|Yellowstone National Park
by Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III
One of the questions I am asked most frequently is, "Where are your favorite places in the world to photograph?" That's an easy one to answer because I give the same answer every time. They are: #1 Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, #2 Denali National Park in Alaska and #3 Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania.
I made my first trip into Yellowstone in 1960 and it quickly became, and has always remained, my favorite place to photograph in the entire world. Of course, I was preconditioned to Yellowstone long before I got there. In the mid 1930s, my immediate family lived with my Mom's parents and her three bachelor brothers in a huge house in Paterson, NJ.
That was a time when farming country started just one block from where we lived. My dad was a chief engineer on ships and had traveled the world. My three bachelor uncles were inveterate travelers and talk at mealtimes often centered on their travels. My uncles often traveled by car, when most roads were still dirt, to Yellowstone National Park. They would come home with little park entrance fee stickers depicting bears, bison, etc. on their windshield and the stories they told were of all about bears and bison. They told how each evening most of the visitors in the park would gather at the amphitheater near Old Faithful Inn to watch the feeding of the bears. Garbage from the hotel would be dumped on the stage and a procession of bears, both blacks and grizzlies, would come in to feed to the delight of everyone. The main interest in my life, all of my life, has always been wildlife. I just couldn't wait to get to Yellowstone to see all that wildlife for myself!
The feeding of the bears had been stopped long before I finally got to the park for the first time in 1960. My wife, three sons and I camped at Old Faithful Campground and drove the lower loop of the park. In the half-day that it took to drive the lower half of the park, we saw 56 bears. In the 43 years that have elapsed since my first trip to Yellowstone I've been there at least 70 times. I have been there at least once almost every year and, in many years, I have been there two or more times. I have been there in the summer when the temperature would rise up to the 90s (on the Fahrenheit scale) and I've been there in December when the temperature dropped to minus 39°F. On that particular trip, my 2¼ film shattered like glass until I learned to keep it warm by keeping it nestled against my leg.
The size and types of wildlife peaked in Yellowstone during the 1970s. After the bears were shut out of the garbage dumps in the early 1970s, many became nuisances by raiding campgrounds. The nuisance bears were relocated to remote regions of the park and I didn't see a bear in the park for almost twenty years. The increase in the number of elk severely impacted the vegetation with the result that the mule deer couldn't compete and disappeared from most areas of the park. Whereas, in the 1970s, seven point bull elk were common, they are now a rarity.
In the early 1980s pink eye, a disease that causes blindness and death in wildlife, was picked up by the bighorn sheep from domestic sheep on the summer grazing grounds on the park's northeastern border. Eighty plus bighorn sheep died and some of the rams had had massive horns of 16+" in circumference.
In 1988, fire burned over half of Yellowstone. The destruction of the forests in some areas was complete. Although the mile after mile of standing burned timber is an eyesore, it was a boon to most types of wildlife. With the forest canopy opened, sunlight could now reach the forest floor and grasses, berry bushes, seedlings, etc. sprang forth in profusion, providing an unlimited food supply for the ungulates1. Areas of plant regeneration also allowed for the greatest diversity of wildlife; it is by diversity that the health of an ecosystem is judged. Today Yellowstone boasts great diversity.
Wolves were reintroduced to the Lamar Valley in the mid 1990s and increased to about 225 in 2002. They are found in all sections of the park, are more frequently seen and are becoming more tolerant of humans, meaning that more people are able to get really good photographs of them.
Yellowstone has always been the best area that I know of to photograph coyotes. As the coyote is a direct competitor to the wolves, the wolves do kill coyotes whenever they get the opportunity to do so. Because of the predation upon a predator by a predator, the population of coyotes is lower than it was before the introduction of the wolves. However, although the coyote population is down, I found that I am getting more coyote photos because the coyote are often seen scavenging on wolf killed carcasses of animals too large for a coyote to kill.
The numbers of both grizzly and black bears has steadily increased over the past ten years and, although they are not as numerous as they were in the 1960s, some bears can be seen almost every day. Thank God, the policy of not feeding the bears is strictly enforced. When you do get an opportunity to photograph a bear, it is busily engaged in doing what bears should be doing instead of begging for food from tourists in cars. The most photographed bear in the park is the grizzly sow #264, who should have new cubs with her this spring of 2003. She is usually seen along the road corridor from Roaring Mountain north to Swan Lake Flats on the northwestern section of the park.
Photographing elk is not as easy as it once was for three basic reasons. First, there are not as many elk as there used to be and you can easily see that when you notice how few elk calves are surviving in some areas. That is due to increased wolf predation and it was to help reduce the elk numbers that the wolves were introduced. That part of the management plan is definitely working.
The second reason is that the elk are often scared from areas where they formerly concentrated by the increased wolf population. A pack of wolves, sweeping through an area, will push the elk out of meadows such as Gibbon or Norris and it may be days before the elk drift back. Thirdly, as I mentioned, the fire opened up many forested areas and carpeted them with grass. Having those additional thousands of acres of grass means that many elk don't have to come down to roadside meadows that they formerly frequented.
The bison herd in Yellowstone is holding steady at about 3,000 animals. These are wild bison and, for your own safety, do not approach them too closely; bison injure about fifteen people in the park each year. They can run at speeds of up to 35 mph and I know you can't. The breeding season occurs in the middle of August, with most of the calves being born the first two weeks in May.
Since the fire, and with all of the additional grass, the basic brush and browse of Yellowstone's habitat is improving and this is proven by the fact that both the mule deer and the white-tailed deer are coming back. Mulies are often seen now in both the Canyon areas and in the area just north of the Golden Gate Falls. I used to see an occasional whitetail just north of Lewis Lake, but they are now becoming established in Willow Park.
I have seen a steady decrease in the number of moose. Pelican Creek and Willow Park were always the hub of the moose activity and I have not found any in either spot for several years. The regrowth of the willow in Willow Park would support a good moose population, but the moose just aren't there. It may be that predation is just too high on the calves. A few moose are being seen in the petrified tree, Canyon and Dunraven Pass areas.
The tremendous drought conditions of the past several years has converted the grasslands around the northwestern gate to a virtual desert. Pronghorn numbers in that area have dropped dramatically. However, more pronghorn are now being seen around Mammoth and the Blacktail Deer Plateau areas and out toward the Lamar Valley.
The bighorn sheep have recovered from their low numbers and from September on can be found along the plateaus and cliffs between Gardiner and Mammoth. Several mountain goats have taken up residence in the area north of Soda Butte. Until six years ago, I had never seen a goat in Yellowstone.
In the warmer months, the Uinta ground squirrels, least chipmunks and yellow-bellied marmots are commonly seen throughout the park. Although not commonly seen, because of their small size, the pika population is good in the higher elevations. The talus slopes of Mt. Washburn are still the best place to find them. The mountain cottontail cycle is high and, if you bestir yourself early in the morning, they are quite easily found in the various campgrounds.
Many species of ducks and geese nest in the park and more sandhill cranes are also nesting there now. Small bird species are almost too numerous to count.
In my humble opinion, the photographic opportunities in Yellowstone National Park are getting better all the time. Someday, this will be referred to as one of Yellowstone's "golden eras".
1 Ungulates are any of the split-hooved animals such as deer, elk, moose.