.......and Reflections

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Yellowstone National Park and the Beartooth Highway

Yellowstone National Park is a very big place. I toured Hayden Valley and Fishing Bridge yesterday and dedicated today to the Tower area and Lamar Valley. This grand valley is as far in northern Wyoming as possible, right along the Montana State line. 
Yellowstone is one of the most visited of all National Parks. The Park is exceptionally busy this June.  The Yellowstone experience is a diversion from “the middle of nowhere” theme of my blogs. Well, sort of. On the one hand watching wildlife here in June is a lot like birding Magee Marsh Bird Trail in May.  I counted 70 vehicles stopped to observe a Grizzly Bear. And there may be several of these traffic jams going on simultaneously in Lamar Valley alone.
Since I have been coming to Yellowstone beginning in the 1980’s much has changed and Yellowstone is experiencing the pressure. The Park has always been and continues to be popular for its geologic and geographic features. It is spacious and beautiful. However, somewhere in the 1990’s, about the time of the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone there began a huge and growing enthusiasm for viewing Yellowstone’s incredible array of wildlife.
In the years after the wolf reintroduction, film photography virtually became obsolete making way for a less expensive and hugely manageable digital technology. The popularity of photography has exploded and so has wildlife photography. In the 1980’s I saw no one in Lamar Valley and certainly no spotting scope. It was just me and my trusty Bushnell. Today almost everyone visiting Yellowstone has some sort of spotting scope to go with their binoculars. These changes don't sound too dramatic but it has made a huge impact.
I sense that Yellowstone was established for the natural features that make it unique and it was a tourist destination to marvel at bubbling mud pools and steam that smells like rotten eggs. The wildlife was interesting but probably not the purpose for coming to Yellowstone for most. Now there are a huge number of people that come cpecifically for the wildlife and appreciate the natural features too.
More interest in wildlife, birding and natural history is alright by me. So much interest is a good problem to have and a great opportunity to drive home conservation and preservation. But it presents huge problems, because people's interest range from pure curiosity or a photographic challenge, to casual, to avid. The spectrum exactly mirrors birding. However, there were almost no wildlife viewers that I talked to that had any interest in birds at all.
So, with that said, the “middle of nowhere” experience is readily available throughout Yellowstone National Park. Once you get past the bear and wolf chasers there are plenty of places to enjoy nature without distraction. It simply requires a little imagination, an understanding of habitats and a walk a few hundred yards up the trail, oh yes, and a healthy dose of percaution and common sense. Despite the people Yellowstone is a true wilderness.
It is important to remember that Lamar Valley is larger than most state parks and there is but one picnic area and two campgrounds in the vicinity….and that is it. It is the most undeveloped part of the park. If there were no wildlife, there would be precious few visitors, just as it was one I discovered this place for myself.
To view the big five large mammals in Lamar, usually means you will find, or quickly have company. I chose to concentrate on seeing those birds and tourists associated with them, and then work for finding the birds the old fashioned way. My first stop was Slough Creek where both Grizzly Bears and Wolves were reported. I got there early and was rewarded with good scope views of two Grizzly Bears but no wolves. The bears were sharing a well traveled carcass and seemed to be enjoying each other’s company. It was a combination of awkward encounters and strategic disinterest. The highlight of the rendezvous was a swim across the river and some splashing around in the shallow water.
Also of interest were 4 Coyotes not far away, one adult and three pups. Across the valley behind us were several Bighorn Sheep grazing on a distant hill. Several Elk and Pronghorn were scattered about and the Bison was ever present. Two Bald Eagles flew up the creek and there were several species of waterfowl along the flooded creek including a lone Trumpeter Swan. Columbian Ground Squirrels scurried about without any notice from the crowd. I know no one, but me, saw the Pine Siskins and Chipping Sparrows feeding in the grasses along the gravel entry road.
About a half mile down the road from the entrance to Slough Creek was a small area right beside the main road closed because of a Badger den. I stopped there, and with some patience the female laid stretched out by the den entrance. She was soon joined by 4 babies. A lot of shudder noise ensued. It was well worth the wait and another Yellowstone wildlife observation opportunity.
I also saw Black-tailed Deer, White-tailed Deer, American Black Bear, and Red Fox. The birding was slow but I was looking for particular species. I added Green-tailed Towhee, Cassin’s Finch, Sage Thrasher, and White-throated Swift.
In the afternoon I drove up the Beartooth Highway to the summit or pass. Lamar Valley's elevation is about 7,200 feet and the summit is nearly 10,000 feet and about a 20 mile drive. I started in the Montane Life Zone, traveled through the Sub Alpine Life Zone and up into the Alpine Life Zone.  It is a beautiful drive and an astonishing view of the Beartooth Mountain and the Absoraka Mountain chain. There is a LOT of snow left in the tundra and contiuing far down the mountains. I drove through one stretch of road that was flanked on both sides by 30 foot snow banks. All that water will eventually head down the Mississippi River.
There were but a few hardy White-crowned Sparrows, a single Red-bellied Marmot (a cousin to our Groundhog), and one Least Chipmunk atop an endless bed of snow. I saw no Black Rosy Finches and American Pipits, who nest in the barren tundra. I suspected that these birds were elsewhere in alternate habitats waiting until the tundra is free of the snow. And as luck would have it I checked out an impoverished sage brush area below the snow line and mixed in with Vesper Sparrows was a flock of about 20 American Pipits. My hunch was right.
Yellowstone and the Beartooth Highway have helped shape and educate me over the years. It is a place that will always have a prominent place in my heart. Where else can one go and consistently see such an impressive array of birds and wildlife. I hope everyone who visits these places is inspired to learn and understand these unique places as I have done. If they do perhaps these precious places will thrive in perpetuity.
Tomorrow I’m on to Wyoming!

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