My first view of Yellowstone National Park occurred when I was a teenager, just after World War II, when gas was again becoming easily available and my father had purchased a 1946 Ford. I had pleaded with my parents to consider a vacation trip to visit Yellowstone Park for our annual vacation; I even threatened to hitchhike there if necessary. I had just purchased my first 35 mm camera, an Argus C-3, which was totally unsuited for photographing wildlife, but which I felt would at least be adequate for scenic photography.
My dearest wishes were realized when my parents agreed to the trip, and we set off in late June, driving via South Dakota’s Black Hills and Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains. These regions provided my first views of real mountains, which were soon outmatched by the amazing alpine scenery we encountered as we approached the park on the Beartooth Highway. We spent two days in the park, the most memorable aspect of which for me was the amazing number of black bears that we saw. We counted well over 50 within the park, including several females with cubs, as well as bison, elk and mule deer, plus a lone coyote. I saw dozens of bird species for the first time, such as Steller’s jays, gray jays and Clark’s nutcrackers, and had a fleeting but memorable glimpse of a rare Lewis’s woodpecker. I also vividly remember seeing ospreys nesting on rocky pinnacles in Yellowstone Canyon.
That trip caused me to fall in love with the Rocky Mountains, and thereafter my dreams always pointed westward. Following graduate work in Washington state, and later graduate and postdoctoral studies in New York and England, we settled in Nebraska, only a day’s drive from the Wyoming mountains. Thereafter I spent many summers teaching ornithology in western Nebraska, with occasional field trips to Rocky Mountain National Park, but the Yellowstone region kept calling me. That itch was finally satisfied when I received a small grant from the New York Zoological Society to spend two summers (1975 and 1976) at the Jackson Hole Biological Station in Grand Teton National Park. On my grant application I stated that I would study the breeding behavior of sandhill cranes, but after my arrival I soon was also being absorbed by watching such wonderful birds as trumpeter swans, prairie falcons, common ravens, calliope hummingbirds and mammals such as pine martens, moose, elk and coyotes.
After my far-too-short summers there had passed, I sat down to write a book about my experiences. But, after writing nine chapters in fairly rapid succession, I hit a writer’s block and couldn’t think of how to put together a satisfying ending. The manuscript then sat unfinished for several years, until one day I just decided I would simply try to tie up the loose ends of the varied stories and make a brief summation. That done, I drew about a dozen pen-and-ink drawings, assembled some photos and sent them off to a university press editor whom I had met in the Tetons. My book, “Teton Wildlife: Observations by a Naturalist,” appeared in 1982.
After that book was published, I shifted my writing attention to other subjects. Then, about three years ago, while visiting with Tom Mangelsen at his family’s Platte River cabin, I suggested we should do a book together. We had been close friends for about 30 years, and Tom often let me use one of his great bird photos for book jacket covers. He graduated from Doane College in 1969, and approached me that summer about starting graduate work in the fall. His undergraduate record was undistinguished, but when he told me that his father had a hunting cabin along the banks of the central Platte River, his chances for admission instantly improved. I quickly decided that I could discount his grades and think about the benefits of having a grad student who loved waterfowl and wetlands as much as I.
Tom remained a graduate student of mine for only a year, but during that time he learned the basics of wildlife photography with me during spring waterfowl migrations along the Platte River and during photographic trips we later took to the Pacific Northwest and New Mexico. He later visited me while I was doing research in the Tetons and soon thereafter decided to move to Jackson Hole. There he began assembling an amazing portfolio of wildlife photos and eventually developed into one of the premier wildlife photographers of the world. Given his love for Jackson Hole, I wasn’t surprised when, after I proposed doing a joint book project, he suggested that it be on the Greater Yellowstone region.
Writing a book on the vast Greater Yellowstone ecosystem of northwestern Wyoming gave me an excuse to return to the region nearly 40 years after my earlier research there. In the interim there had been major forest fires in Yellowstone Park, and the biological station had been moved from a relatively vulnerable site directly below the aging Jackson Lake dam to a scenic location along the shoreline of Jackson Lake. One of my most favorite sites, a marshy pond near Rockefeller Lodge that for about three decades had supported a pair of trumpeter swans, had nearly dried up. Sadly, some dear friends such as Mardy Murie, the region’s beloved symbol of wilderness conservation, had passed on, but the wildlife that she cherished had barely changed. The sandhill cranes still were using their traditional territories, ospreys were still nesting on rocky pinnacles in Yellowstone Canyon, ravens were still panhandling at tourist stops and the woodland flowers were as beautiful as ever. However, the chances of seeing black bears were almost nil, owing to a park policy of bear population control designed to reduce the number of dangerous interactions between humans and bears.
Since the fires of the 1980s, there has been a substantial regrowth of lodgepole pines below the charred remains of the previous centuries-old forest; the fires had caused the resin-coated lodgepole cones to burst open and release their long-held seeds into the newly mineral-enriched soil. A riot of colorful wildflowers, especially fireweed, now often carpet the regenerating woodland floor. Among the other changes has been the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone, which had been eliminated from the park in the 1920s. The resulting changes in the ecology of the elk and other large mammals, and the impact of the wolf-thinned elk population on the growth of aspens and other important food plants for large mammals have been substantial, and have also resulted in a smaller but healthier elk population. There has also been explosion of Grand Teton’s bison population, from a captive herd of a few dozen in the 1970s to a freely ranging herd of about 900 animals that are being legally “culled” by sport hunters whenever they stray from the boundaries of the national park, just as any wolves that happen to leave park boundaries are likely to be shot on sight. Nevertheless, visitors to Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks now have the possibility of not only seeing wild wolves but also a slight chance of seeing grizzly bears.
Both the trumpeter swan and sandhill crane populations have increased in Yellowstone Park since the 1970s, and the same is probably true of the osprey and bald eagle. Rather sadly, perhaps the greatest obvious change in Yellowstone in the past half-century has been the parallel increase in park visitors. Camping sites must be reserved weeks, if not months, in advance. In 2012 Yellowstone National Park had 3.4 million visitors, as compared with 2.5 million in 1976, and 800,000 when I first visited in 1946. During the 1940s, the narrow, winding roads were no problem; the major factors then tending to hold up traffic flow were occasional “bear jams” caused by people stopping to photograph, or even hand-feed, bears along the roadsides. Now those same mountain roads must endure the effects of a million or more cars in a single year, and traffic jams lasting a half-hour or more, and resulting from the sightings of a bear, wolf or even a coyote, are likely to cause frayed nerves and accidents. When I was last in Yellowstone, an impatient driver decided to bypass a bear jam by recklessly driving off the road and hitting a mother grizzly bear. The bear had to be put down, and the cubs had to be captured for zoo rearing. If ever a national park was in danger of being loved to death, Yellowstone is a prime example.
Yet, for all the tourists and delays, it is not hard to park your car, find a hiking trail and soon be immersed in the magic of the place and the moment. The things I most loved about Yellowstone as a youngster are still there; it is only now slightly harder to find them. The persistence of unmodified nature remnants and the natural processes that are still present in national parks are chief among their glories. And to be able to show your children or grandchildren examples of your own dearest memories, such as visiting Old Faithful with your parents or seeing and hearing a wild elk on a mountain slope, is one of the great joys of life, and among the many reasons we must cherish and pass on to following generations these marvelous symbols of a wild and pristine America.
Image Credits: Thomas D. Mangelsen