Travel Log: Wolves of Yellowstone
Day 1: February 15, 2017
Early flight from DCA to DFW and changed planes to fly to Jackson Hole. The weather was clear and snow was on the mountains when we landed at JH (as the locals call it). The cab to the Wort Hotel was operated by the Old West Transportation Company, which gives
you an idea about the atmosphere of the place.
In local and somewhat antiquated American English, "hole" is a narrow valley in the mountains. Jackson was the name of an early settler. While homesteaders first came to the area in the 1880's and established homes on their 160 acres under the 1862 Homestead Act, settlement of the area did not really start in earnest until the early 1900s as the LDS church and several buildings were laid out to form the center of what is now Jackson Hole (City of Jackson, Wyoming). The valley proved to be the home of game and cattle ranchers (more on that later). It is now officially about 9000 residents; it was not much more than1000 until growth started in the late 1980s. Nearby Teton Village is a ski Mecca for advanced skiiing.
The Wort Hotel was built in the early 1940s by the son of a local rancher. It is on the U.S. Registry of Historic Places and is also part of the Historic Hotels of America group. It has the Silver Dollar showroom, grill and restaurant. Until the 1950s, the grill and showroom supported gambling (1950s is when the anti-gambling laws were enforced; gambling became illegal in Wyoming long before). The bar in the Silver Dollar has approximately 1900 inlaid silver dollars (uncirculated; acquired directly from the US Mint) and another approximately 2000 inlaid in furniture around the hotel. The rooms are pleasant; the fitness room was surprisingly well appointed.
We arrived a day early; the tour would not officially begin until the evening of Feb. 16 (Thursday). We spent Wednesday afternoon visiting four art galleries around the town centers. As it turns out, Jackson Hole is one of the three largest art cities in the West; the other two being Santa Fe, NM and Scottsdale, AZ, and they are not that far behind NYC and LA. The first gallery, Astoria, had a really great collection of art of the U.S. West. A young artist, Joshua Taber or something like that, makes the greatest bronzes of animals that look like they could be your friends.. There were great oils, water colors and sculptures.
The second gallery was of the famous wildlife photographer, Thomas Mangelson. And rightfully famous; his animal shots virtually pop out of the frames. Think the Angel Adams (but using color) of wildlife photography.
The third gallery used Western motifs but in a sort of pop approach. Much of it was sort of MOMAish or Roy Lichtenstein. The fourth was an artist who painted animals in a sort of modern perspective. Her work adorned the walls of a very good restaurant called Local where we had lunch (on Wed and Thursday).
Day 2: February 16, 2017
We stocked up on real cold weather gear; the mantra for playing outdoors is that cotton is no good at all. We then walked to the Jackson Hole Welcome Center (run by USFWS and the State of Wyoming) to purchase tickets for the sleigh ride into the National Elk Refuge. The elk refuge is one of 550 wildlife refuges in the U.S. It is approximately 19000 acres. Approximately 8-9000 elk spend winters there and then go to higher climes in the mountains from late Spring to Fall.
The refuge was established in 1912 after the early settlers and hunters almost hunted the elk into extinction and several especially severe winters accelerated elk deaths. This was after Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot established the National Park System, and while one might assume that the federal government came into save the elk, it actually was the locals who raised money to buy hay to feed the elk and then approached the state and federal governments to establish the reserve. It has been instrumental to restoring the elk herds.
The sleigh is operated by a subcontractor to the USFWS and the guide provided an extensive explanation of the elk, how and when antlers grow and are shed (each year) by the bulls, the mating cycles and the number of calves needed to survive every year for the herd to be maintained (25 for every 100 cows). Elk are the second largest members of the deer family; only moose are larger. We learned about the diseases that affect elk (scabies, brucellosis, wasting disease and one that I can't remember) and how the itching caused by scabies sometimes causes elk to rub themselves into a vulnerable state that makes them susceptible to other illnesses. A small pack of wolves live about 5 miles south of the refuge and are not a real predatory threat to this band of elk because the wolves are somewhat territorial. There are few moose in the area. We came right up to a herd of elk and heard that explanation.
