Yellowstone prowl

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Times Staff Writer

We were searching for villains. Legendary bad guys that huff and puff and blow houses down. Evildoers who frighten boys named Peter and girls named Little Red Riding Hood. Fiends in sheep’s clothing.

Big. Bad. Wolves.

We got lucky right away. At least, we thought we did: “There’s one,” shouted photographer Hal Stoelzle soon after we entered Yellowstone National Park last winter.

The animal was about 100 yards away and seemed to be digging in the snow. Hal jumped out of the car, sank deep into a snowdrift and then decided to set up a tripod with a long lens rather than venture farther into the field. Twenty minutes later, his face had turned scarlet from the wind and 15-degree temperature. The bushy-coated digger was still pawing at the ground in the distance.

Nature travel has its drawbacks. Especially when subfreezing temperatures and snow flurries are part of the picture. But winter in Yellowstone has an upside too. It’s the best time of year to spot wildlife: bighorn sheep, elk, pronghorn antelope, bison, coyotes, even wolves, successfully reintroduced to the park 10 years ago this week and now the park’s main winter attraction. All can easily be seen from the roads of northern Yellowstone, near the park’s boundary and the Wyoming-Montana border.

Hal and I had signed up for a two-day wolf-watching program that would begin before dawn the next day. But, hey, maybe we could find a wolf or three on our own, we thought, as we drove the icy park road from the north entrance at Gardiner, Mont., to the northeast entrance at Cooke City, Mont., the only road open all year.

About a mile from our first sighting, we spotted two more of the creatures trotting across a field. Again, they stayed in the distance. Farther on, we pulled over at a lookout point to admire the scenery. As we were gazing at a frozen waterfall, a wolfish face popped up over a snowy berm about 8 feet away. Its snout was dusted with crystals of ice. I gasped in delight. Hal clicked off a few frames before it darted away.

We congratulated ourselves on our great luck. Then I spotted a sign half-buried in snow: “Don’t harass the coyotes,” it read, “for your sake and theirs.”

“You don’t suppose that was a coyote instead of a wolf?” Hal asked.

“No,” I said flatly. “Coyotes don’t look that good. They have mangy coats and sort of slink around.”

Of course, it was a coyote. They were all coyotes, we learned the next morning in our Winter Wolf Discovery course.

“Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference,” said naturalist Greg Wright, who taught the two-day lodging-and-learning program. “Coyotes are smaller, their faces are more pointed; they yip instead of howl. The best clue, though, is that they came near you. A wolf wouldn’t. Wolves shy away from people.”

But, like many other winter visitors to the park, wolves were what we wanted to see. With a little diligence, most people succeed; about 153,000 Yellowstone visitors have spotted Canis lupus, the planet’s largest wild dog. Despite the wolf’s role as villain in fairy tales, it has become nearly as popular in Yellowstone as Old Faithful Geyser.


Where and when to look

To see the wolves, you have to know where to look. Wright did. Within an hour of the 6:15 a.m. start of our class, we saw wolves — and heard them too — as three packs howled to mark their territories in the pre-dawn light.

The course, organized by the Yellowstone Assn. Institute and Xanterra Resorts, included park accommodations, a little lecture time and a lot of field time, trailing wolves, snowshoeing and exploring the starkly beautiful Lamar Valley, sometimes called America’s Little Serengeti for its plentiful wildlife.

The Lamar is wide and open, a long, glacier-scoured basin where large herds of elk and bison forage in the winter for grass, trying to find enough food to survive until spring. Wolves — and unforgiving temperatures — are their nemesis.

We watched lumbering bison use their massive heads to batter aside snow so they could eat scrubby brown grass; saw herds of graceful elk loping across the valley, their heads held high to convince predators they were strong and healthy; spotted a pack of gray wolves on a snowy hillside, wagging their tails, nuzzling one another, taking turns playing with a stick. Later we saw them napping quietly, their tails circling their bodies for warmth.

And everywhere we went was another stunning view. To the east were the 10,000-foot peaks of the Absaroka Range, a landscape of darks and lights where thick forests were shrouded in black clouds, then brilliantly lighted as the sun emerged into a cobalt-blue sky. To the west, near the park’s northern entrance, were the spectacular terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs, staircases of super-heated geothermal pools that sent clouds of steam into the frigid air, causing lacy patterns of ice on the limbs of nearby trees.

