Marie and I knew better than to expect spring weather when we returned home to Silver Gate in March after our Galapagos trip, but day after day of unrelenting cold and snow still felt daunting. People who’ve lived in the area for decades claim this has been one of the most extreme winters they can remember.
I felt particularly bad for the wildlife. The bison, elk, and other weary grazers had the thousand-yard stares of soldiers who’d seen too much combat. As I drove through Yellowstone in the early mornings I began finding bison laying on the road inside a semi-circle of snow, evidence that they’d been too tired to bother getting up even when a massive snow plow rumbled right around them.
Overall wildlife activity in the northeast area of park seemed to have dropped significantly. More often than not I returned home without taking a single photo. But wildlife sightings tend to come in waves (like so many other things), and you never know when your luck might change.
A few weeks after we returned I was driving south from Round Prairie when a hazy dark shape appeared in the snow ahead. Is that a wolf? Not just any wolf, I realized, but my favorite wolf in the park – 1228F, alpha female of the newly-designated Shrimp Lake pack.
Born in 2019 to the huge Junction Butte pack, 1228 broke away in late 2021 and found a mate, a black wolf that came from outside the park and was extremely wary of humans. A year ago my niece Kate and I ran across 1228 at Round Prairie, an encounter I’ll never forget. Since then 1228’s life has been filled with milestones. She gave birth to a litter of pups, lost her mate to a hunter, and then hooked up with another mate. Not too long ago Yellowstone gave 1228 and her family an official name: the Shrimp Lake pack. People who know more about wolves than I do have said that 1228 looks pregnant again and will likely have another litter this spring.
When I saw 1228 recently I stopped to give her room in case she wanted to cross the road. Instead she trotted slowly back to the west, where her mate and two surviving pups were spread out on the snow-covered hillside. My first sighting of the full Shrimp Lake pack!
Around that same time people began reporting action at the bear den. Last winter in Yellowstone a black bear with two cubs hibernated near Tower Junction in a den that was easily visible from the road. It was really fun to check out the den each day, especially as warmer weather arrived and the bears began to venture out for some fresh air.
This winter a different black bear occupied that same den, and until recently I thought it was a male. But in mid-March a local photographer, Trent Sizemore, posted a great shot he’d just taken of the bear at the den entrance with a TINY cub of the year.
The mom and her cub seemed to be most active in the early afternoon, so as soon as we had a relatively warm day I headed to the den at noon to try my luck. When I arrived I heard a cub crying and saw movement in the shadowy interior of the den, so it seemed worthwhile to wait. Sure enough – about 90 minutes later the mom made an appearance.
I hoped to see the cub, but the mom seemed determined to block the entrance – which makes sense, given that the den opens onto a steep slope. Finally the cub wriggled its way into view, very briefly – the smallest one I’ve ever seen.
I heard people say there were two cubs in the den, but I hadn’t seen any photos that showed more than one. Then about a week later Marie and I returned to the den on a warm afternoon and caught a very quick glimpse of two cubs at the den’s entrance. It really is amazing to have an opportunity to monitor a bear den on a daily basis.
On the Monday morning after Easter I was driving through the park on my way to a dentist appointment in Bozeman when I noticed a crowd of people just past Confluence. It looked like they were monitoring a bighorn sheep carcass up the hill from the road. I drove on by, worried about being late for my appointment and assuming I was probably just missing a coyote or two on the carcass.
It wasn’t until I read Yellowstone Reports the next morning that I learned the bighorn sheep had been killed by a mountain lion. People saw the mountain lion relatively close to the road late in the day on Easter, and then farther up the hillside on Monday. So frustrating! I’d never seen a mountain lion in the wild before, anywhere, and for two days I’d failed to see one hanging out just 20 miles from our house!
I couldn’t find any sign of the mountain lion on my Tuesday morning drive, but as Marie and I were returning from the bear den that afternoon we came across a group of photographers by the road at Confluence. “Are you seeing the lion?” we asked. Apparently it had been visible at some point, but they hadn’t seen it in over an hour. Marie and I continued on home, but very quickly I decided to head back to Confluence. The idea of completely missing a mountain lion so close to us for three days felt agonizing.
Finally I’d made the right call. At Confluence I joined the other photographers, who said the lion was visible far up up the hillside, resting behind a tangle of dead branches. Without their help there’s zero chance I would have been able to find it. But there it was – my first-ever mountain lion sighting!
The lion – a young male, apparently – was too far away for good photos but close enough to be clear through a spotting scope. I was really grateful just to be able to see him at all. For about two hours I watched the big cat lay on his side, yawn, twitch his tail, and occasionally stand up to look around. By the time I left that evening I was the last person there, and as far as I know the mountain lion hasn’t been seen again.
Starting this past December I’ve been doing something I call a “Marten Walk” as soon as I get back from my Yellowstone drive each morning. I don’t go very far – just around the side of the Grizzly Lodge, across to Monument, and over to the western end of the Bannock (a dirt road that runs parallel to the highway).
My primary impetus for these walks was to search for pine martens. But, despite going on Marten Walks just about every day we’ve been in town this winter, I hadn’t yet seen a marten. I’d run across moose, foxes, and even an otter, but not a single marten.
In mid-April my luck changed, but with a twist. Marie and I set out on a Marten Walk and were quickly joined by Daisy, a sweet but skittish Great Pyrenees that lives just up the highway from us. It’s not uncommon to see Daisy out and about, but this was the first time I’d bumped into her on a Marten Walk. The three of us had just turned onto Monument when a small shape darted across the road. Daisy wasted no time giving chase. “That looks pretty big for a squirrel,” I said to Marie. “Could that be a marten?”
Yep, it sure was. The first marten I’d even seen on a Marten Walk, and Daisy immediately ran it up a tree. Not the kind of relaxed, extended encounter I would have hoped for, but still really exciting. The annoyed (but not overly concerned) marten watched us long enough for me to take a few shots, but as soon as Daisy got bored and wandered away it bolted off faster than we could follow.
All in all, not a bad run of first sightings sprinkled into a relatively slow couple of months!