Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the largest wild places left on the planet. Its epicenter is situated in Yellowstone National Park, but the GYE encompasses an additional 30,000 square miles—or 10 times more area—that lies outside the Park boundaries.
Snow has just begun to melt off in the low to mid elevations of this vast ecosystem, and with that we find ourselves at the beginning of wildlife viewing season. While many visitors happen upon the ecosystem’s inhabitants by dumb luck, knowing a little bit about their habitats will improve your chances.
The Grizzly Bear might be the most sought after viewing species in the GYE. For obvious safety reasons, we don’t recommend going out to look for a bear on foot, but there are plenty of places visitors have a good chance of seeing Grizzly Bears in the wild from the safety of a vehicle.
Tom Miner Basin, located just north of Yellowstone National Park in Paradise Valley, is one of those places. From Yellowstone’s North Entrance, take Highway 89 for 20 miles to Tom Miner Creek Road. Once you get there, keep your eyes peeled as you follow signs to Tom Miner Campground. This bumpy dirt road is 11 miles long and Grizzly Bears are often spotted around dusk in the adjacent fields as they forage for protein-packed insects and roots during the summer months. A high-clearance 4WD vehicle is recommended for this trip, as road conditions may vary and can change quickly.
The Mountain Goat is the largest animal scrambling around Montana’s high alpine, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to see. The most challenging part of finding a mountain goat is accessing their habitat. The terrain they like to inhabit is among the most steep and rugged on the planet, which is hard to get to, and even harder to travel on.
Conveniently, one place that meets the mountain goat’s criteria is Lone Peak — the mountain where Big Sky Resort is situated. Several times a day during the summer months, visitors can take a tram ride to the 11,166’ summit of Lone Peak, which is often home to a family of mountain goats. Be vigilant as soon as you travel above the tree line — they can be anywhere.
Visit www.bigskyresort.com to schedule a Lone Peak Expedition.
Once on the brink of extension in the United States, the Bald Eagle has made a miraculous comeback. The main staple of the giant raptor’s diet is fish and, since nearly all of the rivers that flow through the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem hold abundant trout populations, they are one of the best places to view our National Emblem in the wild.
Although Bald Eagles can often be spotted freely soaring above these waterways, one of the best ways to narrow down their area is by finding a nest. These nests are larger than any other bird’s in North America. Because of this, they are relatively easy to spot and often situated in trees larger than others in the area. There are several occupied nests visible from Highway 191 in our very own Gallatin Canyon, so if you’re hoping to see a Bald Eagle, taking this short drive is a no-brainer.
The largest and most elusive member of the deer family, moose are another one of the coolest animals to see in the wild. We all know they’re huge, but seeing one effortlessly wade through a neck-deep-on-you marsh will give you a true scope of how gracefully powerful they really are.
These solitary animals love to feed on the grasses and willows that grow along the GYE’s lakes and river basins during the cooler parts of the day. Finding a grove of willows that has been chomped down to chest height is a good indicator that you’re in a moose’s feeding ground. It’s important to be as wary of these animals as you would be of a bear—they can turn from docile to aggressive in a moment’s time and, if they decide to attack, they aren’t likely to give up until the threat is gone.
During the spring and early summer months, cow elk begin calving in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. This wonderful event often occurs in lower elevation grasslands, which is ideal for wildlife viewing. Beginning May 15th, the big meadow that lies on the east side of Highway 191 just south of Big Sky is a great place to observe calving behavior. Before that day the area is closed to all human activity in the name of protecting wildlife during an extra vulnerable time, so make sure you obey all signs in the area.
Spring is a busy time for the cows’ male counterparts, too. While the cows are busy giving birth, the bulls are tromping around much more densely forested, alpine terrain in the name of shedding their antlers. This diminishes the likelihood of seeing a bull elk in the wild during this time of year, but on the up side, it severely increases your chances of finding some freshly shredded antlers.
There are several places in the US where you can see a bison, but there’s something special about the herd in Yellowstone National Park. This group of bison is the only one in the country that has survived continuously through the species’ journey from dominance of the American landscape to near extinction.
When you take a drive through Yellowstone National Park, you’re almost guaranteed to see bison grazing near the road, if not standing in the middle of it. If you really want to check this one off your list, traveling from West Yellowstone to Mammoth Hot Springs would be a great way to spend a day.
Bison don’t seem aggressive at first glance, but don’t be fooled; they can be dangerous. These animals can weigh up to 2,000 pounds, and their docile nature can turn in the blink of an eye. Every few years there will be a story in our local papers about how an unfortunate bison goring took place, and how it probably could have been avoided with a little bit of common sense – so just keep your distance and you’ll avoid the headlines.