Yellow-bellied Marmots (Marmota flaviventris)

Furry marmot sits on a rock, looking into the forest behind

Yellow-bellied Marmots (Marmota flaviventris)

Yellow-bellied marmots are a relatively large species of rodent related to woodchucks. They can be seen sunning themselves on rocks or foraging in forests or alpine tundra habitats. They are incredibly adept at scrambling along sheer cliffs and will almost always be found near some sort of rocky outcropping. Catching a glimpse of a marmot shouldn’t be too difficult. Just get out and go for a hike in the park, and you will have a good chance to spot one. A favorite forage of marmots are lupines and columbines, both of which are readily available in the summer months in GRTE. Next time you stroll through the mountains you might just hear some of their whistles or chucks, used to communicate with neighbors!

Like many other animals, marmots are being negatively affected by warming temps due to climate change. Studies show that they come out of hibernation up to 23 days earlier than they did 50 years ago. Lack of good forage at these earlier dates makes it much less likely that they will survive after coming out of their den. If you want to learn more about these rock-dwelling rodents, look here: Wildlife Land Trust, “Yellow-Bellied Marmots.”

Written by Timothy Uttenhove
PC: Timothy Uttenhove

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)

Fluffy fox in mid-pounce, about to dive into the snow for its prey

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)

Scientists estimate the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) inhabited North America somewhere between 2 million to 100,000 years ago. That is likely longer than humans lived here. This fox, the largest of all fox species, is found throughout the world because they easily adapt to environments. They have something called biological plasticity—there are 48 possible subspecies. The red fox you would find in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is the Rocky Mountain red fox (Vulpes vulpes macroura); this specific fox typically has a lighter colored coat than most red foxes. Even though their name suggests they are red, these foxes can also be black, brown, or blonde, but usually have black legs and a white chest.

Red foxes live underground in dens that are up to 20 ft deep with multiple exits just in case a predator is on their tracks. Sometimes they will use preexisting burrows of small mammals and make them a little more spacious. Wolves will do the same to abandoned fox dens. Red fox kits are born in a litter of about 4 or more, and young foxes that are almost indistinguishable from adults. Young foxes tend to stay with their parents to help raise the new litter. Unlike humans, kits can find their own food at just 3 months old. A red fox family will stay together until fall, when their kits have learned how to hunt voles, mice, rabbits, birds, or other small critters on their own. When red foxes dive for prey, they catch their food 73% of the time—that’s skill! Citations and more to read: Yellowstone Natural History: Red Fox, and Daryl Hunter’s eBook, Grand Teton: Photography & Field Guide.

Written by Celia Karim
PC: YNP on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/SUwXYm

Alpine Forget–me-not (Myosotis alpestris)

a stem with a bundle of small purple and blue flowers

Alpine Forget–me-not (Myosotis alpestris)

Alpine Forget-Me-Nots are some of the most beautiful perennials found in the park each year. The scientific name was derived from the Greek word for what botanists thought the petals resembled: a mouse’s ear! Forget-me-nots can be found from spring into early summer and are located in woodland and meadow areas. To find these flowers in GRTE, try your luck at Pilgrim Creek and on the Death Canyon trail in June!

Despite being a beautiful flower, some of the species of Forget-Me-Nots are often confused with an unbearable weed in wetland areas, like the scorpion weed (Myosotis scorpioides). To identify the weedy plant versus the high alpine flowers, take a look at the hairs along the calyx tube. The calyx is the collective sepals of the plant, or the outermost whorl of the plant. Alpine Forget-Me-Nots have hook shaped hairs at the end whereas the scorpion weeds’ hairs are straight. Check out https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/myosotis_asiatica.shtml for more information on Myosotis alpestris.

Written by Anna Cressman
PC: Anna Cressman

Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos horribilis)

A mama bear and her cub at the edge of the forest

Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos horribilis)

These towering behemoths stand as one of the biggest attractions for the 4 million visitors traveling through the park every year, and with good reason. At 8 feet tall and 800 pounds, grizzly bears are truly a spectacle to witness. Despite their reputation as fierce carnivores, devouring anything in their path, they are actually omnivores – most of their diet consists of berries, fruits, nuts, and leaves. You can see them early in the summer along the main road in the park, and they occasionally visit the station. While they once lived in most of western North America, and occasionally even spent time on the Great Plains, overhunting and habitat loss due to human development greatly reduced their population and range. Everywhere grizzlies reside, even within the park, conflict with humans becomes a consistent topic of discussion and tension. People getting attacked attempting to get that once-in-a-lifetime selfie or loss of livestock causes countless issues for wildlife management agencies and politicians.

