Learning Where the Deer and the Antelope Play
The wolf pack appears oblivious to the near-zero pre-sunrise temperatures and scouring wind that cuts across Yellowstone National Park's Lamar Valley. The four members of the Druid Peak pack are either dozing or keeping a suspicious eye on the pair of hungry coyotes that are coveting the frozen elk carcass nearby. In this bleak late winter wilderness the frozen carcass makes for "good groceries," says Jim Garry, instructor for the Yellowstone Association Institute's "Yellowstone Winter Serengeti" class.
Less oblivious to the cold and wind, but utterly entranced by the subtle predatory drama being played out one thousand yards away, are the twenty fleece- and parka-clad students in Mr. Garry's class. Armed with 50-power spotting scopes, a variety of binoculars, and cameras with some serious zoom lenses, the class is observing important lessons in the winter ecology of the northern range. The elk was not a victim of either the wolves or the coyotes, but of a relentless and brutal winter. Elk, bison, and myriad other herbivorous critters fatten up during the fall then supplement their diet on the limited vegetation available during the winter. Most survive, but those that don't become "winter kill" and a meal for hungry carnivores and scavengers.
"Yellowstone Serengeti" is a three-day seminar with time spread between a classroom at the Lamar Valley Buffalo Ranch and the outdoors. The outdoor time is a mix of watching for wildlife along roadside pull-offs and of short hikes with boots, snowshoes, or cross-country skis. Since sunrise and sunset are the best times for wildlife viewing, the class is on its bus by "0 dark thirty," as Garry puts it, or about a half hour before sunrise (around 6 a.m.) for the rest of us.
Jim Garry reminds many of the students of cowboy poet Baxter Black (of NPR fame). The Texas-born Garry is eminently qualified to teach the class, having a broad background as a writer, naturalist, wilderness guide, folklorist, and yes, cowboy. With an M.S. from the University of Michigan and the author of two books, This Ol' Drought Ain't Broke Us Yet and The First Liar Never Has a Chance, Garry is generous with his knowledge of the Yellowstone ecosystem, one he has lived in for 37 years.
The classroom portions of the course take place at the Lamar Valley Buffalo Ranch. The main structure, known as "The Bunkhouse", includes two classrooms and kitchen facilities, and is the hub of the institute's activities in the area. Sixteen residential log cabins and a bathhouse are also part of the facility, which was, in fact, a functioning buffalo ranch until 1952. Built in 1907, the ranch was part of a program to reintroduce buffalo (also known as bison) to the park. Buffalo still roam the valley and are often an entertaining, if time-consuming, impediment on the road, campus, and trails. The facility is located about 28 miles from the Mammoth Hot Springs area of Yellowstone and 22 miles from the nearest town, Cooke City, Wyoming.
The remoteness of the ranch and the winter season (which sees perhaps one-twentieth of the visitors than Yellowstone's summer season) all make this class possible. The Yellowstone ecosystem includes the largest wilderness of the lower 48 of the United States. During the winter Yellowstone's wildlife (which includes grizzly and black bears, wolves, coyotes, moose, elk, bison, mountain lions, bald eagles, pronghorn deer, and much more) must struggle to survive. The cold and the snow force animals (other than moose) into the lower elevations, including the Lamar Valley. Grazing animals retreat to these elevations and carnivores follow. Garry covers these issues, plus wolf ecology, the intricacies of the northern range, the use of spotting scopes, "Leave No Trace" techniques, and more in the classroom during the first hours of "Yellowstone's Winter Serengeti"
These conditions, harsh as they are, are ideal for the wildlife viewer willing to don multiple layers of wool and synthetic clothing and look patiently through spotting scopes and binoculars. After our classroom introduction we load into two buses and head out in search of wildlife. Garry is able to continue his lectures, mixing in folklore and cowboy wisdom, on the buses. Each is equipped with microphone and speakers and he rides one direction with one bus and back with the other.
The class takes place during mid-March. Winter is slowly fading away and snow in the valley, which is at about 5,500 feet above sea level, is mostly only a few inches deep and some grasses are visible for the ruminants to munch on. Bison are plentiful -- there are more of them than people in the park this time of year -- and often stand in the middle of the road, either oblivious to -- or simply not caring about -- the traffic on the narrow road. Longhorn sheep and elk are also easy to spot, keeping some distance from the human visitors, but apparently unstressed by our presence. The class is mostly hoping to see wolves, coyotes, and perhaps even a bear. Garry informs us that older bears might be coming out of hibernation at this time of year.