Relatively few visitors see these surreal snow-scapes. Of the 3 million tourists who come to Yellowstone each year, fewer than 120,000 arrive during the winter. Snow closes most of the roads, and only two hotels are open, Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, where we stayed, and the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, site of the largest concentration of geysers in the world. The road to Mammoth is open year-round, but roads to Old Faithful are closed, limiting access to those who visit by snowmobiles or the rubber-tracked vans called snowcoaches.

Snowmobiles, once unregulated in the park, are an ongoing controversy. At one point, as many as 1,400 entered the park daily; now only 720 are allowed, and riders must be accompanied by a commercial guide. During the Clinton administration, the vehicles were banned, but the ban was overturned with the Bush administration. Seesawing court decisions resulted in the current temporary regulations.

“A lot of people are confused because of the snowmobile issue,” said Jeff Brown, director of educational operations for the Yellowstone Assn. Institute. “Some think the park is closed, so we haven’t had as many visitors the past few winters. They don’t realize how many activities there are in winter that don’t involve snowmobiles.”

Brown is an expert on those activities: His nonprofit organization offers 450 classes, including field seminars, back-country courses and lodging-and-learning programs that provide an inside look at Yellowstone. But he brags about non-institute activities too, calling them “quiet alternatives” to snowmobiling. Among them is cross-country skiing, his favorite. “The trails and snow in the northern end of the park are world-class,” he said.

More than 1,000 miles of trails crisscross Yellowstone, from an easy, groomed 1 1/2 -mile path through the bubbling Mammoth Hot Springs to difficult back-country routes that would tax the skills of hardy Nordic skiers. Shuttles leave the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel during the day to drop off and pick up skiers bound for the most popular trails.

Although overall winter numbers dropped in the wake of the snowmobile controversy, the number of visitors seeking a winter wildlife adventure — particularly one that includes wolves — is climbing. The park is one of the few places in the Lower 48 where the reclusive animals can be seen in the wild.

During our first night at the rustic Mammoth Hot Springs hotel, I eavesdropped on diners at nearby tables in its restaurant. Most seemed to be part of small tour groups returning from, or bound for, the Lamar Valley, where the main attraction was a family of wolves called the Druid Peak pack, named after a nearby mountain. Locals dubbed them the “Hollywood wolves” because they were featured in two National Geographic TV specials.

Curious, I table-hopped, introducing myself. There was a tour group from the Sierra Club, one from Smithsonian Journeys, another called Adventure Women. Two other groups had hired local guides for custom tours.

“The scenery is fantastic,” said San Bernardino resident Linda Pauley, who was with the Smithsonian group on a tour called “Winter Wildlife in Yellowstone.” The group had seen wolves that day, she said. “Getting to watch them in action was spectacular. They’re beautiful, amazing animals.”

Wolves weren’t always in such favor in Yellowstone. They were wiped out of the park at about the same time they vanished from the rest of the West, poisoned or shot by bounty hunters or settlers in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They were classified as an endangered species in the 1970s, but environmentalists had to battle ranchers and hunters for 20 years before the wolves were allowed to roam Yellowstone again. Ranchers feared they would leave the park and prey on livestock; hunters feared they would deplete the supply of game animals. In general, neither proved to be true, although some continue to protest wolves. Bumper stickers still can be seen that read: “Save the ranches, shoot a wolf.” And slain wolves are often found outside park boundaries.

“Wolf hatred exists; many wolves die every year because of it,” said wildlife biologist Douglas Smith, director of Yellowstone’s Wolf Recovery Project.

But others see the wolf as “the essence of wildness,” Smith said. “They’re the top predator…. Without them, Yellowstone wasn’t complete.” There are few other places in the Lower 48 that offer the environment the animals need to exist.

“Today less than 5% of the nation is protected wilderness. Of these places, not even a handful [is] big enough to support healthy populations of large carnivores,” he writes in “Decade of the Wolf,” a Lyons Press book set to be released in April.

Yellowstone, at 2.2 million acres, is large enough. In 1995 and ‘96, biologists captured 31 gray wolves in the Canadian Rockies and set them loose in Yellowstone. The project was an unqualified success. The wolves quickly staked out territory, formed packs and began reproducing. Today there are 169 wolves in 15 packs. Although many live in the park’s back country, the Druids and a couple of other packs are often visible. Visitors who get up early enough — and have a good set of binoculars or a high-powered spotting scope — can see wolves from the Lamar Valley Road.


Wolves spotted

Our group of 10 piled into a van about an hour before dawn and arrived in the Lamar Valley in a gray twilight. It was 7 below zero and snowing lightly, but the cold was quickly forgotten. Two wolves were on a ridge high above us; we heard them howling.

