The Wolves of Yellowstone

“Wolf by the river. Stop!” screamed Emily, a fellow traveler who sat across from me in the snow coach. Minutes earlier I had asked our driver if there was any chance we’d spot a wolf. “Quite frankly, I doubt it,” she replied. “Although Yellowstone is home to about 100 wolves, spread across 12-13 packs, they wander across 2.2 million acres,” she explained. Like a damp mist from the geysers, disappointment had seeped into the warm coach, weighing us down.

We were eight serious wildlife watchers who had made the trek to the park in December’s icy grip, determined to see wolves. Armed with binoculars and spotting scopes, we searched all morning in Lamar Valley—the best place to observe wolves—with no success.

Then, as the sun was getting low in the sky, we got lucky. There he was on the bank of the rushing Lamar River—a six-foot-long lone wolf shaking water from his tawny fur like a wet dog. We watched as the majestic, muscular male circled an immense elk carcass until he settled on a rib to chew.

He paused, raising his head to sniff the air, and I imagined, for one perfect moment, that his amber eyes met mine. Seeing a wolf—once poisoned and hunted to the brink of extinction in the continental United States—free and healthy was really cool.

If you’re looking for the rebounding carnivores, Yellowstone is a good place. And winter provides the best odds of seeing them.

In summer, wolves tend to stay in the woods, away from the hot sun, and blend into the landscape when they do venture out. But against the snow, romping pups and their parents stand out in stark relief.

Long, flat Lamar Valley has been called “America’s Serengeti” because it is home to a dizzying array of wildlife, including wolves, grizzlies, elk, bison, moose, and eagles. “Bison on the left, elk on the right,” was the rallying cry during our morning wildlife viewing session.

This was not always the case. In 1880, less than a decade after Yellowstone was established as America’s first national park, superintendent Philetus Norris observed that while wolves were once universally prevalent in the park, “the value of their hides and the easy slaughter with strychnine-poisoned carcasses of animals have nearly led to their extermination.”

In fact, wolves were absent from Yellowstone from 1926 until 1995 when 14 were captured in Western Canada and released within park bounds. Today, two decades after reintroduction efforts began, wolf numbers are stable. But the issue of wolf management continues to be a hot topic.

“The competition between wolves and ranchers [living around the park] can cause real and significant financial hardship for families who depend upon livestock for their living,” Carolyn Harwood, a resident instructor at the Yellowstone Association Institute, explained.

As Charlie, a Montana rancher sipping a beer at the bar at Chico Hot Springs Resort 30 miles from the park entrance, told me: “A little ‘woof’ in the park is OK. A lot of ‘woof’ killing cattle outside the park is not.”

Yet research shows that the reintroduction of wolves has affected Yellowstone ecosystems in complex ways. For instance, elk, whose population growth exploded in the absence of predators, overgrazed cottonwoods, willows, and other key plant species along park riverbeds. When the wolves returned, elk moved into valleys and gorges to avoid predation, allowing trees and bushes to regenerate. Beavers, in turn, experienced a resurgence, as did muskrats, otters, duck, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. There was a surge in songbirds due to increased nesting areas in willows.

As Carolyn explained, this cascading effect shows the apex predator theory at work. “Having wolves back in Yellowstone makes the park a wild, whole ecosystem again,” she said.

Unfortunately, wolves continue to suffer from an image problem, borne, at least in part, from their appearance as evil antagonists in fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs. “And yet, there has never been a recorded instance of a healthy, wild wolf attacking a human in the USA,” Carolyn noted.

One of Yellowstone’s greatest winter assets is its lack of visitors. Cold weather means that curious travelers can experience moments of solitude at the park’s many geothermal attractions and that avid shutterbugs have a chance to capture snow-covered bison—or a wolf or three—framed by icicle-laden branches.

You can even experience Old Faithful alone. After dinner one evening, two friends and I bulked up in layers of down and fleece and took to the boardwalks leading to the park’s most famous geyser. At times we turned off our flashlights to take in the brilliance of the stars far from any source of light pollution. Suddenly, the reliable gusher began to hiss and puff. Witnessing the eruption in the still of night was haunting and majestic.

> Know Before You Go:

During the winter season, Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel are the only accommodations available within park boundaries. Note: There is one plowed road from Mammoth Hot Springs to Lamar Valley that is open in the winter. Transportation elsewhere within the park is limited to snowmobiles and enclosed heated snow coaches.

Yellowstone National Park Lodges offers an array of seasonally appropriate multiday packages for travelers.

The Yellowstone Association, the park’s official nonprofit education partner, sponsors educational tours and field-based programs for individuals, families, and students, including “Wolf Week” courses every December and March that coincide with—and operate alongside—key park research efforts.

