For GYC, the fundamental question surrounding future management of the Yellowstone grizzly bear is simply this: What’s best for the bear?
For as the Yellowstone grizzly goes, so goes Yellowstone.
After all, can you imagine Yellowstone without the grizzly? The world’s first national park simply wouldn’t be the same place, even with its 10,000 thermal features, wolves and bison, and magnificent scenery.
But the grizzly’s place in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem fabric is deeper. Much deeper.
For starters, without the grizzly, Greater Yellowstone is no longer an intact ecosystem. Conversely, protect the Yellowstone grizzly, and you ultimately preserve all that defines Greater Yellowstone.
Protecting the grizzly means protecting its food sources — for instance, the Yellowstone cutthroat trout, and the waters that sustain it. Protecting the grizzly also means protecting the vast swaths of wildness the bear commands to survive — which in turn sustains wolves, elk, pronghorn, wolverine, lynx, eagles and a full complement of wildlife species. And protecting the grizzly means preserving a Northern Rockies mystique — a quality of life, and a way of life, unmatched anywhere else in the Lower 48 states.
By enabling the Yellowstone grizzly to rebound from the brink of extinction in the early 1980s, with all that’s required to pull off such a marvelous conservation success story, we’ve helped preserve all that makes Greater Yellowstone great.
Today, as a group whose genesis revolves around rescuing the Yellowstone grizzly, GYC celebrates this remarkable recovery and contemplates anew what’s best for the bear.
And so our focus shifts, away from defending the Yellowstone grizzly’s place in the ecosystem to learning how to live, work and recreate in a place where the bear’s range is, happily, expanding. Our challenge now is building tolerance, acceptance and, ultimately, appreciation for the grizzly’s presence, for what it says about where we live, and for what it says about who we are.
To that end, we are dedicating our efforts to three key areas:
* Reducing the growing number of conflicts between humans and bears.
As grizzlies disperse into areas where they haven’t been seen in generations, the natural result is conflict. The vast majority of grizzly mortality comes at the hands of humans.
Our solution: Work on the ground in communities on such programs as bear-proof bin distribution, providing bear spray for hunters, and conducting bear-awareness programs.
It’s working. Our bear-bin effort in Island Park, Idaho, is credited with contributing to a significant decline in conflicts. Meanwhile, this fall, our Board of Directors and Jackson, Wyo., supporters purchased 250 cans of bear spray for hunters on the National Elk Refuge, where grizzlies have appeared for the first time in two decades.
Look for ways you can help as we expand such outreach to communities experiencing conflicts with grizzlies.
* Ensuring and enhancing connectivity between the Greater Yellowstone ecological island and the wilds of the Glacier National Park region.
Grizzlies from both ecosystems reportedly are about 60 miles apart as they continue their march to an inevitable meeting. What a game-changer that would be for the Yellowstone grizzly, which would thus become part of a larger Northern Rockies population.
Our work in southwest Montana’s so-called “High Divide” region is geared in large part toward helping Yellowstone grizzlies move in a northwesterly direction toward a confluence with Crown of the Continent animals. The rugged and remote mountains and valleys provide the perfect habitat for safe passage, if we can protect it.
The made-in-Montana Forest Jobs & Recreation Act, which appears to be picking up steam again and is broadly supported in Montana, would do just that. We’ll let you know when we’ll need your voice to help push this effort forward in Congress.
* Allowing grizzlies to move into all suitable habitat in Greater Yellowstone.
Some wild landscapes where grizzlies haven’t been consistently seen for eons beckon. The Wyoming Range. The Wind River Range. Meanwhile, the area around Yellowstone Lake, once a grizzly stronghold, would become one again if we can continue to restore cutthroat trout populations.
A new day has dawned for the Yellowstone grizzly, and bear management. You’ll be hearing from us often in the coming months as we ask your voice and financial support in efforts that continue to answer the most fundamental and important question for GYC:
What’s best for the Yellowstone grizzly bear?
For me, the soul of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness is the Madison River. It’s 140 miles of geological, geographical and historical vignettes so riveting that its fishing faithful make regular pilgrimages from the world over to savor its rhythms.
The Madison is surrounded by the Lee. It’s also the river that quite literally runs through it.
