WOLF MATING SEASON is nigh in Yellowstone National Park. As the Druid pack descends on a herd of elk for a kill, an interloper, a lone wolf trying to ingratiate himself with the pack, waves his tail playfully, like a flag, to win the graces of potential mates. The alpha male moves to drive him off. The elk herd splits like two schools of fish. For now, the wolves stay hungry on the frozen volcanic slope.
Meanwhile, the remnant human population in the park is more welcoming to newcomers. Beginning in mid-December, snow coaches — motorized over-snow vehicles — ferry human visitors through the valleys and over the plateaus of the country’s oldest national park to the Old Faithful Snow Lodge.
Along the way, naturalists, park rangers, and concessionaires help visitors in their quest to witness wildlife in action — without the cars and crowds of summer.
Meeting Yellowstone’s wolves
“Food for the Masses” is the name of a wolf-watching experience organized by the Yellowstone Association Institute, with headquarters located on Park Street in Gardiner, Montana — the gateway to the national park headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs, some five miles up Grand Loop Road.
The Lamar Valley’s historic Buffalo Ranch, in the remote northeast corner of the park, where wolves were first reintroduced in 1995, is the hub for wolf watching in Yellowstone.
But the park’s north entrance is the first step to a winter wonderland with a wild twist. A change is felt simply passing through the historic Roosevelt Arch, most recently featured in the Ken Burns’ documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.
“Students go to the sites of wolf kills to count scavengers on the kill,” said Chuck Snover with the Yellowstone Association Institute. Finding the hollowed-out carcass of an elk brought down by wolves, then finished up by ravens and other critters, is not an uncommon experience in the company of a naturalist.
“The way it was opened up like a clam shell … that was incredible,” said Andrew Suk, a student warming up at the Lamar Ranger Station after visiting an elk carcass during a week-long program based out of Buffalo Ranch, which is operated by the institute.
Nathan Varley, who led Suk and his group to view wolves in early December, is co-owner of The Wild Side Wildlife Tours, together with his wife Linda Thurston. Food for the Masses and other programs provide an opportunity for visitors to the park to participate in the science of the park’s wolf recovery project.
“Mainly it’s about learning and trying to view the wolves,” said Varley, 41, who was raised in the park, and has a PhD in wolf ecology. The main winter drama, he said, is watching males trying to assimilate prior to mating season.
Despite the remoteness, short days, and inhospitable weather of the Lamar Valley in winter, even visitors from the concrete jungle will find an unexpected coziness with the experience of a guided winter safari tour — especially if one is wearing heavily insulated clothing.
More than wolves
Aside from the black wolves of the Druid pack, there is also the possibility of spotting bighorn sheep. What is almost assured, even on the snowiest day, is a good look at the herds of elk and bison ranging in the valleys and volcanic plateaus of the park.
But don’t forget binoculars. The action is fleeting, and proper etiquette for those without a spotting scope is to wait, as patiently as possible, for a more prepared visitor to offer use of his or her equipment.
It’s also possible to pop into the park for a solo winter wildlife glimpse — on snowshoes or cross-country skis, for example. But whatever your means of conveyance, considering the drive required to reach Yellowstone, it’s worth committing a few days to the experience.
Gardiner is 56 miles south of Livingston on Interstate 90, 77 miles from Bozeman and 129 miles from Billings.
Tours can be arranged through various guide services in the area, but the easiest way to get the low-down on wolves and other wildlife is to make a stop at the Yellowstone Association Institute headquarters by the Roosevelt Arch in Gardiner, five miles from Yellowstone National Park Headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs.
Be sure to fortify beforehand with a meal at the Town Café, to the left of the t-intersection where State Highway 89 meets Park Street. (The Yellowstone Association and the Roosevelt Arch are to the right.)
The café is a popular local watering hole and a good place to bend the ear of a naturalist who might help enrich your visit. Afterwards, when you’re ready to brag about wolf sightings, try the Rusty Nail at the Best Western in Gardiner.
If winter driving doesn’t suit, grab a couple of friends and take the Greyhound to Livingston. The trip to the Lamar Valley is accessible even for bus travelers. Amazing Taxi owner, Carrie Pintar, can take up to seven passengers and is willing to negotiate a round-trip shuttle price to Gardiner or Mammoth. Her number is 406-223-5344.
Matador’s Montana resource page is a key stop for travelers planning a winter trip to the Big Sky State. You can also get answers to specific questions by contacting our knowledgeable Montana destination experts, just one of many features that make the Matador community such a vibrant place.