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Winter Wildlife of Yellowstone

Track eagles, elk and the camera-shy gray wolf
through the snowy quiet of the world's first national park

By Jennifer Davoren

Vacations Magazine: Winter Wildlife of Yellowstone
Ray Doan/Natural Habitat Adventures
"I know I'm doing something pretty cool if my beard is crusted with ice. My job isn't mundane."

Kevin Taylor, one of my Natural Habitat Adventures expedition leaders, might have grown up to be an office-bound accountant. Luckily for his tour groups, he slept through a key college exam and decided to switch majors, eventually honing in on the biology department.

And so, on this frosty February morning in northwest Wyoming, the guests of NatHab's weeklong, national park-focused "Yellowstone: Ultimate Wolf & Wildlife Safari" marvel at the small glacier clinging to Taylor's whiskers. The sun has barely risen, and Taylor's guiding partner, Paul Brown, reports an air temperature of minus 37 degrees, but we brave the weather to watch two individuals who share Taylor's indifference to icy winds and the ungodly hour: a pair of wolves known as the Lamar Canyon pack.

The gray male and black female are hidden in a copse of evergreens on the far side of a snow-covered valley, completely unconcerned with our presence. They're busy protecting a kill from encroaching scavengers like coyotes and ravens. In fact, it's a swarm of black feathers that first alerted us to this secret dining spot -- Brown points out that a large, hovering flock is a sure sign of a carcass, and with an estimated 440 wolves roaming the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, packs are a common cause of death for herd animals like deer, elk and even bison. Follow an excited group of ravens, Brown says, and you'll improve your chances of sighting a wolf.

Brown has spent 10 years as an expedition leader with Natural Habitat Adventures, an escorted tour provider with nearly three decades of sustainable travel experience. The company is the official travel partner of the World Wildlife Fund. NatHab has donated nearly $2 million to WWF projects so far, and it has pledged contributions through 2018.

But on top of preservation, NatHab is known for observation. Most tours are focused on wildlife watches in key habitats, from the Whale Shark Biosphere Reserve off the coast of Cancun, Mexico, to India's Ranthambore National Park, a top spot for photographing tigers in the wild. WWF research informs NatHab expeditions, and guides boast backgrounds in biology, environmental education and more.

My trip is helmed by Taylor, with a mountain man's spirit and a master's degree in botany; Brown, a keen bird-watcher and photography instructor; and a small army of support staff on hand to arrange meals, launch search parties for lost luggage and more. It's the kind of team you want on your side when combing Yellowstone National Park, encompassing 3,500 square miles of hiding places, for the elusive gray wolf.

"Old-timers say we have two seasons here: winter and August."

Our driver, Dave, is cracking jokes from behind the wheel of Cygnet, a cherry-red slice of local history. She's one of eight Bombardier snow coaches operated by Yellowstone Alpen Guides, and at 62 years old, she's the oldest vehicle of her kind currently touring the park. With skis in place of front wheels and sturdy tank treads bringing up the rear, she offers smooth rides through Yellowstone, which receives an average of 150 inches of snow each year.

We NatHabbers relax in the enclosed warmth of Cygnet and her sister shuttle, Rosebud, skimming slush-covered roads that, save for the occasional snowmobile or bison herd, seem reserved just for us. When we stop for a hike along a steamy geyser basin, we're immediately enveloped by wintry quiet -- it's a unique kind of peace, the kind only enjoyed by an internationally renowned tourist attraction in the off-season.
More than 3 million people visit Yellowstone each year. Many come for the wolves, an in-demand photo op since their controversial reintroduction to the park in 1995. While the packs can be uncooperative when it comes to posing for pictures, a more reliable resident is always on hand to put on a show.

Arriving at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge just before 5 p.m., we're immediately sent back outdoors, where a viewing platform wraps the lodge's namesake. We were warned that an eruption is predicted for 5:10, but even Old Faithful is given leeway -- plus or minus 10 minutes, guides say.

The geyser goes off at 5:09.

Geothermal thrills are a big draw for the park. In the high season, 25,000 people gather at Old Faithful each day. On this afternoon at the tail end of February, there are fewer than 40 spectators.

Many of my fellow NatHabbers have seen the geyser at least once before, most often on an Americana-seeking road trip with the family, but it's a spectacle they've enjoyed only in summer. Winter offers an entirely different view -- an obstructed view, at that. Most of the spout is lost behind steam as super-heated water meets frigid air.

Somehow, it makes Yellowstone's grande dame seem all the grander. Long after the geyser has ceased its gurgling, tourists crane their necks to follow the rising steam plume as it billows over the trees and mingles with the clouds above.

"Unit 1, this is Unit 45. We have animals."

The crackle of the radio has my group on point. A channel maintained by Yellowstone's wolf-watching volunteers reports a sighting and, this being the final full day of our NatHab journey, we're eager for one last chance to see a pack in action.

We've spent the better part of a week exploring the wildlife haunts between Jackson, WY, and Bozeman, MT, including Yellowstone and neighboring Grand Teton National Park. I carry a NatHab checklist to keep track of sightings: Coyotes, foxes, bighorn sheep, mule deer, moose and bald eagles are daily visitors on our tour. At the National Elk Refuge outside Jackson, we meet a few hundred of the roughly 7,000 leggy beasts who winter there. In Yellowstone, where an estimated 4,000 bison roam, herds act like escorts for our snow coach rides.

As the name of our tour suggests, we spot wolves on four of the five full days we spend with our NatHab guides -- but the packs weren't at our beck and call for photos.
My trip came with a clear disclaimer: "Every effort is made to plan itineraries where wildlife is known to inhabit. However, the animals we visit live wild and free, and we cannot fully predict or control their migratory patterns."

History also has taught Yellowstone's wolves to be wary of humans. The species was driven from the park in the 1920s, and though returned nearly two decades ago by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it remains a target for hunters, cattle ranchers and other reintroduction opponents when roaming outside protected boundaries.

That's why you'll need a pair of experienced guides on your side, securing the best viewing opportunities available on any given day. Brown and Taylor spent our week together rising well before dawn and working long after dinner as they made phone calls, checked maps and consulted wolf-spotters.

On this, our last morning in Yellowstone, we follow local chatter to the Junction Butte pack. Three members lounge on a hillside about a mile from our position as they keep a close eye on an elk carcass they've claimed. They're out of reach of our cameras, but spotting scopes capture details even from this distance -- the irritated flick of an ear, for instance, when a scavenging fox gets too close to the pack's breakfast.

This is an ideal way to see wolves in the wild, Taylor says. Here, we're close enough to have a clear view of the action through our scopes, but far enough that human behavior isn't affecting pack behavior. Our yelps of excitement, the slamming of vehicle doors, the crunch of snow under our boots -- it's all ambient noise to the animals, who alternately snooze, stretch and snack.

We might be a distant nuisance to the wolves, but the 1-mile gap separating our groups seems like nothing at all when their howls fill the air.

Your Expert Escorts
Natural Habitat Adventures offers several options for escorted tours of Yellowstone National Park, from seven-day, family-friendly trips to eight-day photography tutorials. "Yellowstone: Ultimate Wolf & Wildlife Safari" is a winter sojourn departing either Jackson, WY, or Bozeman, MT. Prices start at $4,495 per person without airfare, and seven departures are available between Jan. 3 and Feb. 28, 2015.

For more information, click here to explore itineraries or call the tour discounters at Vacations To Go, (800) 680-2858.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in July/August 2014. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 680-2858 for current rates and details.

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