Exploring conservation + ecology at Yellowstone

During our trip to Montana last week to deliver the Wetlands Screening Tool Training with USDA-FSA, we also had the opportunity to take a day trip to Yellowstone National Park. America’s first national park, Yellowstone is truly a gem – a real national treasure!

We started the morning by watching the sun rise over the Absaroka Mountains on the ~2 hour journey from Bozeman, MT.

We followed the winding path of the Yellowstone River as we approached the park entrance, stopping to get our binoculars and scopes out for a close-up view of a large bald eagle along the banks. Did you know?  The Yellowstone River is the longest free-flowing river in the country, at 691 miles long.

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Once inside the park, there are a multitude of vastly different ecosystems present, from grasslands to wetlands to the subalpine forest.

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DSCN9712cWe requested that our guided tour be focused on wildlife, so our guide Will took us on a drive through Yellowstone’s northern loop, stopping at several “hotspots” to try and scope out wildlife.

DSCN9767cThe bison were abundant (there are approximately 5,000 in Yellowstone) and Will told us that “bison jams” like those shown below are a frequent occurrence on the roads winding through the park…

DSCN9700cDSCN9731cNumerous pronghorns also made themselves known…

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In terms of other wildlife, here’s how we did…

Jackie had her eyes to the sky and was definitely our A-Team in terms of spotting cool birds.  The best finds of the day were the golden eagle and Swainson’s hawk – some spectacular raptors!

SwainsonsHawkLiz deserves a gold star for spotting large creatures. As Will, our guide, instructed us, keep your eyes out for the dark blobs and watch their movement. Many of the dark blobs are bison, but occasionally you spot something else…  Liz successfully found both a wolf and a black bear!

DSCN9710cI (Ann) really geeked out over the unique microorganisms in the park – thermophilic bacteria like Sulfolobus acidocaldarius that create other-worldy scenes like the Roaring Mountain shown below.

RoaringMountainOur guide, Will, did a great job explaining to us the balance of different creatures in Yellowstone’s ecosystem, and the population dynamics of how creatures both large and small are reliant upon one another. It’s all so interconnected! And then factor in the plant life, the microorganisms, migration patterns, corridors of habitat, invasive species, wildfires, as well as the interactions with people (both local landowners/ranchers adjacent to the park, let alone the tourists)… and you have a highly complex, interconnected system.

I know that each of us will be integrating many of the things we learned at Yellowstone when we go into classrooms this fall teaching young people about biodiversity and ecosystem balance!

While we did not visit Old Faithful, we did make a stop at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone…

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Jackie, Liz, and Ann enjoy the spectacular views at Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone — quick break for a selfie with our excellent guide Will!

Despite the millions of visitors the come to Yellowstone each year from across the globe, I was surprised to experience the quiet sense of wonder there – it really didn’t seem busy or congested at all, as people took in the amazing grandeur all around them. Our tour guide Will also knew where he was going and helped navigate the park, minimizing congestion and maximizing our time there to  experience as much as we could in a day trip.

Also, an interesting sign of the times to share – of course there were signs and information about how to stay safe around wildlife, but the National Park Service and tour guides have also begun educating visitors on how to appropriately and safely take selfies around wildlife. Don’t disrespect the bison!

IMG_20160814_130638399One day was certainly not enough to experience all that Yellowstone has to offer, but it gave us a taste and left us hungry for more!

Finally, a quick shoutout to the National Park Service celebrating its 100 year birthday this week. Happy Birthday NPS – here’s to another 100 years!

Ann Staudt