Yellowstone in Late Winter Mar 25—31, 2018

Posted by Denver Holt

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Denver Holt

Denver Holt is a wildlife researcher and graduate of the University of Montana. He is founder and president of the Owl Research Institute, a nonprofit organization located ...

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Our 2018 Yellowstone trip lived up to expectations. Our base camp was Chico Hot Springs resort, a noted old Montana Dude Ranch and Hotel. Chico is about 30 miles from the north entrance in Gardiner, Montana. The north entrance is the original entrance dedicated in 1872. Each morning we casually drove to the park, and each morning we encountered hundreds of Elk and Mule Deer. Once arriving in Gardiner, we photographed Elk bedded down on front lawns, parks, businesses’ green space, or just walking the streets. We then supplied-up and ventured into the park.

Our daily drive took us from Gardiner to the Lamar Valley, and one day to Cooke City. Clearly, the highlight species we were in search of were Grizzly Bear and Wolf. The first two days were filled with close observations of Bison, Elk, and Mule Deer—literally hundreds per day. Most Elk had lost their antlers by this time of year, yet some maintained them, and we were able to get a sense of the proportions of antler length to body size. Bison like to walk the road, and eventually small herds of bulls paralleled our van—giving us a feel for their enormous size and mass. Adult males can measure 6 feet at the hump and weigh up to 2,000 pounds.

Although in smaller numbers, we had magnificent views of Pronghorn—North America’s fastest land mammal; Big Horn Sheep—with their enormous curved horns for ramming heads in competition for females; a few Moose—our largest member of the deer family; and Mountain Goats—the cliff dwellers. Coyotes were fairly common and seen daily, while the beautiful ‘Yellowstone’ Red Fox was seen distantly only once. 

By day three we were anxious for the focal species. Each day prior to that, the Wolf researchers would tell us, “YOU JUST MISSED THEM.” Wolf researchers and Wolf watchers dominate the roadsides, so clusters of their vehicles are often an indication of Wolves. On day three we pulled into a cluster, and in the distance a pack of 6 Wolves were feeding on a Bison they presumably killed that morning. Although very distant, in the scope we could see they were Wolves, and our group felt a bit relieved. 

As is common knowledge, this time of year male Grizzly Bears emerge from hibernation and are hungry. They are also tough. In anticipation, the next day we hoped a Grizzly would push the Wolves off their carcass. Indeed, it was so. We had a Grizzly on the Bison and the Wolves hanging around. We watched the bear defend “his” food and chase off a Wolf from time to time.  Again, we saw the gang of vehicles and were able to get outstanding looks, with the spotting scope, of 9 Wolves bedded down on the snow—blacks, grays, and beige. Eventually we left. The next day we saw Wolves again. In fact, our group spotted these.

In addition, we had very good looks at many Bald and Golden eagles. Along the rivers we had great looks at Barrow’s and Common goldeneyes, and finally a Dipper singing along a creek. Perhaps the best birding event was a visit to a feeder at Silver Gate, Montana, at about 7,000 feet elevation. Here, among six feet of snow, we observed a colorful array of birds. These included Clark’s Nutcracker, Gray Jay, Steller’s Jay, Brown Creeper, Pine Grosbeak, and highlights were Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (including Hepburn’s form), and Black Rosy-Finch. In fact, all of these species were within 20 feet. 

Once feeling good about large mammals and early season birds, we spent a few hours walking around Mammoth Hot Springs and reading interpretive signs.

On the last day we ventured back to Bozeman and had dinner at Ted Turner’s Montana Bar and Restaurant.

Living up to its reputation, Yellowstone in late winter and spring is spectacular. I’m looking forward to next year.