At one stop we get out and look up an incline. Garry tells us there is an elk carcass about seventy-five yards above the road. At first my city-trained eyes cannot find it against the white, gray, and beige background. Yellowstone's winter landscape is not a colorful one, but often, at dusk and dawn, or when a storm is blowing in, the light is beautiful and intense and unlike any I've seen before. After awhile my eyes do adjust and I spot not only the elk, but also two coyotes heading toward their dinner. With a little practice I'm able to focus my spotting scope on the elk and watch the grisly scene as the coyotes tear into the near-frozen carcass. I am transfixed. With the aid of the spotting scope I feel like a voyeur witnessing what at Yellowstone is a mundane occurrence, but to me is exciting, beautiful, and ugly at the same time. I also realize that without the instructor I would have passed right by this scene without ever knowing it was taking place.
In addition to classroom time and roadside stops, we also go on short excursions on foot via boot, snowshoe, or cross-country ski, none of more than two miles. As quiet as the park is during the winter, hiking just a couple hundred yards away from the road puts one in an even quieter and more remote environment. While a group of twenty is not the ideal way to do this, hiking with a knowledgeable outdoorsman is always an educational experience.
On one foray off-road in the deep snows near Barronette Peak we come upon a few square inches of urine-stained snow. Garry gathers the group around and tells us that from what we can see there we can determine what animal had visited the spot, whether it was male or female, and whether it was dominant or submissive. In a classic example of retrograde analysis he explains that the track was that of a coyote, that since a dominant coyote (male or female) raises its leg to urinate and since there are four paw prints (instead of three) around the stain, the coyote was submissive, and since the urine was behind the rear legs, the submissive coyote was female. Elementary, my dear Watson!
Garry concludes the class with an impassioned plea to respect and protect our environment. While not promoting a specific means of doing so it's clear that most in the class have been moved by their experience and look forward to returning and learning more.
The three-day seminar is not enough to turn me into a winter wilderness expert. On a hike following the class what I think at first is a perched bald eagle turns out to be a stump of Wyoming sage with a cap of fluffy snow. Still, I have gained a great deal of respect for and knowledge of Yellowstone's bleak but lively winter ecology.
Founded in 1933, the Yellowstone Association is a non-profit organization that is the National Park Service's primary partner in educating visitors to the park. The association also runs eight stores that sell books, clothing, gift items, maps and other merchandise.
The Yellowstone Association Institute runs a year-round series of field seminars, lodging and learning programs, backcountry courses, natural history tours for families and small groups called "personal ed-ventures", custom group programs, and a variety of special events.
The field seminars (of which "Yellowstone Winter Serengeti" is one) are held year-round. More than one hundred titles are offered including "Wolves - Reality & Myth", "Learning Birds by Sound". "Who's the Moose?," and "Mammal Tracking: Interpreting Tracks, Scat & Other Signs." Rates average $80 per day with most seminars lasting from one to four days.
Perhaps the best part of the class is living at the ranch for a few days. Being distanced from the heavily trafficked and developed areas of the park and the hotel-laden towns on its outskirts allows one to better experience the wilderness. Accommodations are inexpensive, rustic, and comfortable in 12'x12' log cabins. Each has up to three single beds with electric lights. Heat is provided by a propane space heater and is more than adequate despite the subzero evenings.
A comfortable and clean bathhouse with showers and restrooms and luxurious heated floors is located near the cabins. Kitchen facilities are located in the bunkhouse. Storage and refrigerator space is available for all participants. The bunkhouse is also the social center of the ranch, with a library and video collection, a large thermos of coffee always available, and usually one of the institute's three full-time volunteers available to answer questions.
For students looking for a more strenuous wilderness learning experience, the institute also offers a dozen backpacking courses from early-June thru mid-September. For those truly wanting to interact with grizzly bears, cougars, and wolves, these are the classes for you.
To learn more contact:
Yellowstone Association Institute
P.O. Box 117
Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190
Phone: 307 344.2294
To read more about educational programs at other national parks go to "Learning at National Parks: Classrooms Without Walls."
To read about a class this writer took at Grand Canyon National Park during the summer of 2005 go to "The Grand Canyon as Classroom: A Billion-Year-Old School".
Photography by Paul Segedin.