One one of the Madison’s best-kept semi-secrets is that some of the best fishing is not in the famed “50-Mile Riffle” or the wading section upstream at Three Dollar Bridge but in the heart of Bear Trap Canyon, one of the Lee’s foursections.
Anybody who has ever cast a fly to a rising trout knows of the Madison. Anybody who has ever cast a fly to a rising Madison trout has been humbled by its fickleness and awed by its spirit. Anybody who has ever taken a 20-inch brown or rainbow trout from the Madison’s nutrient-rich depths on a fly can’t help but be moved by the stroke of good fortune.
It’s akin to hitting a home run off Koufax, intercepting a pass from Unitas, dunking over Jordan. You don’t celebrate. You genuflect. As I bounce nymphs along the Madison’s slick-rock bottom, often catching and releasing a trout every 15 minutes or so, I contemplate this riverine marvel and gave a silent thanks that I was born early enough to cherish its treasures.
After all, who knows what the future will bring from a burgeoning culture at once hungering for more natural resources and thirsting for a primal connectedness to the land?
I reflected on a miles-long traffic jam a few years ago in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where I saw fathers hoist young children onto their shoulders and mothers brandish video cameras, joining dozens of wide-eyed tourists converging like a flock to a preacher’s tent to see … two deer.
I thought about the game farms of the Southeast and Texas, the crowded salmon rivers of the Northeast, the exclusive pay-to-play streams of Europe.
The sign over my shoulder in the Bear Trap warned of grizzly bears on the trail. Eagles screeched overhead. Two deer swam the lake channel amid pelicans, geese and osprey. I pondered the possibilities of seeing a wolf.
Who was it that said you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone?
As I released yet another trout, I watched a teenager depart, three monster browns on a stringer in one hand and a spinning rod with treble hooks and worms in the other. While not begrudging a meal, or the way it was caught, I wondered if he had any sense of appreciation for the aquatic shrine at his doorstep or the incomparable wildness of the surrounding fir-bathed mountains.
Did he have any understanding of the relentless cultural assault on nature that is driving people like me to this wonderland? Did he view a complex system that haunted Norman MacLean as little more than a free lunch?
I wondered if he could fathom its limits, or appreciate just how rare it is to walk out of a canyon with trout so large in such solitude, or understand what a mob scene such a place would elicit elsew
here. As dusk settled over the canyon, the day’s entomological orgy stilled and the trout returned to the safety of their pocket water, I thought about how quickly it can all disappear and how fortunate I am to be in a place that people like Lee Metcalf had the vision and fortitude to protect for my kids and grandkids.
I silently vowed never to take this geological Sistine Chapel for granted. Then I looked at my equally entranced partner. Another hour of daylight remained; we could still catch many more trout.
“We can leave,” my friend said, shrugging.
Incredulity quickly gave way to guilt and then hubris, and I smiled impishly. Oh yeah, we can come back any time. We live here.
Of all the memories from our first Cycle Greater Yellowstone, one is most vivid: More than a hundred breathless bicyclists atop Wyoming’s Dead Indian Pass, gazing in awe at a sea of jagged, stark rock and pine stretching to the eastern flank of Yellowstone National Park.
For a cyclist just navigating a winding, grinding 6-7 percent grade for six miles, two thoughts immediately come to mind at 8,060 feet when looking down at Sunlight Basin and then over the top to the distant Absaroka Range.
1. I … gasp … just … wheeze … did … cough … that!
2. This is one of the most spectacular vistas on the planet!
For most of the 700 cyclists partaking in GYC’s first Cycle Greater Yellowstone, this strategically placed lunch stop was the apex moment.
Some sat with their sandwiches, their weary legs dangling over the cliff, and stared as they ate in silence. Others stood in front of the two Nez Perce sculptures, hoisting their bicycles over their heads in triumph while friends snapped photos.
A man from the East Coast approached with his hand outstretched.
“I’ve ridden more than 50,000 miles, across the United States and Europe,” he said, “and this is the most beautiful route I’ve ever been on.”
Day 5 of the seven-day tour began at Pilot Creek, a glorified gravel pit carved out of the Shoshone National Forest along U.S. Highway 212 for snowmobilers to park their trailers in winter. The previous night, I had shared my envy over their good fortune in being able to pedal from the base of the iconic Pilot and Index peaks along the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone River, into Sunlight Basin, and then … here.
