The only bad thing about living in Missoula is its distance from Yellowstone. It is so exciting this time of year to hear from friends who work in and live near “the park” report on grizzly bears awakening from hibernation, their first bluebird sightings, and other sure signs that winter is beginning to weaken, though in most years it is far from over. We can usually count on a June snowstorm that will send unprepared visitors scrambling for trashbags to wear over more summery clothes to stay dry, and abandoning chilly campsites in favor of warm hotel rooms at lower elevations.
Even here in Zootown the signs of early spring are palpable: the waxwings have splintered into smaller flocks, the gulls are back, the grass is starting to green up on south facing lawns, and overnight snowfalls tend to vanish by late morning now. Spring fever has struck even here in Montana’s “Garden City”, but there’s really no better place on the planet to watch nature’s ritual of spring rebirth than in Yellowstone.
So what if it’s only March 18-April is almost here. This story is dedicated to all whom I have learned so much from, and have had the pleasure to have worked with, in my years living and working in Yellowstone. Thankfully I still have the opportunity to guide people to one of the most amazing places on earth, and also have so many close and wonderful friends who still live there, or make it back as often as they can.
Red Dogs, Wolves and Ravens: A Yellowstone Spring
Early April. Winter begins to slowly loosen its grip on Yellowstone’s Northern Range. This drier, lower-lying area extends from grasslands and benches along the Lamar and Yellowstone rivers within the park, to the southern end of Montana’s Paradise Valley, just downstream from where the Yellowstone River passes through Yankee Jim Canyon. It provides critical winter range for many of the area’s ungulates, or hoofed mammals.
Death is common throughout Yellowstone’s long winter, yet it is most pronounced in early spring, which usually arrives in April. At this time of year it may not be a sub-zero night, or a heavy, wet snow, that alone kills area wildlife. Rather, their stamina and endurance have faltered after six months of hard living, making them even more prone to predation or winterkill, just as the faint, first signs of spring appear in the world’s first national park.
Small bands of mule deer forage in draws overlooking pronghorn antelope resting and grazing on the flats below. Both are feeding primarily on sagebrush at this time, while waiting for higher elevation snows to melt. Scraggly-looking elk and bighorn sheep move to south-facing slopes until recently covered by snow, now tentatively sprouting ground-hugging bunches of succulent emerald-green grasses. In a nearby drainage, ravens pillage the chest cavity of a bison carcass. One stands guard for scavenging bald eagles and coyotes while the others rip diminishing amounts of flesh still attached to the dead bison’s ribcage, and rapidly gulp them down.
Twenty miles to the east, in the Lamar Valley, lengthening daylight casts shortening shadows of still bare aspen and cottonwood trees. Bird song fills the air, occasionally punctuated by coyotes howling from where they skulk in the sagebrush. A yearling black wolf with haunting yellow eyes emerges from a sagebrush-dotted draw. It pauses intently to investigate my presence, and then confidently trots in the direction of the Druid Peak wolf pack’s den site, where it was most likely born nearly a year ago.
Yellowstone’s Northern Range is an especially powerful place to be in April, to witness the reluctant retreat of Yellowstone’s longest season, and the arrival of its most promising one, spring, when the “red dogs’ first appear.
Mid-April. Spring appears to have the upper hand in Yellowstone for a short period of time, but the weather, like the landscape itself, is wild and unpredictable. The call of a great-horned owl slices the twilight stillness after a sudden snow squall passes through. Unseen mice, voles, ground squirrels and rabbits tense and twitch in reply. Ospreys have returned to breed, to fish, and to raise their young from atop perches and nests, often occupying those used in previous years. By September, with their young fledged and temperatures cooling, they will begin one of the longest migrations of Yellowstone’s seasonal residents, traveling as far south as coastal Mexico and Central America.
At the confluence of Soda Butte Creek and the Lamar River, a mated pair of colorful common merganser ducks floats downstream below a small series of rapids. They briefly rest on land, shake excess water from their iridescent breeding plumage, and then re-enter the river. Three coyotes come into view. One drops back to watch from a small rise. The others warily negotiate the open sagebrush of the eastern end of the Lamar, ever vigilant for the presence of the Druid Peak wolf pack that rules and roams this swath of Yellowstone. A few hundred feet higher, I see elk and bighorn sheep grazing on slopes which are just beginning to green up. They keep careful watch for recently awakened black and grizzly bears.
Late April. The first red dogs of the season appear-newborn bison calves. Their auburn-brown fur glistens in the sun. Vulnerable, moving slowly, they wobble as they attempt to stand for the first time in order to nurse. Yet within hours of birth, they demonstrate surprising agility and are able to keep up with the movement of their natal herd. The term “red dogs” is believed to have been first heard and used by Yellowstone tour guides on park concessionaire operated buses in the 1970s, because visitors often asked, “Why are those little red dogs running after the bison?”
A little over one month later, a similar ritual will repeat, with the birth of elk calves in the park. These 30- to 35-pound calves are also able to stand soon after being born, but do not immediately run after their mothers as the red dogs do. During their first few weeks of life. their tawny, white-spotted coat and lack of strong scent help them to bed down and remain concealed from predators while their mothers forage at a watchful distance.
By the end of April, spring’s return to Yellowstone is no longer tentative. It is palpable. The arrival of returning seasonal residents, be they humans or their wilder brethren, signals a bountiful time of rebirth and rejuvenation. Yellowstone’s year-round inhabitants that have survived the past six to seven months of winter have finally entered an easier time, one filled with warmth and sustenance that will fuel and fatten them for survival until the following spring.