Nature News from GYE #21 Jan 29, 2021

Greetings to all in Jan 2021. Snowpack here is about 80 % of normal, but it is still great snow. Many other parts of Montana have less moisture than The Greater Yellowstone area, so we are grateful for what we have on the ground.

my front yard this morning

This week I want to share with you how a slice of history plays a big role in Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. South and west of West Yellowstone is a geologic and ecological gem, Harriman State Park . The Henry’s Fork of the Snake river runs 7 miles through the 10,000 acre Harriman State Park ( located in Island Park, Idaho). The source of this river is a huge natural spring and it is joined by other springs and warm spring influenced creeks so it remains mostly ice free all winter. This area hosts a resident population of Trumpeter Swans, the largest waterfowl in North America. These magnificent white beauties can weigh up to 30 pounds and pair bond for life. They can live up to 25 years. The Trumpeter Swan was hunted for its feathers throughout the 1600s – 1800s, causing a tremendous decline in its numbers. Its largest flight feathers were considered to be the best for quality quill pens. Feathers were also coveted for decretive ladies hats and powder puffs! As a result numbers of Trumpeters were threatened by the turn of the 20th century.

Trumpeter Swans at Harriman State Park
Henry’s Fork of the Snake River

After the Red Rocks wildlife refuge was established in the 1930s, with feeding a breeding programs, the population of Rocky Mountain Trumpeters was finally on the rise. Eventually local swans were nesting here and in Yellowstone National Park. At the same time Swans from the northern populations in Canada and the arctic wintered in the rich habitat along the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River. Winter months the swan population is in the hundreds ( some accounts are in the thousands) and a highlight is the opportunity to see these resident and migratory Trumpeter Swans along with many other species of waterfowl, feeding on the open waters of the Henry’s Fork.

Jowayne has taken beautiful photos on our many adventures together
trumpeter swans photo by Jowayne Curran

Jowayne Curran, a long time friend who now lives in Idaho Falls, and I met at Harriman Park (about halfway between each of our homes) for a day to ski on the cross country ski trails. We knew the trails would be groomed and we would have opportunities to ski along the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River. We were astounded at the quality of the trails and the abundance of beauty in this area. This was an extraordinary day. We watched Trumpeters numbering into the hundreds and encountered some of the rich natural and history of this area.

This area is right in the heart of the Yellowstone Volcanic region. The Yellowstone hotspot has impacted a belt of volcanic rocks that began to erupt about 17 million years ago and now stretches 400 miles from the Idaho-Oregon border to the Yellowstone Plateau. The Yellowstone hotspot first triggered giant super volcanoes that created calderas near the Nevada/Idaho border . Since then, the North American plate has slid to the southwest, over the hotspot, creating a series of calderas that formed along the way as a result of periodic super eruptions. The youngest of the hotspot calderas is within Yellowstone National Park. Harriman State Park is situated on the floor of a caldera that formed in this sequence. Much of the horizon is dominated by long ridgelines that are volcanic in origin.

Volcanic Ridge lines on the horizon

At the same time, on a sunny day, the majestic Grand Teton range is visible in all it’s glory.

Grand Tetons from Harriman State park…photo taken from the parks facebook page

The Harriman family was instrumental in the building of the railroads that crossed the unsettled western US. Eventually Edward Harriman was the President of Union Pacific railroad. By 1908, the Union Pacific had reached present day West Yellowstone with their spur line from Ashton called the Oregon Shortline. The Harriman family, along with the Guggenheims, eventually secured the Island Park Land and Cattle company and purchased over 16,000 acres in the Island Park area. This was referred to as the “Railroad Ranch”. Edward Harriman was a future visionary and employed long-term strategies of planning, scientific management, and forestry conservation.

Historic barn at the Railroad Ranch
ski trail through the aspens

Wealthy business partners were frequently entertained at the Railroad Ranch. At the same time, John Muir was a guest on multiple occasions at some of their properties and had an influence on the family to consider the idea of preservation of land. Eventually this land was donated to the state of Idaho with the stipulation it would be managed as a preserve. More details about this can be found at this link.

I cannot leave out mention of the rich pre-european human history in this area with dozens of archeological sites, many dating to the Clovis Era. In historic times, this was a great hunting and gathering ground for many Native Indian people.

Obsidian flakes from a local source

Obsidian was gathered and traded widely throughout the local area and beyond. For hundreds of years, the Shoshone, Bannock and Lemhi nomadic people inhabited this area in the summer to hunt, fish and gather roots and berries. Typically, these people spent the winter in the lower elevations of the Snake River Plain. The Henrys Fork was part of the route of the prehistoric Great Bannock Trail between the Snake River Plains and the Yellowstone country. Later, on their “Trail of Tears”, the Nez Pierce flight from the army as they were chased from their homeland in Eastern Oregon and western Idaho, the Nez Pierce people stopped for a rest in this area before they continued on. They managed to outwit and escape the army’s efforts to captured them until they were less than 50 miles from the border of Canada.

Harriman State Park is an excellent example of a location outside of Yellowstone’s boundaries, but important in maintaining the integrity of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

It is this big picture, the entire ecosystem, that keeps the processes that are necessary for intact habitat functioning . Greater Yellowstone is considered  one of the largest nearly intact temperate-zone ecosystems on Earth. All of the areas, like Harriman, are critical for a biologically secure Yellowstone.

This is a big story I have tried to tell with so many chapters left out for the sake of brevity. If you have any questions or something to share, please contact me at Keep getting outside when you can. It’s so good for our hearts and souls.


If you know any young folks who might be interested in pursuing an adventure or learning experience outdoors this year, look at the Kid for the Wild Scholarship information on Scholarship applications are due March 20, 2021!

One Comment

  1. Jeanette Russell

    As always, great information and inspiration for enjoying and protecting and promoting a healthy environment.

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