Wildlife Watching in America's National Parks: A Seasonal Guide

Wildlife Watching in America's National Parks: A Seasonal Guide

by Gary W. Vequist, Daniel S. Licht

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From the Great Smoky Mountains to Point Reyes National Seashore, America’s national parks are home to some of nature’s great wildlife spectacles. Here, Gary W. Vequist and Daniel S. Licht, two veterans of the National Park Service, focus on twelve animals that have been imperiled and at risk, but are now protected within the National Park System.

Showcasing one species for each month of the year, including gray wolf, black bear, prairie dog, sea turtle, bison, bats, salmon, elk, beaver, American alligator, gray whale, and bald eagle, Vequist and Licht pair each premier species with a featured park, adding information about other parks where the species may also be readily seen and identifying other animals to look for in the same habitat—animals that prey, are preyed upon, or exist side by side with the focal species.

Beyond being a guide to observing these remarkable animals, Wildlife Watching in America’s National Parks, as the title implies, is also a book about America’s national parks. Reminding Americans why national parks are truly our “best idea” and encouraging readers to go find out why, these career wildlife specialists stress that it is “impossible to fathom America without these animals and without the parks in which they reside.”

Nature lovers, travelers, and outdoor hobbyists of all types will be enthralled by this inside view of America’s wildlife and the breathtaking photographs of places they inhabit.

List of Wildlife and Parks Featured:
Yellowstone National Park: Gray Wolf
Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Black Bear
Badlands National Park: Prairie Dog
Dry Tortugas National Park: Sea Turtle
Theodore Roosevelt National Park: Plains Bison
Carlsbad Caverns National Park: Bats
Olympic National Park: Pacific Salmon
Buffalo National River: Rocky Mountain Elk
Cuyahoga Valley National Park: Beaver
Everglades National Park: American Alligator
Point Reyes National Seashore: Gray Whale

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781603448147
Publisher: Texas A&M University Press
Publication date: 02/06/2013
Edition description: Travel Guide
Pages: 244
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.71(d)

About the Author

GARY W. VEQUIST’s career as a biologist, ranger naturalist, and nature interpreter spans forty years and six parks. He is Associate Regional Director for Natural Resource Stewardship and Science at the Midwest Regional office of the National Park Service in Omaha.

DANIEL S. LICHT has been professionally involved in wildlife issues in Alaska, Maine, South Carolina, Texas, California, and several states in the Midwest and Great Plains. He is currently the National Park Service’s Midwest Regional Wildlife Biologist, stationed in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Read an Excerpt

Wildlife Watching in America's National Parks

A Seasonal Guide

By Gary W. Vequist, Daniel S. Licht

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2013 Gary W. Vequist Daniel S. Licht
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60344-814-7



Gray Wolves of Yellowstone

Even in March most of Yellowstone National Park is still covered in deep snow. Although the days are getting longer and the sun is getting higher, spring still seems to take forever to come to the land, at least for some of the park's residents. At this time of the year, perched between the seasons, life hangs in the balance for the elk, bison, pronghorn antelope, and other large ungulates. Their bodies are weakened and malnourished from the long winter. On top of that, wolves are on the prowl. But it's never easy for the wolves either as they struggle to take down larger, stronger, and faster prey. This struggle between predator and prey is one of nature's greatest spectacles. At Yellowstone National Park, in northwestern Wyoming, it is often played out right in front of the wildlife watcher.

What's Remarkable about Gray Wolves?

Scientists refer to the wolf as an animal with high "plasticity," meaning that it can adapt to a wide variety of habitats and prey. Consider that the species historically ranged from the barren tundra of the Arctic to the deep, dark, boreal forests of Canada to the wide-open grasslands of the Great Plains to the scorching deserts of Mexico. All the wolf needed to survive was prey, whether it was musk ox, moose, bison, or javelina. In other words, the wolf is not really a habitat-dependent species in the conventional sense (i.e., vegetation), but rather a prey-dependent species. Historically, where there was prey there was wolves.

Remarkably, the wolf's prey includes some of America's largest and most dangerous species such as bison and moose. These animals can weigh up to a ton, whereas even the largest wolves may only tip the scale at around 130 pounds. It seems like a mismatch. Yet the wolf has on its side several adaptations—fine tuned by eons of evolution—including endurance, speed, and strong jaws, but most importantly, the cooperation of the pack. It's the pack that allows wolves to take down prey like the much larger bison and moose. It's the pack that allows wolves to catch swifter prey such as deer and pronghorn antelope. And it's the pack that allows wolves to overcome the many sets of eyes in the elk herd. The pack is what separates the wolf from most of North America's other large carnivores.

