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Yellowstone National Park

USA | Thursday, 21 January 2010 | Views [323]

Bison in snow

Bison in snow

The ranger didn’t lie when she told me that the Northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park from Cooke City was open.  But she neglected to tell me that the roads to Cooke City from Cody, Wyoming were closed.  What should have been a one hundred mile drive from Cody to the Park turned out to be four times as long, up nearly to Billings, across to Livingstone and down through Gardiner.  No harm, no foul and we arrived safely at Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge late on Tuesday.

Yellowstone was the first national park and to many it is the crown jewel of the National Park system.  Millions of visitors enjoy the scenery and wildlife during the summer but for a truly surreal experience nothing equals Yellowstone in winter.  This was our fourth visit, our second in winter.  Only the road from Mammoth to the Northeast entrance is open to vehicles in the winter.  The other roads are accessible only to snow coaches and snow mobiles.  Otherwise you get around on skis or snowshoes.

We have backpacked in the park in autumn and have seen the geysers in both summer and winter so this time we decided to drive so we could access the Lamar Valley on our own.  This area is prime winter range for the vast elk and bison herds and the animals that prey on them, especially Yellowstone’s wolves.  It has been a mild winter so far and the elk and bison were plentiful. We saw flocks of common and Barrows golden-eye ducks on open stretches of the Yellowstone River, several bald eagles and two majestic golden eagles.  I managed some close up photos of big horn rams and coyotes and some not so great photos of a pair of wolves.  The wolves themselves weren’t so great either; their tails were nearly hairless due to a case of mange but other visitors reported seeing six very healthy members of the Druid pack.

The dynamic between the wolves and bison is interesting.  Wolves were only recently been re-introduced to Yellowstone, having been exterminated during less environmentally enlightened times.  Now that they are back there is a more natural predator/prey balance resulting in healthier elk and bison populations.  We were told when the bison first heard the cry of the wolf the herd immediately formed a defensive circle around the calves despite the fact that none of the individuals had ever heard that sound before.  I guess the response was hard-wired into their genes.


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