Bears Gone Wild

bison crossing geyser hill.jpg.jpgFor my family’s two-day trip to the Old Faithful area, we (along with numerous other tourists) received a stark reminder of the survival of the fittest principle in action. A large grizzly bear took down one of those adorable bison calves in plain sight of unsuspecting park visitors who were leisurely strolling along the boardwalk surrounding Old Faithful.

My parents were ordered off the boardwalk by concerned park rangers as the bison herd fled at full speed across the geyser basin. A few bison followed the grizzly trying to retrieve the calf, but alas it was too late. As a biology major, I am well aware of nature’s food chain thing, and also that grizzly bears need to eat, but I truly don’t need to see a cuddly bison calf get torn apart by a grizzly bear. Can’t the bears stick to whitebark pine nuts?

busted bear.jpg copy.jpgThe next morning, I was on a conference call in my room at the Old Faithful Inn when I heard sirens going off right outside my window. A large intrepid grizzly (possibly the same one who munched on the bison calf the day before) was walking into the hotel parking lot. The park rangers followed in their patrol cars, deploying the sirens to try and scare him away. After about fifteen minutes, he finally ambled off into the basin.

I feel so incredibly lucky to be living and working in a place where I witness magnificent wildlife daily. To be neighbors with grizzly bears is a privilege—as long as they focus on the veggie part of their omnivore diet!

Pratts%20at%20OFI.JPG.jpgThe grisly predator-prey encounter did not seem to affect our appetites, as my family had a delicious dinner at Old Faithful Inn that evening. My dad even had the bison prime rib. My Uncle Jim and Aunt Denise were visiting from New Hampshire, and my parents and brother and his girlfriend made for a full Pratt evening.

On my drive back to Gardiner, I also sighted two coyotes feasting on a winterkill bison. Both looked unbelieving, as if they had hit the jackpot, as wolves or grizzly bears usually claim a fresh carcass.
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Wildlife of Yellowstone's Northern Range

Wildlife%20Watchers%202.JPG.jpgWhat do mountain goats, bighorn sheep, grizzly bears, bison and bison calves, pronghorn antelope, coyotes, sandhill cranes, red-tailed hawks, wolves and wolf pups, elk and mule deer all have in common? We observed all of these animals today in Yellowstone.

For my family’s visit to Yellowstone, I scheduled a custom wildlife tour of the northern part of the park through the wonderful non-profit the Yellowstone Association. Barbara and Ariana, our excellent and fun guides, greeted us at 6:00 am this morning with coffee and hot cocoa, and we boarded our own bus to head to Lamar Valley. Some highlights of our trip:

Redtailed%20Hawk.JPG%20copy.jpg6:15 am: Grizzly bear traffic jam just fifteen minutes into our trip as we passed over the bridge spanning the Yellowstone river. We observed from the relative safety of our bus as the bear rambled along the road.

6:45 am: It’s never too early for a dose of cuteness. A large herd of bison with about five drowsy baby calves rested in a meadow near Roosevelt.

6:50 am: At Floating Island Lake, our guide shows us a nesting sandhill crane, which on my own I might have taken for a small rock. After a short time the feathered mass stands and through our binoculars we are able to see her eggs. Just for affect a red-tailed hawk soars overhead.

Sandhill%20Crane%20on%20Nest%202.JPG.jpg7:15 am: We arrive in Lamar Valley and quickly find the yellow X-terra of Rick McIntyre, the wolf guru of Yellowstone. Where his SUV is parked is a sure sign of wolf activity. We settle at Slough Creek Campground and focus our spotting scopes on a den site of the Slough Creek pack. We are rewarded with an appearance of a female and a pup—the cuteness quotient of our morning suddenly increases exponentially

9:00 am-11:00 am: Barbara, our guide, spots a lone collared black wolf sitting by the river, which is later identified as female 526. Coyote%20Glance.JPG.jpgRick, via the radio wolf network, credits the Yellowstone Association with the sighting, which is akin to being thanked by Audubon for a spotting a bird. Suddenly 526 dashes down the bank of the river, meets up with five other wolves, and after chasing a pregnant cow elk in the river, they take her down. After the hunt, one wolf trots off with her unborn fetus—a grisly reminder of the indifference of Mother Nature. While we watch the wolves, a coyote trots among us searching for food.

1:00 pm: Barbara scouts the snow-covered ridges of Barronette Peak, searching for mountain goats and within a few minutes has found some scurrying on the perilous cliffs. On an opposite facing ridge, we find four bighorn sheep.

wolf and two coyotes 2.jpg.jpg1:30 pm: On our return drive through Lamar Valley, Ariana notices four red-tailed hawks soaring low over a meadow, and a herd of pronghorn dashing down from a ridge. We stop and spot a lone dark wolf and three coyotes giving chase to each other, a truly mesmerizing sight. Although the game could have deadly consequences, the two species appear at play, teasing each other with feints and charges. At one point they call a truce and rest, and one coyote gives a loud howl.
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Coyote Beautiful

Shad%20in%20Yellowstone.jpgShad came for a visit to help me get settled, although he almost didn't make his flight due to the downed trees in the Midpines driveway that required some chainsaw action.

It's hard to believe that California is experiencing worse weather (at least for the moment) than Montana. Shad definitely lucked out as the temperatures rose from sub-zero to the 30-40s during his stay, but he still did not want to go outside.

Coyote%20on%20Ledge%20Close.jpgHe assembled all my furniture in record time, so we had a day to go sightseeing. We drove to Lamar Valley to do some wolf watching. Wildlife sure are easy to spot in blinding snow!

The wolves remained elusive, yet we watched several coyotes venture across Lamar Valley, along with many herds of elk and bison. I was struck by the dizzying whiteness--a stark contrast to the fall browns and reds and yellows of my visit in November. (Note to Jack--you would not recognize the place!)

Coyotes%20Running.jpgCoyotes and wolves do not get along, and they hastily depart when in the vicinity of a wolf pack. Although they lack the size and mystique of the wolf, I find the coyote incredibly beautiful. "God's Dog" was the name given to the coyote by southwestern Native Americans. At my home in California, coyotes were a common sight. Here the landscape lends them an enhanced wildness. As we drove to Lamar Valley, a lone coyote stood on the top of a ridge, gazing at a small elk herd, and then considered us for a few moments.

Wolf%20Watching.jpgAfter a cold day of coyote-watching, we hit the town--Gardiner, population 761. I'm happy to report I finally visited the famous K-Bar! Great place for a winter drink. Shad was just excited that he could walk to Subway.