By Chris Kassar
Three wolf pups with freakishly large paws roll around in a furry pile while adults sleep peacefully nearby. Wolf pack members tear apart a bloody elk carcass with calculated precision. A young male sheepishly wanders away after a failed challenge of the alpha male. These sound like scenes you could only see on a television nature special, right?
In actuality, you can experience these wild wolf sightings in person on a Yellowstone: Ultimate Wolf & Wildlife Safari, an exclusive exploration of our nation’s oldest national park.
Once driven extinct in the Lower 48 due to hunting and poisoning, wolves first returned to Yellowstone National Park between 1995 and 1997, when biologists relocated 41 wolves from Canada and Montana. Populations flourished and, as of January 2016, scientists report that at least 98 wolves in 10 packs live primarily in Yellowstone and 528 wolves live within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Watching these majestic creatures frolic freely in the wild is the adventure of a lifetime. Though there is a good chance that you’ll see wild wolves in Yellowstone during the snowy winter months, you have to be well prepared and patient.
© Henry Holdsworth
Here are a few travel tips for maximizing your chances to see the graceful Canis lupus in its natural habitat.
- Wildlife such as wolves, bears, pronghorn and bison gravitate to the prime habitat located in the park’s broad valleys. Be sure your trip includes plenty of time exploring the Lamar Valley, an expansive basin along the Lamar River in the northeast section of the park. This stunning spot where biologists first reintroduced wolves in the 1990s has earned the nickname, “America’s Serengeti” because of the large, easily seen populations of charismatic megafauna that it supports, including wolf packs. Known as the best place in North America to spot wild wolves, the Lamar Valley has become a wolf-watching Mecca where wildlife enthusiasts gather to watch these extraordinary canines in action. Wolves inhabit most of the park, so you can also see them in the Hayden Valley, Canyon area and Blacktail Deer Plateau.
- The wild wolves of Yellowstone are elusive and rarely seen up close; however, seasoned local guides possess exclusive, in-depth knowledge of the park. Because they understand the behavioral patterns of the area’s wildlife, they know where and when to go to maximize the chance of seeing wild animals. Certain guides also work closely with wolf researchers in and around the park. This provides an added advantage to their groups, since researchers help groups track wolves by providing them with current insider knowledge of wolf pack locations and activities. That’s why it’s important to choose a wildlife tour operator who employs expert naturalist guides and works closely with local researchers.
- Avoid crowds and revel in a different Yellowstone nature experience by planning your trip during the less crowded winter season. Wolves are equally active at this time, but with fewer people your immersive nature excursion will be much more enjoyable. Plus, the white cloak of winter provides a pristine backdrop to search for these icons of the American wilderness.
- Plan your wolf-watching excursions for dawn and dusk, when the animals are most active. Arriving in the valleys before sunrise will increase your odds even further.
- Seeing distant animals (such as gray wolves) with the naked eye can sometimes be challenging. Utilize binoculars or a spotting scope.
- For superior wolf watching, go with a small group. The ability to be still and quiet in the presence of wildlife will greatly improve your chances of having an intimate wildlife encounter. Another advantage of a small group is the ability to jump back in the vehicle and move quickly to areas where wildlife has recently been spotted.
- Savor the exhilaration that comes from searching for these majestic predators on some of our nation’s most treasured public lands. Feel chills travel up your spine when you hear a wolf howl in the distance.
© Ray Doan
Spending time in this majestic, snow-cloaked landscape—with ice crystals dangling from tree branches, steaming geysers rising from the Earth, and stone monoliths rising high into a clear, blue sky—delivers an undeniable dose of magic that will feed your spirit for years to come. Discover the winter wonders of Yellowstone on this rare winter wildlife safari and see for yourself!