The sleigh was pulled by two horses; a Belgian and a Percheron. They are the "workhorses."
We visited the Museum of the Jackson Hole Historical Society. It was an interesting display of everyday life in the sparsely populated valley. It contains displays of the interior of a typical homesteader's house, explanations of the nature and role played by elk, cattle, buffalo and other aspects of this hard, outdoors life. There are trophies of animals and explanation of the hunting routines.
At dinner, we were introduced to Lynette Noble, our Orbridge guide for the trip. She is a naturalist; grew up on a dairy farm in rural Vermont, went to college at University of Montana in Kalispell, has a degree in ecology, biology, or something like that, worked for five years monitoring the wolves in Yellowstone Park, spent time doing related activities, and has led tours like our Wolves of Yellowstone for Orbridge for five years. She lives in Hawaii on the Big Island when not leading tours in Yellowstone, Alaska, San Juan islands and like places.
Our tour group included Sylvia Wehr Eggleston, the Vice Dean for Development for Hopkins Museums and Libraries. We have known Sylvia for many years; she is the "Hopkins host" for the trip. Of the Hopkins alumni on the trip, we have a couple from Harrisburg who love traveling to "pristine places" and has been to Antarctica 6 times as well as to 70 countries (he has a PhD in biology from JHU); a retired doctor of veterinary science who spent five years in Rwanda after retiring (JHU undergrad); a couple now retired to Charleston, SC; the wife is retired from the CIA and the husband from IT in the defense area (he has a degree in computer science from JHU); a couple, both materials science engineers for the US Navy as civilians ( she has a Ph.D from JHU and her father was faculty at JHU); a couple with their grown veterinarian daughter from San Diego (Kemp graduated from the School of Medicine and is an ophthalmologist but now is an inventor and in business selling medical devices to the best of my recollection. There is a couple, the wife is a graduate of Mills College in biology who works in the pharmaceutical industry and the husband is a pressman with Gannett, and, finally, a couple living in Auburn, Alabama. The husband works as a marketing rep to alumni associations in the South and West on behalf of Orbridge.
Day 3: February 17, 2017
The group departed in two 9 seat buses from the Wort Hotel to head into Yellowstone. Lynette was in our bus and gave commentary along the way.
We first went north through the Grand Teton National Park. The Tetons are spectacular peaks. The weather today was spectacularly clear, not terribly cold and sunny. The National Park is not as old as Yellowstone (which became a National Park in 1872). In geological terms, the Tetons are relatively young mountains, perhaps only a few million years old. As we climbed, the road became more forested.
The Snake River runs through Grand Teton National Park and then through Idaho until it drains into the Columbia River and then the Pacific Ocean. The Snake is a storied river, the site of the movie "A River Runs Through It" as well as others and is approximately 1700 miles long.
At the gate of Yellowstone National Park, (really just south of the gate at Flagg Ranch, we stopped and changed vehicles to what has been referred to as a snow cat. These converted Ford multi-passenger mini buses are mounted on snow tires at least 5 feet in diameter and three feet across. Those tires are inflated at about a third or less of a normal car tire and are designed to ride on the snowy roads of the park. Regular vehicles are not allowed from November to the end of February. The Park Service takes the month of March to keep people out of the park and both plow and repair the roads to be ready for summer travel.
The entire area of Yellowstone National Park was created from volcanic eruptions approximately 645,000 years ago. The area is still volcanically active, as evidenced by all the hydrothermic activity, i.e. The geysers, hot springs, mud pots and fumeroles for which Yellowstone is famous. As one enters from the south, you cross the edge of the caldera created by the last volcanic eruption. The caldera is a bowl of wide plains and lakes. Much of the landscape has been etched by the volcanic eruptions as well as the lakes carved from (an earlier??) Ice Age.
