Hikes to See Pronghorn Feature Unexpected Guests: An Autumn Walk through the Yellowstone Backcountry
By Joe Josephson, NPCA’s Yellowstone Wildlife Fellow
In conservation, it is easy to get wrapped up in wonky policy debates or overcome by process. Fortunately, my Nature Valley-sponsored “Path of the Pronghorn” hikes each fall are a poignant reminder of the beauty and natural order that exist in Yellowstone National Park and why we work so hard to protect it.
This season, I led five trips with a total of 35 individuals across Mount Everts, a prominent peak in the park’s northern range. Starting at the pronghorns’ high-altitude summer habitat of the Blacktail Deer Plateau, following ancient migration paths across a forgotten landscape for more than ten miles, we drop several thousand feet in elevation to arrive at the animals’ wintering grounds near Gardiner, Montana, near the north entrance of Yellowstone.
During the course of this cross-country jaunt, I explain the biological and natural history of the Yellowstone pronghorn while observing them in the backcountry, unaffected by roads or other development. The importance of our Nature Valley habitat improvement project becomes all the more obvious after seeing pronghorn unfettered by fences. Much of the time when I’m working with volunteers to improve pronghorn habitat, we are removing or adapting fences to help the animals migrate safely and find adequate snow-free winter habitat. These hikes, however, are about enjoying the many surprises the backcountry has to offer.
Hiking during the fall rutting season, we often get to witness the famous elk bugle, so close you can almost feel their breath. It’s also not uncommon to wander up on a lone bison bull standing motionless under a scratching pine—more than once we had to alter our route to avoid these iconic and stately sentinels of Yellowstone. Last year, a large group of us were even fortunate enough to witness the entire Blacktail wolf pack—16 animals—trot right in front of us, and we were able to follow and observe them hunting elk.
Over the past three seasons guiding more than 100 people, I’ve yet to take the same path twice. Every trip has had its own special sightings and experiences.
On September 30, our hike started out as so many have in the frosty first hours of dawn near the still and reflective Blacktail Ponds. After a few hours we arrived at the first of the many unnamed kettle ponds that dot the plateau of Mt. Everts. Normally, this is right in the middle of the elk activity, but despite hearing them bugle in Gardiner and Mammoth on the drive up, we were not hearing nor seeing anything. When a skittish bison took off running at the sight of us almost a half mile away, I realized wolves had been back since my last hike. With all the prey animals chased out of the area, we were not expecting to see much the rest of the day. I decided to take a detour to a slight saddle to the west, figuring if there were elk anywhere they would be there, so we should at least take a look. Plus, I knew of a rare moose horn to show folks along the way.
Just as we arrived on a hill before the pass, I stopped to spot the horn with my binoculars. What I saw instead was a large collared wolf appearing over the horizon. Black as a new moon and totally uninterested in us, we watched this magnificent animal continue into the draw below us. Excited and stunned, we all stood there basking in our good fortune.
Should we continue toward where the wolf had just been? As we considered what to do next, I looked up and saw we had more company.
We froze as a second wolf, this one large and gray-colored, came over the same hill, snorting and sniffing the ground as it went, only interested in the black wolf’s scent. It headed toward a small kettle pond and was bounding through the tall reeds around it when we saw the black wolf’s head pop up. The gray wolf disappeared while the black wolf jumped toward it. This hide-and-seek went back and forth for a number of minutes until the black wolf moved south and we lost sight of it.
The gray wolf then sat on the hill above the pond for more than 15 minutes while we sat eating our lunch. Just looking around cool and calm as can be, it could have been mistaken for a pet dog on a porch. Finally, it howled mournfully for a full fifteen minutes across the hillsides with only the five of us and the rest of the wildlife there to enjoy the moving sound. When visitors see wolves along the roads of Yellowstone, they typically share the experience with dozens of others. To experience wildlife like this, alone in the backcountry, is as unparalleled as it is unforgettable. Finally, the gray wolf got a response (the black wolf?) and disappeared over the hill.
Sharing this seemingly inaccessible corner of the park and experiencing the landscape and wildlife as they are meant to be goes far beyond any typical sense of workplace satisfaction. Mount Everts is a profound source of pleasure and renewal, and a reminder of the responsibility we have when we live in the shadow of Yellowstone to protect its endless wonders and surprises.