Wolf, Bear, and Moose Watching
By Jenny Golding
Quiet Season As September wanes and the park empties of crowds, Yellowstone enters a much quieter season. The first snows dust the mountaintops, bringing a crispness to the morning air. The aspen and willows are changing, and the land is settling in for the long winter. While quiet in terms of visitation, early winter in the park (October–December) is a season of active change. “The shoulder season is a great time to connect deeply with the rhythms of park wildlife,” says Yellowstone Association Institute instructor George Bumann. “Animals are buckling down and getting the last easily available food, and filling out their winter coats. Many species, like elk and bison, are resting and recuperating after the frenetic mating season.” Besides feeling like you have the park to yourself, there are a few particular highlights to this “shoulder” season, including excellent wildlife watching, migrating raptors, and the bighorn sheep mating season.
As the days turn colder and snow fills the higher elevations, wolf watching improves as elk prey migrate to lower elevations where food is more readily available. Rise early and search for wolves in the Lamar Valley, Blacktail Ponds, and Mammoth areas along the North and Northeast entrance roads, the main artery through wildlife habitat in the winter. This is also a good time to get the last glimpses of grizzly bears fattening up before they head into hibernation. Look for bears in high places, such as Dunraven Pass before it closes October 14. Finally, this time of year is a good time to spot moose, more commonly seen around the Northeast Entrance to the park, as their movement increases in early October during their mating season.
In early October, the skies are filled with raptors migrating from, through, or to Yellowstone. Plan to arrive in Bozeman in time for the Bridger Raptor Festival October 3–5, featuring the largest known golden eagle migration in the United States. In Yellowstone, Hayden Valley, Mount Washburn, and Lamar Valley are good places to pick a spot and watch for migrating hawks overhead.
Bighorn Sheep Rut
One of the overlooked highlights of Yellowstone’s quiet season is the bighorn sheep rut, when the air is filled with the echo of rams colliding horns in the canyons. “On TV the horns clashing sound like a ‘clack.’ In real life, it sounds like two bowling balls being crashed together,” says Shauna Baron, Institute resident instructor. The bighorn rut peaks around the third week in November, perfect for a Thanksgiving holiday in the park. Bighorn mating behavior carries on throughout the day, but early morning and late evening are your best bet if photography is on your agenda. From a base in Gardiner, Montana, spend early mornings bighorn watching in the Gardner Canyon, then plan to take a short afternoon hike on either the Rescue Creek (8 miles) or Lava Creek (3.5 miles) trail.
Important Tips for Visiting in Yellowstone’s Quiet Season
Most park roads close to wheeled vehicles November 3. Some areas, such as Dunraven Pass, close earlier. The North Entrance in Gardiner is the only park entrance open yearround. The road between Gardiner and Cooke City, Montana, remains open year-round. Early winter weather can be unpredictable, from sunny and relatively mild to very cold temperatures and snow. If traveling in your own vehicle, winter tires or excellent all-season tires are a must. Double checking park information (nps.gov/yell) to prepare proper clothing and equipment for your trip will help you enjoy what Yellowstone offers this time of year. Jenny Golding is a former director of education for the Yellowstone Association. She currently freelances from her home in Gardiner, Montana, on the border of Yellowstone National Park.
Yellowstone Quarterly 11