In Lamar Valley, you may encounter a snarl of SUVs and tripod-toting wildlife watchers. They’re well-organized, passionate, and happy to share their viewing scopes as well as their knowledge about specific wolves. Many share information on a website dedicated to their wolf sightings (there’s an annual fee to access).

If you are up for a physically challenging adventure, try cross-country skiing or snowshoeing on well-marked trails. I rented skis at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, caught a lift on a snow coach to the Lone Star Geyser trailhead, then skied to the backcountry geyser.

  • Insider Tip: Put a hand-warmer in your pocket next to your camera or cell phone so the cold won’t zap the battery.

Marybeth Bond is a freelance writer who writes for National Geographic Traveler, National Geographic Books, and other publications in addition to updating her Gutsy Traveler blog. Follow her adventures in travel on Twitter @GutsyTraveler and on Instagram @MarybethBond.

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  1. John Sargent
    Fairbanks Alaska
    September 11, 2015, 1:33 am

    The restoration of wolves and the resulting ecosystem healing has been one of the greatest wildlife-human success stories of the century. I cant wait to see and hear the wolves of Yellowstone on my next vacation.

  2. Elsa van Rooyen
    South Africa
    March 17, 2015, 11:59 am

    Would like to know more! When tours will take place, costs and who to contact for bookings!Thank you Elsa

  3. isabel swan
    binghamton n.y.
    March 5, 2015, 4:19 pm

    save the wolves please

  4. isabel swan
    binghamton n.y.
    March 5, 2015, 3:23 pm

    please save our wolves

  5. Mary
    Butler, Mo
    March 5, 2015, 3:04 pm

    Save our wolfs please!

  6. isabel swan
    binghamton n.y.
    March 4, 2015, 3:12 pm

    please save the wolves

  7. Austin
    Fort Bragg, NC
    February 27, 2015, 9:16 pm

    Tom Carney needs to take a conservation biology class to see just how wrong he is!

  8. Molly Stone
    Ithaca, New York
    February 25, 2015, 11:59 am

    Love the tip about keeping a hand warmer near your phone to keep the battery alive!

  9. Ann Sydow
    North Idaho
    February 25, 2015, 7:44 am

    Man did not and can not replace wolves as an apex predator for several reasons. Nature doesn’t design mistakes, so let the wolves be and let them do their job, for the sake of everyone.

  10. Jeremy
    February 24, 2015, 10:28 pm

    You have got to be kidding me. Do you even Science, bro? Cause I do. Yellowstone is NOT an artificial ecosystem. I think you’re confusing nature with the actual artificiality of a city. Everywhere the wolves disappeared, the land suffered. This is scientific fact. To this day, the entire Eastern USA has an deer overpopulation problem. Guess what? No matter what humans do, they can’t be controlled. This is because the large predators. Sadly, the East is no longer suitable habitat. This means humans must do our best. The forests, farms, and the deer themselves all must suffer. Humans need to learn to coexist with nature, and people like you need to stop throwing around the word “science” on the Internet when you clearly don’t know what it means. If you did, you’d know about the good work the NPS sometimes does, and you’d know the scientific consensus that large predators are essential for healthy ecosystems. Apex predators never entirely wipe out the competitor. Humanity doesn’t behave like a predator. We often trample all over everything without considering consequences. Besides, the food web in North America evolved before European humans arrived. If we follow your logic, that scientifically makes humans in North America an invasive species, a pest….not a natural apex predator.

  11. Jean-Pierre Otis
    February 24, 2015, 9:15 pm

    Man should not replace wolves or nature. Where selfish men go, nature loses ground.

  12. Danielle
    United States
    February 24, 2015, 9:11 pm

    While man is an apex predator, he is indiscriminate. He does not cull the weak or the less intelligent– often the opposite. Also, if you read the article, willow and water-loving flora rebounded when elk were actively hunted by wolves, a catalyst of sorts for the rebounding of many variety of species.

  13. Laryssa
    February 24, 2015, 6:35 pm

    Wolves are beautiful creatures and I believe that more national parks like Yellowstone should integrate them into the ecosystem (as long as it is in the wolves’ natural habitat). We should have a better appreciation for these wonderful animals as a society and welcome them back lovingly.

  14. Dorothy Henn
    sandpoint idaho
    February 23, 2015, 9:39 pm

    I live about 50 miles south of the Canadian border and there are wolves here & in eastern Washington. They are quite shy so they are seldom seen unless you go to the back country.

  15. Tom Carney
    New Jersey
    February 23, 2015, 2:20 pm

    There is and was reasons wolves were driven to extinction. For the 100 years or so the wolves were off the plot, the ecosystem did fine. Man replaced wolves as the ‘apex predator’. In an artificial ecosystem like Yellowstone, as are all ecosystems ruled by the NPS and sentimentality instead of science, things do go wrong. In areas where man’s role as ‘apex predator’ is still allowed, the ecosystem still works well.