This is the second of three posts on the Yellowstone and the Grand Teton National Park trip that my friend Debby and I took in September of 2021. We were still in the midst of the Covid pandemic, but things were a bit more calm, and we felt very safe traveling with Natural Habitat (Nat Hab) and our guide supreme, Kurt Johnson (for more about Kurt, please see the Chapter 1, the wildlife post). We were a group of 7 (David, Joan, Erin, Chet and Travis, with Debby and me), mostly photographers as this was advertised as a photography trip. I had my Olympus E-Mi Mark III along with my 100-400 and 24-100 lenses and off we went.
One of the main reason tourists visit Yellowstone is to see the wildlife. Yellowstone is considered the finest wildlife habitat on the continental US. There are close to 60 species of mammals including the Rocky Mountain wolf (which we saw), coyote (which we saw), the Canadian lynx (which we did not see), cougars (which we did not see), bison (which we saw), elk (which we saw), moose (which we saw), mule deer (which we saw), white-tailed deer (which we saw), mountain goat (which we saw), pronghorn (which we saw lots of), and bighorn sheep (which we saw). Oh, and of course black and grizzly bears (which we sort of saw).
First up are the American bison. Yellowstone has the oldest and largest bison herd in the US and they are believed to be one of only four herds that are free roaming and genetically pure. There were once about 30-60 million bison in North America. In the early 1900s, the number of bison in Yellowstone had dropped to less than 50 (not 50 million, 50). But by 2020, their numbers increased to about 4680. While naturalists are excited at the growing numbers of bison, the local ranchers are less so, fearing that the bison will transmit diseases to their cattle, especially since the bison can wander anywhere they want. There are no fences around Yellowstone and the boundaries are artificial so they can wander off the property – eating and walking and eating and walking. For this reason, national park personnel regularly corral the bison herds and move them back into the park. The bison particularly like to hang out in Paradise Valley as they prefer the lower elevation.
The bison are very resourceful, finding food wherever they can. The hump on their back is made of bone and muscle which allows them to swing their heads from side to side to plow the snow in the winter, looking for food.
Bison are the largest land-dwelling mammal in North America, weighing up to 2000 pounds for males and 1100 pounds for females and standing 6 feet tall at their highest point, their shoulder hump. They have long hair on the forelegs, head and shoulders, but short hair on the flanks and hindquarters, which makes them very interesting looking. And both sexes have short horns curving upward. They are strong swimmers, can run up to 35 miles per hour and can jump 5 feet high. Watching them meander down the road, or run up a hill, or swim across a river, I could sense their strength.
During the spring, a time of renewal, there are calves everywhere, particularly in April and May. The calves can get up and walk and run within a few hours of being born. The calves are reddish-orange at birth which helps them camouflage as many of their predators are red/green color blind. Although we were there in the fall, we got to see a few orange calves.
In fact, we saw bison everywhere we drove. Three experiences stand out in my mind.
In no particular order, the first I remember was one late morning when we spotted a large bison bull (male) walking along the side of the road. We pulled over, stopped, quicky stood up and lifted the roof hatches so we could shoot pictures. This obviously is not an uncommon sight, as there was a sign “watch for bison crossing.” The bull was totally oblivious to all the cars that were either driving slowly by him, or were pulled over, like us, to watch. He walked and walked until he got to a sandy spot, where he dropped down on his knees and rolled over, his feet high in the air. Kurt told us that is how they mark a territory, but also how they scratch their backs. When he was done rolling back and forth, he stood up and meandered away.
The second memory occurred one very early morning. All our mornings started early. We were all photographers after all and the best light is as the sun is rising (or setting). Besides, many of the animals are more active in the morning. We were driving along when suddenly there was a lone, large bull bison emerging from the fog. We haven’t talked about temperature in September in Yellowstone, but suffice it to say that the mornings were cold. This particular morning was so cold that the car had frost on it. The bull also had frost on the top of his head and on his back. He was beautiful (I never thought I would say that about a bison). But the way the frost sparkled made him look like he came straight out of a fairy tale, like Disney’s Frozen (I know that because my grandchildren have made me watch that movie with them over and over again). Luckily, I happened to have the front seat of Moose (as our car was named). My camera was set for trying to catch the setting moon, but I quickly swerved around, opened my window and just starting shooting so the colors are a bit off, but I don’t think I will ever forget that moment.
The third time, we saw a herd of buffalo crossing Slough Creek. We quickly pulled over, grabbed our cameras, jumped out of the car, and ran across the road and across a large field, covered in bison dung, to get to the river in time to watch and photograph them.
