Montana-Wyoming 2011 - July 14, 2011 -The bear went over the mountain...and through the meadow...and across the road 4' in front of us

Published: July 22nd 2011
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A short drive from Bozeman brought us to the Gardiner entrance to Yellowstone National Park. This is the big one- the oldest national park in the world, about 2 million acres of mountains, plains, rivers, and geothermal features. Instead of sticking to a daily journal, it is a lot more useful to divide this into the two main categories of things to be seen: animals and geographic/geologic features.

Yellowstone has been called the "American Serengeti". Having seen both, I would agree. Yellowstone comprises a large ecosystem with relatively balanced predator/prey populations, particularly since the reintroduction of wolves in 1995. There are about 30-40,000 elk, 2500-4500 bison, about 600 grizzly bears, an approximately equal number of black bears, and about 200 wolves. Elk and bison are essentially omnipresent throughout the park, while bears are much less commonly sighted. These animals are obviously protected within the park, but if they leave the park they are subject to hunting.Last year, an entire pack of 8 wolves was killed when they strayed just outside of the park into Montana.

Although most of the forms of wildlife can be seen throughout the park at various times and under various conditions, we found that the most wildlife was inthe northern half of the park, particularly the northeast quadrant. Our first two days in the park were spent mostly in that quadrant, and the second day gave us our greatest number of significant sightings.

Knowing that wildlife might be most visible in early morning and at dusk, we decided to forego breakfast on our first full day in he park and to leave by 7 to go looking for animals. Our first bit of luck came immediately. About 5 miles away from Mammoth Hot Springs (where we were staying) going toward the Tower/Roosevelt area, we noticed a couple of cars stopped along the road, and we pulled over. Just off the road was a black bear, at first lying down behind a log. Boring with that pursuit, he got up and ambled unhurriedly across the road directly in front of our car.

We headed toward the Lamar Valley, supposedly the hotspot of wildlife activity, including bears and wolves, but a bridge was being repaired and we did not want to wait our turn to get across, so we turned back and headed toward Canyon Village (more about that later). At one spot in the road there was a small herd of pronghorns and nearby three bison with two month-old calves (which are colloquially called "red dogs" here.

I have always been fascinated by pronghorns. Although frequently called antelopes, and fulfilling the same ecological niche as Old World antelopes, they are unrelated to deer and antelopes. They are the second fastest land animal in the world after the cheetah, and can reach speeds variously clocked at 72-86 km/h, which they can maintain for much longer than the bursts of chetahs. Their hair is hollow, and presumably that is why it feels so incredibly soft and lush (we were able to feel a sample in the Tetons later on). Although once threatened, various measures have allowed populations to recover and they are numerous now, particularly in Wyoming and Idaho. A seasonal migration pattern has been discovered in Idaho.

Along the way, we stopped near Antler Creek because there was a large turnout with a lot of people and a park ranger, a dead giveaway that something interesting had been sighted. They were across a large meadow from a known den of wolves, and the wolves had been spotted earlier that day, but were no longer about. After a few minutes of watching for the wolves and for a grizzly that had also been spotted there earlier, we proceeded about 200 yards down the highway and found a number of cars stopped. Climbing a small hill, we were able to watch a grizzly sow and her two cubs in a meadow about half a mile away.

Later that afternoon, returning north near Obsidian Cliff, we spotted another bear in the woods just a few yards from our car. We are still not entirely sure whether it was a grizzly or a black bear. Black bears come in a number of colors, including a cinnamon color similar to grizzlies, so they can be confused, but we think the facial features of this one were more similar to grizzlies.

As mentioned, bison are present throughout the park. They represent a real species recovery success story. Although they used to cover most of North America with herds numbering in the millions, they were hunted to near extinction in the late 1800's. Partly this was a commercial venture to obtain hides (the rest of the animal being left to rot), and there was also a desire to remove them as competitors with domestic cattle, but perhaps the most pressing reason that the slaughter was backed by the federal government was that it was known that the Plains Indians were dependent on the bison and there was a desire to eliminate the Indians by eliminating the bison. Gen. Phillip Sheridan argued this cause in front of Congress. At one point the population may have dropped as low as 300-800 individuals, but rescue efforts have paid off. There are probably 400,000-500,000 in herds being ranched, but these do not count for conservation purposes, and the number of wild bison is probably about 15,000. Many of the wild herds are genetically impure, their gene lines contaminated with bovine genes, but the herd in Yellowstone is considered special because it is genetically pure and represents the only herd that has existed in a wild state since prehistoric times, although all are descended from about 23 individuals that managed to survive the slaughter by sheltering in the Pelican Valley of Yellowstone. Though often referred to as buffalo, they are not very closely related to true buffalo. They are the largest land mammals in North America.

Many tourists come to Yellowstone and never see a bear, and we are told that seeing 5 in one day is extremely unusual.

THe photos of the young grizzly (?) and the grizzly sow and cubs were taken by Jan

Additional photos below
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