A Fond Farewell to Yellowstone

The poetry of Yellowstone: Awakening to the song of wolves howling in the morning. Walking outside my front door and encountering a herd of bison. Hearing the elk bugle outside my office window during the rut. Listening to the crackling of superheated sulfuric beads in a hotspring at Norris Geyser Basin. Gazing up at a bear sleep in a tree in my backyard.

Yellowstone is an amazing place full of mystery and wonderment. As John Muir said, A thousand Yellowstone wonders are calling, 'Look up and down and round about you!'" and for the past few years I have done just that when living and working in Yellowstone. I have seen wolves walk by my car in the moonlight and bison peering into my living room window. I will always cherish my time in Yellowstone, and feel thankful for the experiences and people I encountered in the park.

But my home has always been Yosemite and the Sierra—indeed all of California. From the magnificent waterfalls and imposing granite of Yosemite Valley, to the surreal desert landscapes of Joshua Tree and Death Valley, to the breathtaking coastline of Point Reyes. Although I am sad that my time in Yellowstone has come to an end, I am excited about returning to California—and in an exciting and rewarding role—as the National Wildlife Federation’s new California Director.

You can follow my new adventures on my new blog: Up and Down California.

Goodbye, Yellowstone! I will miss you.

Of wolves, elk, and men: an interview with Yellowstone's wolf project leader

Yellowstone wolf 778M being captured during this year's research Photo: Yellowstone Wolf Project For over thirty years, Douglas Smith has been studying wolves, and has worked on the wolf restoration project in Yellowstone since it’s inception. But this year during his annual winter research, he was taken aback by the sight of a remarkable wolf his team captured for study, 760M, now the largest wolf ever recorded in Yellowstone.

“I’ve handled hundreds of wolves, so I have sort of gotten hardened to the process. He was something—not just another wolf. As a scientist you always take the viewpoint that you can find answers. And for the first time I thought that this is a wolf who truly has secrets.”

Smith points out that 760M lives in the most remote area of the Yellowstone and of the lower 48 states. “I just started thinking in my head as I looked at him that this is the kind of wolf that remoteness produces.” At 147 pounds, 760M replaces the previous record holder for the largest wolf in Yellowstone, 495M, who weighed in at 143 pounds. But as Smith observes, 495 is still a pretty remarkable wolf. “495M is a pro. He’s doing great. We think he’ll turn 7/8 in April, so he’s past his prime, but he’s still hunting bison. And that is what is interesting about wolves, there is no such thing as a generic wolf.”

Doug Smith darting wolf 780M during winter research this year in Yellowstone Photo: Yellowstone Wolf ProjectHis research this year also showed that after two consecutive years of declines, the wolf population has largely stabilized in Yellowstone. The northern range wolves suffered the most declines in prior years, but the decreases have leveled off according to the most recent counts. And with this stabilization, Smith believes the ecosystem as a whole is becoming more balanced.

“When wolves weren’t in Yellowstone the system was out of whack because there were tons of elk and tons of coyotes and other things suffered as a result. Now there’s greater balance among both plant and animal species. I imagine this is more what Yellowstone was like before it got changed because of European humans.”

Smith also commented about the blame wolves receive for reducing elk populations. “It’s incredibly painful dealing with people who don’t like wolves and say they have devastated the elk herd. And it’s difficult to talk to people who just want Yellowstone to be an elk farm. Yes, with carnivores you have fewer animals to hunt. But this is the way it was in Yellowstone before we interfered. When we start killing predators because we want more animals to hunt, it becomes agriculture. Is that what we want the forests and the landscapes of the west to be, a big farming operation? I don’t want the world to be so highly manipulated that we have no place where wild nature can just be.”

The full interview with Douglas Smith will be published in National Parks Traveler on April 7.

Celebrating National Wildlife Week in Yellowstone

Bison family in Yellowstone (photo by Beth Pratt)In Yellowstone National Park, wildlife is in abundance—herds of bison roam across the landscape, the howling of wolves echoes across the canyons, and grizzly bears wander in the forests.

What better place to celebrate National Wildlife Week?

National Wildlife Week, March 14-20, is the longest running program of the National Wildlife Federation and has been held each year since 1938. Past spokespeople of National Wildlife Week include Walt Disney, Shirley Temple, and Robert Redford. This year’s event also marks the 75th anniversary of National Wildlife Federation (NWF) itself. In celebration, children, youth and adults are taking time to celebrate the wildlife that move us by exploring how wildlife fly, climb, leap, swim and dig.

