Lamar Valley Buffalo Ranch, view toward dining hall/classroom building complete with bison

For five days in March, I lived at the historic Lamar Buffalo Ranch in Yellowstone for “Lamar Wolf Week”. The Lamar Valley is dubbed a “Winter Serengeti” by the clever marketing folks at the Yellowstone Association for its abundant wildlife, very visible in the winter.

The drive from Snohomish to Gardiner, Montana travels over three high mountain passes and always has the possibility of storms, especially in the winter and spring. A friend and I drove in from Missoula to Gardiner in some pretty wicked weather- strong, gusty winds, blowing hail and snow and rain. As we traveled down 89 from Livingston to Gardiner, the sun came out and the temperature climbed from 32 to 50 degrees in about 15 minutes. We could see a storm up ahead, but where we were driving, ranch horses stretched out on the ground to enjoy the temporary warmth.

In Gardiner, we checked into the Absaroka Lodge for an overnight stay. The room- 2 queens and a kitchenette-was only $69 with tax, and was bright, spacious, and clean, with great storage and a balcony overlooking the Yellowstone River. We must have had a deal because the price is now $135 any season of the year, more consistent with the cost of most places in the area.


Pronghorn antelopes

We took a drive into the park, about ½ mile away, to see what we could see. We immediately came upon a small herd of pronghorn antelope lying low in the rising wind, conveniently posing by a pullout and interpretive sign that said “Wildlife Migration”.

We drove to Mammoth and up the hill past the thermal features, passing a small group of bison hunkered down in the wind in a snow free zone by a thermal area; lying low on the toasty ground with butt to the wind is a way to get through storms. It turns out that thermal areas are the basis of survival for bison in the even snowier interior section of the park by Hayden.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs

As we drove along, we saw a lot of animals near thermal features and on the road. We were seeing one of the important features of Yellowstone in winter, highly visible wildlife due to the road. Traveling the plowed road uses the lowest energy route to travel from one point to the next, avoiding a struggle through the snow.TheEasyWay


The hard way to travel, compared to the road

We saw a bighorn sheep on the way toward Tower Junction. The sheep was pawing at the slope to get at the roots of plants, with little else to eat. Later, one instructor said that at this time of the year, the animals have essentially “finished all the cereal and are eating the box”.sheep

Suddenly, the storm came upon us. Within 10 minutes, the temperature had dropped from 38 to 27 degrees and snow was piling up on the road. The visibility plummeted, sometimes to nothing but swirling snow in front of the windshield. Winter driving in this area is not for the inexperienced or faint of heart- the roads are steep and winding, with no guard rails by the towering drop-offs, and rapidly become really slick in a snowstorm. We turned around and passed the bighorn sheep, which had continued eating despite the sudden driving wind and snow, as had the now snowy bison.sheepinsnow

snowybisonThe following day, we drove down to Tower Junction and skied for the day. The storm was over but it was cold and windy, and the wind chill likely dropped the temperature far below the 24 on the thermometer. We skied out into the valley and passed a herd of bison trying to make a living in the lee of a slope by the river.BisonSkiing

After skiing for awhile, we toured the Lamar Valley up past Silver Gate to Cooke City, where the Beartooth Highway was closed for the winter. Silver Gate and Cooke City are the sheep and the cattle of the old range wars: Silver Gate has cabins and espresso for Nordic skiers, while Cooke City has motels and bars for the “sledniks”- snowmobilers.

We checked into Lamar Buffalo Ranch and found our cabin, the nice but buffalo-beaten #7. The cabin was positioned next to a field where bison grazed, and the large beasts would use the stair railing to scratch their butts. The railing was wobbly, and the side of the cabin had tufts of bison hair rubbed on it.CabinPet

The Lamar Buffalo Ranch was the incorrectly named site where bison (they’re not buffalo) were raised to save the wild bison population. In the 1800’s, it was a jolly little East Coast vacation to take the trains out West and shoot bison from the windows on the way. And they were slaughtered to weaken the American Indian tribes who depended on them. By the late 1800’s, Americans were starting to get really worried about the rampant slaughter of animals, and the conservation movement was born. But it was too late- continued poaching continued to reduce numbers. Finally, the population was reduced from 60 million to only 25 animals, and an emergency occurred that required both Army intervention (the Park Service was the military in the beginning) and the ranch.

Today, the Lamar Buffalo Ranch is run by the Yellowstone Association Institute, an educational arm of the National Park Service. There is a central facility with kitchen and classrooms, cabins, ranger housing, and a really nice central bathroom with heated floors, lots of hot water in the showers, and immaculate daily cleaning.

We had signed up for a course where food was provided, and it was both a treat and wonderful. Everyone took turns on KP duty, which was a really small favor in return for some really nicely prepared meals. I couldn’t imagine the same number of us (class was full at 20-some) trying to elbow our way into the kitchen and cook every day.

Our day would start at 6 a.m. with breakfast, followed by trips out to watch wolves and wildlife. We would return for lunch, sign up for an afternoon snowshoe or winter hike, and go out for a few more hours. After dinner, there would be a program. The first day, we saw the two remaining Lamar Valley wolves that had not been killed in the fall Montana hunt. They had killed an elk, a feat for two animals, and we were able to watch activity at the carcass. We were all so excited to see them that we didn’t even notice a coyote chased off the carcass racing behind us until John Harman, our instructor, gently pointed it out. We did manage to get pictures of its mate going by a few minutes later, chin still bloody.coyote

Coyotes have not fared well with the return of the wolf. Once reaching numbers where they assumed a role as apex predator, their populations have been reduced 50% and they are relegated to stealing from carcasses with a watchful eye to make sure the wolves don’t run them off or kill them.

We watched a red fox hunt, first walking with head cocked this way, then that, listening for sounds of voles under the snow, then leaping into the air and doing a spectacular swan dive, front paws and nose first, to grab the rodents under the snow. They can reportedly plunge 2-3 feet into the snow using this technique.Fox

We snowshoed that afternoon up to the acclimation pen used for the “soft release” of the first re-introduced wolves in 1996. Historically, wolves haven’t fared any better than bison, but for different reasons. The “devil dog” of the Catholic church, supposed killing machine that would decimate livestock and herds of elk was systematically removed from the American West. While timber wolves persisted in the Great Lakes region, grey wolves were wiped out by the 1920’s using poison, guns, traps, and just plain torture.InternPen

In Yellowstone, lack of predators swelled the ranks of elk to unsustainable levels of 25,000-35,000 animals, many very old. The National Park Service had to start culling the herd in mass slaughters. In 1944, Aldo Leopold suggested reintroduction of the wolf to control elk and bring back the wild to Yellowstone but was dismissed. Finally, in the late 80’s, the idea reemerged and got traction. Through a years-long environmental review process which garnered a near-record number of comments, the government dealt with hate on all sides. Finally, approval of the reintroduction of an “experimental population” was gained, and the first wolves were trapped in Canada and transported to the park.

The idea of the acclimation pen was to bond the animals and get them used to Yellowstone so they didn’t stray to the ranches outside the park and prey on livestock. The pens were hidden in the hills to prevent people from killing the wolves. All materials were hauled up by mule. The elk and deer fed to the animals were obtained by two staff nicknamed “carcass queens” who would get a call from the highway crews when there was a road kill and sneak out to snag it (sneaking so that opponents didn’t lace the carcasses with strychnine first). Park staff would haul the carcasses up to the pens over their shoulders.
I was the first to arrive at the long- unused pen, and told to check for trapped animals that might bolt out the front gate at the site of us. The pen is in disrepair, something John feels should be addressed by either tearing it down and leaving interpretive signage or rebuilding it.

The strategy was mostly successful, although several wolves were lost outside the park (some shot illegally, a few removed due to sheep predation). The trip to the pen was punctuated by John, stopping at points along the way to tell the story of the trapping and reintroduction through the eyes of the larger-than-life colorful people who led the effort. By the time we got to the pen, the whole story was alive and afire in our minds, and the walk through the enclosure was silent and awestruck for all of us.

John Harmer had come to Yellowstone two years ago, unable to find a job as a poultry science major, tired of working as a cruise trip salesman, and fresh from several months backpacking in Europe. His dad, anxious to get him a real job, paid for him to take a three-week course for Naturalist Guide Certification. The Yellowstone staff was impressed by John’s really hard, high quality work despite having no background in education or even wildlife. He was hired on after the course and has been there ever since. He wants to move on to field work and field research, but says he will always stay in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.


Keeping warm on the road

This is a typical story- people (mostly men) come here, they fall in love with the place, and they never leave. I heard it over and over again during the week from a former Silicon Valley executive to a successful Washington contractor, and many others. Their stories were wistful, told with sighs and slight smiles as if they had fallen into the arms of a dream and had never woken up. It is the open space, the thrill of seeing thousands of elk migrate in fall, the wildness of it all they love.

