Three dark-colored wolves loped in single file on a stark, snowy, wind-swept bench along Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar River after feeding on the eerie-looking skeletal remains of a bull elk.
“There they are,” a photographer whispered on a February day in a highway turnout, about 40 miles deep into the northern part of the park at Lamar Valley.
The tight parking area was spilling over with vehicles and excited onlookers with spotting scopes and cameras with 2-foot-long telephoto lenses mounted on tripods.
“This is addicting,” said Don Andrews of Vancouver, Wash., as he peered into his scope. Right next to him was his wife, Gail, with her eyes glued to another scope watching the wolves romp silhouetted against the snow. The Andrewses were spending 12 days in the park in February searching for, photographing and watching the storied Yellowstone predator.
For them, seeing Yellowstone wolves doesn’t get old. They keep coming back year after year in winter.
“My kids think we’re nerds,” Don Andrews said, for the amount of time he and his wife dedicate to wolf watching and wildlife photography.
He carries an album in his SUV with close-up photos of wolves and other wildlife and readily shares them with other onlookers.
The album and the Andrewses’ dedication to photography in the park are testaments that Yellowstone is considered the best place in the world to see wolves, especially in winter.
More than 90 percent of visitors come to the park during the busy season between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day. The off seasons, especially in winter and early spring, are the best times to get a little more elbow room. It’s a chance to be alone on snowshoe and cross-country ski trails. Traffic is lighter. Except for the popular wolf-watching turnouts along the highway, there’s a chance to be by yourself.
“The best part of Yellowstone in the winter is that although it seems quiet and desolate, it is far more alive and only a few get to experience that,” said Molly O’Neil, a naturalist who conducts van tours with Yellowstone Forever, a nonprofit organization that partners with the national park to promote the Yellowstone area. She referred to a saying that the park is like a big white curtain that, when pulled back, reveals a variety of natural areas and animals, including wolves.
Behind that curtain, wolf watching generates about $35 million annually in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho — the three states where the park is located. More than 100,000 tourists come to the park specifically to see wolves, and it’s a sure bet to see them during the snow season.
Depending on the weather, January and February are considered the best months for seeing wolves, according to diehard wolf watchers. March and April are the next best.
Those seeking the opportunity for wolf watching can try to put together a last-minute trip this spring or make plans and reservations for next winter. Some wolf-watching tours book up six months in advance, and it’s good to make plans for motel rooms or cabins in Gardiner, Mont., the four-season gateway to the park’s north entrance, well in advance.
It’s well worth it for the chance to see the park’s well-established wolf packs. Yellowstone’s number of wolves hovers around 100. There were 98 in 10 packs living primarily in the park in January 2016. The number fluctuated between 83 and 104 from 2009 to 2015.
Those numbers bring wolf watchers from all over. Car license plates in the prime wolf-watching turnouts are from as far as Vermont and as close as Idaho. To some, wolf watching is a religion, and they make the pilgrimage annually.
It wasn’t always like that in the park. The creation of America’s first national park in 1872 didn’t provide protection for wolves or other predators. Predator-control programs waged war on wolves in the late 1800s and early 1900s and eliminated them from Yellowstone. The last wolves were killed in 1926.
It wasn’t until 1995 and 1996 that 31 gray wolves from western Canada were relocated to Yellowstone, and after a 70-year absence, the park became the hotspot for wolf watching.
On any winter morning, it’s typical for wolf tourists to be standing in remote parking lots listening to biologists talk about different packs and wolves. The biologists and volunteer citizen wolf spotters have radios and GPS-tracking devices to locate the animals. Their vehicles, equipped with roof antennas, are magnets for park visitors.
Meanwhile, the Lamar Canyon pack had just finished picking clean the bones on the elk carcass and started romping in the snow in a mating dance. February just happens to be courting season, which also increases the activity and sighting of wolves.
Over the last few decades, scientists and wolf watchers have become familiar with wolves in each pack, and newcomers quickly learn about each wolf. The best-known wolf in Yellowstone, which was beloved by tourists and valued by biologists who tracked its movements, was 832F. She was the alpha female of the park’s highly visible Lamar Canyon pack and was a tourist favorite for six years.
Unfortunately, she was shot and killed by a hunter outside the park’s boundaries in the winter of 2012. Hunting is not allowed in the park. The incident made international news and generated condemnation. Don Andrews lamented the alpha female’s death and said he was fortunate to have gotten close-up photos of her.
Still, other wolves continue to be visible and delight visitors. The park’s wolves, mostly gray and black, are easy to spot in winter because of the snow, even at a mile away. “We saw some. They were black dots,” a wildlife watcher from Vermont said. She was excited about the sighting.
