YELLOWSTONE TREASURES: Accompanying travelers to the Park since 2002

Precipitation in Yellowstone—but not at the best time

Precipitation in Yellowstone—but not at the best time

Although the Beartooth Highway and Dunraven Pass opened on time yesterday (May 22), cold and rainy weather is the norm right now in Yellowstone.

There was less snow than normal again this winter, following a decades-long trend, but the park service announced a rain-caused trail closure on Wednesday. Recent heavy rain and snow caused a rock and mud slide across the Brink of the Lower Falls trail, and the popular trail is closed until conditions dry out and the trail can be cleared. Yellowstone Canyon District Ranger Tim Townsend said, “Right now the entire slope above the trail is still wet and unstable, making it unsafe for crews to work in the area.”

From page 185 of Yellowstone Treasures, here’s the thrilling view you will not be able to access until the trail is rebuilt.YT_pg185_2015-05-23 at 4.18.34 PM

Share Button

Wonderfully clear and sensible statement about the Yellowstone volcano

Thanks to the USGS and probably attributable to Jacob Lowenstern, this month we have a new statement from some of the world’s best authorities on the so-called Yellowstone supervolcano. They call it Five Things Most People Get Wrong About the Yellowstone Volcano, going at the problem of media sensationalism from the back side.

Lowenstern is Scientist-in-Charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory and studies magma and volcanic phenomena in Yellowstone and all over the world for the United States Geological Survey, Menlo Park, CA.

The misconceptions this article lists are:

  • When Yellowstone erupts it will be Armageddon
  • The Yellowstone magma chamber is growing
  • Yellowstone is overdue for a supereruption
  • Yellowstone is rapidly rising
  • Earthquake data indicates moving magma.

All this is well worth absorbing and passing on to any worrywarts you know! And if you want to read more of the “true facts” (what are false facts?) about supervolcanoes, the Volcano Observatory has recently updated another great page by the world’s best authorities on the subject.

Share Button

Historic Yellowstone buses you can ride

1937 Yellowstone Bus Everett Washington

A 1937 White Model 706 bus on display at Historic Flight Foundation

For me, guidebook editor Beth Chapple, last month was the month of the Yellowstone bus. Not only did I discover that one of my nearby aviation museums has a beautifully restored bus, but Wyoming Office of Tourism sent one over on a week tour of Seattle, to convince people to visit their state!

Historic Flight Foundation keeps famous, well-restored airplanes from 1927 to 1957 in a large hangar at Paine Field, Everett, Washington. But among the planes, including a Grumman F8F Bearcat and a Beechcraft Staggerwing, is a little known secret: they own one of the tour buses built in the 1930s to convey tourists around Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks. The museum’s website doesn’t even mention it, but it’s a beauty they’ve had since 2012. The bus was created by the White Motor Company of Cleveland in 1935. Yellowstone Park ordered 27 of the White Model 706s for the 1936 season and there were 98 in use in 1940. In the mid 1960s the remaining buses were sold.

The buses were brought back to Yellowstone in 2007, and now anyone can take a half- or full-day tour of the park in one. It’s a great way to learn from your tour guide and see wildlife.

back of Yellowstone bus

HFF’s 1937 bus has THREE license plates on the back, including Montana’s (not shown).

When the bus visited Seattle, it posed at the city’s most photogenic places, including the Fremont Troll and the Space Needle. Driving the Wyoming Tourism bus was guide Leslie Quinn, according to Beth Shepherd’s post, called “Yellowstone National Park: The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round.” We at Granite Peak Publications know Quinn as the Xanterra interpretive specialist who wrote the latest wonderful review on our Reviews page, which we also feature on the back of the guidebook. There’s something very cheerful about glimpsing one of the historic yellow buses with the retractable canvas top.

Share Button

Yellowstone Wallet Alert!

Like most everything worthwhile in our world, visiting Yellowstone—and the Tetons—will take more out of your wallet this summer. Entrance fees have remained the same for the past nine years. Fees are charged per vehicle.

About vehicle passes

Beginning June 1, 2015, visiting Yellowstone for one to seven days goes from $25 to $30 per passenger vehicle. Grand Teton National Park will have a separate pass for $30. This is a major change, since previously one fee provided visitors with a seven-day entrance permit for both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. But people visiting both parks will now be able to save $10 by purchasing a $50 two-park vehicle pass, also valid for one to seven days.

Motorcycles can enter Yellowstone for $25 for one to seven days or both parks for $40, and
individuals (by bicycle or on foot, for example) will pay $15 for Yellowstone or $20 for both parks.

An annual pass for Yellowstone will be $60. This pass offers visitors in the local area an option that is less expensive than the $80 Interagency Pass. Interagency Pass rates remain the same: Annual ($80) and Senior ($10). Military passes and Access passes (for people with permanent disabilities) will remain free.

Free park admission

There’s still one way for people living near Yellowstone to save money. Fee-free days in the second half of 2015 will be:
August 25: National Park Service’s 99th birthday
September 26: National Public Lands Day
November 11: Veterans Day

About backcountry passes

Backcountry pass fees are going up this year from Memorial Day to Sept. 10. These fees apply per night for all individuals 9 years of age or older. Backpackers and boaters will pay $3 per person, per night, up to a total of $15 per night for groups of 5 or more. Stock users will be charged $5 per person, per night.

You can purchase an annual backcountry pass for $25, and the fee for advance reservations remains $25.

Share Button

For wolf devotees and other wildlife lovers

For a small investment, you can watch from afar the comings and goings of Yellowstone Park’s wildlife. This is a worthwhile website with reports by real naturalists and experienced wolf-watchers.

Besides the almost daily reports, you can also find pictures of the animals and birds the naturalists are seeing. Spring is a great season to be watching all this! And it’s a time when—for personal reasons—very few of us are likely to be there. In fact, these weeks are also not the best time to visit most of the park, because not all roads and facilities are open yet, and because the weather is usually quite iffy until mid June or so.

Share Button

A week with wolves

Guest Post by Rita Reining, a nature lover and outdoor enthusiast. She can often be found hiking the hills around her home in Oakland, CA and serves as a docent in the Natural Sciences Gallery of the Oakland Museum of California.

When my friend Ellen and I decided to sign up for Wolf Week—a five-day course presented by the Yellowstone Association at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch the last week in March—I had no idea of the adventure that was in store.

After dinner on our first evening the instructors gave out a picture and a short bio of a wolf living on the North Range of the park to each pair of participants. Each couple presented their wolf information to the group. We learned about the 11 different packs in the park, but we concentrated on the eight packs that currently call the North Range home. The specific wolves we learned about all have radio collars. The wolves generally don’t have names but are known by their number. Also, we learned a little of the genealogy of the wolves, many of whom are descendants of the Druid pack which were the original wolves introduced to Yellowstone in 1995. We felt a bit better acquainted with specific wolves and the packs that we might encounter.

The next morning (and for the following two mornings) we were up at 5 AM in order to be on the bus to start looking for the wolves before sun-up. We drove to the Little America area where we came upon a group of people with spotting scopes focused on the Junction Butte (JB) pack about one-half mile away up the hillside enjoying the remains of an elk brought down a couple of days earlier. We quickly set up our scopes to observe our first wild wolves of this trip. It was so exciting!

As we watched them, I was surprised that their behavior was quite sociable. When we arrived, the big gray alpha male, 911M, was eating. A bit later the alpha female, 970F, and then two other females settled in to feed. No snarling or fighting such as I had expected. When it seemed that all had had their fill, the pack began to howl. First one, then another, then everyone. Each wolf has its own tone and voice. It was an exhilarating chorus. From across the way, more howling was heard. This was by the Prospect Peak pack (PP). The JBs evidently did not want to interact with the PPs and they ran up the hill and disappeared over the ridge.
Wolf March 2015 by Rita Reining
There are several groups of dedicated wolf watchers. First there are those who are associated with The Wolf Project, consisting of teams who follow all the packs in the park. Then there are the rangers, photographers, bloggers, and local residents who are out every day recording and reporting what they see. All seem to be connected by radio, and we relied on this communication every day in order to follow the wolves.

Thus, we learned that there was wolf activity in the Lamar Valley. This time we watched a gray pup of the Lamar Canyon (LC) pack busy at an old bison carcass. Soon the black alpha female, 926F, walked by, stopped for a moment by the carcass and continued on her way, followed by another black pup.

We followed 926F and her six pups’ activities during our wolf week. The picture above was taken by Jane Morse, a fellow participant, and this wolf looks very much like 926F. The stories about 926F made our observations all the more interesting.

About ten days before we arrived in Yellowstone, the LC alpha male was killed by the PPs. (The highest cause of wolf deaths is by other wolves.) The larger PP pack encountered the smaller LC pack. The reason for the PP aggression is unknown, but as they were advancing on the LCs, all the LCs ran away except the alpha male. He stood his ground as the PPs edged closer, and then he turned and ran away in the opposite direction from the rest of his pack. Unfortunately the PPs caught and attacked him, leaving him for dead. 926F came back and lay by him as he died.