“Through National Wildlife Week, we can learn more about the wildlife around us and some of the unique ways they move and how we can help them.  Taking time to go outdoors and be out there in nature helps to re-connect us to our local environment.  Kids today are wired and on the go much of the day, so many miss the leaping robin or the ant on the sidewalk.  Taking 15 minutes to go outside can lead to a life-time of environmental stewardship,” says Eliza Russell, Director of Education for NWF. 

Although home to the more popular mega-fauna like bears, bison and wolves, Yellowstone has an abundance of other creatures, with a species count of 67 mammals, 322 birds, 16 fish, 6 reptiles, and 4 amphibians. In keeping with NWF’s daily theme for the week, here’s an introduction to wildlife in Yellowstone that:

Fly: The elegant Trumpeter Swan—the largest waterfowl in the world with a wingspan of up to 7 feet—can be seen flying gracefully over Yellowstone. Once on the verge of extinction, the population now appears to be stable. More Yellowstone wildlife that fly.

Climb and Dig: The pocket gopher is a prodigious digger. A single animal’s tunnel system can extend to over 500 feet in length and contain separate chambers for food storage, nesting sites, fecal deposits, and foraging access. And it achieves all of this remarkable burrowing with tiny front claws that measure only an inch in length. More Yellowstone wildlife that can climb and dig.

River otters with cutthroat trout (Photo by Beth Pratt)Swim: Yellowstone’s river otters swim playfully in Yellowstone Lake and in the park’s many rivers as they search for a meal of trout. The largest members of the weasel family, they can weigh up to 30 pounds. More Yellowstone wildlife that can swim.

Hop and Leap: Only two species of frogs live in Yellowstone—the boreal chorus and the Columbia spotted frogs. Boreal chorus frogs can be heard in wetlands each year in the spring singing loudly for a mate—the frog almost doubles its body size as it calls up to twenty times per minute. More Yellowstone wildlife that can hop and leap.

Run and Crawl: Pronghorn are the fastest land mammals in North American and can sprint up to 50 mph. A newborn can outrun a human within a couple days of birth. More Yellowstone wildlife that can run and crawl.

Pronghorn running--the animals can sprint up to 50 mph (Photo by Beth Pratt)But you don’t need to visit Yellowstone to celebrate National Wildlife Week. Wildlife lives all around us, in our neighborhoods, communities, and parks. Take part in the celebration by participating in Wildlife Watch or organizing a volunteer project for wildlife in your community.  Visit www.nwf.org/nationalwildlifeweek to get started and download a watch list and learn more about the featured wildlife. During National Wildlife Week there will be free downloadable posters with wildlife trading cards for each week day.

Founded in 1936, National Wildlife Federation’s mission is to inspire Americans to protect wildlife for our children’s future. The organization is currently developing programs to counteract nature deficit disorder in children by encouraging parents and other caring adults to help children spend more time outdoors everyday. Learn more at www.nwf.org.

Happy Birthday Yellowstone National Park!

Roosevelt Arch in Yellowstone National Park (photo by Beth Pratt)

“The headwaters of the Yellowstone River…is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale…and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

With this pronouncement by the United States Congress on March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the Yellowstone Park Protection Act. Yellowstone became the world’s first national park and “America’s Best Idea” was born.

National Parks have been an integral part of my life—from my father taking me to see whales on Cape Cod National Seashore, to spending college summers hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, to providing inspiration for my writing, space for my joyful wanderings, and an impetus for my career as an environmental leader. The tranquility I experience while hiking in places like Tuolumne Meadows or Hayden Valley feeds my soul with sustenance as essential to my existence as food or water.

So take time today to celebrate the birthday of Yellowstone—and of all our national parks. And if you are looking for a good birthday present for Yellowstone, consider donating to the National Parks and Conservation Association—a great non-profit that helps safeguard our parks for future generations. 

Lament for 500 Yellowstone bison--and one bison calf

Does Zisa, the late season bison calf who beat all the odds, deserve to die?

I recently wrote a lament for one bison that had been shot as part of a failed test to allow the animals to wander freely outside the park's north entrance. Seems I'll be kept busy writing eulogies for these magnificent animals this winter.

A district judge in Montana ruled today that the 500 Yellowstone bison being held outside the park's north entrance could be sent to slaughter as their removal would not threaten the long term survival of the herd. Even though the slaughter of the bison was "distasteful" (the judge's word) it was still an acceptable method in managing the animal.

