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Nature News from GYE #20 Jan11, 2020

The interior of Yellowstone National Park is only accessible by over snow vehicles for the months of December through March. These vehicles are required to stay on the groomed road system (roads used by summer visitors). Some of this high plateau and surrounding mountains receive, literally, hundreds of inches of snow each winter. The snow can account for much of the moisture that supplies the groundwater for geysers and surface water for it’s mighty rivers.

Lower Falls of Yellowstone River

Four days in the interior of Yellowstone Park, in winter, with a group of friends is an experience of a lifetime. Last night I returned from this very opportunity. It had been in the works for a couple of months with Yellowstone Expeditions, a company with almost 40 years of operating in the deep Yellowstone winter. Visitors sleep in “yurlets” and gather (this year very socially distanced) in larger yurts where delicious meals are served. Indoor bathrooms offer opportunities to relieve one’s self inside and a luxurious sauna is a place to wash in the evening. Guests travel in “snow coaches” in and out to camp, as well as to the trailheads where we started our daily ski journeys. Everything is altered this year for covid distancing so it felt as though we had a private stay there. We were only 4 per vehicle.

Yellowstone in winter is a step back in time. Motorized, over snow travel is very limited to guided, quiet and low emission snowmobiles and snow coaches with the same requirements. Extreme temperatures can create crystal formations and light phenomenon that are feathery and other worldly. It’s a world of black and white and shadows with a Chiaroscuro feeling. (from Italian chiaro, “light,” and scuro, “dark”). This technique is employed in the visual arts to represent light and shadow.

walking toward a remote basin
Bison feeding in snow

The phrase fire and ice is alive here with the thermal features at play with the high elevation deep cold that is present in this hard to access place. Wild lives that seem to have a perfect ecosystem to survive in summer must either migrate, hibernate or adapt to the hardships of survival in this difficult landscape. Bison with their very thick winter coat move slowly through the deep snow. They drop their head into that snow and swing it back and forth to plow out a way to get to the vegetation at the ground for a winter meal. Snowshoe Hare, Ermine and Pine Marten and Otter are rarely seen, but their tracks are everywhere to tell the tale of where they have been the night before. It is exciting when an opportunity to actually observe behaviors of these winter residents!

otter tracks along the river

Some species of birds ( Clark’s Nutcrackers, Gray Jays) and Red Squirrels stash cones and pine nuts as winter food and we see evidence of excavations of these stashes (middens). We’ve also seen evidence of predator/prey activities in the snow as owls, fox and coyotes plunge deep to pick up small rodents moving in the snow. Other stories told in the snow are where wolves have chased prey and mountain lions and snowshoe hare have crossed paths! Winter tells a story that may be more difficult to piece together when the land is not covered with snow.

wing prints of a Raven
River otter photo by Connie Cusick

The contrast of extreme heat and cold also has an interesting affect on the rivers. A few, such as the Firehole and the Madison rivers never freeze, even in the coldest of temperatures. Some eventually do freeze, but it isn’t until later in season. All this open water provides opportunities for birds and mammals to feed along the bottom or on vegetation along the side, or on the other critters that are using the same open water! ( ie Otters feeding on the cutthroat trout, Eagles feeding on ducks or fish, Bobcats feeding on swans)

Of course, the beauty of a winter landscape is dreamy. The muffling affect of snow offers a silence that is only broken by birdsong, moving water, a howl or laughter and conversation of fellow travelers.

Below, I want to share a few photos from our trip to give you the visuals that make an experience like this so magical………

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As always, thanks for reading this news about the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. If you’d like to be in touch, send me an email at lesliehstoltz@gmail.com

May these wild places stay Forever Wild,

Leslie