Yellowstone Geo Blogs

Spotting Wildlife

Spotting wildlife is a skill.  A skill we can all improve on. 

Whenever we're looking for wildlife we are always seeing the same three things:  the odd color, the odd shape, or movement.  And movement is the easiest thing to see that can clue us in to the possiblity of something alive on the landscape.  

Many people think of animals as cryptically colored or camouflaged, and some are, but the truth is:  under certain circumstances, seasons, or during certain activities, all animals can be extremely visible.  I don't look for the raccoon that is inside the hollow log (I can't see it!), I look for the raccoon that is actually out in the open along the shoreline.  I don't look for the cat which is sleeping on a high branch.  I look for the cat that is actually walking across the road or on the top of the visible cliff.  Focus attention where we can see and in particular, see clearly!

Whenever I am driving, hiking, paddling, or I come into new landscapes I quickly scan the easy surfaces.  For example the open field.  I look for the odd color, shape, or movement.  This can be done in a fraction of a second!

The next thing I do is quickly scan the next big open areas in the vista.  This may be the tree tops profiled against the sky, or the smooth grassland of a river terrace.  It may be the sky itself, after all, dramatic birds of prey may be present. 

Finally, I scan the breaks in the landscape.  This may be a shoreline, or perhaps where a forest meets a grassland.  Be sure to look under the trees as far as you can clearly see.  This is where animals are actually most likely to be, but where they will be most difficult to spot.

It's where two habitat types meet, what some people call "edge effect' or "ecotone," that the greatest diversity of animals may occur. 

Think of it this way: the forest is habitat type "A" and the adjacent grassland is habitat type "B."  Habitat A may have tree squirrels and habitat type B may have bison.  But where they meet you may have both!  In fact, you may get species that require both habitat types.  For example, an elk may use the forest for security or thermal "cover" and the grassland for grazing.

Note that I have not mentioned any required equipment.  Of course optics can help.  Listening for animal vocalizations can help too.  But the first step is to simply look.  You can't see if you don't look!

One more note:  Believe in yourself.  Have confidence.  Again, an example.  I take two identical twin boys fishing.  One is confident and the other is not.  Same gear, same stream, same instructor.  We know who has the better chance of catching a fish!

I've often heard people say that spotting wildlife is an art.  I disagree.  I believe it is a skill, but the more we experience wildlife, and the more we understand the lives of animals, the more we can relate to their occurance and presence.  And this too, helps us see.

Is Spring Early?

What could be a more common topic of discussion other than the weather?  Throughout the Greater Yellowstone it's been a warm winter.  What started out as a great snowpack has been melting and flowing into the streams and rivers.  It's tough to complain when the sun is shining and the air is warm, but with a declining snowpack we may lack streamflows later in the summer.  In recent years "runoff" has been occurring early.  So I begin to wonder, what else happens earlier?  Will the elk lose their antlers earlier or will migratory birds return sooner? 

It's important to keep in mind that different things inlfuence these "springtime" events.

Snowshoeing in Greater Yellowstone

Snowshoeing has got to be the simplest and least controversial mode of transportation in Yellowstone. Of course, “slow shoes” as one friend of mine refers to them, are generally not embraced by adrenaline junkies, but if you like getting away from the “madding crowd,” snowshoes are a great way to go. If you can walk, you can snowshoe. It’s also less expensive to get geared up, and you don’t need a roof rack or trailer to transport them.


Outside the Park, local outdoor retailers in Livingston, West Yellowstone, Big Sky, and Bozeman have gear for rent. Inside the Park, Xanterra operates ski huts at Mammoth and Old Faithful that also rent snowshoes. On the west side, near West Yellowstone, there are great routes to the Madison River that take you to some remote landscapes, just outside town.

For big landscapes with big wildlife, enter Yellowstone from Gardiner and use the road from Mammoth to Cooke City. Being at a lower elevation than most of the Park, the snow may not be too good, but there are pockets of deep snow. The claw underneath most contemporary snowshoes can be helpful in icy conditions and the oversized shoe lends stability in areas pocked with ungulate postholes and feeding craters. Much of the rugged terrain in this area favors snowshoes for exploring.

The only logical way to access Old Faithful is via snowcoach or snowmobile from Mammoth or West Yellowstone. When you finally get there, you have access to the biggest geothermal area on the planet. But it’s not a landscape without some comforts. You can spend a night at Old Faithful Snow Lodge and enjoy a hot meal. The real treat is the snowshoeing along the Old Faithful trail system, or simply going to some backcountry thermal areas. Just be very careful if you go hot potting.

For those who desire more adventure, there are literally millions of acres of backcountry where no services are available, and I like it that way. Rely on yourself and forget the rest. Blaze your own trail. The northwest corner of Yellowstone, along Highway 191, provides a great jumping-off point to miles of good snow. If you do some research, you’ll find your own secret spots where you can quietly observe wildlife, hot springs, canyons, and serious winter.


Editor's Note: Ken Sinay created Northern Rockies Natural History in 1991 to share his love of our wildland heritage with others. He changed the company name to Yellowstone Safari Company (YSC) in 2001. Ken's Bachelor of Science and graduate studies focused on Wildlife Biology and Natural Resource Management. His professional and technical environmental career includes: Montana Dept. of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, US National Forest Service, Montana Nature Conservancy, Museum of the Rockies (Montana State University), AMAX Coal Co., US Fish & Wildlife Service, and private wilderness outfitters. Ken's knowledge, enthusiasm and experience are evident in the quality of his tours and presentations. A devoted conservationist, his personal goal is to provide guests with the most rewarding experience possible, resulting in lifetime memories of the wildlife diversity and rich history of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.