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Discovering Grizzlies and Wolves at Yellowstone National Park


More than a decade after gray wolves were returned to Yellowstone, they remain a big draw. Grizzly bears look big from a distance, and even larger up close, as this skull held by MacNeil Lyons of the Yellowstone Association Institute shows. Photos by Jane Schneider.

It's a brilliant fall morning and instead of being holed up in my stuffy office cube, I'm out stalking grizzly bears. I've come to Yellowstone National Park to learn more about the wildlife here, particularly its two top predators: grizzlies and wolves.

My guides are MacNeil Lyons, a naturalist with the Yellowstone Association Institute, and his partner, Institute program manager Nick Derene. As we travel together, it becomes evident that their knowledge of wildlife — and the park in general — is nearly encyclopedic.

Today's destination is Lamar Valley, a beautiful, rolling and rumpled swath of the Rockies that sprawls across the northeastern corner of this 2.2-million-acre park. Overhead the sky is a deep, periwinkle blue as we wind our way into the valley, the sun just beginning to peer over the rugged Absaroka mountains that rise above Yellowstone's eastern boundary. We spot bison grazing and the occasional elk in the flats that rim the Lamar River before Mr. Lyons pulls the van over and quickly jumps out. Training his binoculars towards the horizon, he points out a tawny lump barely discernible among the rocks.

“Look, over there. Do you see it?” he whispers, our group gazing into the middle distance. “That's a grizzly bear.”

I can hardly believe our luck.

Approximately 150 grizzlies live within the park boundaries and the bears have been particularly active this year. With hibernation just weeks away, their foraging has taken on a sense of urgency. I watch through the spotting scope as the impressive bruin upends boulder after boulder in search of grubs or moths, intent on sniffing out something for breakfast.

“What do you think a grizzly eats?” Mr. Lyons asks.

This time of year it is grubs, though that diet varies according to the season, he notes. Bears are omnivores, so their food choices are vast and include berries, roots and moths, rodents, fish, and elk and even bison.

The naturalist holds up a grizzly skull he cradles in his arms. It's roughly the size of a football on steroids.

“He's at the top of the food chain here at Yellowstone,” Mr. Lyons says of Ursus arctos horribilis.

Even the wolves won't challenge a grizzly bear for food. Though often seen lumbering, grizzlies can hit top speeds of 30 miles an hour when chasing prey. Once down, a grizzly kill of elk or bison will provide sustenance for a host of other animals as well: Coyotes, wolves, ravens, bald eagles, mice, badgers, magpies, even the occasional mountain lion, all benefit from the grizzly's hunt.

As predators, bears and wolves play an important role in the delicate balance of life here. But it is a balance that is constantly shifting.

“Yellowstone is always in a state of flux,” says Mr. Lyons.

Change, it seems, is the only constant in nature, the only thing that remains certain.

Wolf alert

Now that we've seen a grizzly, our minds are dancing with wolves. “Is that one over there?” someone calls out as we all turn in unison. But we've been fooled. A closer look reveals two coyotes who trot along the perimeter of a bison herd.

As we scan the group with our binoculars, Nick Derene tells us the coyotes know that the pounding of hooves often flush out voles and field mice from the brush, so they're alert and ready. We watch as one coyote crouches, then leaps straight up in the air as he pounces on his prey. No luck this time, though. Mealtime will have to wait, and he lopes off to catch up with his mate.

Around the bend, we finally come upon a bevy of spotting scopes and long-lensed cameras, which can mean only one thing: Wolves. Biologist technician Rick McIntyre with the Yellowstone Wolf Project sits attentively as a group of 10 people chat and take turns looking through the spotting scopes.

“Who hasn't seen the wolves yet?” he asks as we approach.

The scopes are trained on the lodgepole pine forest several football fields away where three wolves saunter in and out of the afternoon shadows. Mr. McIntyre remains patient, focused. He's been observing wolves every day since they were first reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995 and remains fascinated by their behavior.
The animals we see today are part of the newly formed Lamar Canyon pack, he tells us.

The female, bred by two males, gave birth to four pups last spring. Now that the youngsters are more mature, the pack has been roaming this region of the valley. The three adults will likely stay together for life, says the biologist, while the pups will eventually move on to join other packs.