It's been rumored that the little bison calf I've been reporting on, Zisa, is a part of the 500 bison on death row. This little guy, born late in the winter, beats all the odds in surviving only to be sent to slaughter because..because why? A bureaucratic plan for which I can find no justification. Bison are killed because of the fear of them transmitting brucellosis to cattle, but from the reports I have read, there has never been a single documented case of this transmittal and the more likely culprit is elk.

So why are we indiscriminately slaughtering 500 of Yellowstone's bison? Do these bison truly deserve to die? They left the park because it's a tough winter and they went in search of food. Government officials-please rethink your decision. These animals are part of the last continuous herd of wild bison in America. They are part of our heritage. They don't deserve to be condemned to death. They deserve our reverence and protection.

I stood and gazed at the captured bison this evening and simply cried. And I realized how powerless I felt that I could do nothing for them. Yellowstone--the world's first national park--is the best protected place on the planet. But what good is "America's Best Idea," if we can't keep the magnificent bison wild and free.

Please take action now to save Yellowstone's bison with one of these groups:

Buffalo Field Campaign

Defenders of Wildlife

Natural Resources Defense Council

The Little Bison Calf That Could

Late bison calf in Yellowstone leaping through deep snow (Photo by Beth Pratt)At the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park, a small late-born bison calf wanders with his herd, defying all odds in surviving the winter. The calf, nicknamed “Zisa” (the Lakota word for orange), can be seen around the Mammoth Hot Springs and Gardiner areas, its bright reddish-orange coat standing out against the snowy terrain.

Yellowstone has experienced one of the snowiest winters in recent years, making foraging for the park bison even more challenging, and a calf born this late in the season is already beating the odds. As Harold Picton, author of Buffalo: Natural History and Conservation, observes: “such small, late born calves are unlikely to survive the winter.”

This past weekend the intrepid calf and his family wandered the area surrounding the Mammoth Hot Springs campground in search of forage, then headed south down the park road in the direction of Gardiner, causing traffic to stop due to the ensuing ‘bison jam.’ Delighted park visitors observed little Zisa as he leapt through the deep snow and followed his mother down the highway.

Once Zisa’s coat turns to brown, he’ll be difficult to spot, but park staff and visitors are rooting for him to survive the winter.


A Lament for a Bison

I never tire of gazing at bison in Yellowstone. I find them magnificent creatures and they are inextricably linked for me to a prehistoric time when 60 million of their ancestors roamed in endless herds across North America (one explorer noted a sea of buffalo that stretched 20 miles wide).

In the winter I salute their tenacious survival skills, and smile when I see a bison "snow angel," the marks in the snow left from them brushing their head from side-to-side in search of sparse forage underneath. Somehow these 2,000 pound animals scratch out a living in Yellowstone's extreme winter by eating mostly dead plants--what we would consider the equivalent of munching on cardboard.

May is my favorite time in Yellowstone, as bison give birth to what some visitors mistake for "little orange dogs." Although an adult bison can't really be described as cute, a bison calf is pretty darn adorable. Last year a bison calf was born in my front yard and another in the snow right outside my office. When my parents visited Yellowstone, they witnessed a grizzly bear take down a bison calf at Old Faithful-- and saw members of the herd brave the danger and go back to try and unsuccessfully retrieve the calf.

And if one needs a further testament to the intrepid spirit of this remarkable animal, we need only recall the story (and look again at the photos) that went viral last year of a bison, badly burned from a fall in a hot spring, who still managed to outrun a hungry grizzly bear.

On this blog, for the most part, I prefer to steer away from opinion and instead inspire others by simply sharing the wonders of Yellowstone. Yet when I read this evening that one of the test bison I had written about in my prior post was killed as a result of it not staying within the prescribed safe area, a profound sadness overcame me.

Last week marked the beginning of what many heralded as a new era of bison tolerance on the northern range of Yellowstone when a test group of bison were released and allowed to roam outside the park boundary for the first time in decades. Yet not even a week later one of the herd is slaughtered for refusing to move from private property adjacent to the newly designated protection corridor.

This has been a very snowy winter and even the lower elevations of the park near Gardiner have received above average snow. The bison was probably hungry and tired and had no conception that his quest for greener pastures would result in death. The punishment doesn't seem to fit the crime. Bison with ancestors who once roamed the entire continent don't perceive property lines, they see the world in terms of survival and migrate where they find a food source. So why was this bison shot? Allegedly to prevent the spread of brucellosis to livestock, although most sources I have consulted say there has never been a documented case of a bison spreading the disease to cattle.

