Why are we able to hear wolves howling from our driveways in Gardiner, Montana, during winter?
Wildness will always envelop the North Entrance gateway community of Gardiner, Montana, the only year-round entry to Yellowstone National Park.
Every autumn, as cold air threatens the highlands and snow skiffs across the landscape, grass-eating animals start long, stoic treks toward the fields and river valleys waiting below them. Like spheres of mercury– separating, parting ways, and then rejoining–herds of elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and even bison, flow steadily off the Yellowstone Plateau to the south, east, and west, all the while adjusting to the topography of their voyage. By far and away, though, the biggest herds make their way north of Yellowstone and into Gardiner and the Gardiner-Yellowstone Basin. That’s because winter food here is easier to find and eat.
The pronghorn have been doing this for millions of years. Before humans made first contact— and long before shops, restaurants, and roadways defined the boundaries of Yellowstone and Gardiner—these buff-and-cream creatures claimed the trajectory of their annual migratory routes relatively unimpeded. As time progressed, however, the routes became blocked due to human development. Since the 1990s, landowners, volunteers, and conservation groups have worked to restore access to these areas and today pronghorn can be found grazing and foraging as far north as Paradise Valley between Gardiner and Livingston, Montana. This represents one of only three remaining intact ancestral migratory routes of pronghorn left in North America, a true testament to the wildness of this area.
Bighorn sheep are a different story. These creatures’ reliance on open water limits their seasonal movements to more localized areas, though they certainly seek easier forage at lower elevations during winter. Unlike pronghorn, which gather much of their water intake through the plants they ingest, bighorn sheep drink from streams and rivers that don’t regularly freeze over–like the Yellowstone River. The northern region of Yellowstone near Gardiner hosts a healthy year-round population of these bronze, battle-prone cliff dwellers. In fact, drivers between Livingston and Gardiner must pay attention for groups of bighorn sheep scouring outcrops in Yankee Jim Canyon and Cinnabar Basin, approximately 15 and 7 miles north of Gardiner respectively, where the rams and ewes take over sections of roadways during winter.
And then we have the elk. Elk are both a blessing and a curse for Gardiner residents and visitors every autumn moving into winter. These animals’ unapologetic takeover of the streets, gardens, alleyways, and parking lots of Yellowstone’s North Entrance can lead to complacency on both parts that quickly morphs into elk-human conflict. Elk remain wild animals exhibiting wild tendencies in an otherwise tame and urban landscape. Graphic signs warning pedestrians to give them a wide berth decorate windows and front desks at local businesses. Homeowners futilely wrap trees in metal fencing – an attempt to keep the plants’ bark safe from browsing. In autumn, the high-pitched shrills of bull elk pierce the air and hang in silent suspense before mixing with the softened “mews” of female elk, called cows, and their calves.
Which leads us back to the main question of our entry: “Why are we able to hear wolves howling from our driveways in Gardiner, Montana, during winter?” Well, because wolves follow the pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and elk as they migrate, of course. Wildness will always envelope the North Entrance gateway community of Gardiner, Montana, the only year-round entry to Yellowstone National Park.
To learn more about Chelsea and the rest of the Yellowstone Wild team visit our “About Us” web page.