Many were already abuzz over seeing a grizzly bear not 40 yards from the highway; it might’ve been the largest bicycle bear jam ever in Greater Yellowstone. Others were awestruck by the broad granite shoulders of the Beartooth Mountains, always in view to the left.
Now, as they peered over the railing, it was all crystallized — the reason for Cycle Greater Yellowstone, the talk the previous night about the values of the Absaroka-Beartooth Front, the magnificence of an integral piece of one of the last great largely intact ecosystems on the planet.
Each leg of Cycle Greater Yellowstone was themed to relate to a relevant GYC program. At Pilot Creek, I talked about the Absaroka-Beartooth Front and the greatest challenge to its integrity — oil and gas drilling.
It isn’t that we’re opposed to drilling, I emphasized, but that we keep in mind three simple concepts: Identify places too special for other values to drill, drill at a pace the landscape and communities can handle, and do it right.
Here was concept No. 1, in bright, vivid, awe-inspiring browns, greens, blues and whites. Not even smoke from distant fires could put a damper on this moment.
Ordinarily, cyclists grab their lunch, mill around for a short while, refill water bottles and recharge internal batteries for the next part of the journey, in this case the adrenalin-rushing descent into the Bighorn Basin toward Cody.
Not here, atop Dead Indian Pass (the origin of the name remains a mystery, though it likely relates to the Nez Perce tribe’s flight from the cavalry through the region in 1877).
Many simply sat, taking in the view. They didn’t want to leave.
Yes, it had required some … gasp … intense effort … wheeze … just to get … cough … to this rarified place, but it was more than that.
It was the uncommon wildness and beauty of a place none will soon forget.
Three years after conception, a long-awaited day has finally arrived for us at the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. Cycle Greater Yellowstone debuts tonight with our opening festivities in West Yellowstone.
The childbirth analogy is apt, for my feeling today hearkens back to when I was an expectant father more years ago than I care to count. Eighteen months of brainstorming followed by 18 months of stitching together a million moving parts have brought us here.
Nearly 700 cyclists from 44 states have converged on the region. Joining them are 80 volunteers who came on their own time and their own dime to support a unique fusion of conservation, community and recreation. And let’s not forget the embrace of the communities along the seven-day, 460-mile route — West Yellowstone, Ennis, Three Forks, Manhattan, Livingston, Gardiner, Cooke City/Silver Gate, Cody, Powell, Belfry and Red Lodge — some of which are providing up to 100 volunteers to ensure our visitors have a first-class, full-service experience.
From a planning standpoint, it is as daunting as it sounds, like staging weddings for 1,000 guests on seven consecutive days in seven different towns. To shift any burden from our tourist-friendly yet resource-strapped neighbors, we are using regional vendors to provide 21 meals, hot showers, camping space with some Sherpa service, clean Porta-Potties, innovative recycling, medical support and numerous amenities.
The riders simply ride. The communities simply enjoy the riders’ desire to eat, drink, shop and discover what makes them tick.
It is, as Vogue magazine described it when touting CGY as one of eight Slightly Fanatical Fitness Vacations, “Glamping”.
For GYC, a Bozeman-based non-profit celebrating our 30th anniversary, it means a seven-figure investment — one we envision will provide lasting returns of inspiration and education, goodwill in our communities and, eventually, funding for our work on behalf of Greater Yellowstone’s lands, waters, wildlife and incomparable quality of life.
A calculated risk, sure, and yet also so promising.
After all, as America’s Voice for a Greater Yellowstone, what better way for GYC to showcase the extraordinary place we live, work and play — and to tell the stories behind it — than at 15 mph? What better way to experience, appreciate and absorb the values of the Lee Metcalf and Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness areas, our magical trout streams, iconic wildlife such as grizzly bears and Yellowstone bison, and uncommon landscapes like the Gallatin Range, than from the saddle of a bicycle — even if from spotting-scope range?
Equally important, how better to build a thriving ecological, economic and spiritual future for our children and grandchildren than to bridge the cultural gaps that blind us to the values that bind us?
To that end, Cycle Greater Yellowstone has the potential to transcend the traditional bicycle tour.