Of course, I asked whether the volcanic eruptions are scheduled on a 1 in 1 million year basis (pulling on the now seemingly silly analogy of the 100 year flood that might happen 2 years in a row). Whether or not Lynette got my humor, she suggested that Yellowstone is due for a volcanic eruption around now. I asked whether time is expressed in biblical terms; she suggested geologic time is not. We hope to be gone from here when "the big one" happens.
Much of the soil is ryolitic (Mike Passow, please translate) and relatively nutrient poor. Much of the land is forested; the predominant (80%) type of tree is the lodge pole pine. There are limited numbers of Douglas firs and another type of evergreen. The lodge pole pine thrives on nutrient poor soil, dry air/lack of humidity and no shade. There were major forest fires in 1988 and 2012(?) that cleared much of the old growth and made it possible for new growth to take hold. We saw burned trees still standing; because the air is so dry, it takes longer for a tree to decompose/decay and fall. Conversely, the growing season is short so that trees that sprouted after the 1988 fire are not yet fully grown.
Jackson and the Snake River are located west of the Continental Divide. During our first day in Yellowstone Park, we crossed the Continental Divide three times and wound up on the eastern side. The rivers in the area eventually drain into the Missouri River and from there into the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico.
We stopped at the West Thumb lake and heating station for a box lunch (that we had brought along and the remains of which we carried back with us to our destination for the evening). We saw hot springs, mud pots and other hydrothermic activity in that area. West Thumb is a small caldera within the larger Yellowstone caldera. It is a circular lake appended to the much larger Yellowstone Lake.
We reached the Old Faithful Lodge in the early afternoon. We had a walk around the area; there are several geysers within the immediate vicinity of Old Faithful. Old Faithful now erupts on a 90 minute schedule, give or take 10 minutes each way. We saw a perfectly satisfactory eruption in mid-afternoon with water shooting about 50-60 feet in the air. A few minutes later, we saw the eruption of the adjacent "beehive" geyser that only erupts once a day--but puts on quite a good show of its own. This is indeed a spectacular display of nature's power and, particularly given the forested surroundings and the clear day, was well worth the trip.
Day 4: February 18, 2017
We departed Old Faithful Lodge in yet different vehicles; re- fashioned Ford Econoline vans with giant snow tires. Skip Morris was our driver. He is a retired high school teacher and football coach in the town of West Yellowstone who had been driving the winter tours for more than 15 years. Very knowledgeable about the region and its geologic and biological history.
We drive north by and traversed from the upper geyser basin, where Old Faithful is located, to the lower geyser basin. The lower basin was yet another volcanic caldera region. There were hot springs, geysers and fumeroles along the way. We stopped and took a walk by the Painted mud Flats, a fascinating and particularly colorful area that progresses from hot spring in the spring to fumerole in the summer as the water dries up and to the mud pots in the winter. We also learned that there is a variety of thermophile bacteria that grow in the springs.
Along the way, we saw plenty of bison. They were strikingly thin. They fatten up during the spring to fall and draw down as much as 35% of their weight during the winter. They hang out near the warm springs areas because of the local plant growth spurred by the warm waters and the bacteria. We also saw trumpeter swans, Canadian geese, a coyote or two and a raven. We came to learn that ravens are very intelligent: they can open zippers, Velcro and clasps to get at food. We even heard a story of coyotes and ravens working together to get at food.
We passed the marked spot of Chief Joseph's trek with the New Perce tribe in 1877 and his wars with the cavalry. Battles were fought in what is now the park. He never lost a battle although he took substantial losses. We also learned that the Shoshone were the only Native American tribe to winter in the park. They chipped obsidian to trade. Surgeons apparently are returning to Obsidian for their tools.
Our trek followed along the fire hole river to the Gibbon River which, in turn, flows into the Yellowstone River. We took a right (east) at Norris to go to the north rim of the impressive Great Yellowstone Canyon, including the 380 foot falls. The walls are indeed yellow stone that gave the park and region its name. We lunched at the Park Service's Canyon Village compound and then backtracked to Norris to pick up the road north to Mammoth Hot Springs. At Mammoth Hot Springs, we changed vehicles to head to our lodgings at Gardiner, Montana, that we would use as a base for the following two days to go seek the wolves.
