park right now) and big horn sheep.
But the most exciting part of the day was stopping to watch the many, and very knowledgeable wolf watchers (all having the same enthusiasm and knowledge as the Northwest's Salish Sea Orca whale watchers). The wolf watchers can identify the individuals, know which of the eight packs they belong to and are happy to talk wolves.
They showed us the location of a five-wolf den, and pointed out one wolf, which Ed and I were unable to spot.
Then a cougar yell rang out. On the opposite hillside from the wolves a cougar was spotted. You could just feel the level of excitement elevate as the big scopes swirled to catch the cougar in their lens. With our underpowered binoculars, we didn't see him, but the excitement was quickly embedded into everyone standing there. The cougar stayed in view for about ten minutes before he wandered over the hill.
The cougar is up there...
And, that's why I couldn't sleep last night. Partly because of the excitement of seeing this amazing wildlife but also for feeling so very grateful we have these parks. Parks that provide safe havens for these wondrous animals.
"Wolves belong in Yellowtone, and most people want them back here.
The motivation for the recovery project is aesthetic and moral...the impulse to have
a complete ecosystem again. The debate over wolf recovery really comes down
to one question:
Are we ready to share the earth with another top predator?"
~ Norm Bishop, Yellowstone Research Interpreter