River Otters of Yellowstone ~ Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar Series

When I think of cute and cuddly mammals, both in kid and adult form, what comes to mind is the gregarious, charismatic river otter, which may be elusive but can be found in Yellowstone National Park.

I was preparing to support the river otter field seminar but I wasn’t confident we would actually see any otters.  It wasn’t that pessimism was rearing its ugly head, more that few otters had been spotted this summer.

There was a photography course running simultaneously with the river otter course and as the photographers were leaving for the field, I jokingly gave one of the instructors his marching order for the day – find river otters. His reply, “Since we are going to a lake, I guess we won’t be finding any river otters.” Ok buddy, I’m not that naïve.

Otter tracks…could sightings be in our future?

The otter class left for the field as well, hiking down to the Lamar River to scout for otters but, in lieu of the actual mammal, what greeted us was a fresh stonefly hatch. No matter how tightly I buttoned my shirt, those fat, juicy flies found their way in…lovely!  Although we found no otters that morning, we did find evidence they had been there recently – prints down by the shore, as well as denning signs and latrines.  We headed back to the ranch feeling one step closer to finding the real deal.

When the photography class returned later that morning they were gloating as they showed us photos of river otters at Trout Lake, just east of the ranch, where the cutthroat trout were spawning.  Our plan was to head there after dinner, hoping dusk would find these little cuties still romping around the lake.

Hiking around Trout Lake near dusk was lovely but devoid of otters so we headed over the hill to Buck Lake, where we found an otter trail but none in sight.  Thinking our day was going to be a bust, we hiked back over to Trout Lake and as we crested the hill we saw a mammal swimming across the lake and soon found not one but four otters on a fallen log, near the inlet where the cutthroat were spawning.  We spent two gleeful hours busily snapping photos of their antics – fishing, eating, and playing.  Nothing more would have needed to happen during this seminar and it would have been labeled a success.

Just a few stats on these little charmers:

  • The species found in Yellowstone National Park is the North American river otter.  They are a member of the weasel, badger, and marten family.
  • Mostly crepuscular, they can be best spotted at dusk or dawn.
  • They grow to an adult length of 3.5 to 4 feet and weigh from 11 – 33 lbs.
  • Long, stiff facial whiskers can detect prey, even underwater.
  • They close their ears and nostrils when swimming underwater, allowing them to easily stay under for 2-3 minutes.
  • They have large, fully webbed feet and a tail that serves as a rudder.
  • Females breed in the spring and the egg floats freely in the womb until winter, when it attaches to the uterine wall.
  • Typically 2-3 pups are birthed per litter.

We turned up ‘otterless’ the next two days but there was plenty of sign (scat) to collect, to clean and view under the microscopes, telling us on what these little guys were eating.  We were more than content with that. 🙂

Yellowstone river otters can most easily be seen in the winter, when their dark fur readily stands out against the white snow.  They do not hibernate like other park mammals, so can be seen slip sliding across the ice and snow.

If you are interested in learning more about the educational programs offered by Yellowstone Forever, go to www.yellowstone.org and check them out.  You won’t be disappointed.

Disclaimer:  The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Yellowstone Forever.  

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The Bison of Yellowstone ~ Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar Series, Part 2

It is 7:00 AM and the “Bison of Yellowstone” course is due to begin in a couple of hours.  There are a few of us mingling around the bunkhouse, enjoying our morning cup of joe.  As I look down the pathway to the cabins, I cannot believe what I am seeing.

I call over the students as I open the bunkhouse door.  A gorgeous bull bison, sporting a full beard, pompadour, and swaying pantaloons, is meandering down the walkway, heading for the bunkhouse.  His timing couldn’t be better!  He walks across the front porch and down the side of the building to the foot of the stairs at the back porch.  His behavior electrifies us as he grunts and snorts, then proceeds to urinate.  We believe he is agitated with us, as he trots off to the corner of the ranger residence next door.  He exhibits the same behavior there, then drops down, rolling in his urine.  As we look across Rose Creek, which runs through the ranch, another magnificent bull and the cow he is tending are watching, and this show is all part of the bull dominance so often displayed this time of year.  Welcome to the rut!

Beginning mid-July and continuing into the early days of September, the bison rut is on in Yellowstone.  Bulls do most of their communicating during this time of year, their breeding season.  Often during the rut the bulls could be heard from our cabins, snorts and bellows sounding more like a pride of lions.  It was eerie and exhilarating.

I watched from the bunkhouse as this bull was trying to tend “his” cow.
Here was his response to me when I opened the door to snap this photo. His bellow was hysterical.