The Yellowstone bison are part our our national heritage, they are the last continuous descendants of the mighty wild herds of bison that once wandered our country. In the early 1900s, bison had dwindled from the 60 million animals that existed prior to the mid 1800s to less than two dozen hiding out in Yellowstone. In one of the most significant conservation measures of our time, the park restored the herd back to health, and today over 3,000 bison call Yellowstone their home.

When confronted with the historical mass slaughter of the great bison herds, most of us express dismay. And although it was only a single bison shot this weekend, I feel the same sadness. Have we still not learned to cherish wildness and the specialness of wild creatures? If even one bison can't find protection in the last sanctuary for his kind, then we as a people may need to rethink our priorities.

Where Yellowstone’s Bison Roam

Yellowstone's bison leaving the park's northern entrance by Roosevelt Arch Photo: Beth Pratt This morning at the north entrance of Yellowstone, a steady stream of bison wandered down from the foothills below Sepulcher Mountain, strolled by the famous Roosevelt Arch, and marched beyond the park’s boundary into the town of Gardiner. Many camped out in the football field of the local school and grazed beneath the goal posts.

Just over 3,000 bison live in Yellowstone National Park. In one of the most significant wildlife conservation measures of our time, the park built the Lamar Buffalo Ranch in 1907 to save the last 23 wild bison in North America, the remains of a population that had dwindled from 60 million animals. By the 1950s, the herd had grown to over 1,000, and in 1968 wildlife managers declared the population restored to health.

Bison grazing on the football field of the Gardiner School (Photo by Beth Pratt)Yet the restoration of Yellowstone’s bison has not been without its controversy. Bison migrate to lower elevations outside the park’s boundaries in winter in search of food. Because of the fear of the animal spreading brucellosis to livestock (whether bison spread brucellosis is another source of fierce debate), once bison cross the park boundary they are often hazed back into the park, or in extreme cases killed. Park management sparked criticism in 2008 when fifty percent of the park’s iconic herd—over 1,600 bison—was slaughtered.

Last week, the first bison in decades were allowed to travel unhindered outside the northern boundary of the park in the Gardiner Basin. The Interagency Bison Management Plan, developed by agency partners, called for an experimental release of the bison this winter to assess the potential for allowing more of Yellowstone’s bison to access this winter range. In 2008, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) secured 30-year grazing rights for the bison in this area with a $3.3 million deal with the Church Universal and Triumphant. Payments for the fee come from FWP, the National Park Service and non-profit conservation groups.

As this year serves as only a test for the new migration corridor, the dozens of bison wandering outside the park this morning will likely be hazed back if they travel too far in search of forage. And the test group of bison still risk being killed if they travel beyond the newly protected area (as half of them did the day after being released and had to be herded into safe territory).  Despite the recent progress, for Yellowstone’s wild bison the ability to roam freely still remains an uncertainty.

Red fox sports a rare black coat in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley

Red fox with a rare black coat hunting in Lamar Valley (Photo by Pauline Murrill) Red foxes usually live up to their name in terms of the color of their coats—most display reddish-orange fur highlighted with black socks and a white-tipped tail. Yet foxes can also experience varied color phases of silver, gray, yellow, and—as this animal in Yellowstone demonstrated last week—a vibrant black.

Lamar Valley, where this fox was spotted, is prime habit for the red fox, which prefer forests and sagebrush grasslands as habitat. A nocturnal creature, it subsists mostly on hunting mice, voles and insects, but will also eat plants as well. Red foxes are mostly solitary and usually forage alone or in mated pairs. A vixen (female fox) gives birth to 2-12 kits in late April to early May, which are weaned by the end of summer. Kits at birth are typically brown or grey and start growing the distinctive red coat after about a month.

A black color phase is a rare occurrence, usually described as a “cross” pattern with black stretching across the shoulder and back over a brown or red undercoat. Another unusual coat color on the red fox has been spotted consistently at higher elevations in the park. Deemed “The Yellow Fox of the Yellowstone,” scientists are currently studying this creamy-yellowish creature to determine if it represents a new subspecies.

For a chance to view red foxes in Yellowstone, the non-profit Yellowstone Association Institute offers a variety of field classes about the red fox such as Lesser-Known Carnivores and Xanterra's Yellowstone National Park Lodges features a series of wildlife watching adventures.

Tragic end for Yellowstone area wolf illegally poisoned in Colorado

Wolf 341F earned my admiration. Like early pioneers or explorers, she  (in the words of Mark Twain), “lit out for the territory ahead of the rest,” with a wanderlust to venture into the unknown. Here's her tragic story:

Wolf 314F (341F) under anesthesia after being fitted with GPS Collar (Montana Fish, Wildlife, Parks)When Doug Smith, Yellowstone’s Wolf Project leader, teaches students about wolves, he often speaks about the defining characteristics of canis lupus.  “Wolves are social,” he notes, “and they love to travel.”

