YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — The drama plays out over a distance of miles under a veil of gray winter light, out in a vast and frozen landscape near the confluence of Hellroaring Creek and the Yellowstone River.
The alpha female of the Junction Butte wolf pack has collapsed in the snow. Visitors from around the world study her up-and-down struggles through Bushnell spotting scopes and faraway stares.
“It’s kind of sad,” said Conley Armstrong, a student from Casper, Wyo., along for an educational tour with the Yellowstone Association. “But it’s cool to see how the packs live and if a wolf gets sick, what happens to them.”
Even for a well-equipped photographer with a telephoto lens with an extender, the pack and its interactions with its wounded leader prove too distant to capture on film. The plight of the alpha female and the future of her pack would spread across the park’s northern tier like a winter squall — nature unfolding in the moment.
Tracey Heath and Maria Bisso of the Yellowstone Association leave the wolves and the crowded Hellroaring overlook for quieter vistas. Travel through Yellowstone by wheeled vehicle is limited this time of year, but there’s plenty to experience in the park’s northern valleys and their yawning sagebrush steppes.
Heath drives past Tower Junction and heads north into a rocky canyon, looking for eagles and moose. But it’s a coyote that catchers her eye. It’s neck-deep in the frozen carcass of a bull elk, and it’s tugging mightily at scraps of flesh.
The elk met its end over the weekend, Heath said. All antlers and hide and protruding ribs, the carcass serves as an easy feast for ravens, magpies and a hungry coyote.
“I saw him sitting here two days ago,” Heath said of the elk. “It was Saturday, and he was lying down in the sun. It’s where he died.”
When her van is full of clients from distant countries and American cities, Heath describes this region as the Serengeti of North America. Those who frequent Yellowstone National Park know why — the ecological balance, the abundance of wildlife roaming free in a landscape larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined.
Spanning more than 3,472 square miles, Yellowstone is home to 67 mammalian species, 16 different fish, six reptiles, four amphibians and 322 species of birds.
The region also has a human history reaching back 12,000 years. Among them were the Sheepeaters, a group of Shoshone who preferred dogs over horses when navigating Yellowstone’s rugged landscape. Twenty-six tribes claim some historic connection to the park. The Nez Perce crossed these hills and valleys on their flight from the U.S. Army in the 1870s.
Today at least, the February sun breaks in golden patches over the Lamar Valley, but the river is frozen and covered in snow, creating a stark white tundra sweeping uninterrupted to the mountains above.
It’s easy to imagine the West as looking much like this before the arrival of European settlers and the industrial age — back when the Sheepeaters lived in harmony with the land.
It was in the vicinity of the Lamar Valley in 1995 that scientists released 14 Canadian wolves, marking a triumphant moment in the Northern Rockies and one that punctuated 25 years of research, planning and debate.
Wolves had vanished from the region by the 1920s under an aggressive extermination effort. They’ve made a comeback to the delight of visitors, some who cross oceans to catch a glimpse of a wolf in its natural environment.
But lesser known to visitors, Heath believes, was the plight of the park’s bison and their own comeback. They were hunted to near extinction and faced an uncertain future before reintroduction efforts began more than a century ago.
Health recounts the bison’s complicated history while pulling into the Buffalo Ranch, where an effort to restore the population began in 1907. When the operation opened that year, the North American bison had gone from 60 million animals to fewer than 1,000. Only 23 bison remained in Yellowstone by 1907, and most of them were in the Pelican Valley.
Bonnie Quinn, the Yellowstone Association’s campus manager at the Buffalo Ranch, greets Heath and Bisso at the historic bunkhouse. She keeps people and classes running on schedule.
“The park’s bison population was down to two dozen animals by the early 1900s,” Quinn said. “A project to bring them back was started over in Mammoth, but it grew too large, so they moved it over here.”
From 1907 to 1952, the Buffalo Ranch operated much like a domestic cattle ranch. Animals were shipped in from Texas and northern Montana — bison of the same species, Quinn said.
The new arrivals bred with Yellowstone’s remaining bison. By 1936, animals from the Lamar herd were moved to the Firehole River region and the Hayden Valley. More than 1,400 bison roamed the park by the late 1950s, a tribute to the program’s success.
While controversy still follows the bison when the animals leave the park for greener pastures near Gardiner, their namesake ranch has found a different mission, one rooted in history and education.
“The bunkhouse was built in late 1920s, and the cabin was at Soda Butte Creek and used as a patrol cabin before it was brought on site,” Quinn said. “The other cabin was the original buffalo keeper’s building.”
One historic cabin now houses the backcountry ranger.
Inside the bunkhouse, volunteers with the Yellowstone Association tend to guests having lunch. The smaller, newer cabins scattered along the corral serve as overnight quarters, and the Lamar Valley serves as their classroom.
“We have a four-month summer and five-month winter schedule, and when we’re not here, the National Park Service runs a kids’ program for fourth- to eighth-graders,” Quinn said. “This ranch is used year-round as a residential educational facility.”
The Yellowstone Association has served as the park’s official educational partner since 1933, connecting visitors with Yellowstone’s natural wonders. The programs include youth outings, private tours and field seminars, with topics ranging from wildlife studies to nature writing and geology.
Back in Gardiner, where the association is based in the shadows of Roosevelt Arch, Daniel Bierschwale pulls on a jacket and discusses the organization’s nonprofit status. With 35,000 members worldwide, the association has provided more than $31 million in aid to Yellowstone over the last 80 years.
“Fifteen percent of our gross proceeds from the sale of educational materials and course offerings goes back to support the Park Service and its educational mission,” said Bierschwale, who serves as the association’s director of sales and marketing. “We also help fund research projects through the Yellowstone Center for Resources.”
In recent years, much of the association’s support has gone to produce new exhibits and interpretive displays at the Canyon and Albright visitor education centers. A new film on Yellowstone’s history is under way, and roadside markers are being updated with new and current park information.
On the research side, more than 18,000 slides in the park’s photo files will be converted to digital format, allowing for web-based study. Bierschwale said funding also supports the Yellowstone Research Library and its 10,000 titles, which include rare books, documents and historic photos.
But it’s out in the field where the coyote dines, where the Junction Butte pack searches for direction and where the bison graze in vast numbers, that the association has built its name and places its reputation.
The winter and summer courses offered by the association rival those at large universities. Noted naturalists, artists and biologists, including noted wolf biologist Doug Smith, log roughly 7,000 contact hours each year to help visitors understand the complicated nuances of the park and the creatures that call it home.
“If it has to do with Yellowstone, we teach a class on it,” Bierschwale said. “We really believe that through education, we can help inspire visitors to Yellowstone National Park, and hopefully build an emotional connection to the resource.”