If you are planning a trip to Yellowstone National Park, be prepared.
Yellowstone hosts around four million visits each year (as of 2016). Most of these visits happen between the months of May and September, but people do come to the park year-round.
I first traveled to Yellowstone when I was eight years old. My dad was taking classes in Wyoming in the 1970's and we spent as much time in the park as we possibly could. In 1970, it was estimated 2.2 million people visited the park. After exceeding 3 million visits for the first time in 1992, annual visitation at Yellowstone fluctuated between 2.8 and 3.1 million. New records are set virtually every year.
Yellowstone is home to many species of mammals and over 300 species of birds. Some of the most popular mammals in the park are grizzly bears, wolves, black bears, bison, elk, moose, coyote, pronghorn antelope, and mule deer. Some of the least popular mammals in the park (possibly because they are small) include the American pika, the yellow-bellied marmot, the long-tailed weasel, pine marten, golden-mantled ground squirrel, least chipmunk, pocket gopher, red squirrel, snowshoe hares, uinta ground squirrel, mountain vole and bats.
MAMMALS. Yellowstone is home to the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states.
Wolves. They inhabit most of the park including Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley. The best time to look is at dawn and dusk, which is when they are the most active. Wolves are not static. They move around a great deal, and adjust their hunting strategies based on where "food" is. Looking at averages, wolf numbers within Yellowstone have fluctuated between 83-104 wolves from 2009 to 2015.
Elk.Yellowstone provides summer range for an estimated 10,000–20,000 elk (Cervus elaphus). In the summer, elk migrate to and spend time in the Gibbon Meadows, Elk Park, and Lamar Valley. In the spring and fall, elk spend time in the Norris areas. Late winter, they can be seen near the entrance arc, mingling with antelope. In the fall and during "rut" the Mammoth Hot Springs, Madison River, and the northern range are excellent places to observe elk. As Yellowstone’s most abundant ungulate, elk comprise approximately 90% of winter wolf kills and are an important food for bears and mountain lions as well.
Coyotes. Yellowstone's coyotes (Canis latrans) are among the largest coyotes in the United States; adults average about 33 lbs. The coyote is a predator and will consume small rodents, eggs, and feast on the carcass of a dead animals including winter killed ungulates (bison, deer, elk, moose, and bighorn sheep).
Bison. Yellowstone bison comprise the nation’s largest bison population on public land. Throughout the year, bison reside in both Hayden and Lamar valleys. During the summer, they move to grasslands where they consume grass and forbes. By early winter, some slowly work their way to hydrothermal areas and along the Madison River. Other areas were bison reside include Blacktail ponds, Mammoth and Tower areas. According to the Park Service, "Yellowstone is the only place in the lower 48 states to have a continuously free-ranging bison population since prehistoric times.In the 1800s, market hunting, sport hunting, and the US Army nearly caused the extinction of the bison.By 1902, poachers reduced Yellowstone’s small herd to about two dozen animals. The US Army, who administered Yellowstone then, protected these bison from further poaching".
Grizzly Bear. The Grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) is agile and can run fast - around 45 mph. In mid-summer, they are most commonly seen in the meadows between Tower–Roosevelt and Canyon, and in the Hayden and Lamar valleys. Grizzly bears are active primarily at dusk, dawn, and night. In spring, they frequent areas near Yellowstone Lake, Fishing Bridge, Hayden and Lamar valleys, Swan Lake Flats, and the East Entrance.
Yellowstone National Park is as complex as it is wondrous. The Grizzly bear adds to the beauty, wonder and complexity of this treasure. As of 2015, an estimated 717 grizzly bears lived in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Visitors should be aware that all bears are potentially dangerous. Park regulations require that people stay at least 100 yards (91 m) from bears (unless safely in your car as a bear moves by). Bears need your concern not your food; it is against the law to feed any park wildlife, including bears.
When it comes to self defense against grizzly bears, pepper spray is an excellent choice. Like seatbelts, bear spray saves lives. But just as seatbelts don’t make driving off a bridge safe, bear spray is not a shield against deliberately seeking out or attracting a grizzly bear. No deterrent is 100% effective, but compared to all others, including firearms, proper use of bear spray has proven to be the best method for fending off threatening and attacking bears, and for preventing injury to the person and animal involved.