But we were too late. They had finished crossing and where now grazing by a large patch of yellow and orange Aspen trees. The sight was still beautiful, but we were so disappointed. They were grazing just down the hill from us. But there was a second herd up on the hill, still on the other side of the river, so we decided to wait and watch and see if they would cross too.
The first movement that caught our eyes was a large bull who slowly, slowly started making his way down the mountain towards the water. The rest of the herd just stood and watched him as if to see if he would make it. He carefully climbed down, stopping at the river’s edge to take a drink of water. And then, he stepped into the river and, with the wake from his large body shining blue in the sun, made his way to the other side. And we just alternated between shooting pictures and just watching him.
Once on the other side, he slowly made his way towards the herd grazing by the trees. He stopped to pee, marking the territory, and rolled in the dirt. And before we knew it, a second bull from that herd started making his way towards the first bull.
They eyed each other and then locked horns fighting over some female bison in estrus. How do they know if a female bison is in estrus? The males will lick the female’s urine to tell if she is ovulating.
So this is how mature males display their dominance. They bellow, which they were doing, they wallow and their fight with other bulls. The winner gets to mate with the receptive female.
One bull pushed the other in one direction. Then the second bull would push right back. They circled each other, horns locked. They grunted and groaned. And one of them raised his tail which means he was agitated and ready to charge. And we were mesmerized. Eventually, the first bull was defeated. He didn’t look hurt, but he turned and walked slowly back towards the river. I guess although we could not tell what ended the fight, they sure knew.
But our adventure was not over yet. As the lone bull headed back towards the river, the rest of the bison on the other side started heading down the mountain towards the river.
And slowly, slowly, one by one, they reached the banks and started crossing. It was like a mini-great migration that one sees in Africa. We were ecstatic that we finally got to see them crossing the river. And as they came up the shore on the other side, a gaggle of geese just stood by either ignoring them or watching, just like we were.
They made their way towards the first herd (likely they were part of the same herd) and some starting rolling around. And then, as if someone just gave the signal, all of them started heading up the bank on the other side, towards the road, which now was packed with cars parked on either side. They crossed the road and climbed up the hill on the other side and then started running like a wild stampede. It was SO exciting.
And then it was over. They had found a new grazing spot. The plains in front of us were empty of wildlife except for the few Canadian ducks that had been watching all this excitement, quietly, along with us.
You can’t talk about wildlife in Yellowstone without relaying the story of the wolf. It is a story of success.
Back in the early 1900s, there was a very large population of wolves in Yellowstone and, as wolves do, they were killing the elk. A wolf has to eat… So, in an effort to protect the elk population, the US Congress gave funds to Yellowstone and other public lands to destroy wolves and other animals that “were injurious to agriculture and animal husbandry.” By 1926, 136 wolves had been destroyed. Before long, all wolves were eliminated from Yellowstone. In 1973, when the Endangered Species Act was passed, the wolf was the first to be placed on the list.
But nature does not work that way. There is a time for every season. There is a time for one animal to eat another. That is how nature controls and keeps things even and equal. Without wolves in the park, the coyote became the park’s top canine predator. But coyotes are not able to down large animals, so the elk and pronghorn populations grew and grew. This of course also effected the flora in the park. Things were out of control.
And so, after 60 years of no wolves in the park, in 1995, the federal government reversed its view on wolves and 34 Northwestern wolves were imported from Canada and slowly reintroduced into the park. The wolves were placed in enclosures for a few weeks to accommodate them to the park and to keep them from heading back to Canada. They slowly got used to the sounds and smells of their new home and were released into the wild. By 2005, there were 13 wolf packs for a total of 118 individual wolves in Yellowstone, all descended from those original 34 imported wolves. People had not realized how getting rid of the wolves would change the whole ecology of Yellowstone. Now things were stored to their natural ways and the flora and fauna are back in balance.
We, or course were excited to see some wolves. There is a whole culture around these animals. Large groups of people come into Yellowstone very early in the morning, to begin scouting for wolves. There is a “wolf radio” and if you are lucky enough to be in that group, which of course Kurt was, you can listen to the “wolf chatter.” What this meant was that we would drive from one spot to the next as soon as we heard a wolf had been spotted. And where ever we went, there were cars and people lined up just waiting and watching.
One morning we left the hotel at 6:00am with the hope of finding wolves. We were in Lamar Valley, a place wolves often gather. Lamar Valley, in the northeast part of Yellowstone, lies along the Lamar River. This area is often called the Serengeti of America for it is large and therefore easy to see large animals. Two wolf packs, the Junction Butte and the Lamar Canyon packs, like to hang out here, along with bison, pronghorn, grizzly bears, bald eagles, osprey, deer and coyotes.
