It was one of those gee-whiz spring days in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park where I wished my head was on a swivel.
In short, typical.
In the foreground, like an image of an old cowboys-and-Indians western, hundreds of bison milled around the floor of the valley, weary cows keeping a wary eye on frisky rust-colored bison. Moving in and out of aspens and pine at the valley’s edge, a grizzly boar sauntered seemingly aimlessly through a small cluster of the bison, eventually eliciting a defiant pose from a few that had finally decided he was close enough. Keeping an eye on the entire scene: A smattering of pronghorns, ready to put their unmatched speed to the test in case the nearby coyotes got too cocky.
Behind us, high on exposed rounded hills to the north, a grizzly sow with two butterball cubs at her heels nosed through the sagebrush and some hearty grasses in search of some grub.
Magpies screeched, eagles soared, and geese honked.
And most surreal of all: the silhouette of a lone wolf atop Specimen Ridge to the south, as if to say “I am the top of the food chain — and I am back.”
Witnesses to this annual marvel were a dozen or so members of a Greater Yellowstone Coalition spring wildlife trip, sometimes known as “the babies trip” — for reasons that are readily apparent.
After all, spring in Yellowstone means babies. Rust-colored bison. Frisky wolf pups. Playoff bear cubs. Pronghorn and deer fawns. And, last but not least, elk calves.
The babies are what separates spring from Yellowstone’s other magnificent seasons. Best of all, they are readily visible because most wildlife remain at lower elevations, waiting for snow to melt and grasses to green in the high country.
The aforementioned scene was from May 2008, an uncommonly good year because wolf numbers were at their highest (pushing 170) and frequenting the valley. The old Slough Creek pack had denned in a draw within easy spotting-scope and even binocular viewing from a variety of angles not far from the road.
The playfulness of pups was so entrancing that the emergence of a large grizzly male, appearing at the top of a nearby hillside and headed for the Slough Creek Campground, evoked little more than a shrug. The line of wolf watchers lifted their heads from their scopes in unison, watched the grizzly for a few seconds, then squinted back into their viewfinders at the pups.
The bear inched closer until it realized there were people in the campground, whereby it stood on its hind legs, sniffed the air briefly, whirled and sprinted back up the hill with speed and grace that would’ve left Usain Bolt in the dust.
Babies evoke some strong maternal instincts, including from humans.
On one excursion into the Lamar, a crowd had gathered on a sage bench next to the road, their binoculars and scopes aimed about 100 yards to the east. In the other direction, cars were stopped along the road a respectful distance from a dense sage thicket where an elk fawn lay bleeding but mobile — its panicked mother bleating from across the road.
Three yipping coyotes circled from both sides of the road, salivating at the prospect of an easy meal flummoxed by the uncomfortable proximity of cars. As they grew closer, a minivan approached and stopped a few feet from where the elk lay.
The calf emerged from the sage and found safety alongside the van. As the coyotes ventured closer, a man and a woman exited the van. He scanned the shoulder for small rocks, gathered a handful and began targeting the coyotes, which niftily dodged each missile.
A crowd of dozens watched, their reaction an instant snapshot of human nature. Half, especially women, wanted to intervene on behalf of the calf, a la the tourists in the van. The other half demanded that nature take its course.
The latter side prevailed. Soon a ranger happened along and sent the couple in the van down the road. They parked and stepped out of the van, the woman passenger screaming at the male driver for not having the backbone to stand up to the ranger.
How the incident concluded remains a mystery. Darkness fell and the crowds dispersed, leaving nature to determine order.
By the next day, the episode was largely forgotten. Wolf pups playing outside dens, bison calves chasing their tails, and grizzly cubs sauntering behind their moms provided a sensory overload.
Such is spring in Yellowstone, where the only thing missing is a swivel for our heads.