And one intrepid wolf from the Yellowstone area certainly proved his characterization correct. Bounding across some of the west’s most remote wilderness, wolf 341F embarked on a meandering excursion of over 3,000 miles through five states on her seven-month journey from Yellowstone to Colorado in the winter of 2008/2009. This remarkable 18-month-old female covered an incredible distance in search of a mate and new territory. Although wolves can travel up to thirty miles a day, the animals rarely venture more than sixty miles from their base pack.

In February of 2009, signals from her radio collar indicated she remained about 120 miles west of Denver. The public avidly followed her travels as Colorado’s last native wolf had been killed in 1943. Then sadly 341F was found dead just a month later. Gary Wockner, a former member of the Colorado Wolf Working Group spoke about her death, "This adventurous wolf sparked Colorado's imagination. She made us think about what Colorado is missing without its wolves."

At the time the cause of 341F’s death was unknown. This week, however, officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the results of their investigation. Toxicology tests performed at the National Fish and Wildlife Forensic Laboratory showed the two-year-old gray wolf, which had been captured and collared as part of a Montana research project, died from ingesting a banned poison known as Compound 1080. It is suspected the wolf ingested the poison near the site where she was found.

With the investigation more than a year and a half old, investigators are now asking the public for information about the case. "When used improperly, Compound 1080 is an indiscriminate killer of wildlife, and we are asking the public to help us identify who used this banned poison in Colorado," said Steve Oberholtzer, Special Agent in Charge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mountain-Prairie Region.
Compound 1080 was commonly used in the United States prior to 1972 for controlling rodents and livestock predators such as coyotes and foxes.  It was banned in the U.S. in 1972, but the rule was modified in 1985 to allow the poison to be used in some states for predator control in a highly regulated fashion. Compound 1080 is currently illegal to use in the state of Colorado.

Anyone with information regarding this wolf’s death that would be useful to investigators is urged to contact either the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s Operation Game Thief hotline number at (877) 265-6648 and/or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at (720) 981-2777.


Late bison calf stopping traffic in Yellowstone

A late bison calf and his mother nap in the snow in Yellowstone National Park Photo: Beth PrattAlthough most of Yellowstone is blanketed in snow after the recent series of storms, visitors to the park's north entrance have been stopping to photograph a bright splash of orange against the white landscape. The source? A fuzzy bison calf born late in the season.

Bison babies don’t resemble their parents at all—although adult bison are magnificent creatures, it’s a stretch to call them cute. But bison calves are pretty darn adorable. The starkly different appearance of the calves from the adults—especially the brick red color of their coats—has caused some park visitors to ask about the “little orange dogs” running with the bison.

A bison usually gives birth in late April through May to one calf (twins occur occasionally) after a nine and a half month gestation period. For the first few days, the calf spends most of its time resting, but soon becomes energetic enough to explore its surroundings.

The orange-reddish coat typically fades after about ten weeks, gradually darkening until it transforms into the dark brown hue of the adult bison. As this little calf was still sporting the bright color, he must have been born late in the fall. Winter is a rough season on wildlife in Yellowstone—especially the young—so the late birth of this calf puts it at a disadvantage. Visitors and park employees are rooting for the calf to survive the winter.

Visitors can look for the calf when visiting Yellowstone at the north entrance gate and on the road between Gardiner and Mammoth Hot Springs.

For more information on bison, visit the Greater Yellowstone Science Learning Center.

Enjoy this site? Donate to Conservation International. The earth (and Harrison Ford) thank you!

DONATE $100 BY 12/31 and I will send you a free framed Yellowstone wildlife photo of your choice from my website collection!

I consider myself lucky to have lived and worked in two of the largest national parks: Yosemite and Yellowstone. Even though our national parks are some of the best-protected places on the planet, they still face threats from climate change, pollution, and a host of other environmental ills.

This year, I am joining Conservation International and Harrison Ford in “giving it up for conservation.” Instead of buying yet another pair of the requsite holiday-themed argyle socks that languish in the sock drawer all year, how about donating $10 to one of the best charities working to preserve life on this planet?

I enjoy sharing my adventures in Yellowstone and beyond with all of you and hope this site helps you stay connected to you favorite wild creatures and natural places. Running this site is an entirely volunteer endeavor—I spend hundreds of hours a year creating the content, pay all the expenses out of pocket, and accept no advertising.

