If pressed to choose one animal as a symbol of Yellowstone, many people would opt for the moose or the grizzly bear. In truth, the obvious representative is the bison. Four thousand strong, they live and graze near the highways of the park, often using them as their own footpaths. We witnessed many a bison-jam on the interior roads, sometimes caused by tourists gawking and picture-taking, but just as often caused by one or more of the animals strolling doggedly down a lane, backing up traffic. Curiously, the bison seem to understand the rules of the road, as I never saw one walking the wrong way in a lane.
Signs of the bison are everywhere, even if no animals are present. On several hikes we found wallows, large dusty craters carved by the animals rolling around on the ground to clean themselves or mark territory. And trees all over the park have bare patches on their trunks, where bison have used them as scratching posts to rid themselves of heavy winter coats.
Pretty much everything we saw in the park was "road wildlife", as described by a ranger to differentiate from the shyer, seldom-seen interior-dwelling animals (like bear and moose). Habituated to humans, many of the bison, elk, and deer roam freely near the miles and miles of interior roads, giving the tourists what they came to see. On one afternoon forest walk, we stumbled upon two elk cows with calves on our hiking trail, less than a quarter-mile from a highway. They contentedly grazed and strolled thru the deadfall while we snapped away, only yards from them. Another time, a young bull elk stood his ground in the river and stared Mike down until he and his camera yielded the riverbank.
One morning we left camp at 6 a.m. to get an early start on a distant hike. As we drove past Fishing Bridge, only two miles from our campsite, Mike swerved into a parking area; he had spotted a family of otters fishing in the river. I screwed in my video telephoto lens while running back toward the bridge. The animals were too far away to get any stills, but I captured some decent video of the mother and babies swimming and playing on the bank. As I stood watching them, all but one young one entered the water together, as if on a signal. Remaining on the bank, the lone yearling focused on a large fish brought up by the mother, gnawing at it while it continued to thrash.
The only bears we saw were at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone. They have a very nice exhibit which taught me much I didn't know about bears. For example, the exhibit claimed that female black bears don't exactly hibernate -- they enter a kind of "winter lethargy" from which they can awaken more quickly than a truly hibernating animal. Black bear cubs are born in January, when the mother is in the den. She nurses them all winter without any food and water for herself and rouses from her lethargy to clean them periodically. Displays in the center also confirmed for us that we had, indeed, seen bear tracks and bear scat on some of our hikes in the woods.
The eight grizzlies at the center are released each day two or three at a time from "dens" into an outdoor habitat viewable by visitors. All these animals have been "rescued" in one way or another, either from being orphaned or because they had become nuisances. Understanding this didn't make it any easier to see them in such confined quarters. I was especially uncomfortable withthe "feeding", where visiting kids were allowed into the habitat (minus bears, of course) to hide food for the bears to find. It seemed like setting the bears up to perform for the gawkers. However, the website claims the keepers do this "to encourage the bears to use natural foraging skills", so perhaps I was being over-sensitive.
Also on display behind the fences are several wolves, all of them born in captivity and therefore unable to live in the wild.