Greater Yellowstone is defined by an ecosystem. More than anything, wildlife is what unifies an ecosystem as a whole. The elk migrating from the high country to winter pastures. The predators tracking their prey, the scavengers cleaning up behind. Birds winging annually to favorite nesting spots.
For wildlife, Yellowstone National Park is the crown jewel. Never have I passed through a corner of the park without a memorable wildlife encounter. A bull elk bugling in the woods. Sandhill cranes prancing along the Gibbon River. Osprey soaring over Yellowstone Falls.
Among all the highlights of Yellowstone wildlife, two stand out. Winter at Old Faithful is the experience of a lifetime. We arrived during a severe winter, the first in several years. The deep snowpack and biting cold had driven herds of buffalo and elk to the warmth of the geyser basin. The weaker animals, perhaps facing the harshest season of their lives, were dying off. The coyotes and ravens moved in quickly to feed on the remains. The strong huddled impassively, conserving energy, occasionally scraping the snow with head or hoof in search of food. Trumpeter swans sailed serenely in streams kept flowing by the underground heat. We glided on cross-country ski trails, enjoying the spectacle.
The second highlight was a missing link in the Yellowstone ecosystem for over 60 years. But in March 1995, 14 wolves from Canada were released in the park. Over two years, 33 wolves were released. This grand ecological experiment has turned into a marvelous success story, though not one without controversy. Despite the tragic death of the alpha male of the Rose Creek Pack, the population reached 97 by the end of 1997. While thinning coyotes and elk, the wolves have boosted overall biodiversity. Rodents, birds of prey, even grizzlies have benefited from restoring this natural predator, according to scientists.
On my most recent visit to Yellowstone, wolf watchers were out in force in the Lamar Valley, in the northeast corner of the park. Spotting wolves takes enormous patience and a high-powered telescope. I was no so fortunate as to have enough of either, nor the luck to hear them howling on a starry night.
Another wildlife recovery story took place in the Centennial Valley of southern Montana. In the early part of this century, trumpeter swans were thought extinct in the lower 48 states. But in 1933, biologists traveling in southwest Montana discovered 60-odd birds. Within two years, their home at Red Rock Lakes joined the National Wildlife Refuge system. Today visitors may spot some of over 230 species that have been seen at the refuge while paddling or fishing in its lakes and creeks.
Visitors to Jackson during November to May will find thousands of elk wintering in the National Elk Refuge outside town. The refuge protects 25,000 acres, a quarter of the original elk range in Jackson Hole. Depending on the season, the refuge offers hiking, trout fishing and sleigh rides for a close-up view of the herds.
For a wildlife walk, Hermitage Point in Grand Teton National Park is outstanding, especially if you have kids in tow. The Point has a series of loop trails around lakes inhabited by trumpeter swans, herons, beaver and moose.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication