We desperately wanted to see wolves in Yellowstone so we did a nice drive along the Lamar Valley which is said to be a great area for wildlife. It started with the usual culprits, a few bison roaming the land and pronghorn antelopes looking like they’d been transported from Africa.
About halfway along the road we decided to do a hike that would take us uphill to a meadow. Within a few hundred meters we spotted a mule deer grazing beside the path. Then we heard an almighty noise, it sounded like a bear running heavily towards us, getting louder and louder. We scanned the woods and noticed the culprit, a grouse standing with its breasts right out and frantically slapping them with its wings. I guess it was some sort of warning or a mating call but it sure sounded like something running closer to us. An antelope stood directly in our pathway but politely moved to the side and much to our surprise we spotted a black bear roaming through the grass up a hill. He was far away enough that we could observe him eating flowers. We ended the hike at a river below the mountains and sat on the grass was a lone bison, minding his own business. We were very wary when we headed back, not knowing where the bear would have moved to but we spotted him just 20m below us on the opposite side of the path. He looked up at us and knew we were there but carried on grazing. He was a very chilled bear and at one point took a seat in a classic teddy bear pose and picked off some leaves to eat. It was only a short walk but it proved to be one of the best for wildlife.
We spent the rest of the day slowly driving along the Lamar Valley, passing huge herds of bison beside meandering rivers and some bald eagles gauging on a fish carcass. As we headed out of the park to the north east exit where we could camp for free we spotted a few cars pulled over. There was a big male bison beside them and yeah he was a cool picture but in a place filled with bison it seemed strange that it attracted four cars. Then we saw a cinnamon coloured black bear and the bison charged for it!! We couldn’t believe what was happening and the bear ran like mad and climbed up a tree. The bear retreated down the tree and then the bison charged again, causing the bear to grab onto another trunk. He wasn’t climbing up much, just a foot or so off the ground, ready to go higher if required. The bear decided to leave the bisons grassy meadow and moved to the verge beside the road where he got pretty close to our van and we could admire it’s sweet little face.
The following morning we woke at the crack of dawn and drove back into the park searching for wildlife. Within a few kilometres we saw half a dozen cars parked up and a group of people aiming their scopes at a meadow across the road. We asked one of the chaps what they’d seen and he told us there were multiple black bears taking it in turns to feast on a carcass. A moose had died while giving birth a few days before but the body had only just started rotting and smelling so now the bears were coming from far and wide to get some spring meat. The guy also told us that a wolf made an appearance the previous day which really excited us. Wolves are pretty much just cool wilderness dogs yet they’re so elusive and their pack lifestyle so unique that it makes them the most exciting animals to witness in the park. The only problem was when the guy proudly showed Craig a photo of the wolf it was actually a coyote, but Craig didn’t have the heart to tell him and we were left wondering if the wolf was a myth. Either way it sounded like a great place to see wildlife so we pulled up and ended up spending all day and night at that spot, it was like a proper stakeout.
The carcass was hidden amongst the tall grass and the first bear we saw on it was a big cinnamon black bear who seemed to be the most dominant. She tore off stringy bits of meat and barely looked around, feeling confident that no one would challenge her for the moose meat. But at some point we spotted a black bear run through the forest behind her and she left to investigate. Now we don’t know what happened in the forest but a black bear (maybe the same one, maybe a new one) wearily came to the available carcass. This bear was pretty nervous about being caught on someone else’s turf so it kept standing up, with his paws hanging limply and scanning the area for danger. He didn’t stay for long and then it went quiet for a few hours. We relaxed in the van, made some lunch and awaited the next bit of action.
In the afternoon we finally saw the wolf. It was in the forest-line behind the meadow and it looked like a black bear until I zoomed in and oh my god did I get excited. He was black in colour and all alone, which was strange as wolves normally hunt in packs. He clearly lacked confidence without the rest of the pack so he just watched from the sidelines before giving up on the opportunity of rotting flesh. But we soon found out why he was alone and it was an awful story. All wildlife is protected in the park but as soon as they cross out of the park boundary and the season is right for hunting then locals are allowed to hunt them, including wolves. Not so long ago a rumour got out that the Matriarch of the Lamar valley Wolfpack had been spotted just outside the boundary, near a teeny-tiny Montana village and a local went out and shot her dead. Piece of shit. Apparently since she’s gone the pack haven’t known what to do and have ended up becoming more solitary which is very abnormal.
The wolf vanished into the woods and it went quiet for a long while but then everything kicked off, a black bear headed for the carcass but at the same time we saw a new cinnamon bear on the shores of the river behind us. I didn’t know which way to aim my camera. The cinnamon went out of sight and by now a big crowd was forming. We had our back doors wide open and a proper viewing area in comfort, but some people were parking along an adjacent road and walking down to our area. Suddenly cinnamon bear appeared in the meadow behind the road, it had crossed the river and was making quick progress towards the carcass. Some people moved towards their vehicles for safety but others didn’t care, and then the bear went to cross the road just 5 meters from a group of people standing with no cars in sight. The worst thing was a 10 year old boy screamed and ran back to his parents which were in the carpark, way too far away if the bear did decide to attack. We all gasped at the stupidity, national parks in America ban dogs but what about annoying kids and their irresponsible parents?!
Luckily the bear was on a mission for the stinky meat, which whiffed our way when the wind blew. As soon as the black bear realised cinnamon was coming he ran back into the woods. The wolf made another brief appearance but now that a bear was on the scene he was even shyer. The cinnamon bear didn’t hang around long and eventually a black bear came back, this one was pretty focused on eating and unbeknown to him cinnamon was coming back and walking right up to him. The grass was too tall for the black bear to see and we all held our breath as it closed in and suddenly the black one stood up and ran for its life! We called it a night after our 12 hour stakeout but boy was it a fascinating day.
The following morning we woke to snow, our plan was to exit the park out of the north east entrance and drive the Beartooth Highway, but it had only recently opened for the season and it’s one of the highest roads in America, so that was a no go in snow and instead we decided to take the Chief Joseph Highway down to Cody. Before we left we drove a few kilometres back into the park to see what was happening at the carcass. A bear dragged a huge bone back into the woods to eat in privacy and then we headed off. As we turned back around to leave we saw that our tire tracks had already been covered by snow. It was getting heavier and heavier and the pine trees were weighed down by the thick snow. We were the only people driving along the highway, which was a relief as the centre line wasn’t even visible beneath the snow. The views were terrible in the awful weather and we didn’t see a single bit of wildlife on the drive, nor did we on the road from Cody back into the park a couple days later. We’d really hoped to see some bears on that section as a few years ago we got some amazing footage of grizzlies eating roadside berries.
Most of the park entrances and roads had closed due to the heavy snowfall but after a couple of days we heard the eastern entrance was open so we headed through. It was a steep drive uphill, and out of nowhere the whole road became covered in black ice. Our rear-end swung across the road and Craig couldn’t do anything to stop it. Luckily he has some experience with snow and ice driving so we precariously continued up – which we had no choice about as it would have been impossible to turn around. We were really angry that there was absolutely no warning signs about the ice on the road and that the ranger at the park gate didn’t tell us. It was so slippery that we couldn’t brake, but we also couldn’t accelerate as both caused us to skid so Ruby was just chugging herself up the slope as we wiggled around while having mild heart attacks.
We really wanted to see some grizzlies and were told about a sow with two cubs hanging around a certain area so we headed there and scanned the meadows with our binoculars. Craig actually managed to spot their den, which wouldn’t be used now but was probably the place where the mum spent winter and gave birth to her cubs while hibernating. It was a deep hole just beside a tree so we hoped she’d still hang around that area and soon enough we spotted them on a distant hill. The mum was massive and her cubs so tiny in comparison but it turned out to be a big cinnamon coloured black bear. It was amazing watching the cubs playing with one another. Mum was busy eating shrubs while they were play-fighting, rolling around and having a little ruckus. But one knocked a rock down the hillside towards their mum and she was totally alarmed and obviously made some sort of noise to tell them to hide from danger. The cubs instantly knew what to do and climbed up a tree in seconds. They were pretty high up and waited until mum told them the coast was clear and then climbed back down and continued playing.
Further up the road we came across two black bears. One was napping in a tree, curled up in a ball and wedged between the trunk and a branch. The other was grazing right beside the roadside and gathered quite a crowd. A big bear-jam formed and park rangers had to come and keep traffic moving. We’d already parked up so we could photograph the bear while standing safely beside our van. The ranger was just a volunteer and sort of lacked authority. It came across as a bit of a joke as he was standing literally three meters away from the bear and telling everyone to stand 100 yards away “if your less than 100 yards from the bear then your breaking the law and could go to prison…and prison isn’t nice, it’s real smelly”. Then, while standing right beside the bear he said “I need you all to back away, this bear is well known in the area as being very aggressive”…says the man standing within arms reach of the bear, it just seemed like such a false claim and people didn’t listen to him. He really needed to just give fines to people not moving back. A proper ranger pulled up, got out his vehicle and shot a paintball gun close to the bear as a way of telling it to stay away from the road. The poor little bear ran up the hill and she peed herself in panic. But then she settled and walked alongside the hill top, only to return to her favourite dandelions and take a little bath in a waterhole.
After we had dinner it was time to leave the park and we were a little sad not to see any grizzlies. But out of nowhere we saw a pileup of cars. In the far distance of the meadow was a huge grizzly, it was clearly following a scent somewhere as the speed it moved was just crazy. He walked past steaming volcanic vents in the meadow and made such quick progress across the meadow. We noticed there were more cars ahead so Craig decided to investigate and there was another grizzly!! But this one was right beside the road, we pulled up and were so happy to just sit in the safety of our van and watch the sweet bear with its big broody shoulders and prominent hump as it walked casually in search of food. THANK YOU YELLOWSTONE.
Because we’re obsessed with bears we decided to visit the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone the following day. It was a non profit place with less than 10 rescued bears, a few wolves and plenty of information which I loved as I find bears fascinating. There’s a main enclosure to view the bears and they have a schedule so the bears take it in turns to come in. Workers hide food under rocks so that the grizzlies can feel like their finding their own food still. Most of the bears were rescued because they became problem bears which means they got a taste for human food, they frequented towns to roam dumpsters, they found out campsites were easier to get food than hunting in the wild, so in the end they became a danger to humans (because of careless humans) and they could no longer live in the wild.
The main showstopper was a 1000 pound grizzly named Sam. He was bigger than the other bears as he was from Alaska. His mum was killed when he was very young so locals took pity on him and fed him but as he grew bigger authorities didn’t want him to be aggressive for the food that he now expected. I really enjoyed watching the bears close up and all of the information inside, there were a lot of displays with taxidermy bears, some cubs found dead in a den and grizzlies mistakenly killed instead of black bears. We also found out that bears don’t hibernate like other animals, they’re actually just sleeping, you can hear them snoring in the den and they are easily awoken. Some other animals that hibernate completely shut down and basically die and reincarnate or they have a sort of antifreeze in their blood, it’s pretty clever stuff! Now we have truly had our fix of wildlife it’s time to kick back in Idaho.