Welcome back to the second and final installment of our trip in a more tranquil time, a time of deceptive stillness and hidden adventure. This is Yellowstone in Winter.
Zoologists agree that animals have a certain urgency to them during the winter months. Doug Smith, who founded the Yellowstone Wolf Project 18 years ago, was quoted saying, “They’re trying to survive, and there’s a stark reality about that, that makes seeing them in winter that much more striking.”
If you’re an animal watching thrill seeker, than you’ll be happy to know that winter is be best time for wolf-watching in the park. The elk come down to the lower elevations and the wolves follow, so they’re closer to the roads. During the winter months, you have a better chance of seeing the red foxes beautiful with their full and thick coats glistening as it pray on its next meal. It’s a sight that’s unmatched by anything you would witness during the steamy summer months.
Like the reintroduction of wolves to the park, which thrilled environmentalists but caused annoyance to ranchers in the surrounding valleys, Yellowstone’s winter operation has not always proceeded without its share of controversy. From the park’s earliest days, its administrators fought to find the right balance between preservation and accessibility.
For over 15 years, so much of that fight has focused mainly on the wintertime use of snowmobiles and snow coaches. As for now, some relief has emerged, with a carefully enforced daily limit on the number of vehicles allowed into the park (318 snowmobiles, 78 snow coaches) and a mandate that these vehicles be both guided. However, snowmobiles must be compliant with strict emissions guidelines. This solution allows for public access while also attempting to alleviate their environmental impact.
With these measures, Yellowstone in winter may continue to live up to the ideals of the congressional act that founded it “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” even as it seeks to protect itself from the unintended effects of those very pleasures.
Being in Yellowstone, especially because of the solitude during the frozen winter months, will humble you with its sheer size and scope and the diversity of nature. The irony that lies within our national parks, as suggested by award winning documentarian Ken Burns, is that “They constantly remind us of our insignificance, but they make us larger at the same time. I don’t know of anywhere else in the world that does that in quite the same way.”