So if you enjoy reading about the wolves howling in Yellowstone, or gazing at the photos of grizzly bears, consider giving back to Conservation International to ensure those wonderful animals continue to thrive.

My goal is to raise $1,000 by New Year’s Day. Please help by donating now at my Conservation International Crowdrise site. And forward the link to friends: http://www.crowdrise.com/harrisonford-ci/fundraiser/bethpratt

Thank you! And Harrison Ford thanks you as well!

Harrison Ford urges environmental action from Conservation International on Vimeo.


Battle of the Bighorn Sheep: Today’s Wildlife Watching in Yellowstone

Bighorn sheep battle in Yellowstone, 12/15/10 (photo by Beth Pratt)

As Teddy Roosevelt would have exclaimed, I had a “bully” wildlife day. On my morning drive I was lucky enough to encounter two magnificent bighorn sheep rams tussling along the banks of the Gardner River in Yellowstone. 

From the road, I had ringside seats to this dramatic dominance match. A bighorn’s horns can weigh up to 40 pounds and the animals can clash at speeds of over 40 mph. Although rams can be left a bit battered after the rut season (some battles can last 24 hours), serious injury is rare because of their natural shock system of a honeycomb horn base and perfectly aligned spine. Their system is so effective that automobile companies study the bighorn to help design better collision resistant material for automobiles.

For more photos and a video of the bighorn sheep rut, see my article "Fall wildlife watching in Yellowstone: the bighorn sheep rut"

Here’s a collection of photos from today’s battle.

Yellowstone’s colorful wolves: using thermal imaging to study disease

The warm muzzle of the howling wolf is yellow in this thermal image of a captive wolf at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone Photo: Courtesy USGSMost wolves in Yellowstone National Park sport a grey or black coat, but new photos of thermal imaging reveal the animals in a captivating rainbow of hues.

The colorful canine displays are the result of recent testing with thermal imaging on wolves at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. Paul Cross, USGS Disease Ecologist, and Doug Smith, leader of Yellowstone’s Wolf Project, intend to use the technique in an upcoming study to help determine how mange impacts the survival of Yellowstone’s wolves.

Smith, who has led the wolf project in Yellowstone since 1996, hopes this technology will yield some new insights about the pervasive disease, “What we hope to do is learn about how much heat wolves are losing through hair loss from mange, then determine the energy cost of this and see if this may be a factor in whether or not they survive.”

Click on the image to view a thermal video of two wolves (Courtesy USGS)About a quarter of the wolf packs in Yellowstone are afflicted with sarcoptic mange, a highly contagious canine skin disease caused when the mites burrow into the skin causing infections, hair loss, severe irritation and an insatiable desire to scratch. Although the disease itself is not fatal, the resulting hair loss and depressed vigor of the animal can often lead to the potentially life-threatening conditions of hypothermia, malnutrition and dehydration.

The spots of hair lost by mange on the wolves display bright red on the thermal images because of the heat loss, making it easy to detect on the animals. As Cross notes, “Like many mammals adapted to cold environments, wolves are really well insulated.  When they are resting they are sometimes almost invisible on the thermal cameras, which means that very little of their body heat is escaping.”

Beginning in February, the research team will establish remote cameras in the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park to help them better understand the infection rates from year-to-year, the role mange plays in the lives of the wolves, and the reasons why some wolves recover from the disease while others succumb.

The research is being conducted by the USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center in collaboration with the National Park Service, Yellowstone National Park, and the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, Montana. For more information visit http://nrmsc.usgs.gov/research/mange_wolvesYNP

Late bison calf with mother in Yellowstone

This evening on my drive home from work in Yellowstone, I spotted a late bison calf trotting down the road near the Gardner River at the north entrance. Bison usually give birth to calves in late April through May, and the offspring bear the distinctive reddish-orange coat, which typically begins to darken after ten weeks. As this little guy was still sporting the bright color, he must have been born late in the summer.  I hope he makes it through the winter--I'll keep you posted on future sightings.

Late bison calf with mother in Yellowstone

Winter Invades Yellowstone with a Vengeance

After a mild October and early November, winter staged a full-scale invasion of Yellowstone this past week, with a series of storms dumping 20-30 inches of snow in the last five days. Temperatures plunged to below zero with wind chills of almost negative 40F.  This storm propelled Gardiner—at the north entrance of the park—into reaching its snowiest November on record—and the month isn’t even over yet! Here are some scenes from our winter wonderland at the north entrance.