“Awesome morning for wolf-watching,” said Wright, breaking out spotting scopes for us. The howlers were being answered by other wolves that seemed to be northeast of us.

“What are they saying?” I asked.

“Probably, ‘Where’s breakfast?’ ” he answered, laughing.

When the wolves moved on, we did too. Wright monitored their movements on a hand-held radio, staying in contact with other wolf-watchers along the road. We pulled over several times, seeing wolves at each stop; in an open field, we saw the carcass of a wolf kill, probably an elk, Wright said. Ravens and a coyote were competing for the spoils.

Although we didn’t realize it then, we had arrived at a dramatic time. The female leader of the Druids, a wolf nicknamed Cinderella who was featured in both National Geographic specials, had been killed that morning in a territorial battle with another pack. Within six months of our visit, her longtime mate, a husky gray wolf named 21, was also found dead.

Smith said 21 probably died of natural causes. The pair had led the pack for four years and reared two dozen pups. Their deaths marked the end of an era.

The Druid pack is smaller now and has a new alpha male and female. But they’re still visible on the Lamar Valley stage, stalking prey, making kills, playing on the hillside, napping in the afternoon sunlight.

“There’s an ebb and flow with every pack,” said Smith, who has been with Yellowstone’s wolves since their reintroduction to the park. “The Druids are at a low ebb: there were 37, now there are seven. But I think the pack will survive.”

Just as the other wolves of Yellowstone will survive.

We had come to the park to see fairy-tale villains. Instead, we had found heroes of a sort. Survival experts that have thrived despite decades of cruel treatment. Wolves in the wild.


Wildlife-watching tips

Winter is the best time to see the park’s wildlife, except for grizzly bears, which have denned for the season.

• Roads throughout most of Yellowstone National Park are closed in winter, but visitors can travel by car through the north end of the park, where the road is open year-round from Gardiner to Cooke City, Mont. You’ll see elk, bison and coyotes without hiring a guide or taking a tour. But you’ll probably be more successful — and spot wolves — on a wildlife tour.

• Wolves are most easily seen near dawn in the Lamar Valley. Watch for groups of cars stopped at pullouts — a sign that wolf-watchers are present. You also may see herds of elk and bison.

• Always keep your distance from wildlife; if an animal reacts to your presence, you are too close. Winter can be deadly for Yellowstone’s animals: Energy expended in avoiding people or cars is better used avoiding predators or searching for food.

• Drive carefully, especially at dawn and dusk. At least one large animal is killed every day on Yellowstone’s roads.


Yellowstone, chilled


From LAX, Delta, Alaska and United have connecting flights (with change of plane) to Bozeman, Mont. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $202.


Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel,

P.O. Box 165, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190; (307) 344-7311, . Simple, rustic. Has a restaurant and evening programs. Doubles with bath, $104.64; without bath, $42.51.

Yellowstone Village Inn

, Yellowstone Park North Entrance, U.S. Highway 89, Gardiner, MT 59030; (800) 228-8158, . Nice grounds, indoor pool and sauna at this lodge near the park entrance. Doubles $45, with breakfast.

Absaroka Lodge, Yellowstone Park North Entrance, P.O. Box 10, Gardiner, MT 59030; (800) 755-7414, . A pleasant-looking motel with balconies. Small, clean rooms. Doubles $50, kitchen suite $60.


Yellowstone Mine, U.S. Highway 89, Gardiner, MT 59030; (406) 848-7336. Montana beef is the specialty at this Old West-style restaurant. Main courses from $15.95.

Chico Hot Springs Resort, 1 Chico Road, Pray, MT 59065; (406) 333-4933, . Fine dining available at this hotel 30 miles north of Yellowstone. Among main courses: duck Grand Marnier ($24.95), beef Wellington ($49.95 for two.)

WILDLIFE TOURS: Lodging-and-learning programs, Xanterra Resorts, (307) 344-5566, . Two- to five-day wildlife and ski programs, including lodging, tours, meals and transportation in the park. A two-night Winter Wolf Discovery program is $289 per person, double occupancy ($68 single surcharge). Family programs available.

Yellowstone Assn. Institute

, P.O. Box 117, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190; (307) 344-2293, . Field seminars, back-country courses and custom tours, all taught by biologists, historians or other experts.


Yellowstone National Park, Mammoth Hot Springs Visitor Center; (307) 344-7381,