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Friday, Jan. 3, 2003

WILD WATCH

YELLOWSTONE

Vast visions made real


First of two parts

These days the United States may not be pulling its weight and taking any kind of responsible lead vis-a-vis climate change and the Kyoto Protocol. In the past, however, there have been undeniable -- if occasional -- grand American visions or strokes of inspired leadership. One such occurred in 1872, when an astounding new concept was given form with the establishment by the U.S. government of the enormous Yellowstone National Park -- the first of its kind in the world.

News photo
Bison foraging in the magnificent winter setting of Yellowstone, where wolves like this (below) now roam, too, since being reintroduced in 1995.
News photo

In the intervening 130 years, countries worldwide have followed suit and set aside their finest landscapes, their deepest wilderness areas, and their most representative ecosystems. The national park movement has been an invaluable spur to nature conservation internationally, and has also spurred considerable growth in tourism by those eager to experience their romantic image of the wild.

I have written about various of Japan's national parks in these pages over the years, and have no doubt (including in my column a fortnight ago) betrayed my extreme bias in favor of the Akan National Park in eastern Hokkaido. There, tent-freezing, bone-chilling weather notwithstanding, it is winter that I find most beautiful. I thought Akan had it all, and I would have put money on it -- then I was suddenly offered a chance to visit Yellowstone in March.

My image was of a cliched landscape, so familiar from calendars and cards, books and films that I fully expected a letdown experience. I could not have been more wrong.

The crisp, snowed-under Yellowstone landscape spanning northwest Wyoming, parts of eastern Idaho and southern Montana was stunning; the wildlife experiences were amazing; and the only disappointment was Old Faithful.

I happened to do my graduate research in Iceland, and a geyser there of the same name was the first I ever saw, and it's been my yardstick ever since. When it comes to geysers, give me Iceland. When it comes to getting away from it all in Japan, give me Akan. But for a full-blast winter wildlife experience, Yellowstone is . . . well, words fail me.

Bald eagles, trumpeter swans, bison, elk -- all the iconic species of the North American wilderness were there, with the latter two visible in such numbers that day after day my fellow "Wild Watcher" and I repeated the same mantra: "I will not take any more photographs." This was, however, immediately and invariably followed by: "Oh well, perhaps just one more roll."

What else can you do when, right before your eyes, creatures are battling elemental winter. There were coyote tracks in the woods, and occasionally we glimpsed them -- once even photographed them crossing a snow slope -- and I dreamed of glimpsing a wolf.

By then I was beginning to think I'd seen it all -- but the unexpected highlight was to come: the Lamar Valley in Wyoming, in the northeast corner of the park.

Tip-toed patterns

The broad open sweeps of the valley provide winter grazing for yet more elk and bison, and the herds attract predators. A loose group of coyote had left their tip-toed print patterns across the snowfields, moving the herds near the river. Morning mists rising from the streams created endlessly inspiring images of frigid winter, but it was the unphotographable, the too-distant-to-see creatures that provided the ultimate highlight -- the wolves!

I'd love to say that the accompanying picture was one of the Lamar Valley's gray wolves, but alas, no. Indeed, only after I spent a long time scanning distant mountain slopes with powerful binoculars did I spot a far-off pack -- recognizable as wolves more by their behavior and wide color variations than by any other features.

As a wolf novice (I remember only one previous sighting, on a garbage dump in southern Israel), even those remote views were inspiring. I could see the animals in their mountainous landscape. I could imagine their lives, much as some of the best of Japanese wildlife photography allows you to do, so imbued it is with atmosphere.

Another day I came across a pack that had killed an elk, or had at least gathered at a carcass. A little closer, these I could view at leisure, fascinated by their social antics. As I watched the pack their postures changed, heads tipped upward, and with breath-catching anticipation I waited for the spine-tingling howl to reach me.

The establishment of this stunning park was due to leadership all those years ago, and now Yellowstone is again playing a leading role -- in the reintroduction of its missing top predator, the wolf, exterminated there in line with government policy in 1924.

Restoring ecosystems is a massive challenge, one bound to bring controversy under any circumstances, but the battle over wolf-reintroduction has been particularly hard-fought. Campaigners rose to the challenge through education and research programs, and a group of Canadian wolves was released in 1995. The predators are now well-established and thriving in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

Howling in Hokkaido

New packs have formed, split, moved and carved out their own territories on the basis of safety and prey abundance, and the degree of protection they receive means that, though shy, they are not overly afraid of people. Viewing them is a real possibility, and the Lamar Valley is the place to do so.

As I watched the Yellowstone wolf packs, listened to their howls and admired the stunning setting in which they live, I couldn't help thinking back to Japan. Wolves were exterminated from Japan, too -- but they could be reintroduced. Analysis of habitat and prey in several of Japan's main wilderness areas reveals that they are actually better suited for wolves than several European areas that still support them.

The Japanese wolf was smaller than the North American subspecies, akin to the small Mongolian form. Wouldn't it be stunning to one day be able to lie cocooned in a winter camp in Akan National Park and hear the distant howls of a wolf pack there?

In the meantime, if it is wolves, or winter wilderness, you want to see, don't waste time wondering -- get to Yellowstone! But please, when you're there, don't rent a two-stroke snowmobile! I'll explain why in my next column.

Mark Brazil welcomes feedback at: markbrazil@compuserve.com


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