Yet the wolf has one more trick up its sleeve. In addition to hunting in a pack, the wolf is also a master judge of character. The wolf's ability to identify injured, sick, old, or otherwise vulnerable prey is often the difference between success and injury. Ironically, by removing unhealthy prey the wolves are what keep the herds of bison, moose, and elk healthy. In many ways, wolves are the stewards of the ecosystems in which they occur and one of nature's most remarkable animals.

Wolf Ecology

Scientists are just now beginning to understand and appreciate the important and complex role wolves play in ecosystem health. Many biologists now consider the wolf a keystone species, that is, one that influences many other species in the ecosystem. Wolves can affect ecosystems either directly, by killing prey species and therefore keeping prey populations in check, or indirectly. Consider what science has learned from the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park.

Prior to the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, the park's elk herd had for decades been overabundant, which in turn led to degradation of the park's plant communities. Plants such as aspen and willow were not reaching maturity due to the heavy and relentless elk browsing. The reintroduction of wolves in 1995 has helped reduce elk numbers to a level more in balance with the ecosystem (about 90 percent of the diet of Yellowstone wolves is elk). Elk are no longer viewed as overabundant. But there's more to the story than the numbers. Watch how the two species interact. Just the presence of wolves tends to keep the elk alert and on the move, which is good for the vegetation. Prior to the reintroduction of wolves the elk would loiter in aspen groves, spending little time watching for danger, and more time constantly chewing on the buds and leaves, effectively stopping the trees' regrowth. But now with wolves nearby the elk spend much less time feeding in these areas, which in turn allows the aspen stands to grow. Scientists have coined this phenomenon the "ecology of fear."

With fewer elk, and with those remaining elk spending less time in the young hardwood stands, the groves of aspen, willow, and other trees have recovered. This has benefited songbirds and all kinds of other wildlife. Scientists often call this type of response a "trophic cascade" as a change in one species (e.g., reintroducing wolves) can result in a change in anotherspecies (e.g., fewer elk) and can change other species (e.g., more aspen and willow), which can change another group of species (e.g., more songbirds). Of course this "cascade" can trickle down even further to other organisms, such as insects. The presence of wolves, or any apex predator, can dramatically affect the health of ecosystems.

Wolf Conservation

Once found throughout essentially all of North America, the wolf was almost extirpated from the contiguous forty-eight states. In fact, by the middle of the twentieth century the only remaining wolf populations in the lower forty-eight states were the small remnant populations in northern Minnesota and the population in Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior. But once the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973 wolf populations began expanding as wolves from Canada naturally recolonized northwestern Montana, and wolves from Minnesota recolonized Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

However, there were doubts as to how much further wolves could expandon their own, and whether they could reach the vast protected wilderness of Yellowstone National Park, so the federal government, at the urging of conservationists, began planning for a reintroduction of wolves from Canada. The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 is one of the most controversial and costly wildlife management actions ever taken. Yet the effort was more than just a reintroduction of an animal to its former habitat; it was also a symbolic action showing how far the country had come in its attitudes toward predators and wildlife and how important the national parks are to wildlife conservation.

Now, fifteen or so years later, that effort is by almost all measures a huge success. Wolves have now repopulated much of the park. And just as importantly, they are now fulfilling their keystone role by controlling ungulate abundance and behavior, which keeps the ecosystem healthy for all wildlife. They are also adding immeasurably to visitor experiences as more than a million people have likely seen wolves at the park. Consider that one study found that an estimated 325,000 visitors saw wolves in 2005, and that wolves increased ecotourism spending by $35 million in that same year. The restoration of the wolf to Yellowstone is arguably one of the greatest conservation stories ever told.

Parks with Gray Wolves

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

The world's first national park is also one of North America's premier wildlife-viewing locations. Established in 1872, the 2.2 million-acre park contains snow-capped mountains, dark forests, rolling prairies, as well as famous geysers, hot springs, and waterfalls. The park also hosts one of the most natural and complete wildlife communities of any site in the contiguous forty-eight states. In fact, every species that was present when explorers first arrived may still be there today.

For most of the year Yellowstone National Park is wide open to visitors with countless places to go and scenic wonders to explore. But in March many of these places are still closed and inaccessible. In fact, the only road open to wheeled vehicles is the highway from Mammoth (and Gardiner) to Cooke City, Montana. Fortunately, that road goes through the Lamar Valley where some of the best wildlife viewing is. Another option for seeing the park is to take a snow coach to the Yellowstone Lodge (Old Faithful). Once there, a person can cross-country ski the groomed trails or they can head off on their own with snowshoes. Of course, safety should be paramount for any outdoor activities in Yellowstone in March; visitors should check weather forecasts and consult with park rangers prior to an outing. Although wolves are scarce around Old Faithful, there are still bison, elk, and other animals to observe. Witnessing these animals struggling to survive a Yellowstone winter gives real meaning to "survival of the fittest."

Seeing a wolf, or any predator for that matter, is a special experience, since predators are often extremely difficult to spot in the wild. This is especially true in places where predators are hunted, trapped, or otherwise persecuted. Fortunately, a visitor to Yellowstone National Park has a relatively high likelihood of seeing wolves in their natural habitat. There are several reasons for this. One, Yellowstone's wolves are protected from hunting so they don't quickly flee or hide from people. Two, Yellowstone consists of a mixture of dense forests and wide-open prairies, meadows, and floodplains; the open areas are conducive to wolf observations. Three, the prey density at Yellowstone is relatively high, which leads to relatively high wolf densities. Last, Yellowstone is the home of the "wolf watchers," a reference to the people who passionately follow and watch the park's wolves. These "wolf watchers" are always happy to share tips and recent sightings with a visitor (see below for more information on the "wolf watchers").

By the end of 2009, there were at least ninety-six wolves in Yellowstone National Park, distributed among about fourteen packs and smaller groups and loners. The packs are primarily concentrated in the central and northern portions of the park. However, the location and composition of the packs can change dramatically from year to year, so where they are common one year they may be almost absent the next. This dynamic nature is due in part to strife and fights between packs as one pack may invade another pack's territory. This is all part of natural wolf behavior and dynamics. Because of the ever-changing nature of the packs we advise readers to go to the park's website or talk to a ranger for the most up-to-date information on the pack locations and composition.

Although pack members and names may change from year to year, one constant (so far) is that some of the best places to see wolves are on the stretch of road between Tower–Roosevelt Junction and the Soda Butte Creek area. Packs in this area originally went by the names of Druid and Slough Creek, but there was a dramatic reorganization in 2008. Although the pack names have changed, there are still a lot of easily viewable wolves in the area. Within this stretch of road the single best place to see wolves may be from the dirt road that heads to the Slough Creek Campground. From the road a wolf den can be viewed on the far hillside across the creek, that is, to the northwest. You will often see groups of people stationed on a small hilltop about 50 yards from the road, all armed with spotting scopes pointed toward the den area (the den is literally a mile or more away so a good scope is essential). In addition to that generally reliable site, wolves can show up almost anywhere. If they've made a kill they will hang around the site for a day or two, so wait patiently (in addition to wolves you will almost certainly see bears, coyotes, eagles, and other wildlife taking advantage of the wolf kill). As with most wildlife, morning and dusk are the best time to see or hear the wolves; however, depending in part on their hunting success they may be active any time of the day.

2011 Yellowstone Wolf Pack Territories

The interesting thing about Yellowstone and its wolves is that the visitors, more specifically the "wolf watchers," know as much about the wolves as many of the park employees. "Wolf watchers" are a small group of people who spend their time looking for and watching the park's wolves. Many are retired people who live in local communities. Some know all of the wolves by name. During the peak summer tourist season the wolf watchers can get lost in the crowds, but in March if you see any people along the Lamar Valley Road with binoculars or spotting scopes they are likely "wolf watchers." Many of them are more than happy to share with a visitor the wolves they're watching or the best places to see them. (They actually help the park with wolf monitoring by providing park employees with recent sightings, observations of kill events, and other information.)

Of course, the park visitor center in Mammoth Hot Springs is also a good place to learn about wolves and where they are being observed. There are also several books on wolves, including books specific to the Yellowstone reintroduction. As in all national parks, rangers can also provide recent sightings, information, and tips. The park's website is a great source of information as is the website of the Greater Yellowstone Science Learning Center.


Wildlife viewing doesn't get any better than in Yellowstone National Park. Large animals can be found everywhere, but of course, some places are better than others. The Lamar Valley area is great for bison, elk, and pronghorn antelope. Watch the behavior of these species; if they're intently staring in one direction or running, it's likely that a wolf or other predator is nearby. Elk, mule deer, and bighorn sheep are all common along the Gardiner Canyon Road that enters the park near Mammoth Hot Springs.

Yellowstone National Park may be the best place in North America to view a variety of large mammals, including carnivores, in their natural habitat. Here are ten large mammals that you may see during a March visit (table 3), starting with the easiest to see to the most difficult:


Coyotes warrant additional discussion because of their fascinating history at the park and their ecological relationship to wolves. Prior to the reintroduction of wolves in 1995 the coyote was the "top dog" at the park and had been for many decades. When wolves were reintroduced the coyote's world changed almost overnight. Wolves view the smaller coyotes as competitors and will, at times, kill them. Not surprisingly, soon after the reintroduction of wolves to the park the coyote abundance in Yellowstone decreased and the coyotes began traveling in smaller packs, probably in an effort to be less conspicuous to the larger wolves. It appears that the two species have now reached an equilibrium, with both existing in healthy populations. In fact, coyotes sometimes benefit from wolves as they can often sneak a meal from wolf-killed carrion.