The Yellowstone Gateway Inn in Gardiner, Montana is quite nice. It is a motel with roomettes; king size bedroom bed (and very comfortable), kitchenette, small dining room and a queen bed where the living room would be. Comfortable heating/cooling and good internet. This will be our "home" for 3 nights.
Dinner was at the Cowboy Grill. The food was adequate but after a day of bus and fresh air, we were ready! Stuffed animals in interesting places; no bucking bronco!
Day 5: February 19, 2017
We departed at 7 a.m. For the day. Back to the park, took a left at Mammoth Hot Springs on the road to Lamar and the search for game.
Early on, we did find a place to observe two sets of three wolves from a hill. Observe as in through telescopes from about 3/4 of a mile. We could hear the wolves howling; also heard a coyote concert. This is indeed a success! The pictures are more expressive.
The weather has been unseasonably warm, so there was quite a bit of snowmelt at the lower climes. The elk and bison (we saw quite a bit of both) were enjoying it and were in evidence. This is also breeding season for the wolves; hence they are more visible.
Our guides, Emil and Zach, are quite knowledgeable. Both have advanced degrees in wildlife/biology related issues and have been wildlife guides for many years.
We picnicked outside for lunch (the temperature seemed to be in the low 40's). On today's trip, we also saw big-horn sheep high on a hill, bald and golden eagles as well as other birds, coyotes (who are quite resilient and wily), and mule deer.
We also received a very good lecture on the history of wolves in Yellowstone. At the start of the 20th Century, the Park Service's focus on wildlife management was to eliminate predatory animals. It allowed hunting of wolves (as well as mountain lions and coyotes), and wolves were eliminated by the 1930s. The effort to get rid of mountain lions was not quite as successful and the effort to reduce the coyote population was an abject failure. In the 1940s, wildlife management in ecological terms was being rethought, in large part because of Aldo Leopold's book Sand County Almanac. The discussion about reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone began then but was disputed for 50 years. In the Clinton Administration, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and FWS director Margaret Beede decided to bring about the reintroduction of the wolves. After much study, documented in books we have, the first pack of Canadian wolves was introduced into the park in 1995 and another pack a year later.
The wolf population has stabilized at about 100, give or take a few. The elk population, which had exploded when the wolves died out and peaked at about 20,000, has taken a nose dive but has now stabilized in response to the wolf population. It's quite a story in ecological management.
Day 6: February 20, 2017
So maybe you're expecting to read a cross between a travelogue and description of a trip to the Great Outdoors. Well, maybe there is some of that. But really, our trip to see and learn about the wolves in February is a tale of sex, betrayals, family devotion, family breakups and an eternal soap opera as between males and females. There are alpha males and alpha females. And it's mating season. We learned about wolf 763, a dominant male who has lived twice his life expectation of five years, has had his forelegs broken three times, and is yet the old guy who gets the girl during breeding season; outsmarting the young, would-be males to get the young alpha females. Or in human terms, old age and treachery will beat youth and speed 9 times out of 10. We learned that alpha females may kill the pups of other females in the pack--but there are also instances of kindnesses to the pups of sisters or others in certain situations. And sons of alpha males are not likely to kill the old man. Maybe depose him, but not kill him. And there is no incest/inbreeding. Wolves have scruples (or instincts).
We saw three wolves crossing a ridge line within 200 yards of the road. The guides had rarely seen this. We saw other wolves from the pack at some distance. In both cases, a male was closely following a female with sex on his mind--and they were trailed by a second male, who might have been the brother, for unspecified purposes! We learned a lot about the mating and other aspects of the lives of wolves in the Park from our guide for the day, Emil, and from a legend of the Yellowstone Wolf Project, Rick McIntyre (spelling) who has run the project for 20 years and only missed observing wolves 8 days in that entire period. He has written books that has added immensely to the knowledge about wolves because Yellowstone and the Wolf Project with its ongoing observation has been an incredible and probably the leading laboratory for observing the wolves with a bare minimum of human intervention (for tagging wolves for study) in the world. 2.3 million acres to play with.