Now 926F had become the leader of the LC pack, consisting only of a pregnant 926F and her six yearling pups. She was solely responsible for getting food for herself and her pups. Wolves only begin to learn to hunt after their first year. 926F will need a new mate. All the wolf watchers were concerned for the future of the LC pack. 926F would be denning soon to have her new pups. Mother wolves do not leave the den until the pups can be left without her for a short time. Usually the alpha male stays near her, and he and other members of the pack bring her food. The LC wolves were in danger of starving, since the yearling pups were useless as hunters.

The next morning we saw a deer carcass in the ditch by the road. It had been hit by a car the night before. Here was a free meal, and 926F walked right by a small herd of bighorn sheep to get to the carcass. But she ran off when the rangers came to move the carcass away from the road for the safety of the wolves as well as to avoid a traffic jam. As soon as the rangers left, a golden eagle, some magpies, and a coyote returned to the carcass. But, 926F wasn’t going to let the lesser beings take food away from her and her pups, so about noon she came and dragged the carcass into the woods.

On the final morning in the field we went back to where we had last seen 926F. We had only just left the bus when we heard her howling. Shortly, her pups joined in. The howling had the bighorn sheep across the road on high alert, but we couldn’t spot any of the wolves. About a half hour later, we saw them crossing the ridge under a cliff. A lone bull elk was standing at attention on an outcropping as they passed by him within 100 yards. The pack seemed to ignore him. Two elk were on top of the cliff, on alert, scanning in opposite directions. Just then we saw one of the pups approaching the elk. Both elk turned and faced the wolf. The wolf got to about 50 feet from the elk, stopped, backed up a couple of paces and gave the elk a wide berth as he walked around them. Then we saw him walking toward the elk from uphill. He more or less repeated his previous approach from below, then walked away. Maybe he was just practicing for future hunts. This was the closest we came to seeing any real drama on this trip.

The pack was moving west, so we went west to the other side of the ridge. We spotted the pack bedded down at the edge of the woods. After a while they began to move around. I watched as one of the pups laid on his back in the snow rolling back and forth, just like my dog does. Making wolf “angels”?

Then 926F must have given some signal. She started moving west again at a determined pace with the pups following. We watched until they were out of sight.

All too soon our week at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch ended. We left Yellowstone hoping to sign up in the future for another exciting and interesting course with the Yellowstone Association. Also, I was wondering what the future would be for 926F.

Post script for 926F: Shortly after my visit, four adult males from another pack joined the LCs. The wolf watchers were optimistic that 926F would choose her alpha male from one of them and, with the yearling pups, have a sustainable pack. It was not to be. As of a month after I left Yellowstone, I learned that 926F was now alone. Her yearlings were gone and so were all four of the males. The last I heard, 926F had not yet gone to den. She is very lean but has managed so far to survive on her own. Her saga continues.

Share Button

“The Wild Lab” of Yellowstone Park

Today I’m thinking about Yellowstone’s animals, the “charismatic megafauna”—an expression that makes me smile. And I’m anticipating being able to present my first-ever guest blog, by my friend Rita Reining. Rita took part in a late season wolf-watching seminar this winter given by the Yellowstone Institute. Their next winter’s classes are not yet listed but will be up by August or September.

YT174 copy
Wolf picture from “Yellowstone Treasures,” page 351

Awaiting her article, I’ll pass on some thoughts inspired by a Science Magazine article, “Lessons from the Wild Lab,” March 20, 2015, pages 1302–7.

A video circulating on the Web a few months ago attributed recent changes in Yellowstone’s environment to the reintroduction of gray wolves, beginning in 1995. The video seemed to claim that the observed changes, all the way through the animal and plant kingdoms to the re-channeling of rivers, were due to predation on elk by wolves. However, according to writer Virginia Morell from Yellowstone, scientists disagree as to whether or not the coming of the wolves was the only trigger for observed changes “in species from elk to coyotes to willows to bison to beavers.” She cites cougars, grizzly bears, and drought as partners in the park’s transformation.

Wolves and cougars were both extirpated by the early 1930s. Coyotes, however, have been protected from 1936 on—a discrimination in the ruling that I have never understood, since these smaller canids can also prey on animals as large as deer or (very occasionally) elk and have even been known to attack humans.

In addition to the larger predators, Douglas W. Smith, the Yellowstone Wolf Project leader, who has studied wolves for more than three decades, says that smaller predators and humans should be factored in to the great depletion of the elk herd since wolves came to the park.

