Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

November 20, 2013

ENJOYING NATURE: The animals of Yellowstone National Park

By Don Hazel
Sun contributor

CROSSVILLE — Yellowstone National Park has over half of all the geothermal features in the entire world ... geysers, mud pots, steam vents, etc. For some folks, those hot things are cool, but for me, the animals rule.

In Yellowstone, you can watch the animals in their undisturbed, natural, daily struggles for life and death. It's a great place to see the animals because of the large areas with no trees to block your view. The Lamar and Hayden Valleys in Yellowstone are like a vast African plain. The animals are far enough away to interact naturally, without human interference, but within view. However, for some, like wolves, grizzly bears, black bears and mountain goats, you will need good binoculars and a camera with a long lens. Bison, elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, otters, coyotes, moose and others may be closer to your car. On our trip, we saw all of the above and more.

Twice we saw grizzly bears, within 200 yards of us, that had claimed a dead elk or bison for their dinner. Actually, it was for breakfast, lunch and dinner. One grizzly ate and slept beside a dead elk at the edge of a small lake for 3 days. Another was across a river from the road, munching on a dead bison that it had dragged up from the water. The large male claimed the meal for himself, while a female and three good-sized cubs waited patiently, a couple hundred yards away, for their opportunity to eat. Although we were probably 150 yards away, the smell of the ripe bison was very strong. I don't know how a grizzly with a nose, hundreds of times more sensitive than ours, could stand to eat the decaying meat, but in nature, if you don't eat, you die. I guess you learn to just hold your nose and chow down.

We were lucky enough to see wolves, but not too lucky. We talked to people who watched the wolves chase and kill an elk the evening before. When we got there, the elk had already been consumed, and the wolves were moving on, tiny specks in our binoculars, about two miles away.

Grizzlies and wolves are often not always seen by Yellowstone visitors. But there is one place, a mile outside the park, in West Yellowstone, Montana that I highly recommend. It is the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. Every hour or so the staff at the center hides food under rocks and logs and then lets several grizzlies into the large outdoor enclosure to search for the food, like they might in the wild. Once a day they even let 10 or 15 little kids in to hide the food. A staff member assured me that they count the kids going in and coming out, before they turn the grizzlies loose. At the Center, you can also see two packs of wolves close up. The size of their feet and the length of their legs is the first thing you will notice about wolves. You can't see that from two miles away. You can also watch the wolves feed and interact as a pack. The cost of admission to the Discovery Center is only about $10 and it includes two consecutive days of visits. It is a great deal, and even though the animals aren't roaming free, it is the best, and maybe the only way, to see wolves and grizzlies up close.

In Yellowstone park, wolves hunt in packs, while coyotes usually hunt alone. We watched several different coyotes quietly stalk through the sagebrush, hunting for small rodents. They hunt with their ears. A coyote will slowly and quietly walk, turning its head left and right. With ears perked up, they will cock their head from side to side, to zero in on the sound of an unseen rodent in the brush, or even under the soil. Then, after sometimes minutes of listening, they will crouch, crouch deeper and pounce high in the air and then down with both feet onto the unsuspecting meal. I was almost as patient as the coyote to get a photo of one in mid-pounce. When I turned around, I noticed a young couple behind me with a big smile on their faces. They also got a photo of the pounce.

As you know, there are lots of bison in Yellowstone. They often stop traffic as they take their time crossing a road, or even ambling right down the middle of a road, for as long, and as slowly, as they want. But, bison can move remarkably fast, and they account for more injuries in Yellowstone than any other animal, mostly because some crazy humans assume they are slow, dumb and tame. The dumb ones are the people who back up within ten feet of a 2,000 pound bison and say "take my picture."

We saw otters several times. Once, there were eight of them swimming and diving in a stretch of fast water on the Yellowstone River. They were finding some kind of food, and putting on a great show for the 100 photographers lining the river bank. I mentioned last week that the way to spot wildlife is to watch for the wildlife spotters. That was how we knew the otters were there, but you can also watch the animals spot other animals. A lone pronghorn standing and staring helped us see a coyote more than once. An elk herd, all looking in one direction, indicates a bear or wolf or some other predator might be nearby.

If you haven't been to Yellowstone National Park in a while, or ever, put it on your list and plan to spend a week or more. Most of the park is open from mid-May until late September. Yellowstone is a great place to see animals, and a great way to enjoy nature.

Comments, questions or suggestions for future nature articles are welcome at don.hazel@gmail.com