The second day, we signed up for the Specimen Ridge hike. I begged off wearing snowshoes, much to John’s relief. The snow didn’t require bulky, awkward snowshoes and they were only wearing them because attendees wanted to try snowshoeing. Perhaps because my hips have never been structurally or functionally ideal, I do not enjoy the wide stance required by snowshoes and only wear them when I must. An older gentleman (yes, older than I) from North Carolina came along and set the pace much slower than we would have liked. Snow fell the entire time, making a Christmas atmosphere.Antlers

I got a chance to talk Don MacDougall, shown in this picture standing on an overlook above the Yellowstone River. Don works during the summer months at Pack Creek brown bear sanctuary on Admiralty Island in southeast Alaska. He has more bear experience than most, since the rangers manage permit-holding visitors crossing a mile of bear-dense territory to watch bears fish for salmon in streams. He rues the requirement to carry a 308 to deal with the bears, because good bear sense, without even use of pepper spray, is what has kept him safe. He has been within 10 feet of a grizzly (they’re called “brown bears” in Alaska). We talk about Timothy Treadwell (“Grizzly Man”), the flamboyant and unpredictable would-be actor and film maker who spent too many years too close to bears and finally got himself and his girlfriend eaten. Don cites Tim’s worst offense as having dragged his fearful girlfriend into his fantasy of being at one with grizzlies, which he named silly things like “Mr. Bobo”.

Don coaches me on proper use of pepper spray: use it, then make sure you step out of the way, because the bear will keep coming even through the cloud of spray and you don’t want to be in front of it. Practice with your spray from last year when it expires. Don’t run, don’t scream, and don’t stare.

Our group includes the instructors who don’t want to stroll the flats with the rest of the group. We are more die-hard (“aggressive” as one woman put it) than many, and want to stretch our legs in the afternoon. None of these hikes are difficult, but since the demographic attending these classes is generally older and from lower elevations, they are listed as moderate.

The third day was the most exciting. The instructors are always in contact with the Wolf Project, an arm of the Park Service. The Project is struggling to get their winter radio collar operation completed after a run of poor weather for flying the plane and helicopter needed for collaring. They collared two sub-alpha status wolves in the Junction Butte pack in fall, only to have the wolves disperse from the pack. They ask us to watch for the animals and radio them if we see them.WolfCollar

We travel to the Hellroaring Creek overlook in the “Little America” area of the Lamar Valley and Brenda, a Park volunteer and skilled spotter, saw the pack about a mile away across the open expanse.


The kill, with wolves and ravens

We called the Wolf Project ranger who is an eternal presence everywhere, Rick McIntyre, and reported the wolves were clearly hunting, harassing bison (one with a broken leg). The Wolf Project began mobilizing for a potential collaring operation when the pack ran an elk out of the small trees and rocky outcrops and killed it, ensuring the pack would be in the area for awhile. We excitedly chased the wolves with spotting scopes, taking fuzzy pictures through the scope due to heat waves.IMG_0160_edited-1

The wolves gorged themselves- as animals that eat only every few days, they have adapted with a stomach that can expand to hold up to 20 pounds of meat (for an animal ranging from 80-120 pounds). In contrast, an 800-pound grizzly that eats a variety of food all day long can only consume about 12 pounds of meat. Once gorged, they lay “meat drunk” to digest, only getting up to defend the carcass from coyotes and feed once again.

During this time, the Wolf Project got the Piper Super Cub plane and helicopter going. Rick, Matt Metz, and other Wolf Project staff gathered at the overlook. Rick told us what would happen: Doug Smith, head of the project, would be strapped in the opening of the helicopter where the passenger side door was removed, his feet braced on the sled, and they would maneuver around the wolf until they could get a dart with an immobilizing agent called telazol into the wolf. They wanted three wolves, but would be happy with two. Alpha male and female were best options, but they would go for others.

During a really exciting chase where we struggled to keep up with the helicopter using spotting scopes, they chased the alphas, which eluded them by dodging into and through the trees where the helicopter couldn’t maneuver. In the end, they darted two lower status wolves. Once the wolves were down, they picked up one and put it with the second, stuffing them in the snow to help cool them off after the chase. The helicopter went to get more staff to help weigh, get blood samples, do physical exams, and collar.

We had found ourselves standing out there for five hours, transfixed, breathless. It was a long day, but really, really cool.

SkiSloughCreekLater, we skied to Slough Creek, the backpacking destination I had found for last September’s trip to Yellowstone, my first. The snow was gentle, the bison rumbling low as we passed, a coyote loping quietly by as we moved along. This looks like a wonderful snow camping destination, probably best in March despite the storms because it’s before the first grizzlies emerge from their dens.BighornSloughCreek

On my last day in Yellowstone, after the class was over, I went skiing- first to Tower Junction, then up the road from Canyon to Norris, stopping at a view of Bunsen Peak. The snow turned sticky in the sun, but it was still a nice day with beautiful views.

Co-opting a snowcoach used to haul people over Tower Junction Road

Co-opting a snowcoach used to haul people over Tower Junction Road

So what’s next? Well, for me I am slowly being wound into that same love affair with the Yellowstone area, fueled by a long fondness for open space and wildlife. I will return in September to backpack the Heart Lake loop. In October, I will take Certified Interpretive Guide training. And then-?


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