We also saw plenty of bison; cows and calves as well as bulls, big horn sheep, eagles. We watched coyotes and heard them call to each other. From a wildlife viewing perspective, the day was a smash hit. And, I may reread old English royal history with a new eye to see the analogies to wolf activity. More to come!
Day 7: February 21, 2017
The last day in the Park. And what a day it was. We traveled with Emil for a second day and heard a great story of his adventures tracking mountain lions (he did his masters thesis on mountain lions); the ones he observed while tracking in the snow and the one that left him with a scar because of a misbegotten darting/tagging adventure. Tara from San Diego(ish), the veterinarian tech and animal obsessive set out to set a high bar for the day: river otters, mountain goat, fox (and later added bobcat and mountain goat). Her initial list was satisfied: it was a great day of viewing. Emil was particularly tickled to see the two otter show by the Lamar River as he had not seen otters for a full year. See the fox.
One could not see the mountain goats except through a scope. They exist high on the mountains in cliffs. It might be argued that they are invasive species, since they are not indigenous to the park and there is a study underway whether to track and kill the mountain goats as they arguably deplete the feeding plants of big horn sheep. We also saw other big horn sheep during the day.
As we came down out of the park (our sightseeing in the park was approximately 1000 feet above Gardiner, MT and the weather was accordingly colder and snowier), we stopped to see Mammoth Hot Springs and then continued to the habitat of the prong-horn sheep. We saw them from afar. They are the fastest mammal in North America. They have no natural predators; they are descendants from the ice age when natural predators existed.
We left Yellowstone after lunch and took the two hour motor coach ride to Bozeman, MT. It was a gorgeous drive up various valleys. It really is Big Sky country.
Bozeman is an interesting little city. It is the home of Montana State University. It has the air of a western town; charming Main Street with shops for outdoor gear, sporting equipment and lattes. We had a fascinating tour of the Museum of the Rockies which has the largest collection of dinosaur fossils in North America. It has the largest collection of T-Rex, including one on loan for 50 years to the Smithsonian. We also saw "Big Al", an allosaurus that preceded T-Rex by some millennia. The tour leader was John Scannell, the interim curator and a student of Jack Horner, the apparently legendary dinosaur scholar. He himself was a scholar of triceratops and showed and explained quite a collection to us.
What we also learned was that there has been tremendous advances in the study of, and knowledge about, dinosaurs since the last time that I checked in--which was probably 40 years ago. As John put it, most people thought that dinosaurs were cold-blooded bog dwellers that were born and waiting to die. Turns out that many may have been warm-blooded, there is evidence of material care for young, there is evidence of skulls of different maturities; T-Rex may have had feathers and the crocodiles and birds of today may be related to dinosaurs but in the same parallel way that the ancient humanoids were precursors of Homo sapiens (us). The evidence of evolution among dinosaurs also may give evidence of evolution in our own time. The study is very active.
Our farewell dinner was held in the board room of the Museum of the Rockies. Best food of the trip and we made our respective good bye remarks.
It should be noted that the organization of this tour was first rate. Our principal guide, Lynette Nobles, was an experienced wildlife biologist and an ardent advocate of the preservation of the wildlife ecology. Our subcontractor guides were also quite knowledgeable and passionate about Yellowstone and the wolves and other creatures. Emil was particularly articulate, knowledgeable and passionate.
Day 8: February 22, 2017
Departure day. We had a GREAT breakfast at the Nova Cafe. Deborah has toasted almond/cottage cheese pancakes with a fruit compote. I had an omelette filled with a Spanish rice/bison chorizo mix and cheese. I wouldn't go to this detail if the culinary skill had not been so noticeable.
We then strolled down the street back to the hotel and stopped in Scheele's outdoor wear/gun shop.There were magnificently preserved wildlife trophies and reviewed the collection of rifles. Rather interesting and the proper ending to our Montana experience.