Since bears hibernate in the winter and mountain lions don’t like to be seen, wolves are the primary draw for tourists. Herds of bison are everywhere and cause traffic jams on the park’s paved roads. Moose are loners and difficult to find but occasionally can be seen in the willows along creeks.
Pronghorns, along with deer, can be seen right on the edge of Gardiner next to the Roosevelt Arch, the northern gateway to Yellowstone. Elk, even bull elk, roam throughout the town, sometimes taking up residence in backyards. Bison can be seen grazing on lawns in town.
One of the best ways to get a handle on wolf watching is to go with a wildlife-safari-style outfitter or on a van tour with Yellowstone Forever, the nonprofit educational organization that promotes the park.
Yellowstone Forever conducts private tours for wildlife watching or specifically for wolf watching. Tourists are driven along the open highway of the park and taken to well-known highway pullouts known for the ability to see wolves. A lot of times the pullouts already have biologists or citizen volunteers looking for wolves.
Yellowstone Forever also conducts week-long learning experiences on wolves.
After going on a tour, park visitors get an idea where to go and can drive the Gardiner-Cook City, Mont., road, which goes through the heart of Yellowstone’s Northern Range, on their own looking for wildlife.
It ends up becoming a daily ritual, which reveals new wildlife sightings each day. Wolf watchers drive into the park at dawn and just watch for vehicles in the pullouts; that’s a clear sign that others have already spotted wolves. From the parking areas they can listen to where the packs are moving and go with the flow of other wolf watchers. Often times, park rangers have to herd traffic when there is congestion near a hot spot for viewing.
To get a feel of the park’s backcountry, visitors can take a break from driving and ski or snowshoe trails where they have an opportunity to come across fresh wolf tracks.
Hard-core wolf watchers stay out all day and head back to town toward dusk. The daily exploring pays off.
And for some, it’s an emotional experience to see their first wolf. One onlooker said, “I let a woman look through my scope at a wolf. She’d never seen a wolf and had tears in her eyes.”
Pete Zimowsky (aka Zimo) is a longtime outdoors writer for the Idaho Statesman who enjoys hiking and biking throughout the Idaho.
If you go
Go prepared. Yellowstone is extremely cold and windy in winter and early spring, so take plenty of layered clothing. Synthetic or wool long johns, insulated layers, socks, a hat, mittens and pants are a must, topped off with windproof and waterproof outer layers. Snow boots and gaiters are good protection. A neoprene face mask or wool scarf adds protection from the biting wind.
It’s also recommended that visitors bring along a piece of an Ensolite foam pad to stand on because cold from the ice and snow penetrates boots to the feet.
The road from Gardiner to Silver Gate and Cook City, Mont., travels through Yellowstone’s famous Lamar Valley and is accessible with a personal vehicle all year long. Gardiner is located in the heart of Yellowstone’s Northern Range at the junction of the Gardiner and Yellowstone rivers.
Rooms Gardiner, Mont., Chamber of Commerce, visitgardinermt.com.
Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing All unplowed roads and trails are open to skiing and snowshoeing. In some cases, when snow turns to hard-pack, the trails can be hiked. Here’s where boot-style ice crampons, like YakTrax ice grips, come in handy.
Some trails are groomed with set ski tracks.
Equipment rentals are available in surrounding towns and also at the Bear Den Ski Shop at Mammoth Hot Springs.
Information can be found at the Albright Visitor Center at Mammoth Hot Springs where, incidentally, there is free WiFi.
Food Gardiner has a variety of restaurants. For example, the K Bar is known for its regional craft beers and pizza.
Reading “In the Temple of Wolves: A Winter’s Immersion in Wild Yellowstone” by Rick Lamplugh
“The Yellowstone Wolves” by Gary Ferguson
About Yellowstone Forever
Yellowstone Forever, a nonprofit organization that partners with the national park, connects people to the park through educational programs and other activities.
Van tours for wildlife watching, or wolf watching specifically, are conducted by Yellowstone Forever.
Prices: one to five people, $610; six to 14, $825. Private tours are available and are customized by activity level, whether group participants want to go cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. Kids are welcomed and can participate in the Junior Ranger Program.
Call Yellowstone Forever at (406) 848-2400, or visit yellowstone.org.
Here’s what Zimo saw during the last week in February and first week of March:
Wolves from two packs, bison, wild sheep, moose, elk, deer, eagles, hawks, pronghorn, ravens, an American dipper and assorted songbirds and waterfowl