The Lamar Canyon group is one of approximately 11 to 15 packs that have staked out territories at Yellowstone. All are the progeny of the original 31 Canadian wolves brought here from Alberta, Canada to repopulate the park.

I watch as Colby Anton steadies an antenna and points it towards the glade where the gray wolves have gathered. About 20 percent of park wolves wear collars fixed with small, portable radio transmitters. Each transmitter is set to a different radio frequency, so that individual animals can be followed by a signal that beeps from the collar. Mr. Anton, a field technician with YWP, assists Mr. McIntyre in tracking the wolves using telemetry, a data collection method that makes observing these elusive canines easier. While a somewhat inexact science (since radio waves can bounce off rock walls giving false readings), telemetry provides biologists with a much better picture of where animals travel and how they behave.

Mr. McIntyre became interested in wolves while working summers in Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska. It was research for a book on wolves that led him to Yellowstone and the Wolf Project, which is funded in part by the Yellowstone Park Foundation. Now, he spends every day adding to the body of knowledge about wolves, helping scientists unravel their mysteries.

Understanding Our Past

Back at the van, Mr. Lyons passes around old photographs to illustrate how changes in wildlife management at the park have evolved over time. The story of the wolf is a good example. The canines, once considered a dangerous threat to the park's wildlife, were aggressively hunted and eradicated from Yellowstone during the first half of the 20th century. Now, they've successfully (if controversially) been returned to the park and are thriving. While their success has been celebrated, the steady decline of elk in recent years is raising questions and writing a new chapter in this continually unfolding story. The images lead to a discussion of the importance of conservation and how best to manage the park's natural resources.

Whether participating in wildlife observations or hiking to see the park's many natural wonders, a more informed experience is what the Yellowstone Association works to deliver.

The nonprofit “wants people to understand and enjoy the park,” says Jeff Brown, YA's director of education. “We like to say we're helping people fall in love with Yellowstone.”

Encouraging preservation through education, that's their mission, by helping the public learn more about the majesty and mystery that is Yellowstone National Park.

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In recent news, the wolves are being talked about being removed from the Endangered Species list.

And when someone tries to justify their point in yelling/name calling is uneffective. wolfaboo?...

These people are exhausting. Get off your butts and do some research instead of whining at your keyboard. Solution!!! Think of One....

Toby Bridges and Kevin Watson are correct. Read their posts for some factual education about this issue. In the long run, what I see happening is an ESA that will become useless because of this. Those who have used a non-endangered, non-native sub-species of wolve and this Act to line their pockets will need to move to plan B.

In the meantime, SSS

Mr. Watson appears to be the type that slept through history, biology, and current events class. First off I will call upon one of the most lacked skills these days and it is called "common sense". It is evident and common sense that if wolves were these "sharks" slaughtering "90%" of the wildlife population then there would be next to no herds of bison, elk, deer, coyotes, grouse, moose, etc? Yet this mysterious and magical thing happened to me...I have seen LARGE herds of bison, pronghorn, and elk. I have seen many mule deer and the occasional moose. How can this be? Wolves are slaughtering....killing everything in sight!! I don't even know how you can seriously type that kind of BS. If you seriously feel that way then i begged you and any other ignorant and lack of knowledge person to go back to 7th grade. Kevin, i am calling you and any other "hater" out. Before ranchers, cowboys, regulators, and park rangers how did wildlife "survive" the wolf? Please enlighten us all. Did the pronghorns and turkeys have blunderbusses to keep the wolf in its place? If wolves were these sharks and killers it is COMMON SENSE that populations would be EXTINCT. I don't have to Google sites that 85% are false or Wikipedia to try and make a point because "SO and SO said so and it must be true!". I use my basic nature skill: COMMON SENSE.

If you hate wolves, that is your prerogative, but please don't feed the rest of the community these lines that common sense would tell you is a wad of horse do do. Please do not promote "killing" things because YOU do not like them. There are many people that I do not like that have passed me in my travels through life but, i do not shoot them, poison them in their homes, or try to slander them to turn everyone against them. Please use the "superior intelligence and morality" that humans are attributed with and stop condemning a species because you do not like them.