My enduring image of a similar tour in northeastern Oregon three years ago is of a man clad in Wranglers, Stetson hat, plaid shirt and dusty boots on a barstool next to a visiting cyclist in Lycra shorts and the rainbow colors of a cycling jersey. They were hoisting a beverage to each other, toasting their commonalities, respecting their differences and exorcising their long-held assumptions.
It was then — and after learning of Cycle Oregon’s staggering regional economic impact — that I knew we needed such an event here.
For what it gives back to its communities, Cycle Oregon is more than just another great adventure. It is now part of the state’s cultural fabric — as inextricably linked as salmon, Douglas firs, and Pinot noir.
If we do this right, Cycle Greater Yellowstone, too, will become a signature event — as inextricably linked to our world as free-flowing trout streams, bugling elk and ranch brands.
If so, we will have inspired people from around the world to engage in keeping Greater Yellowstone precious. We will have built enduring rapport between GYC, communities and cyclists. We will have left only memories, energy and dollars along the way.
Time will tell.
For now, after nurturing this baby for three years, it’s time to bring Cycle Greater Yellowstone into the world.
A single fish.
That’s all it took to send a shudder through every fisheries biologist from Mammoth to Fishing Bridge on that fateful day on Yellowstone Lake in 1994.
A single fish.
It was a simple lake trout, or mackinaw, but it’s appearance on the end of an angler’s line was ominous at best. For it was certain that where there was one, there were many, many more — horrible news for a struggling native, the Yellowstone cutthroat trout, which relied on Yellowstone Lake as the safety-deposit box for its future.
I thought about that day not long ago as I stood on a trawler in Yellowstone Lake on a sun-kissed August afternoon, gazing over the side into a net prison where at least two dozen football-sized lake trout swam in the cool waters.
These fish were about to be surgically implanted with expensive transmitters. Nearby, two nimble-fingered biologists were making small incisions on underbellies, inserting transmitters and sewing them back up as casually as if they were tying their shoes.
Once rejuvenated in their boat-side pens, the fish would be set free to swim past strategically placed receivers toward deep spawning grounds. Once discovered, these sites could be destroyed with a huge underwater vacuum or some other means.
Judas fish, they were called.
Behind the boat, giant gill-nets stretched into the choppy blue waters, extending for one-third of a football field. Several hundred yards away, another boat, operated by expert Great Lakes gill-netters from Wisconsin, dragged the depths for fish that were immediately dispatched.
At one point, a motorboat pulled up alongside, asking for a free lunch. The cutthroat fishing hadn’t been so hot. The gill-netters handed over dozens of the lake trout.
By the end of that summer, nearly 300,000 lake trout would be removed. This summer, with an extra boat on the water, the crew is a mere 10,000 ahead of last year’s take, at about 191,000.
Emphasis on “mere”.
The relatively slight increase is a sign that efforts to suppress the lake trout population is working. We’ll know for sure in late August, when cutthroat trout are counted.
It’s a great story — and not just a tale about restoring a species on which no fewer than 42 Yellowstone critters depend for sustenance during the cutthroat’s annual spring spawning runs (lake trout swim too deep to be of use to grizzly bears, otters, eagles, osprey and the like).
It’s also a great people story.
Old-timers remember the days when anglers lined Fishing Bridge shoulder to shoulder to catch the mighty cutthroat as it migrated up and down the Yellowstone River. Former workers at Fishing Bridge and Lake fondly recall getting off work, taking the few strides down to the lake, catching cutthroat on nearly every cast, and returning for a fine feast.
Those days are long gone.
The illegal introduction of lake trout into Yellowstone Lake sometime in the mid-1980s — how and why is still the subject of great debate — had an immediate and devastating effect on cutthroats. About 90 percent of the population has disappeared into the jaws of the voracious lake trout, which consumes up to 41 young cuts a year.
On Clear Creek, a tributary of Yellowstone Lake, more than 18,000 cutthroats passed through a weir in 1998. A decade later, that number was down to fewer than 200.
It’s now a rare treat to see a migrating cutthroat leaping into the froth at LeHardy Rapid on the Yellowstone River, a la Alaskan salmon.
