More than 4,900 bison roam Yellowstone National Park. They quietly graze at the side of the road, move in herds across meadows and even meander along the hotels’ lawns. Woolly, majestic, and weighty (bulls can top 2,000 pounds), these symbols of the west are just some of Yellowstone’s impressive wildlife. Black bear, grizzlies, elk, wolves, coyote, and bighorn sheep roam the park and eagles, osprey, and other birds soar overhead. A good place to see Yellowstone’s animals is in the Lamar Valley. The habitat of this less-visited section of the park draws wildlife and the open vistas create optimum viewing conditions.
Although you can drive the roads yourself, for spotting—and learning—about the wildlife, it’s best to go on a guided tour.
The park offers two. On the Wake Up to Wildlife Tour, ride in a re-conditioned, 13-passenger historic yellow bus, circa 1936, with a roof that rolls back for wildlife spotting. On our Yellowstone Association Institute (YAI) tour, our naturalist guide, Josh employs his well-honed kills to find the animals, setting up high-powered spotting scopes to reveal the critters. Without his skills and scopes, we would have missed most of the wildlife.
Early on we come upon a female bison walking along the road’s yellow line, her days-old calf, its umbilical cord still attached, trotting behind her. Bison, accustomed to moving along paths, sometimes like to follow the lane divider. Mama keeps her eyes on both the passengers pulled over in their cars and her calf, urging it along.
Eagle-eyed Josh spots a group of pronghorn, who appear to the rest of us as small white dots on the hillside.
Josh scans the mountainside from the dirt parking area for the Slough Creek campground. Through the scopes we watch two gray wolves sitting in the sun and three pups playfully climbing over their mother. Further along in our trip sharp-eyed Joshua sets up the scopes at two other points in Lamar Valley. We see the Lamar Canyon pack as well as the Mollie’s, descendants of the first wolves introduced back into Yellowstone in 1995 and 1996 under the direction of Molly Beattie, who was then the head of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Our total wolf sightings for the morning: 12.
Josh pulls the van over and points to a high, rocky mountain slope. All we see are rocks and small patches of snow. Looking through the scopes, like magic, we watch a blindingly white mountain goat climb the cliffs, standing like a sentry on a rock outcropping, high above the valley.
A row of cars parked along the road alerts us. Josh points us in the direction of a black bear, his coat looks sleek and shiny through the scopes. Grizzlies also live in Yellowstone, although we didn’t come upon any.
What appears to be just branches in a tree becomes, through the scopes, an osprey nest with its mating pair in residence. Josh shows us how to maximize our videos by pairing our iPhone with the scope’s powerful lens to record some fuzzy, but fun, videos of the critters.
Without our guide, we would have only seen bison and pronghorn. While impressive, those animals represent just some of Yellowstone’s wildlife. To make the most of your animal watching, it’s wise to sign-up ahead of time for a naturalist-led tour.