On the Prowl

Yellowstone National Park wildlife, bison in the park, Outside Bozeman
Wildlife in Yellowstone National Park, bears in Yellowstone

On the Prowl

Bach Jr., Orville E.
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Spring comes to Old Faithful. 

Each year in the middle of March, the Old Faithful visitor center and all services shut down for a month as crews begin plowing the roads to prepare for the spring re-opening. For a full month, the Old Faithful area reverts to an almost wilderness-like setting. It’s at this time of year that grizzly bears emerge from their dens and the very first place some of them head is the thermally-heated and snow-free terrain in the geyser basins along the Firehole River.

Along with some forage, the bears hope to find weak bison to prey on, and they can expect some competition from the wolves. Bison will stay in these thermal areas, using nature’s energy to keep warm rather than burning up their own calories. However, it’s a false sense of security for some of the older, weaker animals. They may feel comfort from the warm ground, but unless they find nutrition and strengthen up, they’ll soon be sitting ducks on their warm “hot pads.”

When visiting Old Faithful just prior to the winter season’s close, it’s not unusual to see grizzlies and wolves on the prowl as you ski or snowshoe around the geyser basins. Carrying bear spray during your trek is a must. During the month of no visitation, animals are abundant in this area of the Park. When the Old Faithful area re-opens in mid-April and access is again available for cars from Mammoth and the West Entrance, visitors are often treated to sights that just don’t happen during the busy summer months. Grizzlies and wolves have had the place to themselves for a full month and they are sometimes reluctant to move out of the way as visitors begin trickling in. The rangers face a challenging balancing act attempting to keep the boardwalks open with grizzlies traveling the geyser basins.

This grizzly activity often leads to some interesting stories for those lucky enough to witness them. One spring, a few years ago, a small crowd gathered to watch the next eruption of Old Faithful and got more than they bargained for. A grizzly bear took down a small bison right on the cone of Old Faithful and devoured it. On another occasion, folks were shocked to see a grizzly bear running down the sidewalk in front of the Old Faithful Inn. Once, as I roved the Upper Geyser Basin on my bike, I arrived at Morning Glory Pool to catch a grizzly standing upright with his back against a tree, using it as a scratching post.

Eventually, with more visitors arriving each passing day, the brief, magical time ends, and the bears and wolves retreat further back from the road—to thermal areas in the designated Firehole Bear Management Area, which is closed to human visitation from March 10 to late May.

Early spring is a fascinating time to visit Old Faithful, but folks need to remember that even while the calendar says it’s spring, winter hasn’t released its grip on the landscape. Other than walking in the geyser basins, there are no trails suitable for hiking, unless you bring along your skis or snowshoes. The trails to Lone Star Geyser (five miles round-trip) and DeLacy Creek to frozen Shoshone Lake (six miles round-trip) are delightful, and the snow may still be several feet deep. Just remember: it’s a good idea to travel in groups, and don’t forget the bear spray!

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