In a time of a warming climate, with cutthroat trout habitat shrinking, losing Yellowstone Lake as that safety-deposit box could signal the need for Endangered Species Act protections.
The National Park Service has made recovery of the Yellowstone cutthroat a major priority, and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition has been supporting the effort financially and otherwise. I brought reporter Kirk Johnson of the New York Times along on our boat to showcase an extraordinary endeavor.
Happily, for the first time last year the number of Yellowstone cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake increased. We are anticipating an even more hopeful outcome this year.
It’s unlikely we’ll ever completely remove lake trout from Yellowstone Lake, and it’ll be a long-term effort.
But we can at least reduce numbers enough so that the catching of a single fish no longer sends shudders through fisheries biologists and anglers.
Just ahead is the gentle crest of Red Rock Pass, a dusty, tire-shredding bump separating Idaho and Montana. In the rear-view mirror are symbols of the modern-getaway world — guest cabins, trophy homes, float tubes on Henry’s Lake — left quite literally in a cloud of four-wheel-drive dust.
I never tire of this moment, in this spot, for I know what’s just over the hill: A vast expanse of yesteryear, with sprawling ranches and fence lines stretched to an endless horizon framed on two sides by purple mountains majesty.
“Welcome to the Centennial Valley,” a voice in my head always says. “Please set your clock back 150 years.”
All that’s missing is a few Conestoga wagons, wild bison and Shoshone Indians walking alongside dogs pulling travois packed with buffalo hides.
Few accessible places even in Greater Yellowstone feel so remote, which partially explains why the Centennial Valley and the neighboring mountains are so important to the ecosystem.
Take a look at any map of wolf packs in the Northern Rockies and you’ll see a trough running roughly through this region, sometimes — but inaccurately, really — called the “High Divide”. This discernible gap is between the wild island that is Greater Yellowstone and the equally wild nether reaches of central Idaho and the Glacier National Park region.
Grizzly bears? There’s no trough; migration and dispersal ends abruptly at the western end of the Centennial Valley and its namesake mountains, essentially at Interstate 15.
Connecting Greater Yellowstone’s iconic wildlife with animals in those aforementioned regions means giving them a chance in the Centennial, Snowcrest, Gravelly, East Pioneer and other still-wild mountain ranges.
Enter Montana Sen. Jon Tester and his Forest Jobs & Recreation Act.
Introduced in 2009, the senator’s bill would create more than 670,000 acres of new Montana wilderness, including more than 150,000 in Greater Yellowstone. It would the state’s first wilderness since Lee Metcalf pushed through his vision 30 years ago.
Sen. Tester’s made-in-Montana bill does more than create new wilderness, though. It designates 330,000 acres of recreation lands, which ensures that future generations will experience Montana’s picturesque backcountry and incomparable outdoor-recreation heritage. And it puts folks back to work in the forest on restoration and wildfire-mitigation projects so important to communities increasingly fearful about tinder-dry woods.
Equally important, it shrinks the trough between Greater Yellowstone and the wild country in central Idaho and northwest Montana — enhancing an essential link at a time when a warming climate is reducing habitat in the region for such creatures as the wolverine, lynx and cutthroat trout.
As the only significant east-west mountain range and valley in the Northern Rockies, the Centennial is a natural land bridge to and from Greater Yellowstone. It’s also extraordinary for other reasons: The stunning bird life at the Red Rocks National Wildlife Refuge, trout fishing and for the uppermost headwaters of the Missouri River on the flanks of Mount Jefferson.
Drive through the Centennial and you’re likely to see pronghorn, deer, elk, Shiras moose, trumpeter swans, eagles, hawks and perhaps even a grizzly bear or wolf. You’ll also see a hardy lot of ranchers who value a landscape time forgot.
It’s worth every bit of dust and jounce.
Time to step aside briefly and hand the cyber-pen to a far more compelling figure — Thayne Maynard, NPR’s 90-Second Naturalist. Thayne, director of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens, will be joining us for our 30th anniversary celebration in West Yellowstone and a presentation in Cody, Wyo., in September.
Read on, as Thayne takes 90 seconds to write for us about what makes the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem so special for him.
