Back to Yellowstone and over the Beartooth pass

The ‘Lamar Valley wolfs’, subject of several documentaries and dozens of books are arguably the most famous residents of Yellowstone National Park. Wolves had been hunted to extinction in the 1920’s in the region but were reintroduced, in the midst of great controversy in 1995. Today there is a healthy population and the Lamar Valley is now one of the best places in the USA to see wolves in the wild. That is if you know what you are doing. There may now be about 100 wolves in Yellowstone but this park is gigantic so seeing a wolf is considered a ‘big bonus’. After our quest for the bull moose we now had a new mission ‘find a wolf’. But from our Grand Teton experience, we also learned that spotting specific animals is very hard and requires a lot of luck. However, it helps a lot if you can spot a good wildlife spotter. So the question was not so much “are we going to spot a wolf?” but rather “Will we find the right wolf spotter?”.

To get from Grand Teton to the Lamar valley we drove through the Yellowstone Grand Canyon and Hayden Valley. In every other National Park these would the main attractions of the park but here they are overshadowed by all the volcanic activity in the West and the wildlife haven in the Lamar Valley.

At the Grand Canyon the calm Yellowstone river changes into a white water fury at the higher falls before dropping 300 m down into the canyon at the Lower Falls. The sheer power of the waterfall is impressive enough but the multicolored canyon and rainbow spray makes it all really unique. We checked out several viewpoints to admire it all from several angles.

The Hayden Valley was ‘bison central’ of Yellowstone. We had seen a couple of herds on the West side. But here we had a peek into the past before the ‘arrival of the white man’ when valleys used to be ‘black with bisons’. We also wished we could take a peek into the brains of some of the tourists (aka ‘tourons’= tourist + moron) that were creeping up on the bison that were grazing by the side of the road. I don’t know how many warnings the NP can issue about the dangers of these animals. It’s everywhere (maps, brochures, visitor centers) and very hard to ignore. But somehow people are able to do just that. To be honest, I’m always doubting between whether I need to be anxious that someone will be charged by the bison or be excited that I may be able to witness an example of the ‘natural selection’ theory.

But we are digressing, we were here to look for wolves. So we left the ‘tourons’ with the bisons and continued our drive into the Lamar Valley. Our first impression: this area is huge! The valley is several kms wide and so a wolf or even a bison would be not more than a small dot at the opposite side of the valley. A bit discouraging, we must admit, even more so because during our drive through the whole valley, we did not see any location where the ‘professional/dedicated spotters’ gathered. We did chance upon a wounded coyote crossing the street, plenty of pronghorn antelopes and of course more bison. When it got dark we decided to sleep just outside the park gates and re-enter in the morning before the sun got up.

The next morning, we headed out in the pitch dark and it was freezing (-5) cold. The first 10-15 km in the park we saw absolutely nothing. But we were not looking for animals yet, we were looking for the spotters and their cars. The first place where we saw a couple of cars, was also the first wildlife sighting of the day: a moose cow. But we had something else than moose on our mind this time, so we quickly drove on. When the valley opened up, we saw a place where quite some cars were parked but we could not see any people. Only when we got out of the van, we realized that they were hidden from view on a hill above the road all peering through scopes (super strong binoculars) and gigantic lenses.

Caroline quickly went out to get some info on what was happening. But this time around it was going to be more difficult to ‘use’ the wildlife spotters. When she asked about what they were looking at and if they saw something, the only response was “We only look for wolves”. After that she was completely ignored. So, these were the famous ‘wolf people’; ladies and gentlemen that come to the valley before dawn nearly every day of the year to follow the wolf packs. Of course, they are not super enthusiastic about ‘day visitors’ that just come walking in and hope to spot all the wolves of Yellowstone. But Caro is not rebuffed that easily and so she stuck around and tried to talk to other persons. By the time I had prepared coffee and walked up the hill to bring it to her, she had found a really nice older gentlemen who was very happy to share information. He showed us a couple of bears through his scopes which already made us forget the freezing cold. While he was explaining a bit about the ‘Junction Butte’ pack (the main wolf pack in the park), all of a sudden, we heard a cracking voice coming from his jacket. “Two Junction Butte wolves spotted moving east through the valley”. Turns out he was using a radio to communicate with other spotters. The voice on the other side was that of Rick McIntyre, author of several books and the absolute authority on Yellowstone wolves. This was really the ‘inner circle’ of the ‘wolf people’. Great job again from Caroline the ‘wildlife spotter’ spotter.