Grizzly 399 (pictured here) is possibly the most famous bear in the world and a legend of Grand Teton National Park (GTNP). At 24 years of age, especially after losing her cubs to a roadside collision several years ago, people wonder every year how much longer she will survive. But this year, her ever-growing fan club was shocked to see her come out of hibernation with 4 cubs! To learn more about these unique ursids, read here.

Written by Timothy Uttenhove
PC: Anna Cressman

Rocky Mountain Elk (Cervus canadensis nelsoni)

cow elk looking at the camera just in front of the edge of the forest

Rocky Mountain Elk (Cervus canadensis nelsoni)

Have you ever heard the eerie glissando of a male elk bugle in the fall? Fun fact: elk communicate extensively, and scientists are still trying to understand their complex language. There are tens of thousands of Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus canadensis nelsoni) wandering around the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE); they are a current and historical food source as well as larger members of the deer family.

Elk are easy to spot in the GYE in winter when they travel to lower elevation to eat grass, forbs, and shrubs. A great way to spot an elk is to look for their white rump. During the summer, they hide away in the mountains to find some tasty tundra vegetation to munch on. Elk mostly eat early in the morning and late in the day so that they can digest their impressive intake of about 20 lbs of plants per day. Elk have dark legs and heads—males have a light brown body and females have a darker brown body. Only male elk have antlers that they grow each year and when their antlers are covered in velvet, they can grow up to an inch every day!

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of elk died of starvation in winters with heavy snow that forced them to migrate to forage. Because settlers built cattle ranches in Jackson Hole, the elk migration path became too limited. Elk were so hungry they would even break into hay storage that was supposed to be for livestock. Because of these events, the National Elk Refuge began in 1912 to give elk 24,700 acres to forage native grasses for the winter.

Written by Celia Karim
PC: Anne Guzzo

Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium)

a stem covered in brilliant purple flowers

Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium)

Fireweed is commonly found throughout the temperate northern hemisphere between the months of June through September. It gets its name from its fast colonization after a fire burn and from its unique appearance. These flowers grow up to 4-6 feet tall, with bright pink showy flowers (USDA). Once the flowering period ends for fireweed, these plants can produce up to 80,000 seeds to be dispersed from the original plant (USDA). The seeds have a fluffy appearance, giving them the ability to travel far in the wind.

Not only was the fluffy part of the seed used in dispersion, but native people would use it for weaving. This plant also offers other nutritional value to native people, especially those in parts of Canada and Alaska, where the plant is abundant. The leaves are used in making tea, the shoots – a delicious vegetable – provide high concentrations of Vitamin A and Vitamin C, and the rich nectar can yield honey, jelly and syrup (USDA).

Written by Anna Cressman
PC: Anna Cressman

Harebells (Campanula sp.)

Small, purple bell-shaped flower

Harebells (Campanula sp.)

Harebells are a common plant species in North America. These flowers are known by many common names, including bluebells, bellflowers, heathbells, and witch bells. Not only do they take on many common names, but they also do well in a variety of environments. Harebells are found in meadows, woods, beaches, etc. They do well in low to moderate moisture environments, in either full sun or shade, and they are also found at both low and high elevations!

The name “witch bells” may be associated with the story that witches were able to transform into hares, which were a symbol of bad luck in Irish folklore. These witches supposedly drained the juice from the flowers in order to transform themselves into a hare (USFS). The Haida Indians also had some tales about the harebell. They called them “blue rain flowers” and believed that if you picked these flowers, rain would soon fall (USDA).

Written by Anna Cressman
PC: Anna Cressman

River Otter (Lontra canadensis)

otter pokes its head out of water

River Otter (Lontra canadensis)

The river otter has been navigating waterways in North America for quite some time, and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) is home to the playful little fish eaters. These semi-aquatic mammals are pretty well adapted to water for being half land-dwellers: their eyes are near-sighted for underwater vision, their ears have water-tight flaps, their fur is water repellent and insulated, and they can stay underwater for 2 minutes. Otters eat whatever they can find living in the water when they hunt at night, but they especially love fish. In GYE lakes, otters prefer to eat cutthroat trout, and in rivers or streams they eat longnose suckers when cutthroat trout are not available. Since the introduction of lake trout to the GYE about 25 years ago, these native cutthroat trout populations that river otters depend on have been declining. This is problematic for otter populations because otters do not eat lake trout, so competition between invasive lake trout and cutthroat trout is resulting in their food becoming more limited.

