Discovering the Call of the Wild in Yellowstone National Park
October 1, 2009
Filed under Destinations
Sam, the bear, was hungry and he knew from smell where he could satisfy his appetite.
Padding across the grounds to a large tree, the massive grizzly examined the bag located high above. Like all bears, Sam was smart and began testing the tree by rocking it back and forth. When he couldn’t bend the tree far enough to grab the bag, the 1,000-pound bruin paused as though filled with a revelation. Stooping and encircling the tree with his arms, Sam gave a mighty heave and ripped the tree from its foundation. He then walked to the upper limbs, now prostrate on the ground, removed the bag of food and turned his huge primordial head to stare at all the spectators with a look of immense satisfaction. The appreciative crowd erupted in laughter.
My wife, Janie, and I were inWest Yellowstone, Montana,Yellowstone National Park, adjacent to checking in on a nonprofit, educational complex called the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. We had been traveling back and forth from our campground at Madison Junction, about 15 miles away, and so began the journey back, poking along the road paralleling the Madison River. We drove slowly, marveling at the gold-colored cottonwoods and aspens – all threaded here and there by geysers and a thick emerald ribbon created by the Madison River.
That’s when we heard the elk beginning to bugle, their calls filtering in from a distant, verdant stand of timber.
It was a fall October day, the best time to visit the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, primarily because we had so much of the place to ourselves. But fall is also the best season to be in Yellowstone National Park, not only because there are fewer visitors, but also because so many species of wildlife are gearing up for battle. In other words, it’s mating season, and at this time the park’s most conspicuous species want to pass on their genes, and the battles and rituals that each species exhibit are some of the park’s greatest calls from the wild.
Yellowstone and West Yellowstone are two of the best places in our country to learn about such things, but at this time of year you must keep in mind the weather. If it’s inclement, head to the Discovery Center; if favorable, head into the park.
The previous night, it had snowed, and the thick wet stuff dramatically altered the landscape surrounding Madison Campground, where we were staying. In this high plateau country – elevation about 6,000 feet – rain quickly changes to ice and snow.
Obviously, camping in Yellowstone toward the end of the season requires a heads up, but it is certainly worth the effort. Not far from our rig we heard the clear, clarion call of a bull elk from a nearby meadow.
Essentially, bull elk use their calls to keep other male suitors from their territory, but when warnings go unheeded, fights result. The time is one of high drama, and Janie and I grabbed our cameras, located the bull, which was several hundred yards away, and settled in to watch and record. The animal was an impressive one, for on one side of its “rack” the bull carried eight tines while on the other, seven.
About an hour later our elk moved on and we decided to drive to Old Faithful, about 40 minutes from Madison, where we saw bison – they were everywhere, even on the road. At one place the huge, shaggy beasts plugged the road, circling a couple in their motorhome.
That night it snowed lightly, but enough to close one of the nearby passes, so we headed back to West Yellowstone. As we drove our dinghy, we found a bald eagle perched in a tree adjacent to the road, following a tip from Katy Duffy, Yellowstone’s district interpreter in the Madison area, had offered. Katy, as she insisted we call her, had just helped establish a birding trail that coursed along roads just outside the park, and she became a source for locating not only eagles, but also geese, owls and one of my very favorite birds, the raven.
Katy is also involved in the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, explaining that naturalists use the not-for-profit center as a backdrop for their interpretive programs. Here, they not only use the animals for instruction, but they also use the dioramas and displays to explain bear behavior and evolution. Still, it was the live creatures that kept drawing us back. Sam the grizzly was up and about, and as we walked into the huge compound, this powerhouse was again pulling down a tree. But a bear named Spirit had also worked magic.
Biologists had removed this beautiful and grizzled bear from Whitefish, Montana, because she had started grazing the grass on local golf courses and on the residential grounds flanking the greens. “Biologists tried to dissuade her,” said Director John Heine, adding that they had used firecrackers, pepper spray and even Karelian dogs. Heine said these techniques had failed because Spirit had become habituated to human food. “The only alternative,” said Heine, “was to either destroy the bear or bring her here – so we brought Spirit here!”
Equally compelling at the center were the wolves. Like bears, they symbolize much that is wild and free. They would howl, play or sometimes, simply rest.
With its substantial enclosure, the center provides a wonderful setting for the wolf, an intelligent beast that was once a historical component of the park’s ecosystem. Today, the wolf is back, with 150 of them inhabiting Yellowstone. The species is at the top of the biological pyramid, but because it can be so elusive, the center is probably the most dependable place to observe these fascinating creatures.
Wolves are extremely intelligent mammals, but they don’t do well if taken directly out of the wild. Consequently, the Discovery Center keeps only wolves that were born in captivity. Still, they communicate in the same manner as their wild counterparts. Here, you can watch them as they interact and see what prompts them to create their soulful music. We were thoroughly captivated, enough so that we decided that, come morning, we’d search for them in the park itself.
That night the clouds began to lift and the temperatures dropped. But cold weather makes for wild geyser viewing, as freezing air tends to compress the steam and make the eruptions more billowy. Norris Geyser basin, about a 14-mile drive from Madison, is always impressive, and that day it seemed particularly alive. The snow-covered woods created a wondrous setting, and we took the time to walk the entire mile-long boardwalk loop. From there, we drove to a series of flats just above Mammoth Terrace, where we spotted two bull moose pawing the earth. Impressive as the displays were, we still wanted to find wolves in the wild, so we set out bright and early the next day.
From years past, Janie and I knew that one of the best places to find wolves was in the Lamar Valley, the valley about midway between Mammoth and Cook City, and we decided to give wolf sighting one more try. It’s about 90 minutes from Madison Junction to Lamar, but by early morning we were scoping a vast expanse of grassland near Soda Butte, another of the park’s thermal sinks. It was cold, and tiny snowflakes wafted in soft mountain currents. Of course we spotted the large creatures – bison and elk – and even saw several coyotes, but no bears (they were probably about to hibernate). Then, near a stand of willow, we saw a large German shepherd-sized animal and knew that our quest was about to pay off.
For a while the animal just sat there; then, for no apparent reason, it lifted its head and howled, and that’s when three other wolves materialized from a vast sweep of sagebrush, willow and scattered stands of golden aspen. The animals trotted toward one another, tails erect, swaying back and forth. The pack was on the move, an event that seemed so appropriate in a season when elk were bugling, bison bellowing, moose sparing, sheep mating and geysers erupting in the crisp, clear air. Certainly, at this time of year, Yellowstone provides a multitude of calls from the wild.