by Hartt Wixom
Wildlife photographers love Yellowstone National Park for a good reason.
Bison dominated the park on my last visit in late July. Several times massive bulls crowded both sides of my vehicle. I could have reached out and touched one from both front windows. One big bull took a dig at my rear fender. Which makes me wonder how motorcyclists manage to get around here without injury.
Bison prodded through the Bridge Bay Campground making tent campers nervous. One woman said a cow bison was staring at her in the morning by her open door. A park ranger herded one over a Yellowstone River bridge, warning foot traffic to get to their vehicles. At least they didn’t impede motorists on Fishing Bridge as in other years. South of the bridge, however, a herd of bison held up traffic for nearly20 minutes. Maybe we need a sign: “Please pull off road to ogle the bison.”
This is what I found on other big game animals: no elk on south side of the park. Cow elk near the Madison Junction Campground on the Gibbon River side. None, for some reason, in the vast grasslands along the Madison River or the upper Gibbon’s “Elk Meadows.” Visitors were so enamored of wapiti near the Madison campground that they remained well after dark when only a vague silhouette could be seen. One cow actually walked across the highway into the campground.
I saw no elk on this occasion in the Mammoth parking lots. I did see a small herd dally for 15 minutes in the Gardner River near the North Entrance. I also saw a giant bull north of Canyon Village. This was a car stopper for quarter of a mile.
One of the best places to see bighorn sheep is also along the Gardner River near the North Entrance. Watch for them in the cliff ledges on east side of the road. These brown-grey animals blend in so perfectly with their surroundings, they can be difficult to distinguish. Professional photographers, of course, can be a tip-off.
One coyote on the upper Gibbon drew out many cameras. Although I hiked the Lamar River Valley, I saw no timber wolves. No bears, black or grizzly.(From all reports, the upper Lamar is the best place to see wolves.) The grizz can be anywhere; but since Fishing Bridge bans tents or soft side camping, one has to conclude this is a hot region for the silvertips.
One fawn antelope stood by the Lamar River road. In the past, I’ve seen many in the Mammoth area all the way into Montana. The less visited north end of the park is, in general, probably the best place to find most of the big game animals, other than bison.
The only mule deer spotted was a doe, browsing beneath a Yellowstone bridge near Tower Junction. Others said they had seen deer near Sylvan Lake not far from the East Entrance. But in nearly a dozen visits to Yellowstone, one will see normally far more elk than deer.
Moose? Best sites are near Fishing Bridge and along the Lewis River. A likely place would be among the marshes of Obsidian Creek and Gardner, although I saw none on the last trip.
Canada geese and other waterfowl can frequently be viewed along the ponds and gravel bars beside Madison and Yellowstone rivers. They are accustomed to human presence. But don’t walk directly toward them and they will almost pose for you.
Although some animals, including cow elk, are readily seen at any time of day, the serious photographer will want to be out at dawn and dusk to look at bulls. I’ve found some antlered wapiti to almost act as if hunted; but then poaching has happened in the park. It is not easy for park rangers to be everywhere, even though a gunshot is certain to draw rapid attention from afar.
I’ve found park rangers very willing to share big game sightings. If you don’t find one along the roadways, check with the campground folks, including the hosts. Wildlife can sometimes be viewed from strange places. Like the year a seven-point bull elk lolled around on the lawn at Lake Lodge.