Skip to main content

The Wildlife of Yellowstone

Sal Santiago worked and lived in Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park, in the summer of 2020.

Yellow-bellied Marmots, or "Whistle Pigs", survey the scene in Mammoth Hot Springs

Yellow-bellied Marmots, or "Whistle Pigs", survey the scene in Mammoth Hot Springs

Seeing Wildlife Around Mammoth Hot Springs

When I lived in Mammoth Hot Springs, the northwestern entrance of Yellowstone, one of my favorite daily animal sightings was the yellow-bellied marmot, or "whistle pig," as many people called them. They were literally everywhere. The grounds behind the employee housing were riddled with holes and tunnels. They had a complete network, an underground city right there in our backyard. You could watch them as they watched you. Popping their heads out, scanning and watching the terrain. They might spend a little time above ground, then they would dive back into the underground city.

Yellow-bellied Marmots in Yellowstone National Park

Yellow-bellied Marmots in Yellowstone National Park

We saw them a lot throughout the month of August. Then in September, as the weather started to cool down, and hints of winter were in the air (high in the mountains, 6700 feet elevation), they were gone. They have one of the longest hibernations of any animal. They spend about 7–8 months underground, having a long snooze. You will see them pop their heads out again the following spring, as they have their young, and continue renovating and expanding, that vast tunnel-city beneath the plains.

A Lone Male Bison Walks Along the Roadside in Yellowstone

A Lone Male Bison Walks Along the Roadside in Yellowstone

Elk Roam the Park

Mammoth Hot Springs is famous for the many elk that live in the town. On any given day, you can see them grazing, especially in the morning and evening. They might head into the hills that surround the town, as the day warms up. Why have they chosen to spend their lives near people? Why not travel deeper into the park, away from these strange two-legged, upright-walking creatures?

Trumpeter Swans at Swan Lake in the northwestern part of the park

Trumpeter Swans at Swan Lake in the northwestern part of the park

There are a few simple answers. The main reason is likely to be a lack of predators. Grizzly bears and wolves generally avoid the Mammoth Hot Springs area. Too many people around. So the elk are protected, and have a safe environment. The second reason they love the town? There is a treasure trove of long, sweet grass, kept watered by the park service. A reliable and delicious food source for them.

the-wildlife-of-yellowstone

Occasional Grizzly Sightings

Some of the old-timers in town, the people who work in the general store/gift shop, will tell you stories about the day a bear came into town. One day, they looked out the windows and saw a black bear walking right down the main street sidewalk. An older co-worker, who has worked seasonally in Mammoth for the past 20 years or so, told stories about the time a grizzly came down from the hills, chasing an elk. Caught and killed an elk right in town, in the open prairie near the visitor center. In general, though, not many bears will come around. Towards the end of our season, in October, there were sightings of a grizzly hanging around near the Beaver Ponds Loop trail, which you can hike right out of town.

A Pronghorn Antelope Relaxes on the Old Gardiner Road

A Pronghorn Antelope Relaxes on the Old Gardiner Road

If you want to have a good chance of seeing wolves and grizzlies, one thing to to is keep an ear to the ground, ask a park ranger where recent sightings have been, and follow social media. Word of mouth spreads fast when there is a carcass in the park. It could be a bison or an elk. Smaller animals such as coyotes, and opportunists such as ravens, and eagles, might get there first. But soon enough, you can expect that the "big boys and girls" will show up.

A Curious Pronghorn Antelope Watches People in Yellowstone National Park

A Curious Pronghorn Antelope Watches People in Yellowstone National Park

This was the first experience I had of being able to watch wolves (through binoculars), finishing off the remnants of a bison carcass. Rumor was that the bison had actually been hit by a car. It is sad, but even in Yellowstone, this is a somewhat common occurrence. When it happens, the park rangers will move the bison away from the road, and relocate it to a good, safe distance from the road. And then let nature take its course. There may be a few days of good viewing. The serious wildlife watchers and photographers will set up with their long lenses, and it will be a viewing party for several days.

A Herd of Elk in Mammoth Hot Springs

A Herd of Elk in Mammoth Hot Springs

The Iconic Yellowstone Bison

The most iconic Yellowstone animal, undoubtedly, has to be the bison. They symbolize the America that once was when millions of them roamed the plains. And the beauty and magic of Yellowstone is that they have this vast area where they can roam free, and are protected. Once the bison roam outside of the park boundaries, however, and onto territory owned by ranchers, the laws may be different.

