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Late Spring Dance: Life, Death And Renewal In Yellowstone

Steve Fuller, winterkeeper of America's oldest national park, takes note of the most dramatic season

June 12, 2018: The Peaceful Pageant Many Never See

Dancing cow elk act out stress and social rank. Photo courtesy Steven Fuller
Dancing cow elk act out stress and social rank. Photo courtesy Steven Fuller
The three months of spring in Yellowstone mark the beginning of nature’s annual Bacchanalian season, the mating of the earth and the sun, when the world is full of roaming sperm and yearning ovum, a time known in more decorous circles as the “season of regeneration”. 

Tis’ the season in which all creatures couple so as to perpetuate their kind, be it pine trees, buffalo, mosquitoes, frogs or fishes, whatever. Sex is how the Creation stays ahead of the Reaper, how life trumps death and entropy.

March 20 is the first day of Spring, but here atop the Yellowstone Plateau at 8000 feet, the day looks very much like winter and the festival is not yet begun, not by a long-shot. Buffalo bulls stand motionless on windswept ridges above massive snow cornices. 

There is little to eat, but the dearth of snow requires a minimal expenditure of energy which is critical since they are consuming themselves in order to keep their hearts beating and to maintain minimum body temperature. One feels particularly for the buffalo and elk cows, and for the deer does who must feed two hungers as the fetuses they carry near term. In harsh years many abort.

Late March well into April is the Famine Moon when local surviving bull buffalo sometimes move into the National Park Service housing area at Canyon and browse on brooms and graze on “Welcome” door mats. Devoid of significant body fat their boney rumps resemble a threadbare wrap thrown over a hard back chair. They move slowly and deliberately and show little interactive behavior either with their own kind or with other actors.
A coyote goes for the giblets inside a winterkilled bison during the late winter/early spring “Famine Moon.” Photo courtesy Steven Fuller
A coyote goes for the giblets inside a winterkilled bison during the late winter/early spring “Famine Moon.” Photo courtesy Steven Fuller
This is the season of waiting for the snow to go and the green to come. Winter-kill, that catch-all tag for the annual peak of large animal deaths, yields a life sustaining bounty for coyotes, wolves, ravens, and for bears who are just coming out of their winter dens having slow burned much of the fat stock they put away last fall.  The death of some is the salvation of others.

The Great Protracted Transition Begins

Every day after the Equinnox the sun rises earlier and climbs higher into the sky and sets later in the evening. But, until early June—around now— the weather is frequently cold and wet with periods of snow and rain when old grey snow and last summers’ sodden rotting brown vegetation lie under cold gray skies. These bleak periods periodically alternate with spectacular sunny days and sub-freezing nights. On crisp cold sunny mornings, the surface of shrinking snow drifts is like Styrofoam sprinkled with “diamond dust”.
As the last of the snows retreat and green advances many hundreds of elk start streaming into Hayden Valley. Photo courtesy Steven Fuller
As the last of the snows retreat and green advances many hundreds of elk start streaming into Hayden Valley. Photo courtesy Steven Fuller
Spring, for an observer like me, is a season of spectacular high country weather, often thrilling and occasionally scary. Freezing rain one day, airy clumps of stellar snow crystals the next. One sunrise sparkles with hoar and rhime frost, another is adorned with a myriad of bulbous jewels of dew. April brings the first thunder of the season, the first rainbow. 

Waves of fierce storm cells drive stinging graupel into your face then minutes later are followed by brief spells of sunny blue skies. Spectacular mountainous pillows of billowing clouds one day, black ragged clouds full of lightning and wind the next night.
A brief spring evening storm last week brought fierce winds and multiple lightening strikes to the surrounds of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Photo courtesy Steven Fuller
A brief spring evening storm last week brought fierce winds and multiple lightening strikes to the surrounds of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Photo courtesy Steven Fuller
On the ground buffalo tracks made as mud puddles yesterday afternoon are ice crystal filled geodes at dawn. One morning I find a “buffalo pie hoodoo,” an old buffalo paddy deposited on the snow earlier in the season that has shaded and sheltered the snow beneath from the sun so the pie sits atop a stalk of un-melted snow and resembles a brown capped mushroom.

Sunny windy days strip away the surface of the snow pack so mid-winter ski tracks, old coyote and pine marten tracks, or a buffalo trail made months before emerge briefly until they too evaporate, exposing yet older layers of the archeology of the winter passed.

As the overburden of old snow (‘firn”) evaporates and melts the intensity of the waxing spring light increasingly reaches down into the underlying soil and so life begins to stir even before the overburden is gone. Clumps of sagebrush appear amongst patches of receding snow on south facing hillsides where grizzlies turn up the sod and dig up rodent seed caches with claws ideal for the work.

