Cold Faithful

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 22, 2004

The snows of Yellowstone National Park are just as reliable as Old Faithful and, by some people, just as eagerly attended. Every year, they return to toss a fluffy white duvet over these craggy valleys, lodgepole forests and steaming thermal fields. For outdoor aficionados, this is the preferred Yellowstone, the serene, muffled, dramatically veiled Yellowstone of winter. For those in the know, single-digit air is something to be embraced, not endured. The cold is just a blood-racing, cheek-pinching companion to a day of skiing through cathedral forests or of snowshoeing up to a mountain-goat's view of the geysers. And nothing refines your taste for a little something hot around the lodge fire more than a few hours in the chill of the Northern Rockies.

Yellowstone's brief winter season is a longstanding ritual for many, particularly snowmobilers and wildlife-watchers, two groups of Yellowstone lovers who have not always loved each other. But this year, the snows are falling on a remarkably shifted scene. In a sharp reversal, the number of wolves in Yellowstone is climbing steadily as snowmobiles have declined.

The wolves, methodically and purposefully extinguished in the park in the 1920s, were reintroduced in 1995 and have thrived beyond all expectations. Snowmobiles, meanwhile, which grew so popular that some 69,000 came into the park last winter, are suddenly themselves flirting with extinction in Yellowstone. A federal judge -- trying to sort out a tangle of environmental lawsuits and conflicting regulations -- slashed daily snowmobile admissions to fewer than 500 a day for this winter and put them on a course to being banned entirely. Two weeks ago, another judge upped the number of snowmobiles to almost 800 a day and ordered the Park Service to draft new rules for next winter. And the legal ping-pong continues.

It's an exchange of fortunes that has some cheering, others wailing and everyone uncertain. But all agree that the winter experience in Yellowstone -- whether wildlife-watching along the northern edge or cross-country skiing around the Old Faithful Snow Lodge -- has gotten quieter.

"For people from all over the world, standing here and not hearing one single sound of human activity is very profound," says George Bumann, an instructor with the Yellowstone Association Institute, a sort of outdoors community college that uses the national park as its classroom. We're on a ridge above Elk Creek in the northern park. Except for the sigh of the distant river and the occasional screech of a bald eagle we can just see wheeling against the dawn sky, the stillness is absolute. "We've had folks change careers after taking one of these classes."

At this time of the year, Bumann and the institute spend a lot of time shepherding people along this stretch of the park. Visitors -- like me and Dan Knotts, a friend from Wilmington, Del. -- spend a few nights at one or both of the two Yellowstone lodges open in winter and a few days with a naturalist scouting for wildlife, especially wolves.

Crazy for Wolves

The drainages along the top edge of the park have become the most popular and reliable place in the world to view wolves in the wild. Every morning -- and most evenings -- an ever-shifting troop of enthusiasts convenes along the northeast entrance road. They are biologists and wolf enthusiasts, photographers with Howitzer lenses and drop-ins with disposable cameras. Some are first-timers, taking a morning or two from a broader Yellowstone vacation; others have been here for dozens of straight mornings.

"They are just gonzo-crazy about wolves," says Bumann, a boyish wildlife biologist and sketch artist who also teaches the institute's nature-drawing courses. "Many of them know individual wolves by sight. They know what's been going on with the pack."

We climb back into the van and Bumann heads up the northeast entrance road, the only Yellowstone road plowed through the winter. Wolf-watching here is as simple as cruising along until you come upon a clutch of people gathered roadside behind a tell-tale thicket of spotting scopes and cameras. Several of the regulars carry radios, and we already know from the chatter that one wolf has been sighted tearing away at an elk carcass near the road. The Yellowstone action is so up-close that viewers routinely watch live as the packs chase, attack and kill elk, bighorn sheep and even bison. That's especially true in winter, when much of the park's wildlife comes down to the shallower snows of the northern valleys.

We pull over at an open slope near Crystal Creek where Bumann often has luck. And sure enough, we're barely out and zipped up against the 20-degree chill when he calmly lowers his glasses and points uphill. "There they are." We easily spot two wolves trotting up and along a ridge line about 200 yards away. It's a black male and a gray female, two graceful figures chromatically in synch with the austere winter terrain. Behind them, a droopy spruce heavily swagged in snow is hit by a stiff breeze and seems to explode in a cloud of white dust.

Bumann scrambles to set up his spotting scope tripod. I'm at the eyepiece, dumbstruck by the 40X view of the animals' powerful strides and bright, grinning faces (which conceal jaws that can snap an elk femur), when they finally top the ridge and disappear into the thin aspens. Wolves in the wild. The chill I feel has nothing to do with the season.

From the 41 wolves introduced in 1995 and 1996, there are now an estimated 300 living in 16 separate packs. The population is established and thriving and has proven remarkably obliging to the growing number of folks who come to see them. Yellowstone recently marked its 1,000th consecutive day of wolf sighting, and many a perfect-for-PBS elk kill has unfolded before a riveted audience. No one expected it to go this well.

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