The late great writer and historian Wallace Stegner once wrote that “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” Since Stegner first expressed his sentiments in 1983, we’ve added many places as national park units to protect and preserve for current and future generations, and to continue educating people about our shared natural, cultural and historical heritage.
Yellowstone was my year-round home from 2001-2005, and I am grateful that guiding groups allows me to return in all seasons to the world’s first national park. Yet there’s something super special about being here in winter.
Things seem stripped down to their essence in Yellowstone in winter, yet much is going on here during the park’s longest season. Different animals prefer to make a living in, on, or under varying levels of snow. Voles and other small rodents tend to occupy areas deep below the snowpack and close to the ground, where the temperature is usually balmy, right around 32 F, no matter how frigid or windy it might be above. Certain animals are good at getting down to vole level, such as coyotes and foxes that may dive into the snow in hopes of catching these critters as a snack. Other mammals such as bison use their massive heads as plows to shovel snow away to get at sparse vegetation that lies below.
As snow depths and conditions change, predators may benefit for a while, or maybe things will favor prey species. Deep powdery snow may make it hard for wolves to chase and catch an elk or moose. In crusty snow conditions, though, a 100 pound wolf could easily stay and race atop such a snow layer, while a 700 pound elk might crash through and become trapped, potentially breaking its leg en route to becoming a meal.
Nature has no favorites in any season, and both predators and prey species share a dynamic web of interdependence with scavengers, decomposers, microbes, and other players in intact natural ecosystems such as Greater Yellowstone. Some of the park’s over 10,000 geysers, mud pots, hot springs and steam vents keep high elevation areas from being buried in snow, or stop bodies of water from freezing completely over, benefiting everything from ducks and swans to ephydrid flies whose lives are restricted to within a few vertical inches of these thermal features.
Yellowstone is a true winter refuge for many species, and its quiet, stillness, and vistas are enjoyed by about 200,000 visitors from December to March, in contrast to July and August, when over two million visitors pass through the area.
Visiting Yellowstone in winter is certainly not a draw for everyone, but for those who choose to venture here then, it’s an exceptionally exhilarating and rewarding time to experience one of America’s wildest places.