testing: Yellowstone's Northern Range Features Best Wildlife Viewing

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January 07th, 2010

Yellowstone National Park’s Northern Range covers some 540 square miles and is renowned for its diversity of wildlife and opportunities to observe animals in the wild. At the heart of the Northern Range is the Lamar Valley where two of the 20th Century’s top wildlife conservation success stories began.

Following are some of Yellowstone’s best-known animals that have attracted visitors to the park in much the same way that the thermal features have fascinated geologists.

The story of the bison is one of the greatest conservation stories ever and one in which Yellowstone plays an integral part. Bison in the United States once numbered close to 70 million, but by the early 1900s they were close to extinction. In 1902, the Yellowstone herd was down to about two dozen when a campaign to restore bison to the park began. Based in the Lamar Valley, Yellowstone’s Buffalo Ranch was where the bison herd was protected and where it expanded until it was large enough for the ranch’s fences to come down and for the herd to disperse throughout the park. Today some 4,000 of the animals reside in Yellowstone. Bison are found throughout the park and are easily viewed year-round, especially in the Lamar Valley. The Buffalo Ranch is now the field campus for the Yellowstone Association Institute.

Since they were reintroduced in the park, wolves have become the most discussed and controversial animals in Yellowstone. In January 1995, 14 wolves that had been captured in Canada were relocated to Yellowstone and placed in a pen overlooking the Lamar. A year later 17 more wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone. With close to 200 wolves residing in the park today, they are spotted on a daily basis, particularly in the Lamar Valley. Elk are Yellowstone wolves’ primary source of food. Wolves travel over the snow easily while elk struggle to maneuver in deeper snow. Wolves tend to follow the elk herds and can be easier to spot as fall arrives.

For many decades bears were the top wildlife attraction in Yellowstone as visitors fed the creatures, beckoned them to their vehicles and watched them visit food dumps surrounded by grandstands. In 1970 the National Park Service put an end to such treatment and insisted that human interaction with bears return to the traditional human/wildlife relationship. Rules against feeding bears were implemented, the dumps were closed and other measures such as “bear-proof” garbage cans and secure refrigerated food waste storage were enacted.

As a result, the overall Yellowstone bear population has rebounded to the point where it is the healthiest in the lower 48 states. It is more difficult to observe bears in Yellowstone than it was some 40 years ago, but visitors know that they are seeing wild animals and not a cross between nature and a zoo. Today an estimated 500-650 black bears and 280-610 grizzly bears live in Yellowstone, and visitors see them from roughly March until they enter their winter dens between mid-October and early December.

As the most abundant large mammals found in Yellowstone, elk are easily spotted in developed areas, near roads and in the backcountry. Their numbers range from 15,000-25,000 in summer and 8,000-20,000 in winter. The herd on the Northern Range in Yellowstone is one of the two largest in the country.

Fall is the best time to view elk as the bulls sport full racks of antlers and the rutting season runs from early September to mid-October. During that time, bulls bugle and fight to demonstrate their fitness and availability to females. Elk tend to move to higher elevations during the summer and return to more accessible areas in the fall to feed and avoid the oncoming snows.

Mountain Lion
Extremely difficult to spot in the park, the cougar – also known as the mountain lion – is one of the largest members of the cat family in North America. Some 15-17 cougars live in Yellowstone, but they also follow prey and move to lower elevations in winter.

Yellowstone National Park is also home to a wide variety of other mammals such as fox, coyote, bighorn sheep, otter and more.

Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the primary concessioner in Yellowstone, offers a variety of options for visitors to observe wildlife and to learn about each species.

“Trail of the Wolf” is one of several Winter Getaway packages available in the winter. The package features guided snowmobiling in the interior of the park and wildlife watching by van in the park’s Northern Range. This package includes three nights of lodging at Old Faithful and Mammoth, a round-trip guided snowmobile tour between Old Faithful and Mammoth, a “Wake up to Wildlife” tour of the Lamar Valley, two breakfasts per person, welcome gift, a one-hour hot tub rental, unlimited ice skating and skates and a Snow Card. Rates start at $411 per person for double occupancy for two nights at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and one night at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Rates start at $546 per person for double occupancy for two nights at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge and one night at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.

The “Winter Wildlife Expedition” is a Lodging & Learning package that allows participants to observe and learn about bison, elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, coyotes, wolves and other wildlife. This program features four nights of lodging at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, breakfasts, lunches, welcome gift, in-park transportation for field trips, snowshoes, one-hour hot tub usage, unlimited ice skating and optional evening programs. Rates start at $604 per person for double occupancy and $770 for single occupancy.

The “Spring Wolf and Bear Discovery” is another Lodging & Learning package led by a naturalist guide from the Yellowstone Association Institute. It features sunrise trips in the Northern Range to look for wolves and bears with leisurely hikes in their habitat to learn about their behavior, ecology and conservation. This program is offered starting May 14, 17, 20, 23, 26, 29 and June 1 and 4, 2010 and features four nights at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, three breakfasts and lunches per person, one dinner per person, welcome gift and in-park transportation. Rates start at $639 per person for double occupancy and $865 for single occupancy.

The “Fall Wolf and Elk Discovery” is offered starting Aug. 26, Sept. 1, 7, 13, 19, 25 and Oct. 1 and 7, 2010. This Lodging & Learning package focuses on elk during their mating season and wolves at sunrise and sunset. This package is led by a naturalist guide from the Institute and includes four nights at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, three breakfasts and lunches per person, one dinner per person, welcome gift and in-park transportation. Rates start at $619 per person for double occupancy and $843 for single occupancy.

To reserve Lodging & Learning or Winter Getaway packages, call toll-free 1-866-GEYSERLAND (1-866-439-7375) or 1-307-344-7311.

Xanterra also offers a variety of partial, all-day and evening tours in “Historic Yellow Buses” as well as bus and van tours from mid-May until late September and custom tours that incorporate individual tour planning directly with the guests.

Complete details about accommodations, restaurants and activities in Yellowstone can be made by calling (1) 307-344-7311 or toll-free 1-866-GEYSERLAND (1-866-439-7375).