The herd of skittish pronghorn antelope, whose white-furred rumps we watched disappear as they ran across the Lamar River, was a surprise. Despite their name, they are not antelopes – they just resemble them. Indigenous to north America, where you don’t get antelopes, their nearest relatives are actually giraffes. “Yup, a zoological quirk,” confirmed Emil as my eyebrows raised.
We spotted only one moose, a horse-sized male which had shed its horns and was making unhurried tracks across the valley; it paused here and there to browse on willows, then waded into a stream to continue feeding. The grey-coated coyotes were more plentiful. We watched one ‘mousing’ – jumping up and pouncing into the snow in pursuit of rodents.
Bighorn sheep were harder to find, camouflaged against the surrounding crags where they balanced on impossible ledges. Emil picked them out on a scope as we stood in the steely cold sunshine warming our hands on cups of hot soup. And then, of course, there was the Junction Butte pack. Emil sensed where they might be, but wolf sightings requires persistence, patience and a fair bit of luck. So a frisson of excitement spread through our group when, perched on our ridge, he suddenly motioned us to silence.
While we hunched over our scopes, Emil explained the important role wolves play in the park’s ecosystem. “Here in the Lamar Valley, the wolves preyed on the abundant elk, forcing them to leave the area. This meant that the plants and trees that the elk fed on began to regenerate and fortify the river banks, which became habitat for other wildlife... otters, beavers, weasels. So, introducing a top predator has not depleted the eco-system as some anti-wolfers warned. Exactly the opposite, as a matter of fact.”