Wildlife: Ho hum, just another grizzly bear

Wolf-in-the-valley-251x350From the driver’s seat of his Yellowstone Association bus, our guide John scanned a limited horizon through a set of powerful binoculars and abruptly stopped.

“Bear,” he said.

His intonation was matter-of-fact, as if announcing that the sky is blue and the forest green. It was Day 2 of GYC’s annual May wildlife-watching trip in Yellowstone National Park, and his modest enthusiasm was telling.

Only 24 hours earlier, not far from the same place in the Lamar Valley, John had looked through the same binoculars and halted equally abruptly.

“Bear!” he had exclaimed then, and our group of 15 scrambled excitedly for spotting scopes packed neatly into the back of the bus. Within minutes we were watching a male Yellowstone grizzly amble across a distant grassy hillside, with no apparent destination in mind.

But that was then — one day and a dozen bears ago.

This time, a few of our guests shuffled out of the bus and watched yet another male griz paw the ground for grubs or other delectable spring cuisine. Most stayed put.

Ho hum, just another Yellowstone grizzly bear. By this time, this group was searching for the proverbial bigger prey — the suddenly elusive gray wolf.

That the vaunted grizzly bear — king of Greater Yellowstone and symbol of our region’s wildness — was eliciting a collective yawn was at once striking and reassuring. After all, only a human generation earlier the grizzly bear was on the brink of extinction in Yellowstone and a sighting — any sighting was cause for celebration.

Today, thanks to the dogged efforts of GYC and other conservation groups, along with the support of our members, the Yellowstone grizzly bear is recovered. They have filled much of the suitable habitat in Greater Yellowstone and they are expanding into regions they haven’t been seen in a century or more.

Over two days, grizzly and black bear sightings were common. One couple who came early to the wildlife trip saw 15 before their arrival at the Log Cabin Cafe in Silver Gate, Mont.

It wasn’t that seeing a grizzly in the wild wasn’t exciting; now they wanted to see a wolf.

This hasn’t been as easy as it once was. The population is half of what it once was, about 75, because of a reduction in the once vastly over-sized elk herd. Nature has been working its magic.

The loss of collared wolves due to hunting outside the park also had thrown some of the most visible packs into disarray and made tracking nearly impossible. Only by sheer luck had our January wildlife-watching group seen the newly formed Junction Butte Pack at Slough Creek.

Alas, it wasn’t to be — at least not for the majority of our guests, who were nevertheless thrilled at the prevalence of Yellowstone bison and their rust-colored young, elk on seemingly every hillside (apparently a mirage or the work of Photoshop, given that wolves are said to have eaten every last one), and the sight of a coyote in futile pursuit of a pronghorn.

Small matter. Good company in magnificent country never disappoints.

And sure enough, for those of us who had fortuitous timing, we saw a young black wolf trotting west to east in the Lamar Valley on get-away Sunday, headed toward a den and pups after feasting on a bison carcass along the river.

We watched for many minutes and several miles as the wolf moved closer to the road and eventually crossed before disappearing up a sage-covered hillside.

Upon our return, we saw movement at the bison carcass. We peered through our binoculars.

Oh.

Just another grizzly.

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