Tetons & Yellowstone - p
16 January 2006
The National Elk Refuge is 25,000 acres in size, fenced on the south and west side to keep elk from wandering into Jackson Hole and bothering the tourists. About 7000 Rocky Mountain Elk winter here. Today we took a sleigh ride out to see them. It really was an old-time sleigh, pulled by draft horses Fred and Barney. The elk are quite tame, especially now that the winter program of supplemental feeding has begun. Along with the elk, a few bison were pawing through the snow to reach grass. Although completely unafraid of the elk, Fred and Barney became very nervous around the bison. Our guide took care not to get close to them.
After photographing elk and bison all day, we dined on same at the posh Wild Sage restaurant in Jackson Hole. I thought my elk loin in mole sauce was very nice, but we both agreed that Charlotte's bison rib-eye was a bit tastier.
17 January 2006
The road through the Grand Tetons to Yellowstone is closed in winter, so we took the long way around, through Bozeman and Gardiner, Montana, to the Lamar Valley in the northeast section of the Park. The valley is prime wintering ground for bison and elk. Yellowstone's bison are nothing if not hardy. They eat and sleep in snow up to 3 feet deep, and use their heavy muzzles to clear away enough snow to reach the grass beneath. 18 January 2006
Today we began a 3-day course, Wolves of Yellowstone, offered by the Yellowstone Association Institute. Gray wolves were re-introduced into Yellowstone in 1995 from packs in Canada whose natural prey, elk, is abundant in Yellowstone. Although still controversial, the re-introduction has been a huge success biologically. The original 13 wolves, in 3 packs, have increased to about 150 in over 20 packs. They're a great hit with visitors, who now eagerly scan the ridges for sight of a wolfpack. There are even "wolf groupies," people who regularly visit the park just to see wolves. Some have even bought homes near the park to be close to the wolf action.
As the keystone predator, wolves have changed the ecological balance
in Yellowstone, in ways both obvious and subtle. Their natural control of the elk
and bison populations has led to more aspen and willow growth, which benefits beavers,
Wilson's Warblers, and even trout, by providing shade that cools the streams.
One loser, however, is the
coyote. The smaller coyote invariably loses any battle with a wolf. In the
core wolfpack areas, coyote populations are down by 50%. This in turn may help
pronghorns, whose fawns are taken by coyotes, and red foxes, whom the coyotes will not
Each day we've seen the Slough Creek wolfpack, who now control much of the Lamar Valley. But always ½ mile or more distant, enough to tax even our spotting scopes. It's nevertheless a thrill to see wolves in the wild, and to learn wolf biology in the classroom. I'm especially intrigued by their special relationship with ravens. These birds scavenge wolf kills and remove waste from around wolf dens. Some observations suggest that ravens who spot a weak or injured elk will fly back and forth from it to the nearest wolfpack, attempting to lead them to the elk.
20 January 2006
Today our class visited a bison carcass, most likely killed by wolves, despite the fact that a bison can weigh 2000 lbs and a single wolf about 120 lbs. Nearly every carnivore and omnivore in the valley had helped pick the carcass clean. Besides ravens, birds attracted to wolf kills include Black-billed Magpies, Golden Eagles, and Bald Eagles. We occasionally see our national bird perched in the open cottonwood trees along the valley floor.