As wildlife biologists, we work with wildlife on a daily basis. So, what do we do on a day off? Why, go look for more wildlife, of course! We took off Friday morning to meet our good friend, Mary, in our backyard playground, Yellowstone National Park. While the summer in Yellowstone is fascinating and unique with it’s bubbling hot pots and active geysers, for us, winter is the season of the wolf. By Thanksgiving, most of the roads are closed to wheeled traffic and, while Old Faithful will see numbers of visitors traveling to it by snow coach, the northern entrance to the Park via Gardiner, has few tourists and is our easiest access to the wolf packs and the bighorn sheep – the two species we were off to find. Today I’ll tell you about our morning.
Those who aren’t familiar with Yellowstone National Park tend to think of it as a zoo. They believe that one can just show up and the wildlife is everywhere for you to see, whether you’re looking for them or not. While that is true for some of the wildlife much of the time (you can be sure to see vast herds of bison in Hayden Valley in August and there’s almost always at least a few elk wandering around Mammoth), even Yellowstone wildlife is just that – wild, and not always available to the casual onlooker. But if you know where to look, how to look and when to look, then finding the harder-to-spot species like bears and wolves becomes easier. Still not guaranteed, but easier. For us, fall and winter are the time we go to visit the wolves. While we periodically see them in the summertime, the winter is the easiest time to find and observe them.
We left our motel rooms around 6am and headed out to the Lamar valley. And we weren’t disappointed. A wolf pack was lounging around in the aspen about a quarter of a mile south of the road. Out came the spotting scopes and the binocs and we all settled down contentedly to watch the wolves acting like, well sort of like dogs all having a grand social time. Not a surprise, of course – dog and wolf behavior have a lot in common, since that’s where our dogs descended from long ago. But all the same, there is something enthralling about seeing some of those same behaviors we see in our canine buddies acted out by the wolf – an animal that embodies the very essence of wildness. We had been watching the wolves for about an hour when one of them sat down, pointed his muzzle skyward and began to howl. Within seconds, the rest of the pack all added their voices to the first. And moments later, from the other side of the valley, unseen wolves responded and the valley echoed with the ululating songs. I put down my binoculars, sat back, closed my eyes and let the sounds wash over and around and through me. Not a bad way to start out a Thanksgiving weekend. Not a bad way at all.