Here are a few megafauna statistics from Morell’s article:

Elk:
1994, more than 19,000 in the northern range of Yellowstone
2008, just over 6,000

Cougars (known in the park):
1972, almost none
1995, estimated at 15 to 20
2015, estimated at about 35, a “natural experiment,” according to Morell, “but they are
rarely seen and do not howl”

Bison:
1997 (after slaughter of 1,000), about 1,600
2004, over 4,000
2014, 4,900

Beaver colonies:
2014, 12 (but the
park website
) gives 112 beaver colonies in 2011.)*

Wolves:
1994, none
2013, 95 in the park; 34 on the northern range

Human visitors:
2014: 3.6 million.

– – – – –
*From the NPS Yellowstone website: “The increase [in beavers] has occurred throughout the park and is likely related to the resurgence in willow since the late 1990s, at least on the northern range, and possibly in the park interior.”

Share Button

Yellowstone Park is opening up again!

Roosevelt Cabins

Roosevelt Cabins to open June 5, 2015

Yellowstone’s roads and facilities are about to open to cars for the season. First will be the roads to Old Faithful from Mammoth and West Yellowstone and the Norris to Canyon road, all on April 17, 2015. Gradually the other roads will be ready: on May first you can drive from the East Entrance to Lake and Canyon and last (this year) will be Craig Pass between Old Faithful and West Thumb, where a new bridge is being built at Isa Lake.

The facilities open gradually, too, beginning with Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hotel on May first. The last to open will be Roosevelt Cabins on June 5. Campgrounds also open gradually, although the Mammoth Campground is open all year. You can find all the details on this page: “Opening & Closing Dates of Facilities.”

Credit: NPS Photo by David Restivo

Share Button

Science for Parks conference, final part

6. Where has science in the national parks come from and where will it be going?

The Science for Parks, Parks for Science conference in Berkeley, March 25-27, 2015, took stock of the accomplishments of the past hundred years and pointed the way that national parks should take in the future. Scientists and budding scientists presented sessions, discussions, and posters about the work they have done and what is soon to come for the parks.

Taking in any of the more than one hundred poster sessions on Thursday afternoon turned out to be impossible for me, but the conference program listed posters on such topics as invasive species, pollution, environmental planning, and engaging the public.

Nearly a hundred short presentations took place concurrently on Friday morning in eight different rooms, meaning I could only attend a dozen of them in the three-and-one-half hours allotted. I chose to learn about light pollution—NPS scientists study this in some of today’s 407 discrete park units. Then I learned about what they’ve been doing since 1953 at the University of Wyoming / National Park Service Research Center in Grand Teton National Park. And I listened to the talks about analyzing visitors’ winter use of Yellowstone.

Themes that resonate in my mind as I sum up the conference are (1) the importance of children’s gaining experience in the out-of-doors and (2) the efforts being made by many to engage the public, to encourage “citizen science.” Two of the many mentions of the first theme were when Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told us that the best classrooms are the ones without walls, and E. O. Wilson reminisced about his days of collecting insects and then snakes in southern Alabama.

In connection with citizen science, speaker John Francis, the vice president for science of the National Geographic Society, titled his talk, “The World is a Park.” He told us how, since 2007, in eight different parks, students and community members have joined scientists for a 24-hour species count. These events have taken place from Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. This year’s event will take place in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park on May 15 and 16. Participants age eight and over explore and inventory plants, animals, birds, fungi, fish, and any other organisms they find that make up a park. Downloading the iNaturalist.org app will aid in documenting species.

The task of closing out this summit conference fell to steering committee chairman, Steve Beissinger, UC–Berkeley Professor of Conservation Biology, speaking on “1915, 2015, 2115, The Fall and Rise of Science in the Parks.” Epitomizing how science works in three short equations, he showed us:

Data + Theory = Model (or Hypothesis)
Model + [more] Data = Predictions]
Predictions + New Data = Test

Then he drew arrows leading back from the third line to the others, showing how the model feeds back on itself. And he added the importance of peer reviewers to the scientific mix.

Professor Beissinger also traced scientific development or the rise of science in the parks from 1916, when first NPS Director Stephen Mather invested in infrastructure (but not science) through George Wright’s assistance in establishing a wildlife division in 1928, to the 1941 decimation of all science in the parks due to World War II. But in 1963 a National Academy of Science report again stimulated research, and finally in 1999 Cooperative Ecosystem Study Units were established in several universities, with the beginning of inventory and monitoring programs soon after.

