That time I watched a wolf pack and a male grizzly descend upon a bison carcass in Yellowstone National Park
In the summer of 2015 I was embarking on the biggest and scariest move of my life. I was leaving Nova Scotia behind to start a Master's project in British Columbia, but first, I was going to spend two months living in Montana and exploring Yellowstone National Park. The most exciting part was that I had been dreaming of seeing Yellowstone's famous geysers, hot springs and wildlife for years. A budding ecologists' dream come true.
In my undergraduate degree I had learned about the classic example of predator control that was Yellowstone. Wolves removed, coyotes and elk released, willow extensively browsed - and then decades later the famous re-introduction. I knew that I was interested in conservation and specifically, conservation within National Parks. However, my visit to Yellowstone solidified my love of understanding predator-prey dynamics.
My first week in Yellowstone was spent visiting your classic tourist attractions: Old faithful, the grand prismatic spring, the canyon, and mammoth hot springs. I was surprised to see elk laying in the grass next to the visitor's centre at Mammoth where hundreds of people were wandering around. But of course, there was pretty much a guarantee that no wolves would bother them there. Myself and another student hiked into the park where we saw elk again, laying in a heavily forested area in a valley bottom, well away from the known wolf dens. Seemed to me that elk were playing it smart.
On a hike around Lewis Lake in the southern region of the park, we saw canid and bear scat, and what we thought could have been wolf or coyote tracks. Disappointed that we didn't see any large mammals, we headed back to our campsite only to see a coyote just up the road. This confirmed our suspicions of canid activity. I was pretty satisfied with our day, considering we had also seen several bird species such as trumpeter swans, western tanager, cliff swallows and a common nighthawk.
The real wildlife excitement came in the park's northern region, the Lamar valley which largely spans the width of the park to Cook city and north into Montana. On this stretch we saw hundreds of bison close to the road, black bears, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, white-tailed deer and mule deer. The mountain goats were perhaps the most difficult to find, as we spent several hours scoping cliffs in the eastern part of the valley until we finally found a family of 5.
My favourite and most memorable encounter in the Lamar valley was on one of my last days visiting the park. About an hour from Cook city there is a known wolf den, and lo and behold, a bison had died just outside of it the weekend I was there. The great thing about having lots of people around in the summer is that wildlife sightings are easy to find when driving around, largely because people are pulled over on the side of the road with cameras and well- that's a pretty obvious clue. Two of the wolf dens in Yellowstone are accessible to visitors, and fortunately we were equipped with multiple spotting scopes and rubber boots. The viewing spot was a short walk from the main road and was easy to find as at least five others were already waiting with their scopes set up. We arrived, set up and waited for the sun to set. We didn't have to wait very long. Moments after we saw incredible wildlife action unfolding.
There was the bison carcass, this large mass easily discernible on the open, yellow grass. On top of the carcass was a large, male grizzly bear. Approaching the carcass were what looked like six little dogs running up to it and grabbing chunks of meat. Of course, those were the wolves! We watched in awe as the wolves actively pursued the carcass while the male grizzly tried to roll the carcass away from them. In the corner a few feet away from the action were two young wolf pups, and the alpha female was running back and forth to them with mouthfuls of food. Unsurprisingly, she was the most aggressive towards the bear. About thirty minutes later we saw a second grizzly approaching from a distance. She was smaller, with two cubs at her side. We watched as the female walked by the scene behind some trees, as if assessing the situation and deciding that it was too dangerous to join. We watched until the dark made us pack up for the night, as we knew this was possibly a once in a lifetime wildlife encounter.
I couldn't have asked for a better experience watching wildlife and learning first-hand about some of the conservation issues in the park and management challenges. To see up close pieces of browsed willow by elk and to see their behaviour in a landscape with wolves was sublime. Yellowstone is a must-see for anyone studying ungulate and carnivore communities, or simply anyone who has a passion for wildlife and geology.
A few pieces of advice when planning your trip to Yellowstone: