Yellowstone’s Fauna

The Lamar Valley has been called America’s Serigetti because of the large number of animals that wander through the Valley. Bison, grizzly and black bear, bald eagle, and the recently reintroduced gray wolf.

The most productive times are dawn and dusk for wildlife viewing. But because of icy road conditions and a visit to Roosevelt Arch, I rolled into Lamar Valley just after noon. What impressed my about Yellowstone is the amazing animals I had seen in the park for the first time: Bison, grizzly bear, and trumpeter swan. Today the bison where covering the near distant hills and gazing near the Lamar River. On the near shore was an adult bald eagle accompanied by two ravens. It was a beautiful panorama but my target animal, the gray wolf, was evading my view. I would try again the following day, which would be my last day in Yellowstone. And the setting of my search would be another wolf hotspot: Hayden Valley.

A sketch of Lamar Valley while waiting for a bear or wolf to appear. They didn’t but I have a sketch to prove I was there.

I had to take a round about route to Hayden Valley because of road closures so I entered the Valley a little over two hours after I left West Yellowstone. Aside from far off bison and a pair of feeding trumpeter swans, there was no sign of Canis lupus.

Our largest swan, the trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator). A lifer for me.

At one turnout a couple pulled up, unloaded a scope and scanned the far off hills. This was good sign, they were wolf watchers. The woman told me that they had just seen four mollies feeding on an elk carcass. I asking for clarification, what did she see? Mollie was the name of one of the wolf packs whose territory was in the northern part of Yellowstone Lake. The man described the location in great detail. He told me to look for the lake to the left and on the far shore was something that looked like a “brown suitcase”, this was the elk carcass and the wolf pack had wandered off into the trees. I reversed course and headed south, in search of the most sought after mammal in our Nation’s first National Park.

I arrived at the location 25 minutes later. It was just as the wolf watcher described it. As I pulled up, I saw a dark mammal on the far shore. The prerequisite roadside cars were in attendance. I parked on the roadside and crossed over. I didn’t need my binoculars to tell me what I was looking at: Canis lupus. 

My first signing of Canis lupus, a black Mollie near what had become the brown and red suitcase on the shore of the small lake just north of Yellowstone Lake.

A field sketch of the black wolf from the Mollie pack.

The two journals I brought with me on the Oregon Trail and to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. A Strathmore bound watercolor book (in front) and a Sillman & Birn spiral bound Delta Series. The journals are covered with stickers representing the animals I saw and sketched on my journey: bison, grizzly bear, and moose.



American Bison

The most visible large animal in Yellowstone National Park is the American bison (Bison bison). I would see many of these large grazers in all parts of Yellowstone but I hoped to see this emblematic animal in the snow, and I didn’t have long to wait.

When I first entered Yellowstone from the south, it began to snow, the first real snow of the season.

The first snow of the trip, just as I entered the southern boundary of America’s first National Park. The National Park Service arrowhead (on the right) features a sequoia tree and a bison to represent wildlife.

I drove north into Yellowstone along the road towards West Thumb, the snow falling but not yet sticking to the pavement. At the junction I headed west and then north towards the ever popular Old Faithful geyser. After I passed Old Faithful, the road was paralleled by the Firehole River. Up ahead a few cars were pulled over. I soon learned to stop because this always meant there was something interesting to see near the road. Could it be a bison, bear, or bald eagle? How about a bison in the snow? Check.

American bison in the snow on the banks of the Firehole River.

A few days later, when I was on a wolf hunt in the Lamar Valley I came upon a ranch: the Lamar Buffalo Ranch. The American bison was close to being hunted to extinction in the United States. In the late 19th century, poachers where hunting bison in Yellowstone and only 40 bison remained. In 1907 the Lamar Buffalo Ranch was founded with the mission of protecting and increasing the bison herd in Yellowstone. The ranch was in operation until 1952. Because of these efforts there are now about 2,000 free roaming bison in Yellowstone.

The entrance to the now closed Lamar Buffalo Ranch in the Lamar Valley, Northeastern Yellowstone, Wy.

A Yellowstone traffic jam. The bison always have the right of way.






Roosevelt Arch

There was one site in Yellowstone than I wanted to see and sketch more than any other. This includes Old Faithful, the many geysers, or the Grant Canyon of Yellowstone. This was the Roosevelt Arch at the northern entrance of Yellowstone in the gateway town of Gardiner, Montana.

This monument is the spiritual and metaphorical gateway to our Nation’s National Parks. Yellowstone became the first National Park on March 1, 1872, and it became the template for all of the 57 National Parks that followed. These parts of land where not bought up and reserved for the wealthy for their own private views, but instead, they were preserved for the people. The inscription above the Arch reads: “FOR THE BENEFIT AND ENJOYMENT OF THE PEOPLE”.

Roosevelt Arch, viewed from the southside. Only one car at a time can fit through the arch. I went through twice.

The cornerstone laying ceremony was held on June 1, 1904 with President Teddy Roosevelt in attendance. He had arrived in Gardner, Montana two weeks previously and he rode out with only one companion and heading into Yellowstone to explore the land. During his speech Roosevelt said of Yellowstone:

The Yellowstone Park is something absolutely unique in the world so far as I know. Nowhere else in any civilized country is there to be found such a tract of veritable wonderland made accessible to all visitors, where at the same time not only the scenery of the wilderness, but the wild creatures of the Park are scrupulously preserved … The creation and preservation of such a great national playground in the interests of our people as a whole is a credit to the nation

The arch was one of first entrances to the park to serve visitors arriving by rail but now most visitors use other entrances. But by the numbers of visitors on this late October morning, the Roosevelt Arch is still a popular destination in this very popular National Park.

Corvidsketcher in action at Roosevelt Arch.





The Oregon Trail

This summer, while I was halfway through reading The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck, I was determined to travel the route of the Oregon Trail on my October break. But unlike the Buck brothers, I would not be traveling in a covered wagon pulled by three mules but using the horsepower of a rented car. 

Yes , I wanted to start in St. Louis, Missouri, the traditional “jumping off” point and drive the over 2,000 miles to Portland, Oregon. But how could I pass through Wyoming and not visit our nation’s first National Park? And how could I be so close to Cheyenne and not see one of only eight Union Pacific “Big Boys” in existence, the largest steam engine in the world? And then there was Carhenge and who wouldn’t want to visit Carhenge?

So many destinations keep pulling me off the Oregon Trail l that I decided to have my griddle cake and eat it too. Instead of doing the whole trail, I decided to do the most scenic section, from California Hill in western Nebraska to Independence Rock in central Wyoming. The sights along this section where eagerly awaited by the pioneers of the 19th century. Courthouse Rock. Chimney Rock, Scottsbluff, Fort Laramie. Independence Rock. And I planned to see and sketch them all!

Now before any great or important undertaking, I first make a sketch. In this case, a stylistic map (not even close to scale). These sketches help me visualize my trip. I am a planner but I believe that organized chaos is my creed. I want to be open to the seemingly random coincidences of life on the road. The people you meet and the unexpected gems you encounter while heading off the main trail.

The map is headed with a my favorite quote by N. Scott Momaday from the PBS series, The West:

It’s a landscape that had to be seen to be believed. And I would say, on occasion, it may have to be believed in order to be seen.