Fantastic beasts of Yellowstone and where to find them

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I'm looking at the map of north-east Yellowstone, while Damiano scans the horizon with his binoculars. It’s late afternoon in the Lamar Valley, and we lurk in the Slough Creek area to see if we spot any animal.
All of a sudden, Damiano grabs my arm and, without taking his eyes off the mountain, whispers: "If it is not a walking stone, it is a black bear". By car we get as close as possible and then, photo gear in hands, we continue on foot.
We stop at about 200 meters from what we discover to be a beautiful mama bear with her two cubs: they are chilling out in a small clearing. I stand back, to watch Damiano’s back and keep an eye on the surrounding woods. He walks a little bit further and then puts the tripod in place.
The mama bear stares at us for a few seconds, moving rapidly her detecting nose, then apparently decides to pay us no mind. She is evidently aware of our presence but does not show signs of stress or discomfort. She opts for the ignoring behavior. We remain motionless and silent for an hour and a half, at our feet a carpet of silver sagebrush and tufts of bear fur. I put one of them in my pocket, as a souvenir of one of the most intense moments in Yellowstone.
When the sun goes down behind the mountain, the mother and the two cubs disappear among the trees. As we return to the car, a giant full moon rises to the east, climbing slowly in a clear and icy sky. Not very far a wolf howls: we are living a magic, perfect moment.

Yellowstone Black Bear Lamar Valley

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Bear, bison, moose, wolf and elk: these are the 'Big Five' of Yellowstone, to which we should add the Bighorn Sheep, the Pronghorn, the bald eagle, the coyote and many other incredibly fascinating animals.
Inside the park it is quite common to spot some of them simply driving on the main road. You can in fact literally bump into them on the Grand Loop Road, the 8-shaped road that connects all the major attractions of the park for 142 miles.
This is the most important reason why it is fundamental to drive slowly and carefully: animals road killings are unfortunately not uncommon and sometimes pretty dangerous also for the human beings. A great added value of a slow drive is that it allows you to enjoy the beauty of the landscape and gives you and your travel companions the time to spot wildlife in the surroundings.
It is important to remember that many animals are more active at dawn and dusk, when the visibility is lower, while they rest during the day.


We had just left the Gran Teton behind us, when we noticed a gathering of cars at the roadside, where rangers had already cordoned the area. Eyes and cameras were all pointing at a huge brown mass in the bushes.
We promptly parked the car, got closer, and spotted a grizzly bear busy at stuffing himself 80 meters away from us. With all the voracity of the animal that beefs up for hibernation, the grizzly almost did not raise its head off the ground, deeply concentrated in his berries feast. At a certain point, intrigued by our presence, he stood up on his hind legs, showing off all his majesty, the thick and glossy fur, his massive size. We were all speechless, in respectful wonder.
As the grizzly approached, the rangers pulled us back to keep the safety distance. He remained in front of us for so long that we had also the time to leave the cameras and enjoy a pure experience, without barriers or intermediation, eyes in the eyes with him.

The most popular spots for grizzly sightings are the Yellowstone River, the Lamar Valley and the Hayden Valley. The minimum safety distance is 100m and no one must forget that the grizzlies are excellent swimmers, strong climbers and fast runners. Some signs of agitation are puffs and grunts, mouth open, clacking teeth and ears flattened against the head (when they are ready to attack). If they slap the ground and look you directly in the eyes, they are seriously warning you. Any bear message has to be taken extremely seriously but grizzlies command even more caution.
No one should ever be intentionally so close to a bear to be able to notice these behaviors without the help of binoculars.

South Yellowstone Grizzly Bear

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The bison is not only the symbol of Wyoming, but it was also the totem animal of many Native American peoples. Literally any part of the bison was fundamental for their survival: the meat, the skin, the dung, bones and horns, guts and fat. This is also why they had for this animal a religious respect and a profound gratitude.
Even if it looks meek and harmless, the bison is a strong, fast and wild animal. In Yellowstone it is possible to see several solitary bisons grazing in the valleys, but it is mainly a social animal that live and wander in herd. It is not uncommon to come across dozens of bison invading the road to change their grazing area, creating sometimes crazy traffic jams: paying great attention to not cause any accident, this is a valuable opportunity for extremely close encounters. We had this exciting experience near the Moran Junction and also in the Lamar Valley, but not free from fear. When we found ourselves surrounded by the herd, we realized that our 4X4 was definitely not an indestructible shelter. Each herd is normally made of mothers, calves and elderly males that act as protective guardians, while young males are normally free from parental duties and roam by themselves.
On some occasions, we saw people getting really too close and give their back to the bisons to take a selfie, and also families - with children! - literally surrounding an adult male bison to take pictures with their mobile phone. This is not only an irresponsible behaviour, but also disrespectful and really dangerous.

The most popular places to spot bisons are the Lamar Valley, the Hayden Valley, and the central park between the Yellowstone Falls and the Yellowstone Lake. The safety distance to be kept is 25mt and some irritation signals are the moving tail (when raised it means imminent charge), and the slaps on the ground with the front hooves.

Yellowstone Buffalos

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The wolf is among the most shy animals of Yellowstone, together with the lynx, the cougar and the wolverine.
We saw only a small pack from pretty far away in the Lamar Valley, being able to spot and observe them exclusively thanks to the powerful lenses of our binoculars.
Disappeared from the park at the beginning of '900 (the last wolf was killed in 1926), they were reintroduced only in 1995. The absence of wolves led to the uncontrolled increase of elks population, which compromised the balance of local flora. On the other side, their return triggered a series of extremely positive consequences on the Yellowstone ecosystem.

The most popular spots for wolf spotting are the Lamar Valley (the Slough Creek are in particular) and the Hayden Valley. The safety distance is 100m. In winter, because of the abundant snow, the probability of meeting them looking for food is higher.

Yellowstone Lamar Valley Wolf Pack


The moose is a solitary animal, and we realized how big it is only when we had one in front of our eyes. However, despite the size, they move elegantly and quietly between shrubs and trees. The only moose we spotted was at the Blacktail Ponds Overlook, in the Grand Teton National Park, where they often go to drink, eat and chill out.
At dusk, we could admire some courtship scenes among the willows. Moose really love willows and it is therefore advisable to look for them in the plains where willows grow, close to ponds or small rivers, since they also adore other aquatic vegetation (water lilies, horsetails, etc.).
In the Yellowstone Park, moose spots are mainly in the southern part, in the Eastern Lamar Valley and along the Soda Butte Creek.
The Lamar Valley is also excellent for the sighting of coyotes, which are common predators in the park and hunt small mammals such as mice and voles in field covered by sagebrush. They are less shy than wolves and it is not difficult to see them lurking outside the den of a prey ready to perform their famous hunting jump.
The beautiful bald eagles, symbol of the United States, usually nest on tall trees near ponds, to feed on fish and waterfowl. We spotted them in the western Lamar Valley and in the Mary Bay area (Yellowstone Lake).
If you are interested in Elks, please read our article about the Rocky Mountains National Park

Yellowstone Lamar Valley Hunting-Coyote

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  1. […] not respected and incorrect behavior is adopted. To find out which animals we saw and where, click HERE. To know how to behave in bear country, read […]
  2. […] [Discover HERE our wildlife spotting in Yellowstone Park] […]

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