Travel to Yellowstone: A Wildlife Guide to the Park’s Most Interesting Animals
Home to one of North America’s largest concentrations of large animals, Yellowstone could easily be referred to as America’s Serengeti. While today’s Yellowstone park managers, biologists, conservationists, and environmentalists aim to fully protect all of Yellowstone’s animals and fragile ecosystems, this was not always the case.
Yellowstone may have been the first national park in both the United States and the world, established all the way back in 1872, but the park’s early years were marred by a hatred for predators such as wolves and other carnivores that were seen as detrimental to both agriculture and animal husbandry. In a bid to protect the park’s large elk populations, wolves were completely exterminated from Yellowstone by the early 1900s. A number of other government predator control programs decimated many of Yellowstone’s most iconic animals that we cherish today.
If only Yellowstone’s wildlife could have led a revolt against the people much like the animal characters in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, their populations may not have reached dangerously low levels. For those not familiar with Animal Farm, it is a book that is taught and studied around the world. If you haven’t had to read and write an essay about it yet you most likely will have to at some point. Read any Animal Farm persuasive essay and you will get an intriguing yet distasteful glimpse of human society. While the tyrannical pigs in Animal Farm would state that “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” I believe our Yellowstone animals would have coexisted just fine if we had never entered the picture.
Thankfully, Yellowstone’s animal populations are now beginning to thrive once again thanks to our realization we need to protect all species. Gray wolves have since been reintroduced to the park, bears can be readily spotted, and largest public bison herd in the United States roams freely. The park’s lakes, rivers, mountains, and subalpine forests offer an abundance of wildlife just waiting to be spotted by visitors. We thought we would introduce you to some of the most iconic animals you can expect to see in Yellowstone. Some animals you are guaranteed to see while others may require a bit patience and dedication.
In addition to the many animals the park offers, you will also get to experience many geothermal features including the Old Faithful geyser. Half of the world’s geysers and hydrothermal features can be found within the park.
The largest grazing mammal in Yellowstone and every bit as dangerous as a bear if approached to closely, the American bison was reduced to less than 50 animals during the early 20th century. Today, more than 3,000-4,000 bison roam the park, making it the largest free herd in the U.S. The bull males can weigh almost a ton and despite their large size can be rather quick when the need arises. If their tail is held in a raised position, it often means they are agitated and you best back off. Bison have continuously lived in Yellowstone since prehistoric times and can live to be 25 years old in the wild. Watch the mating season in late summer and the orange-furred newborns joining the herd in spring.
The most abundant large mammal found in Yellowstone is the elk or wapiti. Consisting of a northern and southern herd, the total population is thought to be around 30,000 animals. Most of Yellowstone’s elk can be seen in the park from spring to fall, but many migrate to southwestern Montana and the National Elk Refuge during winter. This accounts for the largest mammalian migration in the lower 48 states. Elk are the second largest member of the deer family and only live half as long as bison in the wild. Bull elks can be heard bugling during the late summer breeding season, when they sport impressively large antlers. These antlers will be shed come March and a new rack will be grown over the summer, covered in soft velvet until they scrape it off before fighting other males for dominance once again late summer.
The largest member of the deer family, the moose is a sight to behold. Early wolf control and suppression of forest fires led to an increase in Yellowstone’s moose population. The best areas of Yellowstone to see moose are in the park’s southwestern corner along the Bechler and Fall rivers, around Yellowstone Lake, Soda Butte Creek, Pelican Creek, and Gallatin River drainages. It is thought that around 800-1,000 moose live in southern Yellowstone and neighboring Grand Teton National Park. They are great swimmers, being able to dive down five meters in search of food. Like elk, moose grow new sets of antlers each year, each set growing larger than the previous year. Some racks can grow to be five feet wide and weigh nearly 70 pounds. The antler velvet that is shed in the fall will provide nutrients to birds, rodents, and even the moose themselves who sometimes consume it.
Once vilified and wrongly believed to be a severe threat to livestock and humans, gray wolves were completely eliminated in Yellowstone due to hunting. There are five subspecies of gray wolves in North America and it was the Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf subspecies that once existed in the park during the 19th century before it was eradicated. The gray wolf topped the list of The Endangered Species Act of 1973, but Canadian gray wolves have since been reintroduced to the park in the 1990s. Today, there are around 100 wolves that call Yellowstone home, living in around 10 separate packs. Gray wolves hunt and travel in packs of around four to seven individuals and the group is led by leaders or alphas. The largest packs in Yellowstone are the Slough Creek, Yellowstone Delta, and Leopold packs which prey on the park’s elk and bison herds.
Black and Brown Bears
Yellowstone is one of the rare places in the U.S. where black bears coexist with grizzly bears, a subspecies of brown bear. Research has shown that there may be as many as 700 grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and around 600 black bears. The park’s bears were once readily visible along roadsides and camping areas, as they were frequently being fed by people. This led to a number of serious altercations between bears and humans. The park established a bear management program during the 1960s and 1970s that banned the feeding of bears and this forced the bears to revert back to their natural diets. Some of the best areas to spot the bears today are the Lamar Valley, Antelope Creek meadows, Dunraven Pass, and along the East Entrance Road. Black bears can be spotted in the northern ranges and in the Bechler area. Both bear species feed on Yellowstone cutthroat trout in the late-spring and early-summer after the bears emerge from winter hibernation. The grizzly bear was recently taken off the endangered species list but many say it should be placed back on the list in fear that their numbers may decline.
Mountain Lion, Bobcat, and Lynx
Yellowstone is also home to several feline species including the mountain lion which is the park’s largest. Only a few dozen mountain lions call Yellowstone home and only about 50 percent of kittens survive their first year. Much like the wolves, mountain lions were targeted by early predator eradication measures within the park. While they can be dangerous, there are no cases of visitors to Yellowstone being attacked by a mountain lion. Both lynx and bobcat can also be found within the park, although sightings are quite rare since they hunt mostly at night, are often solitary, and are sparsely scattered throughout the park. Both species are good climbers and swimmers. Bobcats have been able to better adapt to human encroachment and it is thought there may be more bobcats now than during colonial times.
Coyotes are one of the few animals that have been able to both spread and increase in numbers throughout America. These exceptionally adaptable animals can be found in nearly every habitat within the U.S. including Yellowstone. The coyotes in Yellowstone are some of the largest found in the U.S. and they are capable of bringing down large prey. They may be seen hunting solitary or in large packs. Coyote numbers increased with the elimination of wolves, but the park’s coyote numbers are decreasing now that wolves have been reintroduced.
Yellowstone is one of America’s real natural gems where we can still observe many beautiful animals in their natural habitat. In addition to the animals discussed above, Yellowstone is home to hundreds of species of birds including the bald eagle, the national bird of the U.S. You’ll also find smaller creatures like prairie dogs, skunks, raccoons, badgers, and otters. The park offers a wide range of outdoor recreation activities including camping, hiking, and fishing.
While the park now offers a generally safe refuge for the animals that call the park home, poaching, car collisions, and human harassment continue to be a problem. Over 75 large animals were killed on park roadways in 2018 and ignorant visitors continue to feed wild animals and approach them too closely. Approaching bears or wolves is limited to 100 yards and a distance of 25 yards should be kept for all other wildlife.