What 15 below looks like: North entrance 11/24 am (Photo: Beth Pratt)What 15 below looks like, part 2: (Photo: Beth Pratt)In between storms: Electric Peak and Roosevelt Arch on 11/21 (Photo by Beth Pratt)

My dog Tioga buried in snow, 11/20 (Photo: Beth Pratt)

North entrance in snowstorm 11/19 (Photo by Beth Pratt)

Elk in Mammoth Hot Springs 11/16 (Photo by Beth Pratt)

The Pine Marten and the Pika

Last month, I spent hours wandering around the Hoodoos (an area of fantastical rock formations south of Mammoth Hot Springs) in Yellowstone in search of my favorite little alpine dweller, the pika. Pikas are small, intrepid lagomorphs that survive in harsh alpine environments and can actually die from overheating. I am always enchanted by watching pikas as they scurry across the rocks carrying grass to cure as hay for winter forage.  Although I frequently heard their cheerful chirping during my wanderings, the “rock rabbits” or “boulder bunnies” as they are nicknamed, dashed into their dens too fast for me to catch a good glimpse.

My friend and co-worker Jennifer had more luck this past weekend. Indeed, she captured in a photo one of those once-in-lifetime wildlife-watching moments that we naturalists all wish for on our explorations. Although this is a little less dramatic than the recent photos of the grizzly bear chasing the bison in Yellowstone that went viral on the web recently, it’s no less remarkable. (Yes, I understand that a pine marten does not inspire the nightmarish visions that a grizzly bear running full speed down the road trying to eat a bison does, but martens and pikas are cool!)

Pine marten and pika in the Hoodoos, Yellowstone (Photos by Jennifer Mast)A sighting of either a pine marten or a pika alone is enough for calling it a day—so discovering a pine marten carrying its recently killed meal of a pika rates high on the “pretty rare and darn lucky” wildlife watching scale. Pine martens, a member of the weasel family, are adept climbers who usually prey upon squirrels and chipmunks. Well-camouflaged and extremely fast, martens are difficult to view in the wild. Likewise the pika, as its grey color blends in well with the boulder fields the animal calls home.

Warming temperatures from climate change have threatened the pika in many areas. In the Sierra Nevada, the pika is moving up the mountains trying to escape the heat and will eventually run out of range. Studies in the Great Basin have shown the pika disappearing from prime habitat in just a decade. For more information read my past blog entry: A Plea for the Pika.

The strange wonders of Yellowstone's Norris Geyser Basin

Beth in front of Porcelain Basin at Norris Geyser BasinOf all the wonders I’ve experienced in Yellowstone—listening to the musical howling of wolves, watching a bison give birth, or gazing at Old Faithful erupt in a burst of angry steam—nothing has amazed me more than the sights revealed during a recent hike through Norris Geyser Basin.

Part of the wonder was no doubt due to my guide, Mike Keller, who has been “geyser gazing” in Yellowstone since he began volunteering in the park at the age of 14. Mike currently works as the Executive Director of Operations for the park concessioner, but spends most of his free time wandering through Yellowstone studying geothermal features. As president of the Geyser Observation and StudyMy guide, "geyser gazer" Mike Keller Association, his enthusiasm for all things geothermal is contagious and his knowledge of geology is vast. When Downfall Geyser erupted during our hike to a level he had not previously witnessed, he could not contain his child-like glee.

Norris Geyser Basin is described in the NPS guide as “one of the hottest and most dynamic of Yellowstone’s hydrothermal areas.” But even this description is an understatement—the otherworldly nature of the area simply evokes awe. For the entire hike, I thought I had been transported to another planet. I was also very aware how fragile and thin the earth’s crust is in Yellowstone—the volcanic underworld lurks very close in the park, one of the largest geologic hotspots in the world.

A crystal sulfur flowerWithin the basin, superheated beads of sulfur crackle as they rise to the surface and coalesce in Cinder Pool, a desolate, spooky hot spring that evokes images from Dante’s Inferno. Steamboat Geyser, the world’s tallest active geyser, frequently spouts out steam and minor eruptions of water an impressive 10-40 feet high, but its true power—water exploding more than 300 feet into the sky—has only been witnessed rarely (Steamboat last erupted in May of 2005). Echinus Geyser, the largest acidic geyser known to exist, displays red and orange hued deposits shaped like the spines of starfish. In the barren landscape, sulfur crystallizes and blooms into delicate yellow flowers and the mineral realgar paints a tree with red-orange hues.

Here’s a selection of photos from my afternoon at Norris Geyser Basin. Visit my photo collections for the full set.