Black Bear. The black bear (Ursus americanus) frequent regions near Tower and Mammoth areas though they are widely distributed in the park. In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, black bears coexist with the grizzly bear. This is one of the few areas south of Canada where this occurs. Their food includes (but is not limited to) vegetation, insects, rodents, elk calves, trout, and pine nuts (seeds from cones). When it comes to self defense against black bears, pepper spray is an excellent choice. No deterrent is 100% effective, but compared to all others, including firearms, proper use of bear spray has proven to be the best method for fending off threatening and attacking bears, and for preventing injury to the person and animal involved.
Bighorn Sheep. During the summer, bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) sometimes spend time on the slopes of Mount Washburn, along Dunraven Pass. During the winter, fall and spring, Bighorn sheep frequent Gardner Canyon between Mammoth and the North Entrance, and the cliffs along the Yellowstone River opposite Calcite Springs. They spend time above Soda Butte and in the backcountry of eastern Absarokas. Horn growth is greatest during the summer and early in life. The horn size of bighorn sheep rams can influence dominance and rank, which affects social relationships within herds. Bighorn sheep populations can be susceptible to disease which can result in sudden loss in numbers.
American Pika. The American pika (Ochotona princeps) may be one of the cutest mammals you will ever observe. In Yellowstone, you may hear them or see them in the Hell Roaring, Tower and Mammoth areas, most often. Talus slopes near Warm Creek is home to a small colony of pikas. Pikas are amazingly fast and agile, have a cute face (with a permanent smile) and can carry tremendous loads of vegetation in their mouth. They also collect flowers. How cute is that! Pikas are not rodents. Instead they are related to rabbits. Like rabbits, they consume their poop and produce a round feces similar to the rabbit. The pikas do not hibernate. Instead they are active year-round; they agilely dart around on rocks and travel through tunnels under snow. They consume the food they collected and stored during the summer and fall. Piles of food consisting of vegetation, lichen, moss, mushrooms, and other goodies are placed in heaps which are sometimes called hay piles or hay stacks.
Moose. Moose in Yellowstone National Park and surrounding area (known as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem) are one of four subspecies of moose (Alces alces shirasi) in North America. Moose spend time in moist, marshy areas near lakes, rivers, streams and meadows. As of 2016, fewer than 200 moose are in YNP. Population appear to have declined in last 40 years due to loss of old growth forests surrounding the park, hunting outside the park, burning of habitat, and predators. Many novice visitors to Yellowstone mistakenly refer to an Elk as a "Moose".
River Otter. River Otters (Lutra canadensis) are the "aquatic members" of the weasel family; generally found near water. Park visitors and park rangers have confirmed seeing the river otter in most of Yellowstone’s lakes, rivers and large streams. Dawn and dusk are the best times to spot a Yellowstone river otter. Otters can be dangerous and have attacked humans and dogs. In Montana, a woman was attacked by an otter and suffered significant bites to her hand. Otters can close their ears and nostrils, and can swim for a few minutes without coming up for air.
Red Fox. The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) are active year-round in Yellowstone National Park. Humans have observed foxes in Hayden and Pelican valleys and the Canyon Village area. The many miles of forest edge and extensive semi-open and canyon areas of the park seem to offer suitable habitat and food for foxes. They are widespread throughout the northern part of the park with somewhat patchy distribution elsewhere. Foxes are not often seen because they are nocturnal, usually forage alone, and travel along edges of meadows and forests. During winter, foxes may increase their activity around dawn and dusk, and in broad daylight if there is a body of dead flesh (winter kill) available for consumption.
Yellow-bellied Marmot. The yellow-bellied marmot (Marmota flaviventris) live in areas high in elevation including alpine tundra, and occupy lower elevation sites as well, usually in open grassy communities and almost always near rocks and talus slopes. The yellow-bellied marmot and the American pika often share the same talus habitat and coexist with each other. During late fall, they begin to hibernate. Depending on the severity of the winter, they may hibernate up to 8 months, emerging from February to May depending on elevation.
Wolverines. The wolverine (Gulo gulo) is a stocky and muscular carnivorous mammal that is related to the weasel, and has the appearance of a small bear. The wolverine is an elusive animal. Scientists believe there may only be 250 to 300 wolverines living in the continental U.S., with most of those located in the northern Rockies. Recent studies revealed that adults live year-round in the mountains in some of the West’s most remote and rugged terrain. The home range of a male, they found, can cover 500 square miles. These tough animals are determined predators and consume smaller prey, such as rabbits and rodents, and even attack animals many times their size.