Greater Wildlife in Greater Yellowstone

I've stripped down to a t-shirt, sitting in full sunlight on a warm May afternoon. My friends, ten-year-old Kaeli and her mom, Linda, and I have been grazing on trail mix, sandwiches, pasta salads, and other assorted snacks. In spite of this, I'm still "high-grading" the chocolate chips out of the trail mix. The sharp "alarm" bark of a coyote gets my attention and I sit up, grab my binocs, and start searching for the maker. From our elevated perch on a hillside, we're scanning the half-mile of grass and sagebrush-covered plain before us. Again the coyote barks, and again. Finally we spot him quartering away to the south, looking over his shoulder every 10 yards. These backward glances get Kaeli's attention. She searches north and after a few moments barks out her own alarm, "Uncle Ken, I think I see a wolf!" In unison, Linda and I swing our binoculars right and almost immediately spot the charcoal wolf crossing the bright-green grassy plain. It's moving at a fast canid quickstep, about 300 yards out and quartering toward a draw just north of our observation post.

This is a pretty good wildlife sighting. But it actually got better, for as soon as the wolf was out of sight I spotted a large black bear grazing a lush landscape depression about a quarter mile away. With spotting scopes trained, we watched the lone bear nip off dandelion heads. We laughed as the bear, head raised, sniffed the air with a yellow flower poking from its mouth. With the black bear still visible, Linda, not to be outdone, searches up a lone grizzly. For a warm spring afternoon, the wildlife are impressively active. But I'm not really that surprised. After all, we're in Yellowstone in the spring--quite possibly the best time of year to view the Park's free-ranging wildlife. Earlier in the day we had seen a wolf pack disturb a herd of elk, a grizzly (possibly the same one) kill an elk calf, and we'd watched a golden eagle hover 20 feet above us for what seemed a stalled moment in time. All from the same perch of our own.

Yellowstone National Park and its surrounding environs are well known as one of the great wildlife areas of the world. In the "Big Picture" realm of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, there are comparatively isolated areas which harbor concentrations of certain species and which afford us the best opportunity of actually seeing some of these guys. As spring progresses and the snowline recedes, elk rise in elevation, seeking newly exposed lush and nutritious forage on open slopes and meadows. With the peak of the elk calving season occurring from mid-May to mid-June, protein-seeking bears, wolves, and coyotes will be focused on newborn calves. This combination of concentrated calving elk, open meadows and mountainsides, and foraging predators can provide just the right combination for wildlife watching almost beyond belief.

There are two rules to live by, however: you'll need binoculars and preferably a spotting scope as well; and you'll always want to minimize disturbance to the wildlife you're observing. (The later rule is particularly important in backcountry areas.) Otherwise, keep your eyes open, be patient and you'll be rewarded with your own unique wildlife sights to last a lifetime.

Ken Sinay is a wildlife biologist and Director of Yellowstone Safari Company. If you have questions about Yellowstone�s wildlife, call him at 586-1155 or visit