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Critters and jitters of Yellowstone

Please don't feed the animals


The great thing about Yellowstone National Park is seeing all the wildlife in its native habitat: the grizzly bear and wolf in Lamar Valley; the American and foreign tourist at Old Faithful.

There are two ways to view wildlife in the park — from your vehicle or out on a hike. I prefer the more natural option. However, there’s always the possibility of coming face to face with one of these wild animals and dealing with things such as sharp teeth and claws.

If hiking in grizzly country keeps you on your toes, then I believe there are times when I could enter a ballet, and win. The goal is to keep your toes and every other part of your body attached while in the park. Hiking in Yellowstone, one soon realizes we are no longer the top predator, but potential prey.{img:38368}

On my last visit, my wife and I took a hike to Pebble Creek in the isolated northeastern corner of the park. We knew we’d be the only people hiking up in there and that we’d have a pretty good chance of seeing a bear or a wolf. We carried a can of bear spray and a bear bell but wondered if they really worked.

I was reminded of a story I heard about how to tell the difference between black bear scat and grizzly scat. The grizzly scat has bells in it and smells like cayenne pepper. Perhaps the best use of the spray is on oneself if a grizzly charges. That way you won’t see the final charge and your eyes will hurt so bad you won’t feel the first bite. Lon Austin

On the hike to Pebble Creek, we saw two piles of fairly fresh bear scat in the middle of the trail and a rather large paw print. Even without any bells in the scat, there’s no mistaking a grizzly track. Shortly afterward, something large made a crashing noise out ahead of us. Fortunately, it turned out to be only a mule deer buck.

Farther up the trail, my trekking pole hit some dried weeds and sounded like a bear about to pounce. I jumped, which made my wife jump. She said that she didn’t feel as safe knowing that I was jumpy. I mentioned something about simply having good reflexes. Sometimes it’s challenging playing the tough husband when you know there could be a big griz a few feet away.

Then the wind picked up and every tree suddenly sounded alive, making us even more jumpy, especially in the thick timber. It reminded me of the trees in Lord of the Rings when they came alive and started walking. We did make it to our destination at Pebble Creek as some cold rain and fog set in. After a short break we started back and made it to our vehicle unscathed.

We took another exhilarating hike to Ferry Falls in the Old Faithful area. The 8-mile loop traverses a grizzly management area with the first part of the hike along an old powerline road. The trail then cuts off into part of the old 1988 burn where regenerating stands of lodgepole pine are as thick as dog hair. We could just about reach out with our hands and touch trees on both sides of the trail. Fresh bison tracks traveled down the trail ahead of us and we hoped we didn’t run into an angry bull or a surprised grizzly.

The highlights of the hike were the falls and two geysers. One big bison bull lay near one geyser, keeping a weary eye on us. If he only realized that he could stomp us into the ground… Maybe he did; that’s why he had that arrogant look on his face.

One night while passing through the Lamar Valley after dark, we stopped in a parking lot and listened for howling wolves. In the pitch dark I got out and leaned against the front of the vehicle and heard a noise right away but not the howl of a wolf. It sounded more like a cross between a grunt and a growl and seemed to emanate only 50 feet away or closer.

As I quickly got back in the vehicle, my wife asked “What’s the matter?” When I told her of the noise, she said she didn’t hear anything. How could she not hear it, I thought. Whatever it was must have been just about on top of me. I rolled the windows down and could still hear it. I then started the car, turned the lights on and pointed the rig in the direction of noise but didn’t see anything. It could have been a big bull bison lying down in the meadow, but I think it was a grizzly.

Even if it was a bison, I chose not to be part of the Yellowstone legacy where tourists are gored by these big critters. Earlier in the evening we had to stop for two different herds of bison crossing the road and the large bulls made some grunting noises but this noise sounded different. The next morning we spotted a big male grizzly coming from that area, so I’m sticking with that story. That’s better than finding out it was a beaver with a bad cough.

The bottom line is this: In the pitch darkness of a Yellowstone night when you hear something growling or grunting, it’s best to have a vehicle nearby.

Sometimes, however, vehicles and people can interfere with the wildlife. While eating lunch in one of the geyser parking lots, we spotted a coyote trying to cross the pavement to the other side. A busload of Japanese tourists with cameras and camcorders prevented his immediate crossing. When it did cross, they followed it up the sidewalk, making more clicking noises than a primitive African tribe. That was the first time I wished a coyote had rabies.

Then a big raven came around for handouts. The lady in the next car opened her door and started feeding it raisins out of her hand. That was the first time I wished a raven had rabies. What part of “Do Not Feed the Animals” don’t these people understand?

Everywhere we looked people were feeding animals - chipmunks, ground squirrels, other tourists. Why doesn’t the park simply advertise something like — “Come to the Park and Feed the Animals.” I’ve even said to people that our food isn’t good for us, let alone the animals. They would say, “Oh, I know, but they’re so cute” and keep on feeding them. “Timmy, go feed that grizzly this jar of peanut butter so I can get a picture.” The Darwin theory is alive and well.

I’ve even thought of using my bear spray on stupid tourists. I envision walking up to an idiot feeding an animal and simply say, “Excuse me” and then give them a full blast in the face then calmly walk away. But I worry that I’d use up the can in a matter of minutes and not have any left over in case of a real emergency.

People need to realize that they do have options when running into a crazed grizzly bear.

1 — Get the bear spray ready and spray the bear when it comes within 20 feet of you.

2 — Get the bear spray ready and spray yourself so you don’t see the inevitable attack.

3 — Lay down and play dead.

4 — Try to outrun other members of your party.

The highlight of the Yellowstone trip was seeing and hearing wolves. They chased everything they ran into including elk, bison, a sow grizzly with three cubs, mule deer and several coyotes. They cull out the sick and weak of a herd and make the animals stronger. Then again, looking around at the number and quality of tourists, I wondered if this was true.

Scott Staats is a freelance outdoor writer. His column can be read every Tuesday in the Central Oregonian. He can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



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