Sigrid Sanders
All photos ©2009 Clate Sanders - All rights reserved.  
 Winter Wildlife in Yellowstone

February 3-8, 2008
A National Geographic Expedition

Early on a cold, snowy morning in February, I stood on a tree-covered mountain with only a few other people, and listened to the haunting howl of a gray wolf. She sat alone on a snow-covered slope, some distance away, almost lost in the mist, facing into the dark green trees, lifting her head again and again, her long, mournful howl the only sound in the still, frosty air, and I could feel it as much as much as hear it.

Hearing the howl of a wolf, and seeing some of the wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park a little more than a decade ago were among the most memorable parts of a six-day National Geographic Expedition in 2008 to explore “Winter Wildlife in Yellowstone.” We traveled through a wonderland of snow, ice and steel-green rivers, majestic mountains, frozen waterfalls and wide valleys, watching bison, elk, big-horned sheep and red fox, bald eagles, ravens and trumpeter swans, and walking among the strange, other-worldly beauty of hot springs and geysers steaming in the snow.

For all the spectacular beauty of the landscape and amazing encounters with wildlife, I think it was the vast, encompassing quiet that made the experience so profound – not silence, but quiet. Against the canvas of this great white stillness, when it prevailed, the croak of a raven, the cry of an eagle, the crunch of packed snow on a trail, the rumble and hiss of a geyser spoke with a clarity and eloquence impossible in other settings.

Trumpeter swans floating on the Madison River between banks and pillows of snow on a blizzard-like day were one of eight life birds for me, including also a dramatic, close-up view of a pair of golden eagles against a deep blue sky; the unexpectedly ghostlike, long-winged shapes of rough-legged hawks soaring low over snowy fields; quick, dark little American dippers hopping from rock to rock or bobbing in the icy waters of mountain streams; and Barrow’s goldeneye duck, Clark’s nutcracker, mountain chickadee and American magpie.

The days were so full and went by so fast it was impossible to absorb everything we experienced. So my journals and trip account are fragmentary, at best, but the memories are a vivid reminder of how much honest mystery and beauty remain in the natural world – so much more than we even begin to appreciate, much less fully acknowledge – if only we give it a reasonable chance to survive. It’s one thing to see pictures or film of spectacular wild animals and places, and quite another to be there, especially at a time of year when relatively few other human visitors are around. The abstract beautiful becomes the real and personal.

It was a trip I never could have made on my own, and was only made possible by knowledgeable guides and generous resources, and we were far from roughing it – our accommodations were comfortable, all arrangements made for us, and the only hardship we endured was a happy fatigue at the end of each day. The experience was, nonetheless, remarkable. Among other things, it left me keenly aware of the problems facing the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and also of what has happened since 2008 with the removal of federal protection under the Endangered Species Act for gray wolves in the Rocky Mountain Region.*

Twenty-six members of the expedition, including our guides, Betsy Robinson and Steve Gehman – founders of Wild Things Unlimited, a nonprofit organization that conducts research on rare carnivores in the Greater Yellowstone region – began the trip by bus, traveling from the snow-covered plains around Bozeman, Montana, up into the mountains, following the Yellowstone River through the Yellowstone River Valley.

Along the way, we passed bald eagle, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, three coyotes, and began to see a few elk here and there. We saw common goldeneye ducks in the river, American magpies flashing black and white, and the first of many ravens. But mostly on that drive into Yellowstone, the wildlife sightings were distant glimpses, dwarfed by the landscape, the jagged and snow-covered mountains, the panoramic sweeps of snow and river and rock and green-black evergreen trees, and the sense of entering a place where life is lived on a far grander scale.

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* More about the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: The Greater Yellowstone Coalition offers more information on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, including this basic definition:
“The 18-million Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the largest relatively intact temperate zone ecosystems left on earth. Straddling Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem includes Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, portions of seven surrounding national forests, three national wildlife refuges, and state and private lands.”

I also particularly like Travels in the Greater Yellowstone, by Jack Turner, 1991.

For more on wolves in Yellowstone National Park and in the Rocky Mountain region:
In the Valley of the Wolves, a PBS documentary on Yellowstone’s Druid Pack
Yellowstone National Park
The Natural Resources Defense Council