A Mountain Goat High on a Cliff Side near Osprey Falls in Yellowstone

A Mountain Goat High on a Cliff Side near Osprey Falls in Yellowstone

To see bison in their native habitat is a thing of beauty. In the spring time, when they have their young, called "red dogs," it is especially great to see them. Whether you spend time watching the massive herds as they cross roads and graze in the vast valleys, or you happen to see a lone bison near a hiking trail, it is always a thrill.

Mountain Goat in Yellowstone

Mountain Goat in Yellowstone

Getting Caught in a Bison Jam

Another fun thing that might happen, is you might get caught in a “bison jam.” Anywhere else and this is called a traffic jam, and might cause your stress level to skyrocket. In Yellowstone, it’s an opportunity to slow down and see these large animals up close. Often taking their time, sometimes walking directly down the middle of the road, seemingly unimpressed and not too interested in the line of stopped cars, and the many people snapping photos and recording videos.

Baby Mountain Goat and Parent High on a Cliff Side near Osprey Falls

Baby Mountain Goat and Parent High on a Cliff Side near Osprey Falls

The Lamar Valley Wolves

If you are looking to see wolves, the Lamar Valley is the place, in the northeastern part of the park. You will likely see them at a good distance, so bring a good pair of binoculars or a telescopic lens. This is probably the best place on earth to see and watch wolves in their native habitat. There are currently about eight wolf packs in the park, with total numbers reaching around 95 (as of 2021).

A Bull Elk Roams the Vast Valley near Gardiner, Montana

A Bull Elk Roams the Vast Valley near Gardiner, Montana

The wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone took place in 1995, and has been successful. 14 wolves were brought from Canada, held for a period of time in holding pens, and eventually released. By the end of 1996, a total of 31 wolves had been reintroduced to the park. The first wolves in the park since the last packs were killed in the 1920s.

A Bison Grazes in Lamar Valley, after the first snowfall of the year in September 2022

A Bison Grazes in Lamar Valley, after the first snowfall of the year in September 2022

Though Yellowstone is famous for these large animals, and it is amazing to see them, many of my most enjoyable sightings were of the smaller creatures. The white coyote that would patrol the picnic table area near the Terrace Grill, usually after dark. The day I had a chance sighting of a weasel near the employee housing. The day when, on a hike with a few co-workers, we saw mountain goats, with their young, high on a cliff side across a river. We were able to spend some time watching them, and to take a few photos.

Bison Cross the Road near the Lamar Valley, Yellowstone

Bison Cross the Road near the Lamar Valley, Yellowstone

The day I was hiking the five-mile Old Gardiner Road, from Mammoth Hot Springs to Gardiner, Montana, when I saw a few pronghorn antelopes grazing alongside the old road. One decided to lie down and didn't seem too bothered until after waiting and taking a lot of photographs, I finally approached a little too closely, and they reluctantly decided to get up and move away.

A Herd of Bison near the Lamar Valley, in the northeastern part of Yellowstone National Park

A Herd of Bison near the Lamar Valley, in the northeastern part of Yellowstone National Park

Birds of Yellowstone

And there are the ever-present and entertaining magpies, the ravens, and the mountain bluebirds you might see. Always wonderful to see that flash of bright blue color, soaring by overhead, or perched on a nearby tree branch.

A Lone Bison in Yellowstone

A Lone Bison in Yellowstone

The Wonder of Yellowstone

Yellowstone is one of the most visited National Parks in the United States with about 3,800,000 visitors in the record year of 2020 (when I worked there), and up to a new record of 4,800,000 in 2021.

A Canada Jay in Yellowstone National Park

A Canada Jay in Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone is all about the wildlife, and the strange geothermal phenomena. Truly a wonderland, with steam rising and gurgling from the earth in many different places.

A Lone Bull Elk Roams the Valley near Gardiner Montana

A Lone Bull Elk Roams the Valley near Gardiner Montana

We can be grateful the leaders at that time created this first National Park in 1872, and to preserve the land here and the wildlife habitat for generations to come. Though history contains many dark and sad episodes, this is something the United States got right, and something that everyone should feel proud of. It inspired many other governments around the world to create their own national parks and to preserve the unique biodiversity and cultural history of their own countries.

A Bison Grazes near the Lamar Valley

A Bison Grazes near the Lamar Valley

The world’s very first National Park should be on everyone’s bucket list. If you love the outdoors, fascinating geological phenomena, and lots of wildlife, you must visit Yellowstone at some point during your life.

A Bull Elk takes a Nap behind the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel

A Bull Elk takes a Nap behind the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel