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Trip Report ~ Bear and Wolf Sightings ~ by Randal Horobik

06 May 2012

Yellowstone Coyote taken Spring 2012 ~ © Copyright Randal W. Horobik All Rights Reserved

~ May 2012 ~

Yellowstone Coyote taken Spring 2012 ~ © Copyright Randal W. Horobik All Rights Reserved

Sunday - 06 May

We drove what I call the 'S' the NE entrance, over to Mammoth, south to Norris, over to Canyon, down to Fishing Bridge and out the East. One of the things that fueled my love of Yellowstone as a kid was that it is an area in constant change. Take a good look at the landscape, especially in the thermal basins, because chances are it will be changed on your next trip. Living on the doorstep of the park, even the changes between days are noteworthy. Take the Lamar Valley. Thursday we went in looking for bison calves and had to go through Lamar and over to Little America to find our quarry. Fast-forward to Sunday and the maternity ward in Lamar was in full swing with little ones romping here and there. At the western end of the valley, there were even some curbside deliveries which made for a close-up spectacle on the miracle of life. Something at Slough Creek campground had warranted the attention of not one, but two, Park Ranger vehicles and a swarm of cars. We were late to the party and things were dispersing as we drove past. We were not late to the traffic jam caused by all the bighorns that were hanging out roadside by the pond between Specimen trailhead and the Yellowstone picnic area. We were told a bear was hanging out on the hillside above the pull-in for Petrified Tree. There was quite a crowd, but by the time we found a parking spot (thanks in part to the individual who chose to park across the pull-in to Blacktail Drive, blocking its use from the 2-3 additional vehicles that could have otherwise wedged in there) it had wandered out of line-of-sight. Another crowd at Floating Island Lake with scopes and binoculars trained up the draw opposite the highway, but we saw nothing and, again, had no real parking options, so opted to continue. There were a number of elk, including a pair of nice-sized bulls, around the Blacktail Ponds/Wraith Falls area. The drive from Mammoth to Norris was surprisingly void of wildlife. Ditto for the drive from Norris to Canyon, save for the coyote that was walking across the meadow just west of the four-way stop. I kept hoping for an iconic photo of Mr. Wile E. Coyote pouncing through snow for a mouse, but someone forgot to inform him of this line in the script. Ah well. The Hayden Valley had been devoid of life save for some random bison on Friday. So much so that I didn't bother to file a report. This time, we were able to spot a griz west of the road at the first long pullout south of the Mary Mountain trailhead. He/she had a nice blonde-ish streak, which made picking him out from the distant hillside far easier. I am also happy to report that an otter was hanging out at the oxbow bend pullout north of Trout Creek. This was a popular otter spot a couple years back, but we never saw one there last year, so this sighting made us smile. Snow and sleet moved in as we neared the LeHardy area. The drive east from Fishing Bridge had a few vehicles near Indian Pond in the hope of a return griz sighting, but nothing was out at the moment. There's also a pullout blocked off at the western edge of the lakefront stretch of drive just east of there. I know not why and it seems rather odd as the "no stopping" zone is maybe 50 yards long at best with nothing on any of the other myriad pullouts nearby and no sightings of anything that I'm aware of. The avalanche zone on Sylvan is as low as we can ever remember seeing it this time of year. That said, there's still evidence of things falling down and the "Danger, unexploded ordinance" signs have magically re-appeared this spring. Peace to all!

Mammoth had 10 or so bison in the meadow across from the general store/gas station and the Visitor Center already had its display of lawn elk out to greet those coming for the road opening. A few bluebirds flitted here and there in town and in the drive up the canyon.

We made a beeline for Lamar to check out the snow and wildlife situation. Encountered a coyote at the Blacktail Ponds turnout that provided some quality photographs. A nice wildlife welcome (can't have a three-dog day until you get the first one...)! Lots of bison all over the northern road, especially from Tower Junction to the Lamar. Must be an early reunion or something.

Lamar was quiet...we stopped at the Institute pullout to scan the valley with binoculars. We were about to call it off as nothing more exciting than geese, pronghorn and bison when suddenly the howls of wolves perked our attention to the south side of the valley. We heard four howls, but binoculars, a spotting scope and half an hour of staring failed to produce the source. Howls good...howls with visual contact would be better.

Sandhill cranes in the marshy area northwest of the road just west of Pebble Creek campground. A scan of Round Prairie came back empty of large mammal lifeforms. Winter still has hold on the landscape on the Cooke City side of the Prairie.

After renewing acquaintances in Cooke City and stopping for milkshakes at Beds and Buns (and scoping out the snow situation to figure out when access over the Chief Joseph might be possible...) we did the trek in reverse, stopping at times to take photos of bison posing dramatically or wallowing in mud. Five bighorns were just east of the Yellowstone picnic area, beyond that it was bison, bison and the occasional renegade pronghorn or elk. The Blacktail Ponds pullout was full of five vehicles and some strong glass, but nobody seemed to be looking at anything at the moment and the kids were getting restless, so we completed our trek out to the motel in Gardiner and a date with the swimming pool.

Having successfully checked out the wildlife, it's now time to check out the Gardiner nightlife...tomorrow we head into the interior.

Friday - 20 April

Yellowstone Bison taken Spring 2012 ~ © Copyright Randal W. Horobik All Rights Reserved

Began the day driving up on a jam just south of the 45th parallel sign below Mammoth. A carcass just across the river had attracted some wolves in the early a.m. Having kids in tow and a setup that would have afforded outstanding photos, missed the wolves, but lingered around long enough hoping for their return to see a pair of coyotes come down, although they inexplicably veered off and wandered up river instead.

Coyotes seemed to be the theme of the trip as we encountered another wandering along the river near the Norris campground and at roadside between Black Sand and Biscuit. Other than that, our morning was pretty non-eventful with visits to the various basins...they're actually letting folks on the boardwalks at midway and lower, I don't recall that being the case in previous seasons.

Things picked up in the evening. We encountered a grizzly sow just south of Solfatara. The ranger working traffic there informed us another griz and three wolves had been reported hanging out around Indian Creek the last couple of days. We were shut out looking for them, but that's okay. Lots of sandhill cranes seen coming into Swan Lake Flats and just about anywhere else where there's marshy prairie.

The evening drive into the Lamar resulted in the obligatory gazillion bison between Tower Junction and Slough Creek. The Lamar was actually fairly quiet. A trio of vehicles was sitting at the Confluence, but they appeared to be talking amongst themselves and only half-heartedly paying attention to the landscape. At the southern end of Round Prairie we encountered a lone wolf trotting along the stream bank and watched for a while, then finished the drive into Cooke City for pizza and the uneventful return to Gardiner in twilight.

Overall, it's amazing to compare this year's snow level with last year's. Talk about night and day -- last year, we couldn't see anything on the drive from Norris to Canyon due to the snow berms being 7 to 9 feet high the entire way. This year, there's places where there's not even a sidewall of snow because it has melted down that far.

Weatherwise, aside from a cool wind that gusted every now and again, it was wonderful. Most of the ranger staff we saw were in summer dress rather than winter. And it's only supposed to get warmer the next two days. Woohoo!!

Saturday - 21 April

Yellowstone Antelope taken Spring 2012 ~ © Randal W. Horobik Copyright All Rights Reserved

Outstanding weather today, and you could tell by the traffic level in the park. Many folks were out enjoying heaven-on-earth, and who can really blame them?

The crowd was out at the carcass site near the 45th parallel/river bridge below Mammoth. Nothing was on it and most of the watchers were gabbing among themselves, so we drove past and out to the Lamar.

The spotters were also out at the Blacktail ponds turnout. Aside from when I took my coyote photo here Thursday night, the pullout has been packed, but nothing has been visible to see what the excitement is about. I'm sure it's either wolves or a bear from the size and persistence of the crowd. Today though, there was the token prize of a bald eagle down in the marsh area.

Got caught in my first bison parade of the year heading down the hill toward the Petrified Tree side road. There certainly is quite the reunion going on down by Tower junction and just east of the Specimen Ridge trail

Our wildlife highlight for the day came just east of Specimen Ridge...two pronghorn going head-to-head in a pushing and shoving match not far from the highway. Car after car proceeded past while I watched this struggle for dominance unfold through the eyepiece of my camera. These sorts of private shows are what I love the most about coming to the park.