Instead of everyone arguing back and forth, why don't you take your time to come up with a way to handle the conflicts between wolf, ranchers, and wildlife that isn't KILLING. We send people to the moon, send information at super fast rates across continents, do bone marrow transplants, create military jets, yet no one can come up with something better than gassing wolves out of their homes and kos'ing them?

In addition with AIDS/HIV, STDS, cholera, measles, mumps, chicken pox....most of those listed above are carried and transmitted by humans as well. And lets not forget leukemia carried by felines!! Actually now that i think of it, most animals are noted for carrying those diseases including your fluffy wuffy kitty and mans best friend. We going to shoot all of them too?

If you do not come from an ag. background, don't talk about ranching. If you are not a geneticist, don't "explain" the genetics. If you don't live near Yellowstone, don't speak about seeing or not seeing how many elk/deer there are. If you have never seen a cow killed by wolves, don't talk about it not mattering. If you care about open space, don't dismiss the value of hunting, since many of the ranches that keep open space from being developed are supported by guiding hunters.

Well, how about this: My family owns a ranch in Nevada near the Idaho line. We mostly hay but we have a modest cow/calf operation too. I now live in the Yellowstone area, and though I have given up hunting elk for the meat (because I can't eat it all anymore) I still go for a deer when I can.

I have never seen a cow being slain by a wolf, true, but I don't think many ranchers have either. I have seen wolves take down elk, bison, and moose, live and in person. I can't imagine it is much different with cattle.

And I think that the "facts" posited by Mr. Watson above are a bunch of hooey. Those subspecies designations of wolves were dreamed up by expert witnesses in the pay of plaintiff's attorneys.

I think that for far too long the mountains of south central Montana and western Wyoming have been overpopulated by elk, and not much has changed with the reintroduction of wolves. I will admit I know less about the situation in Idaho, but I will repeat that humans are the apex predators and are ultimately responsible for any "crash."

Why do you keep on using the word "specie"? The definition of "specie" is of coin money or something that is of a "like kind". It's also a nonstandard variation on "species", but that frankly wouldn't apply to different variations of wolf species.

I'm guessing you're trying to say "subspecies". Or is the use of "specie" deliberate?

We have come to a corner in this wolf war. This is where the wolfaboo's start calling people names, throwing out the door facts of how hunters, ranchers, farmers, etc, etc, see the truth unfolding right before their very eyes. Truth wolfaboo's will fight tooth and nail to hide. Truth about a specie wrong for the region from the very start as warned by professional wolf bio's. ( Will Graves, Dr. Val Geist, et all). Truth that kills your idea of having a balance in nature. Invasive specie's will never balance nature. They destroy the native part of ecosystems throughout history. Here is an letter that pretty much sums up why you're into lying about this touchy subject....

Putting a wolf, that is questionable if it is even wolf at all, above human constitutional rights, and lively hoods, let alone human life itself really is sad, not to mention questionable mentality.

If you do not come from an ag. background, don't talk about ranching. If you are not a geneticist, don't "explain" the genetics. If you don't live near Yellowstone, don't speak about seeing or not seeing how many elk/deer there are. If you have never seen a cow killed by wolves, don't talk about it not mattering. If you care about open space, don't dismiss the value of hunting, since many of the ranches that keep open space from being developed are supported by guiding hunters.

Those of us who live in these areas are pretty refined and balanced opinions about this situation. Most intelligent, mature people, who are directly affected by these and similar questions realize that wolves have value and will remain to be on the landscape regardless of the yelling. We also realize that their existence affects the livelihoods and lifestyles of those who live here and work here and preserve the land and way of life we all love.

Real answers come from talking, not yelling. Speaking with respect will allow people to listen. That's what we actually do here. Those represented on both sides of the situation (illustrated above) who stand to the fringes of the arguments provide no value to their side or to resolving the concerns. That is how wars are fraught, not how solutions are found.

Quoting google and youtube do not constitute facts. Nor does "I've heard." Come here, live here, watch wolves in the wild, talk to ranchers, find a job in winter, talk with Yellowstone visitors who spend millions in the area because wolves are here, take a class on wildlife disease and genetics, but above all else, think don't just react!

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