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Dancing with Buffalo (and Wolves)


A wolf on the prowl. Copyright: Barry OíNeill.Nancy Procter has promised me a buffalo. Nathan Varley has promised me a wolf. Wildlife experts at Yellowstone National Park, they work in one of the few places left on earth where wildlife roams free.

 

"This place is in my blood," Nancy laughs.

"I was born here, never left," admits Nathan.

Highly educated naturalists with encyclopedic knowledge, Procter and Varley belong outdoors, along with Yellowstone's famous geysers, hot springs, mud pots and waterfalls. They take meetings with buffalo, wolves, elk, grizzly bears, eagles, and trumpeter swans. Lucky park visitors follow them to secret lairs.

We drive across the Continental Divide, elevation 8,262. At the Park's West Thumb Geyser Basin, a family of otters frolic along the shoreline. Clouds of steam billow skyward. Hot springs gleam emerald with algae. The surreal landscape reminds me of an Ingmar Bergman film. "Can I jump into the hot water for a soak?" I ask Nancy, half kidding, half serious.

A sunrise seen through the mist of a hot spring. Copyright: Warren Lieb."Not unless you want to boil like a shrimp at 170 degrees," she laughs, stopping to make sure I don't jump in. Yellowstone is not Disneyland. People can die here and some do.

A coyote materializes like some Hindu deity, and leads us down the road to a peculiar traffic jam: 40 buffalo mill over both lanes, spilling out into the meadows. Massive woolly giants, I remember their famous horned profile from my childhood textbooks. A noble presence, demanding respect. The only buffalo I've ever seen are stuffed at Denver's Museum of Natural History.

"In the mid 1800s, the United States had some 75 million buffalo," Nancy whispers. "They lived from the Pacific Ocean to the Appalachian Mountains. By 1889, there were only 1,000 animals left. Killed for hides. Tongues made into soup. Fortunately, we saved them before extinction. Yellowstone now has 3,000 of 'em, descendants from the only remnant native population surviving in the wild. Ours is the country's largest free roaming herd."

She says it with satisfaction, eyes narrowed with affection. These buffalo belong to Nancy. And to me. And to every one of you taxpayers.

Buffalo spend their days grazing, tree rubbing, and wallowing in Yellowstone's grasslands. In the winter they "hunker down" against the cold, or "hightail it" to lower elevations. (Just like two-legged animals, snoozing under down comforters, or escaping to a Caribbean beach). They are hunted by grizzly bears, but can run 30 miles an hour.

"Keep your distance," Nancy warns me. "People have been gored by buffalo."A buffalo contemplates goring the author. Copyright: Warren Lieb.So, my buffalo could kill me if they wanted to. One stampede, I'm dust in the wind. A baby buffalo breaks free from his mother, bucking through the clan with glee. Ever seen buffalo with happy feet?

Something wild lives here. Something primal, powerful. A grandfather buffalo raises his head from the grass, fixing me with a glare. He decides not to kill me. I am deeply grateful.

The bad news: From 1914 to 1926, all the wolves in Yellowstone National Park were shot dead. Reasons for their murder are varied, ranging from the practical to the emotional. The good news: In 1995, 14 wolves from Canada were re-introduced to the Park, and today some 120 wolves and 76 pups roam wild and free in 14 packs. Environmentalists are thrilled, ranchers nervous.

"The wolf recovery program at Yellowstone is one of the major conservation achievements of the century," states Nathan Varley. "Wolves are tenacious, adaptable. And here at Yellowstone, you can drive right up to see them in the wild."

Like humans, wolves are social creatures. They live in family groups, ranging from two to 21 animals. Adult pack members hunt and care for their alpha pair's offspring, usually four to six pups born each spring.

Born in Yellowstone, Nathan has become a wolf expert and wolf watcher. His Web site says it all: www.wolftracker.com. Anyone who wants to learn about wolves should spend an hour or a year with Nathan.

Old faithful doing its thing, right on schedule. Copyright: Warren Lieb.After a spectacular slide show, he leads me to a meeting with the Druid Wolf Pack. Living just 20 miles from the park's comfortable Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, we find them out enjoying the morning sun.

Sighting them through binoculars and spotting scopes, they appear quite doglike: wrestling with each other, playing tug-of-war with a stick. Silly, joyful, aggressive, I hear their howls and growls. Calls of the wild. Every once in a while a wolf looks out at the line of humans watching them. They know we are there. Surely they are laughing at us.

"Wolves are sifters and grifters," Nathan tells me. "They lope along through a herd of elk looking for ones that are old, sick, weak. Then they walk right up to the one they've carefully selected and go in for the kill."

A Yellowstone Coyote. Copyright: Warren Lieb.I want to take a meeting with the Alpha male. I want to stare into his yellow eyes, apologizing for what my kind did to his. If he killed me, wouldn't it be fair?

Dozens of other park visitors arrive in cars to meet the Druid Pack. Peering through binoculars and expensive camera lenses, they are silent, smiling, awed.

Something wild lives here. Something primal and powerful. The Druid wolves decide not to kill me. I am deeply grateful.

When You Go:

Yellowstone National Park has more geysers than any other park in the world. Thundering waterfalls, steaming hot springs, crystalline lakes, and spectacular panoramas attracts visitors from around the world. Home to buffalo, wolves, elk, grizzly and black bears, trumpeter swans, eagles, and cutthroat trout, Yellowstone's colorful history features mountain men, fur trappers, explorers, and surveyors. William Henry Jackson's photographs and Thomas Moran's sketches influenced Congress to establish Yellowstone as the world's first national park in 1872. Today the breathtaking 2.2 million acres of forest, meadows and water have earned Yellowstone Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site landmark status.