Feeling Winter Slipping Away And The Roar Of Shape-Shifting Water

As April slips into May, fields of snow shrink and the landscape becomes “piebald” as patches of snow comingle with patches of dark earth. At first the snow patches dominate, but one day the pattern flip-flops so there is more earth than snow.  The reawakened plant world chases the retreating snow fields and quickly transforms last years’ vegetative rot into fields of tender vibrant green.

One temperate afternoon the smell of sun warmed earth and the aromatics of pine needles perfume the air. Snow melt transforms meadows into shallow pans of water that mirror the cumulus clouds overhead. It runs in rivulets that coalesce and feed streams that swell the Yellowstone River flooding surrounding meadows and the river runs brown. After a few weeks the river will resume its usual appearance, clear as thick glass, where trout visibly hover over waving green water plants and pebbled bottoms.
The last remnants of a spring sun-cupped snow cornice overlooks steam plumes rising from geysers and hot springs scattered unto the horizon across the Yellowstone Plateau. In the distance  the Absaroka mountain range rises above the rim of the eastern horizon. Photo courtesy Steven Fuller
The last remnants of a spring sun-cupped snow cornice overlooks steam plumes rising from geysers and hot springs scattered unto the horizon across the Yellowstone Plateau. In the distance the Absaroka mountain range rises above the rim of the eastern horizon. Photo courtesy Steven Fuller
Along the roads, on the plumb vertical walls of the knife clean rotary plow cuts, the complex stratigraphy of the winter is revealed. Halfway down an especially thick layer recalls a big storm in January, a band of rust-colored lodgepole pine needles embedded in another layer recall a week long windy snow storm in March. If you look closely every sunny or stormy day of the past winter is recorded in the nuanced layers of the exposed snow bank, a bibliotheque of the season past.
"If you look closely every sunny or stormy day of the past winter is recorded in the nuanced layers of the exposed snow bank, a bibliotheque of the season past."
Sometime in mid-March the curtains of ice that shrouded the face of the Lower Falls at the head of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone river and the massive ice cone at the base of the falls collapse. By May, late at night and early the next morning, the roar of the falls peaks, nourished by the surge of melt water liberated the previous afternoon. 

For a month and more the roar of the falls crescendos and wanes reflecting the fluctuations of temperature and the intensity of sunlight that melts the snowpack during the circadian cycle. By mid-June, during afternoons, the sound of traffic on the road past the canyon supersedes the roar of the falls.
On a recent cool spring morning a plume of steam rises from up out the floor of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. Photo courtesy Steven Fuller
On a recent cool spring morning a plume of steam rises from up out the floor of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. Photo courtesy Steven Fuller
On the canyon walls narrow cords of melt water emerge from snow drifts atop the rim to join the river 1500 feet below. If you stand quietly on the edge of the canyon during the heat of the afternoon you will hear the rattle of rocks loosed by the sun; tis the sound of the canyon growing larger. Far below, the river runs wider, wilder, and browner as it continues to sculpt the canyon.

Birdsong Returns With The Fragrant Breeze

The first flowers, the first bird songs, the return of large herds of elk and buffalo, the first sightings of mountain bluebirds and Sandhill cranes, is followed by the arrival of pelicans and flocks of swallows. 

Migrators—those who traveled to milder regions around last years’ autumn equinox, return. Hibernators—marmots, frogs, and ants; and deep sleepers—grizzlies and squirrels emerge from their winter shelters. 
By late May the nightly cacophony of frogs sing their mating songs while immersed in ice cold snow melt ponds. Each event is a marker in the blooming of spring.
Two velvet bull elk in nearly shed winter coats graze on the bounty of increasingly verdant meadows. Photo courtesy Steven Fuller
Two velvet bull elk in nearly shed winter coats graze on the bounty of increasingly verdant meadows. Photo courtesy Steven Fuller
As snow fields disappear, blending excitement with melancholy for the loss of my friend, winter, curious thick, rope-like trails of soil litter the surface of the ground, the spoor left by western pocket gophers that are active all winter under the snow. They tunnel through the soil and push the dirt into snow tunnels behind them. The soil remains on the surface of the ground after the snow melts leaving gopher graffiti, lines that suggest hieroglyphics.

Bearing Witness To The Physical Reality Of Climate Change

In the course of the spring the lengthening hours of sunlight (the seasonal photo-period) for ages has prompted snowshoe hares and weasels to exchange their white winter pelage for brown and greyish summer fur in order to better blend in with their changing surroundings. Climate change and the earlier melting of the snow cover make these animals increasingly conspicuous and vulnerable.