During the rut bull bison focus their attention on the cows, trying to determine when they enter estrus, the time when they are receptive to breeding and can be impregnated.  A cow’s urine is full of information on when she is nearing ovulation.  The bull has a vomeronasal organ in the roof of his mouth than can analyze female urine and determine if she is receptive.  Sticking his nose into the cow’s urine,  he raises his head with upper lip curled, tongue reacting as if he is tasting a fine wine.  This action, called the flehmen response, is common in most ungulates.  We observed this behavior during our time in the field, after which the bull chased the female, a sure sign he felt she was ready.

So what does all this bull posturing mean during the rut?  Here are some of the questions that I had answered:

Q:  What does that raised tail mean?

A:  It could mean one of two things – charge or discharge.  When a bull or even a cow is agitated, they lift their tail into what looks like a question mark.  A raised tail is often seen on the bulls during the rut, as their testosterone levels keep them agitated much of the time.  As for the discharge, do I really need to explain that?

Two bulls…hmmm, wonder what that raised tail means? And what about that curled lip?

Q:  What’s all that rolling around in the dusty wallows about?

A:  All bulls wallow several times per day during the summer, probably ridding themselves of insects and perhaps reducing their body temperature.  No one knows for certain why a bull urinates into a wallow before rolling in it during the rut.  Perhaps he is showing his male dominance to other bulls, or is he trying to impress the gals?

Q:  How does a bull choose a female?

A:  Sorry guys, but the girl has the final say on who sires her calf.  The bull expends a lot of energy trying to “tend” a cow when he knows she is nearing estrus, but the cow is looking for a high-ranking bull, one who has been tested through a few winters, battles, predators, etc.  If she doesn’t think the guy lavishing her with attention is going to be a fit partner, she will take to running, prompting other bulls to chase her.  Who she ends up with may not be who she came to the party with.

Q:  Are bulls monogamous?

A:  Seriously, not even close.  Bulls are quite the cad, trying to impregnate as many cows as they can during the rut, in order to extend their lineage.  And if that wasn’t bad enough, they can’t be said to be good fathers either. After the rut bulls can be found alone, enjoying the warm sun, eating and ruminating, resting and preparing for the winter.  But I still love you guys!

A good-looking couple enjoying the sunshine in Hayden Valley

Q:  Now to the touchy subject of bison sex.  I don’t want to sound like a voyeur, but how does all that work?

A:  Don’t blink or you might miss it!  Bison sex takes a whole 4-5 seconds, with the bull putting his front legs over the flank of the female.  At the time of ejaculation, the force of his abdominal contraction is so strong that the bull is literally lifted off the ground, placing all 2,000 pounds of him on the cow’s back.  It’s no wonder that a cow can be seen limping for days afterwards.  It begs the question, can you blame a girl for not being that interested in sex?

Our bison class came upon this scene as we were heading to Hayden Valley to observe bison behavior. Two bulls were fighting for dominance, fur flying, stopping traffic.

Q:  How often during the rut do bulls fight, as in head-to-head combat, like we so often hear about?

A:  Surprisingly, bulls try not to fight with other bulls if possible.  They lose, on average, 200 pounds during the rut as they turn their attention to tending cows and having sex instead of eating.  Winter rapidly approaches after the rut, and they need as much energy as possible, stored as body fat, to help get them through the cold, harsh days.  Time spent fighting means time taken away from breeding and valuable energy expended.  Bulls try to modify another bull’s behavior instead, getting them to submit.  This is where all the posturing; e.g. grunts, bellows, rolling in wallows, stamping of hooves and shaking of pantaloons comes in.  The winners of this posturing don’t spare their rivals, rather themselves.  Some ecologists believe that it is typically the older bulls who are more likely to engage in battle to win the girl, as they have less to lose.   “An old bull is a bold bull”.

Because we have so much more to learn about these majestic creatures, doesn’t it make sense to preserve some wild spaces for studying them and other wildlife?

~  The Ends ~

If you are interested in learning more about the educational programs offered by Yellowstone Forever, go to www.yellowstone.org and check them out.  You won’t be disappointed.

Disclaimer:  The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Yellowstone Forever.  

The Bison of Yellowstone ~ Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar Series, Part 1

“Advice from a bison:  Stand your ground; have a tough hide; keep moving on; cherish wide open spaces; have a strong spirit; roam wild and free; let the chips fall where they may!”  ~  Ilan Shamir

Our summer volunteering gig in Yellowstone National Park has drawn to a close, a bittersweet moment for us as we hung up bus keys for the last time and helped pack up the ranch.  Our final days slowed to a leisurely pace as the crisp morning air announced the onset of fall.  As we drove away from the Lamar Buffalo Ranch we agreed that this magical place had seeped into our souls.  Without a doubt this summer, this park, has changed me.

