Winter is reluctant to release its grip on Yellowstone.
Bison, I think, suffer the most this time of year. Month after frozen month they’ve had to plow through deep snow just to reach a thin layer of vegetation containing about as much nutritional value as cardboard. Even with a winter as mild as this one, some of the older and weaker bison must be desperate for the first green grass of spring.
Yellowstone has the well-deserved reputation of being one of the best places in the world to spot wild wolves. The odds of finding wolves on any given winter day are pretty good, as long as you’re OK watching them through binoculars or a spotting scope. Seeing wolves close enough for good photos, on the other hand, is much less common.
In early March park visitors were treated to a rare close-up show when the Wapiti wolf pack spent several days near the road that runs from the north entrance to Mammoth. The Wapitis had a carcass at the edge of the Gardner river, and at some point they skirmished with the 8 Mile wolf pack. I missed almost all the action, but I did manage to see one of the wolves when I had to drive to Bozeman to pick up Thunder from the vet.
In many ways Yellowstone becomes very small in the winter. Only one road – from Gardiner to Silver Gate – is open to regular traffic, which means that I often pass the same people as I drive around the park each morning. And it’s pretty amazing that those regulars include legendary Yellowstone characters like Rick McIntyre and Bob Landis.
I think Rick has spent more time watching wild wolves than anyone else. Not just any of his contemporaries, but anyone ever in history (a claim also made by Doug Smith, Yellowstone’s Senior Wildlife Biologist). Rick spent 15 summers following wolves in Denali, and in Yellowstone he’s been watching wolves almost constantly since their reintroduction in 1995. At one point he had a streak of spotting wolves for 891 (!) consecutive days. It’s truly mind-boggling. Rick no longer works for the National Park Service, but he continues to head into Yellowstone before dawn every morning from his home in Silver Gate. It always makes me happy to see him behind his spotting scope, still pursuing the thing he loves most.
As Rick is to wolf watching, Bob Landis is to wolf videography. Bob has captured a large percentage of the most iconic footage of Yellowstone’s wolves, starting – like Rick – all the way back in 1995. And also like Rick, he’s still out in the park every morning. I always feel like I’m in the right place for wildlife when I see Bob there too. One morning in mid-March I found myself next to him at a pullout in Lamar Valley, watching as bald eagles battled coyotes over a mule deer carcass. While all that was playing out, a wolf with blood on its neck briefly appeared on a ridge overlooking the scene.
Otters became a little tougher to find in March, but they still showed up around Confluence every now and then. As always, they seemed to be having a fantastic time.
Later in March my niece Kate came for a visit. Kate went to Montana State University in Bozeman and was already familiar with the Silver Gate–Cooke City area. A fan of backcountry skiing, Kate hit the slopes with friends who joined her from Bozeman, and she even agreed to some much tamer cross-country skiing with me and Marie.
Kate also joined me for a few wildlife drives. We stopped at the black bear den by Tower Junction, and Kate was able to see the mom with her head at the den’s small opening. The bear mom and her cubs have been growing more active as temperatures rise, and often on particularly warm afternoons at least one of them popped out for some fresh air. People who know more than I do about bear behavior predict that they’ll leave their den for good in early April.
One morning I pulled up to the bear den and saw my photographer friend Shane sitting on the back of his truck. “Get your camera!” Shane blurted out with a muffled yell. “There’s a white weasel right here!” He didn’t need to tell me twice. Camera in hand, I hopped out of my car as quickly and quietly as possible and almost immediately saw a furry white blur no more than 10 feet down the slope from Shane’s truck. An ermine!
For a long time now, ermines (short-tailed weasels with their white winter coat) have been one of the top Yellowstone animals on my “I really want to photograph them but haven’t yet” list. And here one was! But it vanished just as quickly as it appeared. “I think it’s going that way!” Shane whispered. Positioning myself in the general direction we thought the ermine was heading, I stood perfectly still and held my breath.
A miniature white head suddenly popped out from under a fallen log. Before I could raise my camera and click the shutter the ermine disappeared, so fast it seemed to just blink out of existence. Thirty seconds later it materialized again, this time behind the log, and I managed to fire off a shot. For the next few minutes the impossibly cute ermine darted around the brush in front of me, zipping in and out of sight, so quick and tiny that I missed far more shots than I got.
Huge thanks to Shane for the spectacular ermine spot. Without his help I almost surely would have missed it. Now I just need someone to find me a mountain lion, a pygmy owl, a bobcat, and a wolverine…
I’m guessing it won’t be too long before that weasel’s white coat turns brown again. By late March some parts of the park were already almost snow-free, and one afternoon I spotted my first Bluebird of the season – a classic harbinger of spring.