Closer to the bridge, there was a small crowd looking well to the north through spotting scopes/small telescopes at a tiny black wolf-dot on a distant hillside. I admire people who have the persistence to locate things miles from their current position. I'm not one of them. Bob's Knob was plastered like a stadium section with wolf watchers. Couldn't even find a parking area to go up and see what the fuss was about so, again, we bypassed the crowd and, instead, took advantage of a bit of solitude not commonly found -- the Trout Lake trail all to ourselves. Unfortunately, the lake is almost entirely locked in ice still. It probably won't be much for much longer if we get many more days like today

Yellowstone Elk taken Spring 2012 ~ © Copyright Randal W. Horobik All Rights Reserved

After the hike, lunch and milkshakes in Cooke City. The latest scuttle is for Colter to open May 1ish, allowing access into the park from the east. For us, this is always good news as it saves a ton of time off the trip in. Also heard a rather humorous tale of three women in a U-Haul who rode into Cooke the previous night stunned that the road was closed and that they would not be able to drive over the Beartooth Highway into Billings.

Heading back through Lamar, there was a good crowd assembled about a quarter mile north of Soda Butte, we never did see what they were looking at high on the ridge to the west of the road and pullouts in that area are non-existent for low-clearance vehicles like ours...and I didn't feel like following the lead of many others and parking in a lane of traffic. The ride back to Mammoth was uneventful other than the occasional elk and bison crossing the road and sandhill cranes in the marshy places.

Going up to Swan Lake Flats and toward Norris, we were able to see one of the wolves we'd been tipped off about just south of Indian Creek. We had a coyote at the first Twin Lake coming from Mammoth toward Norris. Another two-dog day...where are those foxes hiding? A small crew was gathered in hopes the Solfatara griz would return, but as we drove past the griz had not taken the stage yet.

We're 99.9 percent certain we passed Yellowstone girl on the way back to Mammoth. Probably passed several others of you too during the day, but didn't recognize it. One of these days I'll hook up with more of you and put faces with names.

Wrapped the night up with dinner and a swim in Gardiner. Tomorrow is our getaway day... morning in the park and then a long haul back home and a return to office life on Monday. C'mon getaway griz :) .

Sunday - 22 April

Our opening weekend trip wrapped up today, but we decided the weather was much too nice to simply drop into Mammoth for a morning walk around the terraces and return home. So, instead, we went from Gardiner to West and then snuck in the back door to Jackson and up through LEW's country in Teton before completing the cycle back to Park County, Wyoming. (for those keeping score, that was about 13 hours in a car to cover a distance that, in a month, I'll be able to make in 3 or so.)

I won't go into detail on what I saw at Mammoth as I know roadie is planning to write something and, quite frankly, I'm not sure what looked "new" to me would actually be news or simply verification that I'm male and my powers of observation aren't always keen.

Yellowstone Canada Geese taken Spring 2012 ~ © Randal W. Horobik Copyright All Rights Reserved

The wolves were out just south of Indian Creek and we got to see two clearly and the tail-tip of the third. There was a lone swan waaaaay out in the Gibbon meadow (along with a few dozen bison). While stopped viewing, a pair of coyotes crossed the road not far up, so I wandered with the camera in the hope of maybe getting a photo. Dutifully, one turned around and posed quite nicely as we stared at each other from a distance. After four shots and a telepathic thank you from me, he/she turned tail and scampered off to catch up with its compatriot for a romp through the woods.

The scariest moment of the trip came just after turning at Madison to head for west. We rounded the curve near the water treatment plant (or whatever that is down the "Your Recovery Dollars at Work" side road) to come face to face with an oncoming full-size pickup truck with two snowmobiles in the bed. The truck logo was on my side of the centerline and still veering in our direction to a degree that I was beginning to perform the mental calculus of which collision would be preferrable, car vs. oncoming truck or car vs. random stationary tree in the forest. Obviously, since I'm writing this, neither collision took place as the driver of the truck sharply corrected back into his lane (and somehow avoided going into a skid...I expected to see a roll in my rearview mirror) and kept going as if nothing had happened. Five miles later, I think my pulse kept going as well...

Some elk were swimming the river just south of the Madison bridge, which afforded another good photo opportunity with the reflections in the still waters there. Despite being marked closed as "vital trumpeter swan habitat" there were, sadly, no swans available to swim with the elk in the photos. We exited heaven-on-earth a short while later and made it to Teton, where we found three moose, a couple bald eagles and a photogenic mallard, but no bears (judging from LEW's post and all the scuttle around the visitor's center, we must be about the only folks to have not seen bears in Teton...)

The drive down the Togwotee was uneventful aside from noting (again) how much lower snow levels are this year compared to last. Arrived safely home at 11:00 p.m. Tomorrow will be photo processing day. Expect a torrent of images in the next couple of days. Peace to all!

Grand Tetons taken Spring 2012 ~ © Copyright Randal W. Horobik All Rights Reserved

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