By Mauray Miller
Big Sky has moose. Gardiner has bison (better known as buffalo)—along with
elk, bear, deer, big horn sheep, eagles both bald and golden, wolves, coyotes, and
various other two-winged and four-legged creatures. As snow accumulates in the
backcountry, animals head for lower ground and easier hunting or browsing.
Yellowstone National Park is a treasure trove of wildlife rarely seen in other
states and certainly not in such concentration. The area between Jardine and Gardiner,
Montana, and Mammoth, Wyoming has some of the best wildlife viewing
in the lower 48. Because massive peaks surround the area, animals funnel into the
valleys that have less snow and wind-cleared flats. Ungulates come to graze, and
Locals can become quite casual about these wild neighbors. Recently, I showed my
son a picture of a bison herd on the Gardiner football field where he’d graduated
from high school, and his comment was, “Hey look, they built a new scoreboard.”
This shouldn’t have surprised me, since Gardiner kids spend many hours shoveling
elk and bison droppings from the football field before games and track meets.
While working at Yellowstone Park School, I witnessed many wild and unusual
sights. During the fall rut, staff walked or drove students home because of raging
bull elk ready to charge anything that moved. Teachers were always on the lookout
for herds of bison stampeding the playground area. One severe winter, coyotes discovered
that backpacks on kids contained snacks and lunches. A few coyotes snuck
up behind children walking to school and pulled the packs right off their backs.
Kindergarten through sixth grade classes were postponed one day so students
could watch a wolverine pair digging a den at the far end of the sandbox. To see
wolverines up close in the wild is rare, so this was a special treat.
In many bedroom communities to Yellowstone, bears are a seasonal part of the
environment. In one night, a grizzly feasted on 60 pounds of drying onions my
family was preparing for winter storage, devouring them all and leaving a pungent
trail. More recently, Gardiner and Jardine have instituted bear proof garbage cans
This January, wolves were observed just north of Gardiner surrounding a herd of
elk, testing for weak or injured animals. Each spring, elk and antelope calves are
targets for hunting packs. Yet nature provides both species with unique protection.
Elk calves have no scent and, if they remain motionless, are very difficult to detect.
Adult antelope are the second fastest mammals on earth, only behind cheetahs, but
antelope can run longer over greater distances at top speed. They have been clocked
at over 60mph. An antelope calf can walk with the herd within 30 minutes of birth
and run at speeds of up to 45 mph within days.
Big horn sheep have become more numerous in the past few years and have taken
to feeding alongside roadways where plows have scraped back the snow, exposing
tidbits of grass. They are also drawn to road salt. These acrobatic animals have
amazing footwork. They show off on the steep roadside cliffs between Gardiner
and Mammoth. Their sure-footed cloven hooves allow them to perform spectacular
leaps up or down seemingly sheer rock.
Massive bald eagles fish the Yellowstone River and scavenge for road kill or winterkill.
Golden eagles dwarf the bald eagles in size, and often battle the baldies for
their meals. I’ve observed osprey and bald eagles in aerial battles for fishing rights.
In this fight, the bald eagle reigns in size, yet the osprey is superior in speed and
agility and often comes away with the fish.
There are many luxuries and conveniences we miss out on living in a rural and isolated
area. However, I’ll take the wonderful variety and entertainment of wildlife
any day of the week.
Mauray Miller has lived in Yellowstone National Park and the greater Yellowstone
area since 1972. She raised a family here, and has worked as a nurse and a greenhouse
gardener. She lives in Gardiner, Montana and loves the outdoors.
Editor’s Note: After repeated attempts in late January to push and haze bison in
Gardiner back into the Park, officials moved the herd of more than 300 animals to a
holding facility and tested them for brucellosis. Because this disease causes abortions,
infertility and lowered milk production in livestock and wildlife, wildlife managers
and ranchers are concerned about potential contact between bison and cattle. The
infected Yellowstone bison will likely be shipped to slaughter.