Kurt had his wolf radio and his wolf map. The wolf radio began to chatter, but there were no sightings yet. It was now 7:15am. We heard that someone had a seen a pack heading east so we found a place to pull over, but they were already gone. We piled back into the car and headed east. A long line of cars was doing the same thing. Everyone wants to see wolves. By 9:00am there was still no sightings of any wolves. We saw a grizzly bear with 2 cubs, but there were so far up the snow ridge that you could only see them through the scope, and even then they looked more like little black dots.
At 930 we had a bathroom and snack stop. Suddenly Kurt yelled, load up quickly. There was a wolf sighting not far away. Kurt hoofed it, driving as fast as he legally could. The chatter on the radio was giving mixed messages as to where the wolves were. Not finding a place to park, Kurt dropped us off to take some landscape shots with a herd of bison. He said he would double back to pick us up.
We were watching the bison at Soda Butte Valley, when suddenly there was a lone gray wolf, making his way down the mountain right towards the bison. He got close and the bison shooed him away. And there was a baby bison there. But as the wolf got closer, the bigger bison chased him off while the other bison surrounded the baby. The wolf started running back up the mountain and we just watched, and shot pictures, and watched.
Kurt in the meantime had doubled back to pick us up. When he saw the wolf, he just kept driving. He knew we were not going anywhere.
Another morning we heard some more wolf chatter and headed towards the spot we thought they would appear. It was still dark and we watched the sun rise over the mountain. We climbed up a hill, looking across the road were there were a few wolves, way in the distance, lying around. I could barely see them. But then someone pointed in the other direction and there was a black lone wolf walking right in front of us (not close, but close enough to see with the naked eye).
We also had some other sightings of wolves and of wolf packs. Kurt got a video of a pack of the Junction Butte Pack of wolves at their Rendevous site.
Wolf 832F and Wolf 926F
The wolves are tracked and named with numbers. Wolf 832F was an alpha female of one of the Lamar Canyon packs. She was a tourist favorite, famous throughout the world, and was known as a “rock star.” She had a GPS tracking collar on her so researchers knew she rarely ventured outside of the park boundaries, where she could remain safe from hunters. When she did venture out, it was usually for very short periods.
But one day, in 2012, she did venture out, and a hunter shot her. It was legal, but very, very sad.
That was not the end of the story. 832F’s daughter, 926F, was killed the same way in 2018. Legal, but again, so very sad. I will never understand hunting. I understand the need to for food. But I will never understand killing an animal just for the sport. If you have to shoot, use a camera.
Bears, bears, bears
We were less lucky seeing bears.
Black bears are supposedly very common in the park and in fact, are the park symbol. Yellowstone is one of the few places where you can find black bears coexisting with grizzlies. As of 2017, it was estimated that there were about 150 grizzly bears living in Yellowstone and about 500 black bears. Early on the bears of Yellowstone learned that where there were people, there was food. They would beg for food along the side of the road or would look for food at the garbage dumps. Visitors would feed them and lure them for pictures. The bears would go to the campgrounds and hotels looking for scraps of food. The park personal played into the whole thing. And the bears lost all fear of people. But of course, this was not natural behavior. So the rangers started “tough love.” They closed all the dumps in the park and roadside feeding was no longer allowed. The bears had to relearn how to live in the wild.
Yellowstone bears did in fact return to a natural diet. Bear 264, a female grizzly often seen near Mammoth, kept looking for human food and she became the most photographed bear in American and in 2003 was struck and killed by a car.
Now the bears are harder to see. And that was exactly what happened to us. We were not lucky enough to really see the bears except from great distances.
There was one bear on our first day that was up on the mountain walking along the yellow greass and flowers. We could just make him (her) out.
Another day there was one female grizzley bear with two cubs way up in the ridge of the snow covered mountain on the south side of Lamar Valley.
This bear got pregnant, most likely, in June of 2020. Bears have embryonic diapause, which means the embryo development is stopped until the mother has gained enough weight to support them. Basically, the mother’s body decides if she is healthy enough for the embryo to grow. If she has not accumulated enough fat, the egg will spontaneously abort. So these cubs likely did not develop until the early fall. This is the time the mother bear enters a period of excessive eating, called hyperphagia. She can eat up to 20-30000 calories a day just to gain 3 pounds. The bear then will dig a den on a highly elevated slope. The entrance will be just big enough for the bear to squeeze through so it will quickly get covered with snow which holds in the heat. During hibernation, the bear does not eat, drink, urinate or defecate. Her temperature will drop to about 10 degrees and the fat beaks down into water and calories for her body to use. But she may wake up and move about the den so it is not real hibernation but rather torpor, which is a state of physical and mental inactivity.