Another noteworthy Yellowstone species that has a complex relationship with wolves is the grizzly bear. Some Yellowstone grizzly bears are just starting to emerge from hibernation in March. These bears are hungry and looking for food. At this time of the year the best source of food is wolf-killed carrion. Of course, if the wolves are present at the kill the bear may have to fight for its meal. The outcome is usually determined by the size of the bear and the number of wolves at the kill (a large bear can usually fend off three or fewer wolves, but it depends on a lot of factors, including which animal is the hungriest). Look for grizzly bears in the Lamar Valley as well as around the Tower–Roosevelt Junction area. A good wildlife watcher knows to keep an eye on the other wildlife species such as ravens, magpies, and eagles as they often congregate near a wolf kill, and if they are present, wolves and bears may be in the vicinity. Of course, one should not approach such kills. Remember, Yellowstone's cardinal rule is "do not approach wildlife." In fact, you will generally find that you can best view wildlife from the roads as the animals tend to be nonchalant about people and cars on roads, but they get nervous when they see people away from the roads.

Other Parks with Wolves

The future looks promising for the gray wolf, especially within national parks. Twenty-seven units report the presence of wolves, although only eleven are from the contiguous forty-eight states. Some of those units are tiny historic parks that a wolf occasionally passes through (e.g., Grand Portage National Monument in Minnesota). It's likely that over time more parks will report the presence of wolves, albeit the occurrences will mostly consist of transient animals or very small populations, as most park units are too small to support multiple packs of wolves. The following parks support wolves:

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

This 96,000-acre park lies just south of Yellowstone National Park, includes similar habitat, and is considered part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. There are no barriers to wolf movement between the two parks so it is not surprising that wolves from Yellowstone recolonized Grand Teton. There are about five packs of wolves that call the park home, with the Huckleberry pack being almost entirely within the safety of the park boundaries. Much of the territories of the other four packs lie outside of the park boundary, meaning the animals are at risk of being shot. This also means the packs will generally be a lot less stable in terms of composition, behavior, and social interactions. For the wildlife observer it means that seeing these wolves is comparatively less likely as they may become more nocturnal, stay closer to cover, and have a greater flight distance from humans. On the plus side, Grand Teton National Park is a great park for seeing moose, elk, bison, and other wildlife that are prey for wolves.


Excerpted from Wildlife Watching in America's National Parks by Gary W. Vequist, Daniel S. Licht. Copyright © 2013 Gary W. Vequist Daniel S. Licht. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Introduction: Wildlife in National Parks,
History of Wildlife Conservation in Parks,
Watching Wildlife in Parks,
Why View Wildlife?,
1. March—Gray Wolves of Yellowstone,
2. April—Black Bears of the Great Smoky Mountains,
3. May—Prairie Dogs of the Badlands,
4. June—Sea Turtles of the Dry Tortugas,
5. July—American Bison of Theodore Roosevelt,
6. August—Bats in Carlsbad Caverns,
7. September—Pacific Salmon of the Olympics,
8. October—Elk of Buffalo River,
9. November—Beaver of Cuyahoga River Valley,
10. December—American Alligators of the Everglades,
11. January—Gray Whales of Point Reyes,
12. February—Bald Eagles on the Mississippi River,
Final Observations,
Hints for Viewing Wildlife,
Wildlife-Viewing Ethics,
Fifty Wildlife-Viewing Destinations,
Acknowledgments and Credits,
Additional Reading,

What People are Saying About This

John Crompton

“This was an enjoyable read. I believe it has a distinctive niche and should have relatively wide appeal to a popular market. The writing is lively, accessible, and interesting enough to retain the interest of a “lay person” public. There is a nice and succinct balance of education, history and tourism logistics.”—John Crompton, University Distinguished Professor, Regents Professor, and Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence in the Department of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Science, Texas A&M University

The Midwest Book Review - James A. Cox

"Wildlife Watching in AMerica's National Parks: A Seasonal Guide" is ideal as a carry-along guide to enhance the national park experience. Profusely illustrated, informed an informative, and thoroughly 'reader friendly' in organization and presentation, "wildlife Watching in America's National Parks" is higly recommended for personal, family, and community library collections." -- James A. Cox, Editor-in-chief, The Mid West Book Review

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