Another early morning start in the Lamar Valley. Wildlife sightings began with the identification of an elusive log bear. Which upon further inspection turned out to be an actual log…bummer. This was quickly followed by the spotting of a cinnamon-colored black bear on the hillside right next to the van. As the sun was rising over the valley, we stopped to take a few minutes to observe the bison herds. There were nursing calves who were butting the underside of their mothers causing her hind leg to kick out. We later learned this type of behavior induces lactation. We also saw a pronghorn mother nursing her baby while simultaneously eating his poop. They do this to prevent predators from picking up the scent of their young.
Further down the valley, the crowds were coalescing, and we knew this meant one thing…wolves! Climbing the hill to get a better view, we soon spotted a pack of 7 wolves belonging to the Junction Butte Pack. The pack consisted of two black wolves and five wolves of various shades of gray. We tracked them as they meandered through a bison herd. Some bison were on high alert with raised tails, while others seemed not to be bothered by the wolves. Suddenly, two or three wolves in the front of the pack turned around and the ones in the back rapidly picked up speed- their focus was on one vulnerable baby bison who was walking in front of its mother. Mom and baby were quickly surrounded. Soon the melee caused the baby to tumble and roll. We thought we had witnessed a kill, but the mother bison was not going to give up without a fight. She maneuvered her body over her baby giving it time to get on its feet. Mom shoved the baby forward with her head through the chaos of scrambling wolves toward the safety of a larger group of bison. Did we just see that?? Yes, we did, and we have the video to prove it! We’ll try to share it when we have better internet access.
Could the day get any better?? It did! We met with wolf biologist, Kira Cassidy, in the Soda Butte Creek parking lot while eating breakfast sandwiches. She educated us about all aspects of wolf behavior and the lengths that she and her fellow researchers go to in order to collect data on the wolves, elk, and cougars inside the park boundaries. We learned the ins and outs of the tagging and collaring all three animals. Wolves are tranquilized via helicopter hot pursuit, then collared. Elk are “wrastled” to the ground by muggers (experienced rodeo cowboys) who first net them from helicopters. Cougars present the biggest challenge — they are treed by trained hound dogs, tranquilized with darts and woozily dragged out of the tree onto tarps below. (They also recover from sedation the fastest.)
Down the road, we ate lunch a little too close to some ground squirrel nests causing momma to relocate her babies by mouth to a safer location far away from those pesky, masticating bipeds.
We began a 3.5 mile hike with a little flower power. Melissa led us in a perilous field study of wildflower identification. Why perilous? Two words- DEATH CAMAS: a beautiful spike of tiny white flowers known to be deadly poisonous (other groups observed less deadly, but equally breathtaking wildflowers). The hike led us high above the Yellowstone River where we gazed upon columns of basalt and other igneous rock formations. We witnessed marmots getting their Beyonce on with the wind blowing through their silky fur while lounging upon rocks and branches. The rain tried to dampen our reflection time, but we persevered, finishing the hike beside a pond where Jessie presented on her expert topic: herps (reptiles and amphibians). After looking for salamanders from a boulder in the pond, Eryn gracefully jumped down to the water’s edge like a water nymph, while Melissa had a less graceful dismount resulting in wet boots.
After dinner, the road home did not disappoint. We saw two cinnamon-colored black bears and chanced upon Limpy, the coyote who didn’t let his injured hind leg stop him from thriving. Just before we rounded the final bend in the road to get home, we spotted a distressed moose calf in the river, a frantic mom on the road, and a mysterious third cow moose running who knows where!
In closing, we would like to give a shout out to all the mommas we saw today who took it to the next level to ensure their babies live to see another day.