Saturday, October 5, 2019

Seeing wolves during Yellowstone Shoulder Season in Lamar Valley

In the third week of September, I was in Yellowstone and thought I would share some travel tips and thoughts.

Traveling to Yellowstone in late September is pretty far into shoulder season, but I had hoped the weather would hold up. The weather was good while we were there, but because it had snowed the weekend before we got there, many of the major campsites had been closed just the day before we arrived. I had been monitoring the supply of campsites online for several days prior to that, but hadn't checked the night before, so wasn't aware about the campsite closures until we arrived when we and dozens of others were all scrambling for the same few available sites. Campsites are pretty important in Yellowstone unless you want to stay in their lodges, which at least for our dates would have been several hundred dollars a night. So our first day in Yellowstone was us driving through the park with no phone reception and campsites not updating their availability on the few times we could log into the website. None of the camp hosts or rangers were helpful. No one seemed to know what was going on. We almost came up completely short when we got kicked out of a campsite that someone said they had reserved with a camp chair set up in the site, but another camper overheard our predicament and offered to share his campsite with him and his wife who were just planning on sleeping in their truck and had extra space. Thanks so much to the couple from Maine who so generously allowed us to share their site.

My first suggestion for Yellowstone then is that if you plan on getting campsites that are first come first serve, even during late shoulder season, book a reserved campsite for your first night and try to get to your campsite of choice definitely before 10:30 a.m. (and even sooner if you can swing it) to be sure you get a site. Because it takes at least an hour from anywhere outside in the park to get to any of these first come first serve campsites, everyone that's already in the park will have a competitive advantage. My second suggestion is that apparently some National Park Service campsites require a tent, so if you can make friends with an RV person and you have a tent, you could maybe arrange to share a space to your mutual benefit.

If you're interested in wildlife, I suggest asking rangers and even approachable tour guide operators or people who look like they've been here at least a few days early and often where the best places and times are to see wildlife. The last night we were camping there, a camp ranger told us that you can see wolves in Lamar Valley pretty predictably for the first few hours after sunrise (she said until about 9:00 a.m.) My understanding is that the wolf parents are coming back from an evening of hunting, reunite with the rest of the pack for some family fun, and then find some place to sleep. My ranger said that this is as much of a guarantee to see the wolves as you can ever make with wildlife. She said that if you don't see the wolves on the main road going through the valley, Highway 212, (if you're coming from most places in the park, you can make your destination Pebble Creek Campground and it will route you through Lamar Valley), you should drive up the little road associated with the Slough Campground. We had other places to be in the morning, so we never did go up to the valley in the morning to see the wolves, but I wanted to let other people know so they could plan better than we did.

Also in Lamar Valley are many herds of bison and people also report a lot of other wildlife sightings in this area. But get here early for wolves (or people suggest getting here in the late afternoon for other wildlife sightings).

Some thoughts on wolves, both here and in other national parks in the United States. If you haven't had a chance, maybe take a look at this video on how wolves can change the shape of a river.

I was in Alaska's Denali National Park this past August (beautiful, and I may do a quick follow up post with tips for traveling there) where the rangers dutifully told us that the National Park was established not for the highest mountain in North America (Denali aka Mt. McKinley) or for the Grizzly Bears or the moose or caribou or other myriad animals that we might be more familiar with, but rather to protect the Dall Sheep, which were being over-hunted in the early part of the last century. As such, the numbers of Dall Sheep were being carefully watched and in the early years of the park's history when there was a decline in the population, the common wisdom was that something needed to be done, and that something to be done was to start culling the wolf population -- the sheep's major predator. At the time the National Park Service thought of themselves as needing to be the caretaker for preserving nature. Since predators were considered destructive, no one really thought about preserving them. Instead, their elimination was favored. In fact, famously and as portrayed in the How Wolves Change Rivers video, they were eradicated completely from Yellowstone National Park for these and other reasons related to Yellowstone's rancher and farmer neighbors.