The cubs are born during hibernation and can nurse while the mother sleeps. They may weigh 20 pounds by the time she wakes up. The bears, outside the womb, are helpless until a few weeks later when they all emerge from hibernation. And as long as the cubs stay with her, the mother will not go back into estrus. And that is why the male bears will often try to kill cubs so the female will go back into estrus and want to mate.
The cubs we saw therefore were about 1.5 years old. They were grazing and eating vegetation. I wished we could see them more clearly.
The grizzly bear is actually a subspecies of the brown bear, so a grizzly can be called a brown bear, but a brown bear cannot be called a grizzly. And why grizzly? Because their coats are a grizzled gray and brown. Grizzlies are much larger than brown bears, weighing up to 1000 pounds, although the average grizzly in Yellowstone is about 300-700 pounds.
Then there is the story of Grizzley bear 399. It is really a Grand Teton story.
399 was born in 1996. For the first 19 years of her life, she hung out outside the park, so no one knew her. In 2006, she gave birth to 3 cubs, who stayed with her for 2.5 years. And that’s where her story begins. 399 decided to raise her cubs in a manner different than most bears. And she became an instant celebrity. In fact, 399 is so famous she has her own Facebook page and twitter account.
So what did she do differently? Rather than hiding in the backcountry from humans, she brought up her cubs around humans. It is believed that she figured out that Grizzley males, who often kill cubs, avoid humans, so being around humans would protect her cubs from those males. She has habituated to people as have her cubs. In 2011 she raised three more cubs in the same manner. Sometime that year, a cub from another bear disappeared. One of her daughters, Grizzley 610 from her first litter, also raised her cubs in the same way. In 2011, one of 399’s cub disappeared for a while. When 610 showed up, she had an extra cub. She adopted the cub for 2.5 years.
Over these many years, 399 has reared 16 cubs and grandcubs. In mid 2020s, she was seen with four new cubs. And each of her cubs have been taught to benefit from humans rather than being harmed by them (us). For example, they learned to loiter during the fall elk hunt to eat the abandoned elk guts. And they learn to look both ways before crossing roadways.
399 is now 25 years old, old for a Grizzley, mostly because they are often shot or runover way before that. Kurt created a family tree for her. We did not get to see her, but the following week, Kurt saw her and her cubs. I was very jealous.
When you think of Jane Goodall, you think of chimpanzees (and I talk about her and the chimps in my Uganda blog – please see that). But when the US started selling permits for trophy hunting, many naturalists, including Jane Goodall, bought up all the permits so none were left for the hunters.
The first animal we saw on our first day was the pronghorn. And then we saw lots of them each day. The pronghorn is not really an antelope although it looks like one and is often called a “Pronghorn antelope.” It is more related to the giraffe. But, like other antelopes, they are fast, running as fast as 60 mph, and can easily cruise at 45mph. While there were about 35 million pronghorns in the US in the early 1800s, today, in Yellowstone, there are about 450-500.
The pronghorn are rather small, weighing less than 125 pounds and standing only 3 feet tall. They are a tan color, but what makes them most recognizable is their white tush. And of course, they have pronged horns, thus their name. But in fact, it is only the males that have the pronged horns.
Everywhere we went, we saw pronghorns. It was almost a yawn after a while. I had to stop myself and take in the view of them, reminding myself not to become complacent. Nature is too magnificent not to absorb every moment.
On our first day we came also upon a male elk with his harem. This time of year their testosterone is high and so they are looking for females. At other times of the year, they stay away from each other.
Elk are the most abundant mammal found in Yellowstone, with estimates of a population of 10-20,000. So there are plenty for the wolves to kill and eat. They are also hunted by bear and mountain lions. But Yellowstone is theirs. In fact, the local Native American tribes called the Yellowstone River, Elk River.
The Shawnee called elk, “wapiti” which means “white deer” or “white-rumped deer,” which totally describes them. They have very large antlers, with the racks dropping in the spring. Interestingly, it is the low testosterone levels and the lengthening of the daylight that trigger the antler growth. And seeing those large antlers was something. I almost wondered how strong their necks must be to hold them up. The were magnificent.
