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Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks offer wildlife viewing and brilliant fall colors.


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By George Oxford Miller

It’s 6 a.m. and, like a surveillance stakeout, we’re standing on a high ridge with our spotting scopes trained on subjects nearly a mile away. We take turns staring into the 30-power spotting scopes and stomping our feet to stay warm. But I’m soon distracted from thoughts of coffee and donuts. Early rays of light stream across the Lamar River Valley in Yellowstone and turn the fall cottonwoods into pillars of blazing gold. The stunning scene before us has changed little since the continent’s first in
habitants arrived thousands of years ago.

As the morning brightens, the black profiles dotting the valley take shape. A thousand bison and several small herds of pronghorn graze across in the grass and sagebrush flats. And they are not alone. After a night’s hunt, the Druid Pack of sixteen wolves which we’re watching relaxes on a small rise in the middle of the narrow valley. Suddenly the wolves jump up and stare in the same direction. We rotate our scopes and see a grizzly bear heading straight for them.

Two wolves rush to investigate the possible threat, then return unalarmed to the slumbering pack. Meanwhile the bison herd grazes toward the wolves from the other side. In one scope view, we see a bison, a grizzly, and wolves, enough to make our predawn adventure worth the chilly fingers and toes. As the bear nears the bison, the herd crowds shoulder-to-shoulder to form a solid wall between the predator and their calves. The bear pauses, analyzes the odds, then continues on it’s opportunistic search for food.

In the fall and winter, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks become America’s premier location to see wildlife and spectacular scenery. Besides golden aspen, craggy mountain peaks, waterfalls, and geysers, herds of elk, pronghorn, and bison fill the scenic valleys. Best of all, the animals don’t graze placidly in fenced meadows, they interact with each other and natural predators in one of the largest intact ecosystems in the Lower 48. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem encompasses 18 million unfenced acres, an area roughly the size of West Virginia.

To see all the action, we join a Bugling Elk, Wolves, and Bears tour with Wildlife Expeditions, a branch of the Teton Science School. The three-day adventure takes us along rivers and valleys with breathtaking beauty and the hottest viewing areas for wildlife. Add Old Faithful, fumeroles and mudpots, and Yellowstone Falls and the trip encompasses the epitome of wildness in North America.

We leave our hotel, the Bentwood Inn in Jackson, Wyoming, at dawn the first morning. The elegant Bentwood Inn, a five-bedroom B&B rated as one of the top-10 country inns in America, is constructed with massive 200-year old lodgepole pine logs from the great Yellowstone fire of 1988. Located adjacent to the Teton Ski Village and the entrance to Teton National Park, we’re only minutes away from our introduction to sex-crazed elk.

“By the end of September, the bull elk are gathering their herds for the rutting season,” Paul Brown, our biologist-leader tells us as we leave the inn. “The bulls bugle to drive off competing males and to keep their cows together. Bugling is one of the classic western sounds of nature.”

Soon we pull over beside a herd of elk grazing in a meadow bordered with golden aspens. A bull with a huge rack prances back and forth around the cows. He stops, raises his head, and his bugling call, a high-pitched squall, echoes through the dawn mist. In the distance we hear an answering response.

“A bull can’t relax if he wants to keep his breeding rights,” Paul tells us. “Aggressive bulls with large racks can build a herd of 30 to 40 cows.”

We get to experience elk confrontation up close the next day at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park. The park service keeps lush lawns around the buildings. Like a magnet, the green grass attracts elk cows fattening up for the winter. And where the cows gather the bulls show up for the ultimate macho show down. They pace down the middle to the streets and battle any challenger, whether other bulls, tourists with cameras, or cars that get in the way. The rangers race around herding visitors almost as frantically as the bulls tending their cows.


Later in winter when up to 600 inches of snow cover the slopes, massive herds of elk congregate in the lower-elevation valleys. The wildlife concentrations make winter one of the best seasons for viewing elk, bison, pronghorn, and wolves. “Up to 13,000 elk migrate into Jackson Hole,” Paul tells us. The National Elk Refuge on the edge of the town of Jackson preserves the elks’ historic wintering grounds in the Snake River valley. When the elk leave in the spring, Boy Scouts gather the shed antlers to add to the massive antler arches, the city’s trademark, on the four corners of the town square.

After our morning view of the wolves, we continue through the park, but at a slow pace. Grazing bison surround the road. The 1,500-pound, 6-foot-tall bulls show as little regard for the cars as they do grizzlies and wolves. Cows with calves graze almost within touching distance. We stand and take pictures through the safari van’s roof photo hatches as the icons of the west leisurely wander by.

“Don’t be fooled by their apparent passiveness,” Paul warns. “If they feel threatened, they can toss a human 10 feet in the air. Every year, several people get too close and get tossed.”

Wildlife watching measured in meters not miles connects the viewer with a part—the heart—of nature impossible to experience in urban settings. Animals in the Tetons and Yellowstone, habituated to the hoards of tourists, live as they have for millennia, their behavior unaltered by human presence. They live out their lives free to roam, to hunt, to greet the dawn with howls, or to bugle for mates without interference from their human neighbors. In the two parks, it’s possible to experience the paradox that as humans we get the most from nature when we influence it the least.