Young scientist Adolph Murie opposed any such wolf eradication measures in Denali. He did a decades long study of the Dall Sheep population and discovered that the wolves actually helped the sheep because the wolves would prey on the very young and the sick or injured, and as a result the strength of the herd as a whole was stronger and had access to greater resources per capita. This is pretty well-accepted science and even common knowledge, but at the time it was revolutionary and very counter-intuitive.

I hope that you have heard the Yellowstone wolves story before. If you haven't, the video is good on this point and I won't belabor it except to give you the TLDR: ecosystems are a lot more complicated and interdependent then we think and consequently to mess around with one part of it for the supposed benefit of another part of it is to play with fire. Despite this, while I was in Denali, a tour guide gave another example of people wanting to completely eradicate another animal -- mosquitos -- not realizing that they are major pollinators in the region for the flora as well as being a food source for larger animals.

The interrelatedness of everything is a great point and I think has a lot of really valid applications to the idea of a society with sociopaths versus without sociopaths. I think the benefits of sociopaths, like the mosquitoes role as pollinators, might be less obvious than some of the alleged harms, like the mosquitoes bites and disease carrying abilities. The outsized influence of the more obvious effects versus the ones that are less obvious to us may people to erroneously assume they'd obviously be better off without sociopaths and that there would be little harm to society from their removal.

This time listening to these stories at both parks, however, I was more struck with how absolutely certain people were about the wolf situation. Adolph Murie was ridiculed and maligned for much of his career. I learned in a fireside ranger talk that when wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone in the 1970's, the U.S. government solicited public comments and got more participation in that debate than any other public comment program up to that point in U.S. history. My European friend who was with me was flabbergasted that American's seemed to care much more about this than any other political topic. To me it's just another illustration of the things we know and don't know, including there are : (1) things we think we know and do know, (2) things we think we know but don't know, (3) things we don't know and realize we don't know, and (4) things we don't know that we don't know.

I think our global society would vastly improve if everyone was just a little more open-minded and intellectually curious without constant appeals to authority or expertise to shutdown a conversation and stifle new ideas. And this applies as much to sociopaths who think and talk about sociopaths as it does normal people who think and talk about sociopaths. What we don't know vastly exceeds what we do know, and we would do well to show a little more intellectual honesty about that.


  1. What I find absolutely fascinating in that video, though not at all surprising, is that it's a very powerful demonstration of how connected and interdependent everything is despite how different they appear to be on the outside. The wolves clearly don't give a damn about the rivers or anything that isn't wolf, and the rivers don't give a damn about anything that isn't river and yet wolves, rivers and everything in between are connected to one another and they work together by simply being what they are and doing what they are doing. They are not trying to force themselves on anything around them, they simply are.
    I think we civilized and evolved human beings have forgotten and ignored for way too long how interconnected everything is including us. The homeless bum on the surface might be worlds apart from the successful billionaire and yet I'm sure they are connected in a similar imperceptible way the wolves are connected to the rivers.
    So I agree, a little more open mindedness and acceptance could go a long way to a more peaceful and beneficial future not just for us and our society but everything else too.

  2. Sociopaths view animal predators as forest rulers that should´t be disturbed in any way. Some get really sarcastic when people (they see as weak cowards with rifles) babble about how they like to exterminate wildlife. A socio often sees the grizzly bears perspective.

    1. correction: ..that should not be disturbed in any way.

    2. Wolves don't care that they're wolves. They're just wolves.

      I've had this conversation with M.E. in a slightly different tone...bullying...I told her I don't like bully's, the hunter with his gun is just a bully, the sarcastic comment is spot on, anyone can be tough when you've got a distinct advantage, ie, distance, and a high velocity big calibre rifle with a scope, take that away from them, roll up their sleeves and put them in the fray and watch the shit stains spread.
      Forest rulers are irrelevant though, it's not so much a case of respecting their position in the jungle hierarchy, it just sucks, it's like running a fat ginger kid over with your car, okay, it may make you smile, but it's not really fair.
      Look at A, a dainty, beautiful, slight vixen (so he'd have you believe anyway), take aim from afar and you've bagged a trophy, take her on on her ground, and the wolf will rip your throat out.


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