Photographing Yellowstone's Northern Range: Part 1

Barronette Peak in Northeastern Yellowstone. Mountain goats ford through snowdrifts draped over these 12,000 ft outcrops.

The Wildlife Expeditions team just came back from two weeks in the Northern Range of Yellowstone, leading Natural Habitat Adventure's two new departures called "Photographing Yellowstone's Wild Wolves." This was one of the most challenging tasks we've ever undertaken, considering that wolves generally don't want anything to do with humans. So we put together an itinerary featuring six full days in the heart of North America's best wolf habitat to have the best chance possible. Each morning we were in prime locations to watch Mother Nature's show unfold before us. We saw fantastic wolf behavior through our spotting scopes, but photograph them we did not.

Photographing American Dippers along Lava Creek.

However, my mantra for finding wildlife is: "Find the food, find the animal." If you're looking for trout, find where the bugs spawn. If you're looking for moose, find where the willow bushes are budding out. By extension, if you're searching for Yellowstone's keystone predator, the gray wolf, you'll come across nearly everything in the food web in the process. We put ourselves in the best places to see wolves, and walked away with beautiful, bursting photographic portfolios of Yellowstone's winter diversity. I'll be posting some themed entries to try to capture a cross-section of what we encountered these weeks.

Elk briefly investigating us before returning to foraging in fresh snow in the Jardine highlands.

To start things off, I wanted to thank our travelers for being the pioneers of this new itinerary. The departures were sold out only a few hours after they were announced. I hoped our group would therefore be the easy-going type that would enthusiastically jump at whatever we wanted to throw at them. Turned out this was true, and then some. We had the time and flexibility to walk along rivers photographing dippers, to wait an hour or more for a herd of bison to arrange themselves just so in a landscape shot, and to snowshoe off-trail to a waterfall that neither guide had been to (which I am now revealing to the eleven of you who followed me!). Thank you all!

While photographing duck and dippers on the Gardiner River, an eagle flew in to scoop up scraps from a winter-kill carcass.

Yellowstone's Northern Range can be best defined by its diversity. The western side of the range is largely snow-free and spring-like. This oasis under 5,000 ft in elevation is already seeing spring arrivals like bluebirds and meadowlarks. It is the winter destination for many bison and elk that have left the high plateaus looking for more accessible food. As you work your way east across the range, the landscape becomes wintry, stark, and extreme. The bison are frosty and the rivers are icy. Cooke City, at the easternmost corner of the range, is under so much snow, you're better off parking your truck and snowmobiling down main street (the only street). The dwellers of Cooke are dreaming about their upcoming vacations to Texas and the French Riviera.

Black-billed Magpies en-route to a carcass, perfectly demonstrating different points in their wing beat.

A magpie picking lice and ticks from the coat of a shedding cow elk outside Mammoth Hot Springs. Mutualism at its best!

Bull elk on a rainy day. South-facing knolls like this one are often greening up while the surrounding landscape is still under feet of snow.

Halfway Around the Yellowstone Sun

When we last left off, I was wishing Mother Nature to provide us many bears and wolves over the summer. Indeed, we had a great season for bears. Our famous “399,” now approaching 20 years old, had a new set of triplets that awed visitors all season. Scarface was out in northern Yellowstone eating whatever his worn teeth could still chew on. Wolves are scarce and seem to be getting scarcer as hunting pressure along the borders increases and elk populations decline. Though wolves were hard to find, we had amazing experiences with all the other wildlife.

My late mentor, Jeanne, taught me that the best shows in nature happen early, early, early in the morning. Though I try to explain this to my travelers, they don’t always have the drive to wake up before dawn, and as a result they miss things like bison being born in the sunrise over the Absaroka Mountains. Twin moose calves were raised happily in a big campground in the park this year. In the dawn light the calves spent all summer wandering unnoticed between campsites in the hour of dawn light before the humans stir. I came to check on them in October, and they are still doing just fine at their regular campsite in Loop B. The National Park Service should probably approach them about paying campsite fees.

Yellowstone is a place where seasons are short. Except for winter. From week to week everything changes. One wildflower starts to bloom as another curls up and fades until next spring. It seems like by the time moose calves are steady on their feet, some of the migratory songbirds are already itching to leave. The elk have just started growing their antlers when the fall colors are upon us and bugling fills the woods. No such thing as stasis. The earth seems to hurtle around the sun so fast this time of the year.

Suddenly, pronghorn are already galloping around the summer sun-dried pastures of the park, and the bison are rolling around in the dry dirt. American Dipper chicks have begrudgingly surrendered to diving into the cold, swift mountain streams. Until now, they stood at the water’s edge and beg for food from the increasingly impatient parents. Before we even recognized that summer was in full swing, huckleberry season was over and the serviceberries were producing like never before. Grosbeaks, chipmunks, waxwings, and black bears swarm these bushes, and I can’t resist grabbing handfuls of berries as I pass on my mountain bike.

Now the leaves are turning and the photographers line up in processions at Oxbow Bend. Grizzlies return to the valley floors, patrolling the park in search of whatever can be digested. As Dan Hartman stacks cord after cord of firewood in preparation for a long Beartooth winter, pine martens dart in and out of the cracks between logs, looking for the perfect cranny in his woodpile to use for winter quarters.

Tourists empty out of the park, leaving the geysers and hot springs open to our peaceful sunset enjoyment. The grizzlies and black bears wander into the hills to find a place to hole up until March, and the residents of Jackson prepare their own dens for the big winter to come.