The cerulean blue waters of Elk Geyser

The crackling sulfur beads of Cinder PoolRunoff with thermophiles from Whirligig Geyser


Scientists discuss Yellowstone’s big three: climate change, invasives, land use


The hunting patterns of wolves may be impacted by climate change in Yellowstone Photo: Beth Pratt“If you want to get proud about a butterfly species in Yellowstone, this is the one,” said Diane Debinski, a Professor at Iowa State University. She was referring to the dainty Hayden’s Ringlet, a butterfly found almost exclusively in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE).  Her research, however, did not bode well for the insect, as drier conditions in the region appear to be decreasing the butterfly’s habitat.

Debinski, along with hundreds of other scientists, researchers, and land managers, gathered inYellowstone National Park last week as part of the10th Biennial Scientific Conference. The goal of the conference, entitled “Questioning Yellowstone’s Future: Climate, Land Use, and Invasive Species,” was to foster synergies among current research and land management practices in order to find solutions for protecting the GYE against the three primary drivers of change.

And change is already rapidly occurring in the GYE, one of the largest intact temperate ecosystems on the planet. Peak runoff from snowmelt is happening 10-20 days earlier and the growing season in the GYE has increased by two weeks. Invasive species adds threats as well, such as the lake trout driving out Yellowstone’s native cutthroat trout or the Canada thistle marginalizing wetlands.  Additionally, human population in the GYE has grown by 61% from 1970 to 2000 and at the same time rural land under development has increased by 350%.

All of these changes have significant implications for the diverse flora and fauna of the region. Dr. Stephen Gray, Wyoming State Climatologist, warned: “What we think of as drought today could become the norm in the future.” Along with Hayden’s butterfly, a warmer and drier climate has consequences for a number of animal species in the GYE.  For example, Doug Smith, Yellowstone Wolf Project Leader, presented his research on winter wolf predation rates in Yellowstone and found that “big climatic patterns associated with snowfall are impacting the wolf kill rate.” The wolves in recent years have been switching from elk calves to bulls as a result of the bulls being in poorer condition in early winter because of drought. 

Other climate related findings included a possible disruption of hibernation patterns for bears, and a shift in the GYE to warm water fisheries. “Bears don’t pee for five months,” observed Professor Hank Harlow of the University of Wyoming. His research showed that the bear’s physiological strategy to conserve protein in hibernation through recycling urea could be disrupted by the animal being aroused from its den in warmer winters. Scott Christensen, the Climate Change Program Director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (and an avid angler), said native trout faces risks from decreased river flow and warmer water temperatures. “Climate change is already impacting native trout and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.”

Dr. Bob Gresswell, from the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, addressed the severe threat the invasive lake trout poses to Yellowstone’s native cutthroat, and recalled the days when hundreds of thousands of visitors would gather at Fishing Bridge every year to watch the Yellowstone cutthroat spawn. “If you’ve been to Fishing Bridge lately, you are lucky to see any trout,” he lamented. Dr. Andrew Hansen from Montana State Universityproposed the choice of either loving the GYE to death or loving it to health in his keynote address. His research has shown that land use development in ecologically significant areas is already impacting the GYE, and in response to a predicted doubling of the population by 2040, he posed the question, “What is the population here that would serve the common interest?”

Despite all these challenges, the group remained hopeful that science could provide solutions to assist with protection of the GYE. In his panel on the area’s science agenda, Tom Olliff, with the Great Northern Landscape Conservation Cooperative, announced, “The good news is a lot of the work on these issues has been going on over the past year,” referring to two prior workshops held on the topic. Continuing this work—and finding viable solutions to the issues facing the GYE—is a vital next step.  Dr. Marcia McNutt, the Director of the USGS, provided attendees with the call to action: “Yellowstone like many of America’s great places is many things to many people but what it can never be is a failed scientific experiment.”

The 10th Biennial Scientific Conference, “Questioning Yellowstone’s Future: Climate Change, Land Use and Invasive Species,” was held in Yellowstone National Park on October 11-13, 2010.

Conference sponsors include the US Geological Survey, Biological Resources Discipline, Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center; US Fish and Wildlife Service, Mountain Prairie-Region, Office of Landscape Conservation; Montana State University;Yellowstone Association; University of Wyoming Ruckelshaus Institute; Rocky Mountains Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit; University of Wyoming-National Park Service Research Center;Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee(National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Forest Service); Canon U.S.A., Inc., the Yellowstone Park Foundation, and the Greater Yellowstone Science Learning Center.