Tag Archive: Yellowstone


This is what I do when it gets dreary at home in the winter:  go through my trip photos from the last year, and plan my trips for next year.  It’s a damp, chilly sub-freezing evening that went dark at 4 p.m., and I’m sneezing. In other words, time to spend time bundled up with cups of ginger tea looking back and forward to adventures.

On a September road trip to Montana, I took a day to go to Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge on the advice of a coworker.  She is as much a student of nature and wildlife as I am.  She has a niece in West Yellowstone who drove her to Red Rock Lakes NWR about a month earlier.

It was an excuse to speed away from the madding crowd. I needed the break from Yellowstone National Park, which I love and support but grieve over as it becomes overrun. The drive to Lakeview was a trek:  50 miles of gravel roads winding from Henry’s Lake over Red Rock Pass by Mt. Jefferson before dropping into the Centennial valley.  The drive was first an adventure in elk avoidance, followed by swerving to avoid barreling trucks loaded with logs from a fire prevention project in the refuge.


Elk crossing the road by Henry’s Lake


Elk that ran across the road on the mountain, running i nto the woods


Logging truck coming down the more benign South Valley Road

I unwound on the lovely and wonderfully lonely drive. The road was lit up by groves of aspens that glow different hues of gold depending on how the light falls. I wanted to stop everywhere to take pictures of fall colors we never see at home, but, well- logging trucks. Enough said.


In Lakeview, I wandered around the refuge headquarters, which were closed since the rangers were in the field. I read signs and chatted a bit with a maintenance person. We lamented house prices in my area, where his kids live.  Way too high, but property was also too expensive around Lakeview, he said.  A recreational lot was for sale for $87,000.  That much, and only 3 acres! He was shocked.  I was, too, because you need a snowmobile to get there in winter.  And spring brings snowmelt and swampy roads.  So you’re using that lot from May to September-ish.

I walked the Sparrow Ponds Trail, despite a recent griz warning.  The refuge worker told me the bruins lurk in the willows if they’re around.  This one wasn’t, nor was much else except for birds.  I wanted to see a moose, but got there too late in the day, he said.

The waterfowl were having nothing to do with me. I tried being sneaky, but a great paddling of wings greeted me as they fled across the lake.  I sat huddled on a dirt mound by the shore in the cold wind for as long as I could stand it.



Two trumpeter swans, at a very great distance

Then I moseyed on toward Lower Red Rock Lake.  I traveled past the road to the lake out of curiosity, and came upon a little homestead cemetery. I gingerly opened the chain and walked in.  The sign is defiant, protective of the crumbling headstones and resentful of the refuge, a last stand to respect the people who clung to a tough, hardscrabble way of life.



The last person was buried before I was born. No one really lived that long except Mr. Shambow, the last to be laid to rest here.  Maude, perhaps his daughter, breathed air for only nine days. If there was a Mrs. Shambow, she’s not buried here; perhaps the tragedy of losing an infant drove her away from this place.


It’s not clear whose headstone this is, but the farewell is resigned, a drop of the hands to the sides. The words convey exhaustion, defeat by a rough land and rough weather.


redrockscampgroundAfter visiting the windswept cemetery with its oblivious gophers heaving the hallowed earth into mounds, I drove to Lower Red Rocks Lake campground. The gates and the signage speak to the neighbors and their manners.


There was no one at the campground, perhaps because it was so exposed.  The upper campground looked full as I passed.  I tip my hat to the National Wildlife Refuge System for installing a handicapped-accessible site in the middle of pretty much nowhere.


This area, from my perusal of the Web, is a good one to photograph pronghorn antelopes.  The fastest of North American land mammals, they evolved anatomy and physiology to escape long-extinct cheetahs.  The bounding gate, large eyes with 320-degree view, and rump flagging must still be serving them well still- as long as the predator isn’t carrying a firearm with bullets that travel faster than they can run.

redrocksswansI wandered around the campground, took swan pictures rendered fuzzy by heat waves, and then escaped the wind in my car.  I pulled out to the entry road to eat lunch from the shelter of my vehicle, taking photos of the pronghorns.  I thought I might hike Odell Creek trail on the way back, but it was closed for the logging operation, so I wandered back slowly to West Yellowstone, stopping while cowboys moved cattle to winter grounds.


I wish I had camped, really, instead of coming for the day.  I could have wandered among the aspens, waited until the rangers returned to the office to browse through exhibits and skins and feathers, watched for moose in the cold early morning.  But I needed to get back to my motel whether I liked it or not because my gear was there, along with my food.  Next time I will linger.  No more town life.  Not next time.

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Elk and bison feeding on dry grass in late fall along the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park.

Even when you’ve been a veterinary student, a scientist, a pet and livestock owner- even then, and maybe especially then- it’s hard to watch animals suffer in the wild.  You should know better, right?  Animals live, animals die.  Even without the hazards humanity poses for wild animals, a host of potential killers lurks behind every rock and bush. Weather, predators, disease, childbirth, battles with competitors, broken bones, rotten teeth, wildfire, and the list goes on.


We always want to see them cross to the other side of winter and make it to spring

My trip to Montana coincided with the cooling fall winter that heralds subzero temperatures and snow to come.  Winter drops a curtain between the robust and the weakened or just weaned.  On one side of the curtain, animals move on into the next spring. On the other, they become food for everything from insects and mice to birds, wolves, and bears.

In Yellowstone National Park, I saw for the first time in several trips young bison calves in late fall.  I have a pasture-bred horse that was born late August in Idaho, which isn’t optimal.  His mother likely “threw” the first fetus and rebred too late the previous year.  He made it, and is 20 years old now, but these young bison calves may not. They will  not benefit from human intervention in the way that my horse did.


This frost isn’t a spring morning, but late September- a bad time for a little red calf to be puttling on weight.


This calf isn’t far behind the one above, just shedding the last of the baby fur.


This calf is taller, older, and in good weight.  It still may not survive, but has a better chance.

On a trip to Red Rock Lakes Refuge, I found a decent herd of pronghorn antelope leaping around the grasslands crossed by the road.  When one that was lying down stood, I gasped to see its condition- no body fat, and a withdrawn look that says the animal is giving up and preparing to die.


Protruding bones and sunken eyes- it just hurts to see it.


Healthy animals that will be able to cope with winter.


At a pullout on the Madison River, a crowd of us watched this young elk cow lying in the grass, seemingly contented to chew her cud while other cows browsed nearby.


The cow occastionally made a peculiar, grimacing expression.


When she stood to eat, it became apparent that she’s walking on a very tender hind foot. This could make her vulnerable to predators, getting bogged down in snow, or reducing her ability to keep her weight up.


These elk look healthy, but the young one on left kept fighting to follow the herd, getting caught in barbed wire cattle fencing.  Elk calves can get hung up in fencing and struggle to death within 15 minutes according to a USFWS Refuge ranger. 

Something different happens when we’re out wildlife watching.  We want to see animals frolicking wild and free in nature.  We want to feel hope for wildlife.  It’s hard to watch suffering and death.  Maybe the sympathy we want to feel for the sometimes hateful human race gets subverted as we gaze on sick and injured animals.  Maybe it’s the same gut-wrenching sadness we feel when children, the elderly, and disabled people suffer.

At least with wildlife, we can take comfort knowing that there is a circle of life.  The emaciated pronghorn will feed the food chain.  Wolves and bears may survive the winter on bison too young and too old to make it through.  It’s not the end: the rest of the herd, and the beneficiaries of death will make it through to the other side.


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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