For a whole bunch of reasons, I have long admired the work of the good folks at the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. Most naturally, because like most Americans, I really love Yellowstone National Park. Thanks to GYC having me out for their annual meeting in West Yellowstone in 2003, I was first able to see wild wolves in the Lamar Valley with Doug Smith and Rick McIntyre. Of course, even our beloved national parks are not big enough to save endangered species. Free ranging animals need a system of “parks beyond parks,” as ecologist David Western proposes, for any hope of thriving.
GYC gets this. The founding concept of the organization is right there in their name. It’s not just about the 2 million acres in the park. A healthy, balanced system that includes wilderness, ranchers, farmers, grizzly bears, and even loggers and tourists, is about the 20-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Frankly, I find it a miracle that such an area still thrives in such a crowded and prosperous nation. It is a tribute to the American spirit really. We like to fight over wolves and fracking and condos and cows, but in the end we love the Northern Rockies more.
And GYC’s approach has helped inform this discussion over the last generation. When they started in 1983 the idea of a burgeoning grizzly bear population was challenging to many people in the Greater Yellowstone region. But a lot has been learned about grizzly behavior in the last three decades and the result is that today it is possible for predators and people to thrive in the same landscape with reduced conflict. That’s a good thing because not that long ago most folks thought conservation was all about animals and wilderness. But now we realize it’s mostly about people. GYC has been in the middle of that dialogue all along, working at building community and shaping relationships that work.
That’s what it will take for the Greater Yellowstone region to remain wild a century from now.
Here’s to an America that’s willing to weigh in and arm wrestle over the things we cherish. And here’s to the next 30 years of good work educating, arguing, explaining, and advocating by my friends at the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
I’ve tried to imagine what it must be like to be superintendent of Yellowstone National Park.
First, the honor: To be among the precious few who can say they’ve guided the
fortunes of the world’s first national park, an incomparable convergence of wildlife, geothermal features and beauty treasured by millions worldwide. It’s like coaching the Celtics or managing the Yankees. The Sistine Chapel of parks.
And then, the bull’s eye on the chest of your forest green: A torrent of proverbial bullets coming from the left and from the right, from business leaders and conservation groups, from politicians and from tourists. No good deed left unpunished, no decision un-scrutinized.
On the surface, it seems like such a bucolic job. Sit in your third-floor office at Mammoth Hot Springs, warming a chair once occupied by the likes of Nathaniel Langford and Horace Albright, and cast a glance across the grass at your empire.
Elk. Bison. The occasional wolf or grizzly bear. And happy tourists.
Mention Bob Barbee and immediately the fires of 1988 come to mind. Think he wasn’t on the hot seat?
Mention Mike Finley and the topics are New World Mine, wolves and winter use. Think he didn’t want to monkey-wrench a few snowmobiles?
Fast forward to Dan Wenk and the issues, while all too familiar in some cases (bison, winter use), have been upgraded — to climate change, lack of funding and pressures from record visitation. The park hasn’t stooped to having a bake sale to keep the latrines clean, but we’re close.
The unique experiences and controversies faced by Barbee, Finley and Wenk are just one reason I’m so eager to hear them during their fireside chat during GYC’s 30th anniversary celebration Sept. 21 at the historic Union Pacific Dining Hall in West Yellowstone.
I want to hear Barbee talk about the 1988 fires and how, to paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of the park’s demise were greatly exaggerated.
I want to be on that sled with Finley when he took the first wolves to the Rose Creek pen and on the podium with him when President Bill Clinton slammed the door on a mine proposal with the words “Yellowstone is more precious than gold.”
I want to hear Wenk talk about the importance of the lands surrounding Yellowstone to the integrity of the park, a concept brand new when GYC was formed in 1983.
Just having one would be a coup. Having all three, on the doorstep of the park they have worked so hard to protect, is an evening not to be missed.
Note: This blog first appeared on Jan. 15, 2013.
Minus-31 degrees at Cooke City and minus-24 at the Lamar Valley? Yes, we told the incoming group of 17 for GYC’s annual winter wildlife-watching trip that began Monday, but it’s a dryminus-31.
Thankfully, the group — which included the entire Democratic Party from the State of Texas: Brakebill and Watson, party of three — was prepared. Two guests from Tucson, Ariz., could’ve been mistaken for two-legged bison as they trudged in the late-morning darkness down the snow-covered path at the Buffalo Ranch. Each wore enough layers to clothe an Inuit village. One had a fur cap the size of Rhode Island.