One of many wonderful sunsets viewed from the ranch.

We are comfortably snuggled into a condo in the mountains of Colorado until we move to the big city of  Denver later this month for a family gathering, so it seems the best time to reflect upon a summer of learning and meeting some of the most interesting people who have ever crossed our paths.  We are always grateful to reconnect with old friends and meet other like-minded folks, and we did much of both these past several months.  What a soul-enriching summer it has been!

We each supported a dozen field seminars this summer and, if asked, I could not choose my favorite, although the ‘Bison of Yellowstone‘ has always stayed near the top of my list.  With two iconic instructors leading the course – Jim Garry, the consummate storyteller and expert of all things Yellowstone, and Harold Picton, one of the most seasoned Yellowstone Forever instructors and PhD bison extraordinaire, it made for a fascinating three days.  I have been so captivated by these big, beautiful beasts that I couldn’t stop reading about them, consuming four books this summer, my favorite being “The American Bison”, by Dale Lott.

A bison strolling through the ranch early in the summer, prior to losing his winter coat.
Yearling bison with a cowbird hitchhiker, who eats insects off the ground around the bison’s head.

Although so many who come to this first ever national park are in search of grizzly and wolf, and I too loved watching them through our spotting scopes at the ranch, I have always loved the bison, proud symbol of our American West.  After supporting this class, which took place during the bison rut, the love affair has only grown.

Who wouldn’t love this prehistoric-looking creature, whose history dates back over two million years to Eurasia? They have a long, beleaguered history and, with all they have endured through the centuries, they have still cleverly learned to adapt to their current environment.  Their complex anatomy allows them to thrive where other species would falter.  They have a blood supply that acts as a great temperature regulating system, cooling their brain as they expel water through their nose.  Their digestive system is a regular ecosystem, allowing them to eat various types of plants and grasses easily.  And due to the heavy insulation on their front-end, they fare far better in winter than other wildlife, with little change to their metabolism until temperatures dip to -40ºF.

A little red dog with mom, just a few weeks after birth.
Red dog with little horn buds.
No longer red but still being nursed by mom.

Each season provides an interesting study into the life of a bison – spring, when the calving occurs and the “red dogs” can be seen frolicking in the lush green grasses; summer, when the bulls become more agitated as they march towards the “rut”, the breeding season when testosterone-laden bulls strut their stuff and display their male dominance; fall, when the cows and calves band together and bulls begin their solitary foraging months, preparing for the desolate cold to come; and winter, when the bitter cold winds and the predatory wolf determine who will survive.

A small part of a larger herd seen in the Lamar Valley.

When I look upon the vast Lamar Valley dotted with bison, it is difficult to believe that in the early 19th century this herd had dwindled to no more than two dozen head, due to unconstrained poaching in the park. Today the herd has grown to ~ 4,000 in the northern range and roughly 5,200 throughout the park, thanks to the creation of the Lamar Buffalo Ranch around 1907.  There are no cattle genes in this herd, unlike all others, making it possibly the only true wild herd remaining and the herd with the greatest chance of survival.  Disease and sterility are the greatest threats to herds not truly ‘wild’.

A beautiful bull and his affectionate cow seen on the ranch during the rut.

Living at the Buffalo Ranch these past four months provided us with the rare opportunity to witness bison behavior up-close, from the safety of our cabin or the bunkhouse.  On many occasions large numbers of these beautiful animals, bulls, cows, and calves alike, graced us as they wandered across the campus.   Their presence reminded us that this is their home and we are just mere visitors.

If you are interested in learning more about the educational programs offered by Yellowstone Forever, go to www.yellowstone.org and check them out.  You won’t be disappointed.

Next Up:  The rut, filled with bison love and aggression.

Disclaimer:  The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Yellowstone Forever.  

Where the Wild Roam Free ~ Yellowstone National Park

Life as a Yellowstone Forever volunteer at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch has been fascinating – intellectually stimulating, spiritually enriching, a kindred spirit gathering, if you will.  There is a flip side, however, to this invigorating environment.  It is fast-paced and can leave one a bit fatigued at the end of a long day, but we believe the rewards have far outweighed any weariness felt.  As someone who longs to write about the wisdom gained this summer, sadly my schedule and being “off the grid” at the ranch has denied me the time.  It seems I will be revisiting my Yellowstone adventures long after we leave on September 7th, which we allow me to reflect upon a summer lived on this landscape and how my spirit has flourished from this intimate exposure.