Beissinger reminded us of suggestions made by other speakers as to how to steward the parks through the inevitable changes they face. Pointing out that we cannot wait for today’s fourth graders to grow up and vote wisely, he joked that perhaps we could engage with some of today’s voters by having a “Tea Party Day”: give such voters free park passes and perhaps a crumpet for each!

The speech ended with a few practical ideas Beissinger thinks are needed, such as increasing the number of NPS biologists and removing barriers that make research difficult for scientists. Berkeley may aid by developing a “Center for Parks, People, and Biodiversity.”

And the conference was over.

Share Button

Science for Parks conference, part 5

5. Conference Keynoter E. O. Wilson

A great many people in the Wheeler Hall crowd on March 26, 2015, had the same feeling: We are in the presence of the world’s foremost living biologist, a man who has made a big difference in many fields of endeavor. We were not disappointed in his address.

Born in 1929 and raised in Alabama, Edward Osborne Wilson became the world’s leading expert on ants, but he has studied and written on numerous subjects relating to the natural world. The prizes awarded him are amazingly numerous and include the 2012 International Cosmos Prize and two Pulitzer Nonfiction prizes, for On Human Nature (1979) and The Ants (1991, with Bert Hölldobler). Berkeley Professor Steve Beissinger, who introduced Wilson, said his own favorite book by the speaker is his autobiography, The Naturalist (2006).

E. O. Wilson lord of the ants keynoter
Picture source: PBS
Dr. Wilson is now a Harvard emeritus professor and a special lecturer at Duke University, where he located his E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. The goal of this foundation is to forward stewardship of the world through biodiversity and education. Another center established in his name is the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center near Freeport, Florida, whose mission is “making naturalists in an outdoor extension of the science classroom.”

Wilson calls his religious position “provisional deism” and feels that religious leaders and scientists should build an alliance. But his human sociobiology ideas (the study of the biological basis of all forms of social behavior in both animals and man) have met with opposition.

Of course, it will be impossible to sum up what E. O. Wilson said in a few paragraphs, but I will pass on some high points for readers who do not plan to listen to the entire talk (starting at 2:30 in the video).

Beginning with what scientists have learned in the field of biodiversity in the past twenty years, Wilson defined it as the “collectivity of all inherited variation in any given place.” It can be divided into three levels: ecosystems, such as ponds or forest patches; the species in an ecosystem; and the genes in each species. Only about one-fifth of all the probable species in the world have been discovered and named as yet. This census needs to be sped up; among the national parks Great Smoky National Park has so far the most complete U.S. census, and about 18,000 species are known to live there. “We live on a little-known planet,” he says.

Moving on to the subjects of species extinction and efforts to preserve species, Wilson told us that the global extinction rate is some one thousand times greater now than before the coming of humans to the planet. “Prospects for the rest of this century are grim,” and “loss of natural habitat is the primary cause of biodiversity extinction.” Can we believe, he asks, that future humans can manage life in a system devoid of all or most of the species that took three-and-one-half billion years to put together?

As of 2015 about 15% of land surfaces and 3% of oceans are protected from exploitation. Wilson believes, however, that a world population of ten billion people could live on earth if 50% of land and sea areas were protected. “We can achieve this with four unintended consequences of human behavior.” These are (in brief):
1. A dramatic drop in the fertility rate, achievable “whenever women attain a modicum of social and economic independence.”
2. More population living in cities and the land thus gained utilizing improved agricultural methods: “Present day agriculture [in much of the world] is Neolithic.”
3. Reduction of the ecological footprint, the space each person needs, becoming less as the global economy evolves, creating products using less material and less energy.
4. “Easing of demand on the natural environment inherent in the evolutionary shift from an extensive economy to an intensive economy.” Most of the National Academies of Science, he says, recommend “focusing on quality of life instead of capital and economic power as the premier measures of success.”

Dr. Wilson ended his remarks by stating that “national parks and reserves are going to be logical centers for fundamental research.” This is already true for the geosciences; soon, he predicts, it will be comparable for original studies of the living environment.

During the question and answer session, Wilson recommended that places such as national parks and reserves be connected in corridors, such as is already being set aside in the Yellowstone–to–Yukon (Y2Y) initiative. And replying to “What is the role of the U.S. national parks in all this?” he went out on a limb: “More, bigger!” he said; “take a central place in America’s strategic planning alongside defense.”

Wilson would like to see more science schools include departments of herpetology, entomology, and the like, where students can study biodiversity and “bring in the armamentarium of modern biology to enrich their studies.” His reply to a question about triage for endangered species was, “Save them all!”

Share Button