Wildlife watching in January in Yellowstone National Park is at once exhilarating and challenging, rewarding and a test of intestinal fortitude. There’s a reason the lone open road is so empty, save for the periodic whoosh of a half-ton hauling snowmobiles and crawl of an SUV bearing the telltale antennae of wolf watchers.
Scanning the snow-crusted hillsides and sage for wolves means standing in an icy place for long periods, shifting from foot to foot on heat-retaining blue mats. Fingers and toes inevitably go cold, even with warmers tucked inside mittens and boots.
So why all the fuss? This: A woman from Virginia named Melissa raises her voice from the back of the Yellowstone Association bus. She is slightly apprehensive. After all, she has seen wolves become boulders — Canis minerales — amid excitement before, and didn’t want to feel silly.
And yet … more than a dozen ravens were circling, skipping and hopping in a familiar dance. To the trained park eye, this is a sure sign they are on a carcass. And a carcass means wolves.
“I see movement!” she finally exclaims. “I see ravens. I see eagles. I think I see … three wolves!”
The bus pulls into the parking lot at the Slough Creek turnoff. We have the place to ourselves. The group scans the distant hillside near an old wolf den. Our Yellowstone Association driver chases a coyote from the parking area.
Sure enough, far in the distance, too far for the naked eye, three black wolves are on an elk carcass. Less than a half-hour earlier, another group had witnessed the kill. Now ravens flitted. Bald and golden eagles waited in nearby conifers. The dozen or so remaining cow elk and calves, the weakest among them culled and the danger over, lay bedded on a snowy hill just above the kill, watching the scene warily.
One by one, scopes on tripods are anchored in the snow, and the reason we’re all here unfolds in front of our eyes: Eight members of the new Junction Butte pack, some waiting their turns and others tearing at the carcass, are in full display.
The emotional uplift is palpable. Energy soars. Chatter quickens.
Until now, questions about the status of Yellowstone’s wolves dominated the conversation. Concerns over the recent widely publicized deaths of park wolves were raised repeatedly.
Yellowstone Association staff had to concede that it’s been the toughest year to see wolves since their restoration to the park in 1995. Though numbers are holding steady at just below 80 in the park, the loss of collared wolves, killed legally by hunters outside the park in November and December, has thrown the species into disarray.
Three frequently visible Lamar Canyon wolves are off in the backcountry, trying to find order after the death of their alpha female, the famous 832F, in Wyoming. The new Junction Butte Pack, formed by a liaison between the Mollie’s and the Blacktails in 2012, is a virtual ghost pack, its whereabouts always uncertain because its only collared wolf was shot by hunters in Montana.
The Blacktails are down to a small handful. The Agates are gone altogether, the victims of one-by-one takings by the more-powerful Mollie’s, which had migrated from their usual home in the Pelican Valley in search of easier culinary pickings in the Lamar.
The Yellowstone Wolf Project’s annual winter count was a struggle due to poor weather and lack of collars.
Would we see wolves on this trip? For the first time, nobody could say with any real certainty.
Now here they were, the pack without collars, in plain view. It is an extraordinary moment, a pure stroke of good fortune.
And they weren’t the only pack to be seen Tuesday. The Canyon Pack near Mammoth also made an appearance, though it wasn’t seen by our group.
For an hour we watched, until the wolves themselves bedded down as the morning became oppressively warm, all the way up to 10 degrees. Then we departed, our hopes fulfilled.
Seeing them was an important reminder that wolves are a marvelous conservation success story. The concern that we realistically might not have seen them is also a reminder of the need for the states adjoining Yellowstone to adjust hunting and trapping rules to acknowledge that park wolves merit higher protections.
Yellowstone wolves are so accustomed to people that they are unusually vulnerable when they leave the park. It’s quite likely that even if 832F had seen her predator, she wouldn’t have exhibited any signs of fear; she was accustomed to walking within 100 yards of humans on the road.
Yellowstone’s wolves are an important research tool. They also give tens of thousands of visitors a reason to come to Yellowstone — even when it’s minus-31 degrees and it takes dressing like two-legged bison to endure the cold.