River otters are quite social mammals that are tightly wound into the ecosystem. They live in burrows close to water with an opening above ground, but in winter the only available opening is into the water. They are inherently stealthy because they have both land and water predators, including humans who trapped them for their fur. Otters grow up to 30 pounds and just over 2 ft long, so their size helps them defend their large dens. The male otter typically does not help with raising pups. It’s often just the mom that raises the litter of 6 or less pups in underground dens, making sure they are ready to swim at just two months old. Otters tend to live in social groups; some groups are all related individuals, some are all unrelated males, and some are couples. They play games with each other, catch and release fish for sport, and talk to each other with whistles, chirps, chuckles, and growls—would you believe that they are considered shy? Even though they are active all year round, it is super lucky if you get to see them in many GYE waterways and lakes—common otter hangouts are Oxbow Bend and the Yellowstone River.

Written by Celia Karim
PC: Brian Gratwicke on Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/cXuY8j

Snake River

a shining river twisting in between trees and prairie beneath jagged mountains

Snake River

The Snake River starts in Yellowstone National Park and wraps through Grand Teton National Park for 50 miles out of its total 1,056 miles—414 miles are celebrated as wild and scenic. It feeds into Jackson Lake before going on through Bridger-Teton National Forest. The Snake River was named after the Snake Indians (Shoshone) around 1812 and has had many names; there are even names for different parts of the river. It is the largest tributary (feeder river) of the Columbia River, which is famous for being the largest river in the Pacific Northwest. There are many recreational opportunities that the Snake River provides, including fishing, rafting, wildlife spotting and sight-seeing. Ansel Adams even visited the Snake River and took the famous picture, “The Tetons and Snake River.”

The Snake River is unique because the river is a result of the Two Ocean Plateau on the Continental Divide where two creeks, the Atlantic Creek and the Pacific Creek, split off from Two Ocean Creek and feed into their corresponding oceans: the Atlantic and the Pacific. The Snake River is fed by the Pacific Creek, eventually making it to the Oregon coast via the Columbia River. Jim Bridger, a mountain man, was the one that found this “northwest passage” in 1827 after people had been searching for a path flowing from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans for centuries to no avail. However, it could not benefit North American commerce because of this geographic phenomenon causing the water to flow in opposite directions. Jefferson’s Lewis and Clark expedition along with the many others searches for a connection between the Atlantic and Pacific did not account for this possibility. Fish are the only ones who can use this passageway, this is also how the Cutthroat trout and other fish species came to Yellowstone.

Written by Celia Karim
PC: weesam2010 on Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/YcgPfo

Moose (Alces alces)

two moose half submerged in a pond with woody plants around them

Moose (Alces alces)

Eurasian elk, more commonly referred to as moose in North America, are large members of the deer family found in boreal forests of the northern hemisphere from Canada to Russia and down into the Rocky Mountains. As the largest member of the family Cervidae, moose are comparable in size to horses, standing up to 7.5 feet tall at the shoulders. Like most other members of the deer family, the males sport impressive, paddle-shaped antlers for much of the year that they use to fight for the affection of females. These antlers can have a spread of up to 6 feet across and weigh as much as 75 pounds! The range of the moose is primarily limited by forage and snow depth. Moose are known as browsers; they forage on shrubs, trees, and other broad-leafed plants, preferring early succession stage forests after a fire or logging with an abundance of forage sprouting up. A favorite food of moose in the park is willow trees, so if you want to see a moose, explore riparian areas along the river and marshy expanses in mountain meadows.

Moose are incredible swimmers! They have been known to dive to depths of almost 20 feet and spend as much as 2 minutes underwater foraging on aquatic vegetation. So, the next time you are taking a dip in Jackson Lake, be sure to keep an eye out for a submersible, horse-sized deer lurking beneath you! Learn more about these colossal cervids here.

Written by Tim Uttenhove
PC: Anne Guzzo