And the sound they make? It is a bugle, a sound that lets other males know he is there. It is an amazing sound, and has been compared to the pitch of the sound whales make. The larger their rack, and the louder the bugle, the more other bulls know they have competition for the females. I’m sorry I could not catch that sound on video. It is the sound of power.
We saw elk everywhere, but the closest we got to them was in Mammoth Hot Springs, where the elk just saunter about in between the cars and the people. Thus Mammoth is nicknamed, “Elk Town.” The elk have learned that if they hang out around people, that protects them from wolves and bears.
We saw bulls and females. There were rangers with bull horns making sure we stayed away from any danger. When we were there, they were all quietly grazing or just lying down. And then we would suddenly hear them bellow. It was actually quite amazing to be able to get so close to them, not so close to be unsafe, but still close enough to be a wonderment.
When we got back into the car, Kurt showed us what looked like a piece of ivory. Elk have ivory teeth, like the tusks of elephants. A few days later in Jackson Hole, we saw lots of jewelry made from the ivory elk teeth.
One morning, we met at 615am and headed out to shoot the full moon. There was frost everywhere. In fact, Moose, our van, had frost all over it.
This was the morning we saw the bison I described above. We started driving into Yellowstone on the prowl for wolves. And then, just lying down between the willow bushes, we saw a bull moose with his large, distinct, antlers. The sun has not yet peeked out from over the mountains, but the sky had begun to lighten up. There was a low band of fog, and lots of clouds in the sky. It was almost a dreamy feeling. We watched him for a bit and then went on our way.
We got to see some more moose during the trip, which may have been unusual as, although there are about 500 in the park, sometimes they are hard to find. One was hiding in the trees, but we could make out his large antlers. And then there was the bush growing out of the mountain that looked just like a moose.
And then, in the Grand Tetons, we saw a mother moose and her calf grazing along the river. The females look so different than the males as they don’t have those large, gorgeously shaped antlers. They heads are elongated and they have a “bell, a pendulous piece of skin dangling down from their throat,” all of which gives them a funny look.
Moose are the largest members of the deer family, weighing a few thousand pounds and standing 7 feet tall. They have long legs which enable them to wade into rivers and in deep snow. Those long legs also enable them to run fast. They shed their antlers in late December and then grow them back in the spring. And if I thought the elk antlers were something to behold, the moose antlers are even more so, because they are shaped so very differently than all other antlers.
We stopped at one point to enjoy the view of the beautiful landscape. Kurt noticed some movement and pointed out a coyote, slowly making his way across the land. We watched him for quite a while as he walked and walked, stopping every so often so lift his head and look around. After watching for quite a while, we had some hot chocolate and headed back on the road.
The coyote’s life is hard in Yellowstone, every since the wolves came back. There are about 50% less of them now. They are smaller than wolves, at about half the weight, with smaller heads, legs and feet. But they are smart and opportunistic. They alter their diet as needed, eating anything they can including insects, fruit, rabbits, mice and livestock. They will also go after weak deer or elk. In my neighborhood we sometimes see coyotes coming for the local cats and dogs.
Of course we saw other wildlife, like chipmunks and squirrels.
We, of course, saw birds everywhere. Our very first morning we stopped at a river where two eagles were just sitting by the edge of the water. We watched them for a bit, until they flew off. And then a flock of geese flew overhead. FIX PICS
But we saw other birds as well, many who were too fast to photograph.
We were on a photography trip, so we all thought of ourselves as photographers. But we had the opportunity to visit a real, professional photographer, Dan Hartman, and his wife Cindy. We parked at the bottom of the hill and walked up the dirt, forest path to their cabin, which they moved into over 30 years ago. Dan is a National Geographic photographer and some scenes of Planet Earth, a TV documentary, were filmed here with his consultation. Dan narrated his slide show, showing us beautiful photograph after beautiful photograph. His passion is owls and many of the photographs were of owl families or individual owls. But he became most famous or a picture of a bison at a creek during a winter snow storm. Look him up to see his photographs.
Final thoughts on the wildlife
It is always mind-boggling to watch wildlife in their natural habitat (yes, pun intended). I have traveled to Africa and to Mongolia and to Antarctica and to the Arctic, where have seen wildlife. But here, practically in our backyard, we have the opportunity to witness these magnificent animals up close and personal. I am sorry it took me so long to get here. But I’m so glad I finally made it.
Just an awesome eloquent story full of both admiration and love for these precious animals most of us will never ‘ meet’ . Thank you for your eloquent and beautifully detailed descriptions and memories. Annie
Dear Sonia, thank you for taking me through this beautiful trip. I loved your photographs and your stories. They make me feel as if I were there with you!