By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor
BOZEMAN – Offering a small window into the habits of wild animals, Wildlife Expeditions’ multi-day Yellowstone National Park safaris are likely to spark curiosity. Led by trained naturalists and guides, the small winter groups often spot bison, mule deer, bighorn sheep, moose, bald eagles and wolves and experience steaming thermal features set against a backdrop of crystalline snow.
On Feb. 27, the Jackson, Wyoming-based company wrapped up a new trip offering called Winter Wolves of Yellowstone. The seven-day expedition toured the National Elk Refuge, as well as Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, providing ample opportunities to spot predators on the hunt and ungulates foraging for food.
The longest standing wildlife viewing company in Jackson, Wildlife Expeditions has offered trips since 1999. In addition to regular day trips, the company offers several animal-specific trips each year. And while the aim might be to spot a certain animal, it’s possible to spot any number of Yellowstone’s other critters.
Predator species like wolves are very elusive, explained Sarah Ernst, a guide with Wildlife Expeditions since 2011. Even with radio collars, their locations are often a rough estimate.
“The network of wolf watchers and researchers in the Northern Range gives us the best chance of finding them, but sightings are still up to luck and weather conditions as well as experience,” she said. “Patience is required for finding wild wolves, and an understanding that we will be standing outside in a variety of winter conditions, including snow, wind and cold.”
Winter clients ride in Mercedes-Benz snowcoaches with roof hatches that allow for wildlife viewing, but guests are also encouraged to get out of the vehicle to observe with provided binoculars or look through company spotting scopes.
“Whenever we are looking for wolves, there is a big adrenaline rush when we do find them,” Ernst said, adding that she gets most excited when she hears the echo of a good howl. “I was not particularly interested in wolves when I first moved to Jackson Hole, but … some of our encounters have been the most memorable wildlife experiences in my life.
“Despite our polarized and controversial view of wolves, we are perhaps more like them than any other wild animal of Yellowstone,” she said, explaining that humans are able to relate to wolves because of similarities in human and wolf family dynamics, as well as a wolf’s likening to a dog.
“For example, even non-dog-owners can tell the difference between friendly and aggressive body language in a wolf, but with bears or bison, most members of the public have difficulty reading their body language,” she added.
Wildlife Expeditions guides are trained in pedagogy, or the art of teaching. “Education is the underpinning to what we do,” said Patrick Leary, director of field education for Wildlife Expeditions. “Our guides are not just knowledgeable about the ecosystem, but they are trained in how to communicate that in a digestible way.”
Together, Wildlife Expeditions’ nine guides have over 60 years of experience working as wildlife guides, and many have master’s degrees and advanced training in related fields.
“Rather than just be the sage on the stage, so to speak, our guides are there to get guests to ask questions,” Leary said. “We believe people tend to retain more by being an active participant. … We see so much greater good by connecting people to this place by teaching them about it.”
In addition to conversational learning, guests are invited to partake in hands-on experiences. After watching pronghorn feed, the group might venture out to learn more about what vegetation the animal was feeding on, discussing habitat as well as larger issues like conservation. Guests also have the opportunity to handle a variety of specimens, from antlers and skulls, to pelts and hooves.
Unique among Jackson’s other wildlife viewing companies, Wildlife Expeditions operates as a nonprofit through a partnership with Teton Science Schools, a network of outdoor education programming with four campuses in Wyoming and Idaho that reaches about 15,000 people every year, from pre-kindergarten-aged children to participants in their 90s.
Yellowstone National Park will close to over-snow travel on March 15, concluding Wildlife Expeditions’ winter season. Until then, the company will offer full- or half-day trips throughout the park as well as in Grand Teton National Park. Beginning in April, they will offer three-day bear and wolf expedition packages.
For more information or to view a complete expedition schedule, visit tetonscience.org.