Lodging, Camping, Activity Reservations: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming82190.

Telephone: (307) 344-7311. Web site: www.travelyellowstone.com.

The interspectacular Morning Glory pool. Copyright: Courtesy of the U.S. National Park Service.YELLOWSTONE INSTITUTE’S FIELD SCHOOL COURSES FOR 2001: Over 125 courses are offered by expert instructors year round through Yellowstone Institute. Courses vary from one to three days, and accommodations range from comfortable park lodges, rustic cabins, or camping.

Classes are held in various areas of the park. Subjects include: art, astronomy, backpacking, bears, birds, bison, fishing, geysers, hiking, history, horse- packing, kayaking, llama trekking, maps, photography, wildflowers, wolf tracking, writing and more. Average tuition is $50-$60/day, plus meals and accommodations. College credit available. For the 2001 course catalog, contact Yellowstone Association Institute, P.O. Box 117, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, 82190. Telephone: (307) 344-2294. Web site: www.YellowstoneAssociation.org.

To learn more about wolves, log on to www.wolftracker.com.

A buffalo contemplates goring the author. Copyright: Warren Lieb.So, my buffalo could kill me if they wanted to. One stampede, I'm dust in the wind. A baby buffalo breaks free from his mother, bucking through the clan with glee. Ever seen buffalo with happy feet?

Something wild lives here. Something primal, powerful. A grandfather buffalo raises his head from the grass, fixing me with a glare. He decides not to kill me. I am deeply grateful.

The bad news: From 1914 to 1926, all the wolves in Yellowstone National Park were shot dead. Reasons for their murder are varied, ranging from the practical to the emotional. The good news: In 1995, 14 wolves from Canada were re-introduced to the Park, and today some 120 wolves and 76 pups roam wild and free in 14 packs. Environmentalists are thrilled, ranchers nervous.

"The wolf recovery program at Yellowstone is one of the major conservation achievements of the century," states Nathan Varley. "Wolves are tenacious, adaptable. And here at Yellowstone, you can drive right up to see them in the wild."

Like humans, wolves are social creatures. They live in family groups, ranging from two to 21 animals. Adult pack members hunt and care for their alpha pair's offspring, usually four to six pups born each spring.

Born in Yellowstone, Nathan has become a wolf expert and wolf watcher. His Web site says it all: www.wolftracker.com. Anyone who wants to learn about wolves should spend an hour or a year with Nathan.

Old faithful doing its thing, right on schedule. Copyright: Warren Lieb.After a spectacular slide show, he leads me to a meeting with the Druid Wolf Pack. Living just 20 miles from the park's comfortable Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, we find them out enjoying the morning sun.

Sighting them through binoculars and spotting scopes, they appear quite doglike: wrestling with each other, playing tug-of-war with a stick. Silly, joyful, aggressive, I hear their howls and growls. Calls of the wild. Every once in a while a wolf looks out at the line of humans watching them. They know we are there. Surely they are laughing at us.

"Wolves are sifters and grifters," Nathan tells me. "They lope along through a herd of elk looking for ones that are old, sick, weak. Then they walk right up to the one they've carefully selected and go in for the kill."

A Yellowstone Coyote. Copyright: Warren Lieb.I want to take a meeting with the Alpha male. I want to stare into his yellow eyes, apologizing for what my kind did to his. If he killed me, wouldn't it be fair?

Dozens of other park visitors arrive in cars to meet the Druid Pack. Peering through binoculars and expensive camera lenses, they are silent, smiling, awed.

Something wild lives here. Something primal and powerful. The Druid wolves decide not to kill me. I am deeply grateful.

When You Go:

Yellowstone National Park has more geysers than any other park in the world. Thundering waterfalls, steaming hot springs, crystalline lakes, and spectacular panoramas attracts visitors from around the world. Home to buffalo, wolves, elk, grizzly and black bears, trumpeter swans, eagles, and cutthroat trout, Yellowstone's colorful history features mountain men, fur trappers, explorers, and surveyors. William Henry Jackson's photographs and Thomas Moran's sketches influenced Congress to establish Yellowstone as the world's first national park in 1872. Today the breathtaking 2.2 million acres of forest, meadows and water have earned Yellowstone Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site landmark status.

Lodging, Camping, Activity Reservations: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming82190.

Telephone: (307) 344-7311. Web site: www.travelyellowstone.com.

The interspectacular Morning Glory pool. Copyright: Courtesy of the U.S. National Park Service.YELLOWSTONE INSTITUTEíS FIELD SCHOOL COURSES FOR 2001: Over 125 courses are offered by expert instructors year round through Yellowstone Institute. Courses vary from one to three days, and accommodations range from comfortable park lodges, rustic cabins, or camping.

Classes are held in various areas of the park. Subjects include: art, astronomy, backpacking, bears, birds, bison, fishing, geysers, hiking, history, horse- packing, kayaking, llama trekking, maps, photography, wildflowers, wolf tracking, writing and more. Average tuition is $50-$60/day, plus meals and accommodations. College credit available. For the 2001 course catalog, contact Yellowstone Association Institute, P.O. Box 117, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, 82190. Telephone: (307) 344-2294. Web site: www.YellowstoneAssociation.org.

To learn more about wolves, log on to www.wolftracker.com.