So there were wolves, several miles away but they were coming our way. Now it was time to get the kids, those school tasks could wait for later. Some of the spotters left to get a closer view but we stayed with our new friend who was convinced we would get a better view from our high viewpoint. After 20 minutes, he got the first grey wolf in his scope and so we got our first glimpse of a Yellowstone wolf! Shortly after a black wolf appeared also. During the next 2-3 hours we were able to follow these two as they made their way through the valley. But this valley is huge, so when they were closest to us, they were still 1.5 to 2 km away. We had seen a wolf much closer (just meters away) in Canada when we passed it on the highway but this was so much nicer. We saw how they were moving through the valley, intimidating some pronghorn antelopes (no chance they would catch them though – too fast!) and annoying the bison (these are more realistic prey), but also how they were chasing a big bull moose (yes,we saw another one!) up the hill.

It was such a nice morning, not only because of our wolf sightings but also because we learned so much from our new friend about these creatures. They are truly one of the apex predators of the park again. It’s crazy how the whole ecosystems changed within a couple of years after the re-introduction. Elk numbers dropped and all of a sudden certain trees and plants (eaten by elk) flourished again. The coyote numbers dropped (hunted by wolfs) so the fox population (competitor of the coyote) grew again. Cougars moved out of the valley back to their traditional mountain hunting grounds. And I could continue for some time. Today there is a healthy wolf population inside and around the park. In 2009 the wolfs went off the endangered list so they can be legally hunted (outside the park) which has stirred up another great controversy.

By 11 o’clock the wolves had all disappeared into the woods so we finished the school work, had a bite to eat and then wanted to do a last hike in the Lamar valley. However halfway in the hike we got on top of a small ridge and noticed a very big grizzly bear in the distance. And it was moving around right next to where the trail would bring us. We waited for a bit but he was not moving much (he was probably feeding on a carcass) so we decided to turn around. However, when we got back to the ridge that we had just climbed we saw a big bull bison coming up the trail from the other side. Caught between a rock and a hard place, we observed the bison from the relative safety of the ridge. And he was observing us too…Stand off! After a couple of minutes of staring at each other, the bison walked off the trail far enough for us to get passed him and got back on the trail once we had passed. Pew!  

In the evening we had one more shot at wolf spotting but without any luck. It also got very cold very quickly and after spending hours in the freezing cold in the morning, the motivation to do it again was rather low. The real ‘wolf people’ of course stuck around and braved the cold…that’s why they are the ‘wolf people’.

The next day, after more than 3 weeks we left the Yellowstone/Grand Teton region driving over the Bear Tooth highway, another ‘All American’ (one of the most scenic) road. It was spectacular. We were also very lucky with our timing, the first snow had fallen on the pass but it was still cleared away. Two days later a big storm closed the pass for winter.

On our way up, there was one more surprise when we spotted a really beautiful gray wolf between the trees beside the road. By the time we got our cameras he had vanished into the woods. It was a really nice goodbye from this part of America, that we were about to leave but made a lasting impression on all of us.

One thought on “Back to Yellowstone and over the Beartooth pass

  1. Wat een gedurfd en leerrijk avontuur ,vooral voor de twee kinderen die op de foto’s zeer betrokken blijven overkomen.
    Wat een beleving “thuisonderwijs” tijdens een “wereldbeleving”.
    Super de luxe !!

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