Until I have time to sit down and write a proper blog post on life here in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (and I have so much material with which to entice), I thought I would share some of the summer wildlife sightings we’ve seen in this magical wonderland.

Enjoy!

Bighorn sheep spotted while hiking Specimen Ridge
Northern red-shafted flicker, a member of the woodpecker family, also seen during our Specimen Ridge hike
Although I didn’t have the lens to properly snap this crafty weasel’s photo, he reluctantly came out from under a cabin and posed for me. I think he got weary of me stalking him!
I almost stepped on this fawn during a morning walk on the Buffalo Ranch grounds. Her mama most likely hid her in the sage to protect her from predators.
Peregrine falcon nesting above the Yellowstone River. Terry was looking at him through a spotting scope and used his iPhone to take this shot.
Male pronghorn resting among the wildflowers
Uinta ground squirrel peeking out of the sagebrush
Mama grizzly and her cub in the upper-right corner of the photo. We were caught in a huge bear jam so I jumped out of the car and grabbed this photo.
Another predatory bird, an osprey with a meal, who Terry captured with his iPhone through a spotting scope.
This little cutie was found up in the Beartooth Mountains and couldn’t seem to get close enough to me for a chance to get his photo taken. What an adorable marmot!
Cow elk resting in the morning sun
This little fledgling, the last robin to leave the nest, was found later that day, having been attacked by a Uinta squirrel…RIP little one.
Little “red dog” with horns beginning to bud
This mountain bluebird seemed to be toying with me as I patiently waited for him to land on a tree branch.
This shiny black bear had just gotten out of Phantom Lake, romping through the water, as I sat in a bear jam. Notice the red ear tag.
This massive bull bison walked down the road, right by us, and up on the hillside during my bison class.
I waited until August to finally see this magnificent bird, the trumpeter swan.

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Lamar Valley Rhythm ~ Yellowstone National Park

 “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. … There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”  ~  Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Beartooth Mountains seen from the Lamar Buffalo Ranch

Golden fingers caress the eastern sky, drawing back the darkness and the sense of mystery that blankets this ethereal landscape.  The playing of light and shadows across the mountain peaks seems to evoke a spiritual presence.  It is the dawning of a new day in the Lamar Valley, a magical landscape that must be felt, as words fail to describe the sublime sense of serenity this wild landscape evokes.

Time spent at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch, immersing oneself in nature, can be soul-cleansing.  It opens the senses more fully, forces us to move “in the moment”.  Nothing here feels commonplace, from the robin who sings her melodious morning song perched on a rustic cabin, to the lyrical gurgling of the swollen stream that rushes past the ranch, to the tiny barn swallows perfecting their aerial dance above.  Everything is observed through a microcosm of acute clarity.

The air smells like sage, sunshine, and fecund earth. Winter snow melt and spring rains provide Lamar a cool, deep drink, resulting in a verdant valley. Springtime heralds the arrival of the “red dogs”, bison calves cavorting in the supple green grasses, never far from mom when they feel the need to suckle. The swollen streams that rush through the valley in the spring slow to a languid crawl in summer and bison graze placidly along the valley floor as far as the eye can see. As the lushness of spring surrenders to the warming of late summer, snorts and bellowing grunts carry over the breeze, broadcasting the “rut”, the bison’s mating season, when bull dominance ranking is challenged.

Beyond the human sight, wolf, grizzly, and coyote roam the shadows of the forest edges, awaiting that perfect moment when they are called to action, with the chance to provide a needed meal for their hungry families.  A familiar wolf pack, the Junction Butte pack, can often be seen hunting in the valley, reminding us of the disquieting nature that is the circle of life in the wild.  There is a poetic justice to knowing that these predators are part of the fabric of this lush landscape.

One can feel the sense of timelessness here in the Lamar Valley.  As the sun sinks lower into the western sky, the trumpeting call of the sandhill cranes wafts across the deepening shadows.  The majestic mountains looming over the valley floor reflect the geologic clashing of the forces of nature, and remind us of the intimate connection we all have with the wilderness, no matter our place in life.  To lose any part of these untrammeled wild spaces would mean a loss of part of our humanity.

A double rainbow emerges over the Lamar Buffalo Ranch following an afternoon rain shower.

The Lamar Buffalo Ranch is an intrinsic thread woven into the Yellowstone history.  A visit to the park would be incomplete without experiencing the magic of the Lamar Valley.