Yet another of many indicators of climate change, marmots in the northern Rockies are emerging from hibernation a month earlier than they did 40 years ago, and so are ground squirrels. Our ancestors took note of changes in their environment and responded, which is one reason we, their descendants, have survived. Pity we are not as wise in responding to these signs as were our ancestors. 
"Yet another of many indicators of climate change, marmots in the northern Rockies are emerging from hibernation a month earlier than they did 40 years ago, and so are ground squirrels. Our ancestors took note of changes in their environment and responded, which is one reason we, their descendants, have survived. Pity we are not as wise in responding to these signs as were our ancestors." 
As spring gathers force elk shed their sun bleached winter coats and the red of their emerging summer pelage resonates vibrantly with the greening of the meadows. Bull elk earlier shed last years’ antlers and the blood rich velvet already nourishes the rapid growth of this years’ set. Buffalo shed their winter coats in clumps of lanolin-rich aromatic wool that hang on tree branches or lie on the ground like small limbless pelts.

Buffalo began calving the third week in April, often birthing in spring blizzards. Elk cows calve in late May and early June and savvy grizzly bears eat the new born like candy during the vulnerable first weeks of their lives. Pity her energy devotion to gestation during the winter starving times, taken upon fruition so quickly into the food chain. Early June survivors among the diminishing numbers of moose cows in the greater ecosystem calve, usually birthing twins.
Buffalo and birds flock to the greening banks of the recently ice-free Yellowstone River. Photo courtesy Steven Fuller
Buffalo and birds flock to the greening banks of the recently ice-free Yellowstone River. Photo courtesy Steven Fuller
“Ice out” on Lake Yellowstone usually occurs in late May or early June. For a month and more the ice is visibly in decline as it turns grey and mottled, and eventually rotten as hard blue ice is transformed into loose vertical crystals that collapse of their own weight. 

Open water appears along the beach at Mary’s Bay where hot springs on the lake’s bottom cause the ice to retreat while most of the distant lake surface remains solid. Floating deep green algae mats luxuriate in the hydrothermally warmed lake water at the edge of the beach under the intensifying spring sun. Some years, in late May, before the lake ice fully melts, high winds break-up some of the ice and drive it up onto lee-beaches into piles of big thick glassy panes fifteen feet high.

As mid June arrives only remnants of the largest snow cornices remain on the verdant green hills of the Hayden Valley. The Hayden, abandoned by most of the large quadrupeds in winter, is now re-populated by thousands of charismatic big animals—buffalo, elk, mule deer, wolves, coyotes, foxes, bears grizzly and black not to mention the less obvious panoply of smaller birds and animals. Similarly, already in May this year, nearly a half million visitors re-populated the park, setting yet another record for the month.

A clump of bison wool hangs from a rubbing log, shed in advance of the coming summer.
A clump of bison wool hangs from a rubbing log, shed in advance of the coming summer.
The seasonal rhapsody of life atop the Yellowstone Plateau begun this spring will continue into summer for the next couple of months, until mid-August, when the first signs of autumn will begin to trump summer. But, in the meantime, soon the highways will be jammed, some days to literal grid-lock, as more than four and a quarter million people stream into Yellowstone to view and to pleasure in the spectacle preserved and protected in this, one of the remaining relatively large fragments of natures’ North America.

Some people are “greened”, i.e. become more aware of the value of “nature”, when they visit a place like Yellowstone. But, Yellowstone is “grayed” when the press of industrial tourism urbanizes and overwhelms the natural world that visitors have come to see and enjoy. Planet wide our numbers continue to explode while the remnants of what remains of the natural world shrinks and grays. Our global culture puts “Humanity First” at the expense of all the rest of the “Creation," though ultimately Nature will sort it all out.
Blood rich vibrant velvet nourishes the rapid growth of this year's elk antlers.  Photo courtesy Steven Fuller
Blood rich vibrant velvet nourishes the rapid growth of this year's elk antlers. Photo courtesy Steven Fuller
Click here to read all of Steven Fuller's journal entries for "A Life In Wonderland" and this Mountain Journal profile of Fuller, "Twilight of the Winterkeepers


Steven Fuller
About Steven Fuller

Steven Fuller has been the "winterkeeper" at Canyon Village deep in the heart of Yellowstone National Park for 45 years.  Well traveled on several continents, he is also an award-winning nature photographer.  Follow him at A Life In Wonderland appearing exclusively at Mountain Journal.  His collectible photography is also available through Yellowstone Gallery.  Steven Fuller profile photo by Neal Herbert/NPS
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