Sunday, July 31, 2011

Yellowstone 2011

I haven't kept track of -- though someday maybe I should reconstruct -- the number of times I've been to Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton NP, and the Greater Yellowstone Area, though regardless of the number, it's never enough. The area is vast, and varied, ever-changing, ever-beautiful no matter what the weather, season, or the altitude, latitude or longitude at which you stand. KLK and I were there for 10 days in early June this year. Here's a run-down of what all we saw and experienced that goes in our "first ever" column:
Since gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995, wolf-watching has been a major fascination for many people. In the winter of 2010, several of the historically predominant packs whose territories were in the Lamar Valley area and thus relatively easy to watch from the road were extirpated by mange. By the summer of 2011, other packs were moving in to replace them, but numbers are still down. But not the watchers, to be sure, they're still there in numbers. See them up there at the top of the hill with their spotting scopes aimed and ready?
But if wolf numbers are down, what are they watching? Surprise! Unrelated (presumably) to the reduction in wolf numbers, this year there has been an unaccountable explosion of watchable badgers (Taxidea taxus) in the old wolf territory. Although I've seen badgers there once or twice before, it was only with the help of people who had already spotted them, and with lots of magnification. This year, there were several dens very close to the roads, and eminently photographable. Here's a mother with a couple of her kits:
Bison (Bison bison) are ubiquitous and iconic. They're everywhere in Yellowstone and are also frequently seen in the Tetons. Like the badgers, bison bring their babies into the world in May and June. But we've never had the thrill of watching an actual birth. This trip, we missed the exact moment by just a very few minutes. We were stopped in traffic, people were out of their cars along the roadside, and we could see a large herd of bison cows with their orange calves peaceably doing what bison do (mostly eating), when all of a sudden we heard a cheer go up. I looked up to see a stream of blood coming out of the back end of a bison, and knew what had happened: her labor was was at last over. At this point traffic started to inch forward, until, within a few minutes, we got our turn to look: 
You can just see a little bit of umbilical cord between the baby's shaky legs. Note, too, the older calves snoozing in the background, and how this exciting event isn't even registered by the others.

But not all is always well among the bison. In spite of their massive size and power, they are still subject to starvation, old age, injury, and predation.We spotted this very sorry old bull plodding along the roadside, by himself, in the pouring rain:
He's extremely thin, scarred up, he has a swelling or lump on his left rear hock. And something else very serious going on: He has no tail. And, he has no anus. On close examination of the enlarged photo, the tail looks like it's been gone a long time (or even perhaps was never there), but the anal condition looks relatively new. Did the injury cause the sickly condition, or did the sickly condition result in vulnerability to attack (wolf, bear, cougar)? Or, we speculated that it might have been a birth defect, given how symmetrical the opening directly into this guy's rectum is. Mother Nature can be cruel indeed. 

Chicken-sized blue grouse (Dendragapus obscurus), fairly common in the area, are notoriously easy to tame, and, stupidly or otherwise, often unafraid of humans. We came across this handsome guy, with his feathery  legs and orange eye-wattles, hanging out at a pull-out along one of the high-altitude passes in Yellowstone. 
He was there for two days in a row, and not just unafraid: he was downright interested in people, and seemed to particularly like me. I let him approach and bent down to see how tolerant he would be of my hand. He pecked at it, never quite making contact; if I leaned forward, he acted very offended, puffing upright and opening his wings (more intimidating, you know!), gobbling at me. But if I walked away, he followed, walking 6 or 8 feet behind. If I sped up a little, he sped up too. It seems unlikely he was looking for a hand-out, so far as I know, grouse don't go for potato chips and marshmallows, preferring seeds and insects found in their home range.I guess we'll never know what he was thinking.
Photo courtesy K.L. Kuehnel
And of course there are deer, of many sorts (white-tailed, mule, and their relatives the elk and the moose) throughout the Greater Yellowstone Area. Along the wonderfully scenic Chief Joseph Highway connecting Cody, Wyoming with the Northeast Entrance of Yellowstone, we came across a herd of mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) waiting (fortunately!) to cross the road. 
(From a 2009 trip along the same route)
There was no traffic, so we stopped to allow them to pass. One by one they ventured across our lane, then each suddenly stopped stock still to look down at the yellow and black center line. After considering  for a moment, each then leapt way up over the line as if it were a 4-foot fence, and dashed up the opposite hill to join its waiting mates. We were laughing so hard it took too long to get my camera out, so I caught this young lady, the last to cross, just at the moment she successfully completed her mighty hurdle. 
Bears are notoriously fond of bathing and swimming, and very fun to watch as they do so. But of course they sometimes enter the water out of necessity or other serious intention as well. As KLK climbed down to explore on the hard-to-reach shore of the Yellowstone River just above where Tower Creek runs into it, very swollen and swift with snowmelt after this exceptionally snowy winter, I stood on a high bluff enjoying the magnificent view. 
Photo courtesy K.L. Kuehnel
All of a sudden I saw what looked like a large dark basketball bobbing purposefully was a black bear (Ursus Americanus) whose agenda that day happened to take it from one side of the river to the other. Extraordinarily, powerfully, its long route across the river was almost perpendicular to the shore, with very little downstream drift. KLK caught this moment as it stepped onto the far shore. It's good to have a nice benign demonstration once in a while of how strong bears truly are! 
Photo courtesy K.L. Kuehnel
Bears, it turns out, aren't the only critters interested in water. We often carve time out of our wildness experience to visit the wonderful Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, Montana, for more intimate views of these beasts that, for one reason or another, but almost always following unfortunate interactions with humans, cannot be released to the wild. They're well cared for there, although as usually the case with such facilities, they don't have much room to roam, and extra effort has to go into providing appropriate stimuli to prevent the development of mental illness. The bears, for example, are rotated in and out of the public viewing area, and between bears, the staff hides treats and toys among the rocks and brush that the bears then have to seek for healthy entertainment. But I'd not seen anything on that order for the wolves (Canis lupus) until this year, when their little wading ponds were stocked with small fish. A couple of them seemed to be fascinated with the fish, but I was fascinated with the bears, so KLK stayed to watch them. He reports that one of them finally caught and consumed a small fish. Who knew these magnificent meat-eaters would consider that fun? Sorry he didn't get an action shot, but here is one of the fishing wolves, watching intently for its chance to bite!


  1. Great pictures and commentary! I love your close-up of the wolf, the brand new calf standing up on shaky legs - I think you got there at just the right time - and the friendly but not too friendly blue grouse. (Maybe he just wanted to be in a blog.) But I sure feel sorry for that grand old gentleman bull, poor guy.

  2. I enjoyed your photos and descriptions of the wildlife you have encountered.

    Badgers have such pretty faces, as if their mask has been painted on.

    I love the way deer always look as if they are ready to flee. And they have to be of course.

    Deer farming is common around here but the deer we see in the paddocks have lost that 'ready for flight' stance.

  3. I've been waiting patiently and well worth it. What a great post. The mange bit is quite discouraging though. I think the alpha of the Druids may have been the one who wandered into Wyoming, was chased by a snowmobile for several days and then shot in that enlightened State of true "sportsmen." Ugh....

  4. Great YNP pics, Veronica. We didn't see any wolves in the Park when we there for spring skiing this year, but they're around. Population is down for many reasons: mange, inter-pack "warfare," and of course the recent and soon-to-be-reinstituted hunting season.