What’s it like to be a naturalist on Yellowstone and Grand Teton national park tours? Get a glimpse into the life of an Expedition Leader in this personal essay by Benj Sinclair.
Moving to northern Wyoming from the verdant hills of southern Vermont in the 1980s was tough for a born naturalist. I was leaving behind those fantastic fall colors, a plethora of warblers and other tuneful songbirds, the adorable little amphibians in our woodpile, and the softness of spring that you come to cherish easily in the deciduous forests of New England. My wife and I drove off in tears as we set forth for a new life in the American West.
In my first few months, the landscapes of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks appeared vast and forbidding in their wildness. The lake temperatures in Yellowstone rarely rise above fifty-five degrees in the summer, the winters take on Arctic proportions, and the huge lodgepole pine forests are often impenetrable if you step off a trail (that would change dramatically, however, after the fires of 1988). Between rock falls and lightning strikes at the higher altitudes, even a summer day-hike was always a potentially life-threatening gamble. Vermont was such a friendly place to explore by comparison.
But I quickly discovered that the flip side to Yellowstone’s deep snows, dark forests, and hair-raising weather is its wildlife. This harsh landscape is an enormous haven for most of the continent’s large mammals, including the notorious and fascinating grizzly bear. Hiking in the woods here fed not only my curiosity about the new flora and fauna, it also fueled a growing adrenaline addiction. It seemed that on every walk I took, I was likely to meet something wild, woolly, and wonderful. It might be as small as a marmot sunning itself on a boulder, a beaver swimming across a stream, or as large as a moose browsing peacefully on pond lilies hundreds of yards away. Occasionally, the encounter would be at close range—and set my heart pounding.
Each chance meeting taught me that Yellowstone’s numerous mega fauna shared the same needs as the big mammals of Africa, where I had worked as a Peace Corps biologist years earlier: They need to raise their young, to feed and rest, to play and search for food—all the work of survival, at a safe distance from humans. As long as I kept a respectful distance, the wildlife in Yellowstone would acknowledge my presence and then go back to the job of living their lives.
The problem, at least for born naturalists, is that we always want to see what’s around the next bend, the next tree, the next hill. So in Yellowstone people like me are repeatedly asking for trouble. We never know what’s out there, but we have to find out. And so we roam more than the average traveler. Wandering off established trails in Yellowstone is risky behavior and not recommended. But I must admit that during my past eighteen years in the Yellowstone area, I have left the trail—and my better judgment—in every season.
Once, on an early spring walk along the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone near Artist’s Point, I stepped over a fresh grizzly paw print in the snow. I was inches from the brink of a sheer, three-hundred-foot chasm. What did I do? Being a born naturalist, I looked for another print a few steps beyond, just to see if I could determine where the grizzly was headed. Fortunately, in less than a minute, I realized the likely consequences of surprising this bear at the edge of a cliff and retreated quickly. It was a memorable nonsighting.
On another occasion, I was walking toward a pond where I knew I might spot a pair of nesting cranes. I crept uphill toward a lone pine tree a few feet from the water and discovered not cranes, but a huge bull bison relaxing under the tree less than thirty feet away. No problem, said the bison by the look he gave me, JUST DON’T MAKE ME STAND UP, because I might then have to charge you! I backed away immediately, pleased that he had chosen to stay where he was.
Yellowstone now has an estimated bison population of nearly four thousand. Viewing large herds of them before they move to higher ground to follow the retreating fresh grasses is virtually guaranteed at least through June in either the Lamar Valley or the Hayden Valley. Bison are especially dangerous if approached too closely, thanks to those sharp horns that serve as ideal goring instruments. But in general, they are the gentlest of creatures, as one summer experience proved to me.
That year, I was volunteering with a pronghorn antelope study. I was sitting on a small but prominent hilltop to search for fawns through a spotting scope. Upon hearing a gentle rustle in the grass behind me, I glanced over my shoulder to see three bull bison staring at me from less then twenty feet. I stood up slowly, not knowing what their next move—nor mine—would be. All three bison began walking slowly backwards, their heads nodding side to side, as if they were embarrassed that they had invaded my privacy.
The surprising abundance and diversity of Yellowstone’s large mammalian fauna become readily visible to the traveler in May and June, when the fawns of antelope and deer, along with the calves of thousands of elk and bison, share large, open feeding areas in the northern tier of the park with their primary predators: bears, wolves, coyotes, and avian hunters, including golden eagles. This is the height of an annual, weeks-long episode of frequent wildlife sightings throughout northern Yellowstone in response to the flush of new plant growth; including bulbs and corms for the bears, grasses for the hoofed mammals, and even the young of the year as the prey of choice for wolves, coyotes, cougars, and bears.
This seasonal phenomenon is quite common on the African savanna, but unique in its scale and diversity in the continental United States to Yellowstone National Park. For example, during one three-day weekend of roadside searching this past June, I saw twenty-three bears (including eight cubs with their mothers), five coyote puppies at their den, two young wolves, a large male pine marten, sixteen adult pronghorn, a dozen mountain goats, a small herd of bighorn sheep, a golden eagle hunting for pronghorn antelope fawns, two bald eagles, a nesting peregrine falcon, and five nesting osprey. This tally was nothing unusual for someone with a trained eye in Yellowstone at this time of year. All it takes is a good set of binoculars, a spotting scope, and a little practice. One week of “assisted searching” on a small-group Yellowstone tour is all you need to prepare yourself for a lifetime of Yellowstone treasure hunting, right at the edge of the road.
About the Author
Benj Sinclair grew up in a wooded Eastern state, where snakes, turtles, and frogs were the center of his universe. After earning his undergraduate degree in wildlife science at Utah State University, he immediately shipped off to Niger, West Africa, to serve as a Peace Corps biologist. It was the “hardest job I ever loved,” he says. He later moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he raised monies for the Yellowstone Wolf Recovery Fund and discovered the joys of guiding wildlife tours in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.