Tracking the Gray Ghost – the Wolves of Northwestern Wyoming

A small herd of bull bison leave Yellowstone Park every autumn to spend the winter months at lower elevations in the Shoshone National Forest. Although this winter range is more hospitable than the high country of Yellowstone, it is plagued by howling winds which often gust over 70 miles per hour. (Sandy Sisti)

A bison bull heads into deserted Clearwater Campground in the Shoshone National Forest.

Early spring is a quiet time of year in the Shoshone National Forest. Once bustling with wildlife activity, the forest is now almost silent.  Bighorn sheep still frequent the area, but the rams have concluded their dramatic battles and quietly return to small bachelor herds.  Tiny northern pygmy-owls are no longer calling in search of mates and leave the pine forests they once frequented in search of higher ground.  In March, large elk herds begin to move to the river bottom to feast on vegetation but the herds disappear before the first rays of sun appear over the horizon.  Following the elk down from the high country,  gray wolves also disperse before dawn leaving only their tracks as evidence of their presence.

It was on one of these mornings that I decided to travel through the North Fork in search of wildlife.  Just as the weatherman predicted, a light dusting of snow had fallen during the night making for excellent tracking conditions the following morning.  Wildlife watching is my first passion, but there’s something special about tracking animals.  Of course the best thing is to find the animal you’re tracking, but the act of identifying the tracks and trying to figure out what the animal was doing is just as rewarding.

Judging from the amount of tracks I found that morning, it seemed the wildlife were very active the previous night. I first spotted the big round prints of  bison, traversing the roadway.  At the junction of Clearwater Creek, I encountered the familiar herd of  seven bull bison that winter on the North Fork.   Amazingly, these  bulls leave Yellowstone National Park every autumn to spend winter and spring at lower elevations in the Shoshone National Forest.  They then return to Yellowstone for the August rut.  Although the weather in the National Forest is more hospitable than the high country of Yellowstone, this area is often plagued by howling winds and frigid temperatures.  Thankfully, the snow cover is much less than Yellowstone which allows the bulls easy access to the dried  forage they subsist on during winter.  For all the years I’ve lived in Wyoming, I’ve never seen more than these few bulls during winter and  spring and often wonder why no additional bison venture over Sylvan Pass to enjoy the mild weather along the Shoshone.  It seems only the bison know the answer to that question and they’re not talking.

A herd of elk wait out a windstorm in the Shoshone National Forest. Elk migrate to this low elevation area to spend their winter but must constantly  face the harsh Wyoming winds, which blow incessantly this time of year. (Sandy Sisti)

A herd of wintering elk in the Shoshone National Forest.

Leaving the bison, I noticed a swath of track in the road, an indication that one of the large elk herds had recently crossed. There were still a few stragglers making their way up from the river so I stopped my car to let them pass.  Eyes blazing with fear, the elk ran quickly across the street and up the mountainside to join the rest of the herd.  I then saw what looked like small canid tracks, and pulled off the road to identify them.  The distinctive, almost straight line of alternating prints indicated the tracks of a lone red fox.

 (Sandy Sisti)

The distinctive tracks of a red fox in the snow.

With a beautiful morning breaking on the horizon, I thought I’d follow the tracks to see what I could learn about the fox.  Like most animals, the fox preferred walking on a trail to crashing through the snow-covered brush.  After following the trail for 1/4 mile, some larger canid tracks appeared, covering the smaller prints of the fox.  It seemed a wolf had used the same trail as the fox sometime during the evening.  I followed the tracks until one track became the tracks of two, then four, then six as the wolf met up with his pack-mates.  The tracks veered on and off the road until they finally disappeared into the brush and crossed the frozen Shoshone River.  I never did find the wolves that day, but just knowing that I was sharing the trail with wolves made my heart beat a little faster.

The distinctive track of the gray wolf is an exciting find when hiking in the wilds of Wyoming. Although on many occasions only the track is found, the knowledge that one is sharing the trail with wolves always makes the heart beat a little faster. (Sandy Sisti)

Gray wolf tracks in the freshly fallen snow.


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  • Nancy Kendrick

    I enjoyed your posting immensely! Your writing took me there with you!

    • Sandy Sisti

      Thank you Nancy! That means the world to me.

  • Debbie Coyne Kummer

    I think you did great ..!! loved it a story I am going to feel good about sharing on my page ty Fans of animals and page owner Debbie
    Coyne Kummer

    • Sandy Sisti

      Thank you so much Debbie. I’m so glad you enjoyed it and really appreciate the share!

  • Laura Mosher

    What I love most about your photographs, is, number one-they are breath-taking. You journey to a place that most all of us can only arrive at through your photos. Number two, you take us there in the descriptive word that you provide. You are so articulate in describing the beauty that surrounds you, making us feel that we are there alongside you. You describe the weather, the winds, the heat, the cold, and best of all the actions of the animals. Through your words, we travel into this beautiful wilderness and get to experience it with you. There are so many who will never get to see this ‘big backyard’ of yours. A place that you are blessed to travel to with your husband and experience the wonders and beauty that God gave us to admire and enjoy. You triumph those that are endangered, sound the bugle cry for help where needed, and speak up for the animals who cannot. Thank you for all that you do, Sandi. Not only do you carry a camera in your backpack and have a God given talent to use it, but you carry us there in your photos so that we can see the world through your eyes. I am thankful to have run across your work through Brian Shults photography, which is more in my ‘neck of the woods’, and who, too, is an accomplished photographer. Thank you for sharing your world with us. Truly incredible, spectacular, and awe inspiring. Keep up the great work, for it is the thing you were born to do. God gave you this talent to bring this world to others and champion the wildlife that needs it. Most of all, never stop writing. Its what brings your photographs to life. ~Laura Mosher

    • Sandy Sisti

      You are much too kind, Laura. I am at a loss for words at how to respond, other than to thank you so very much for the kind words and encouragement. It truly means so much to me.

  • David Douglas

    I’ve enjoyed your photos for a long time and now look forward to many more blogs from you. David Douglas

    • Sandy Sisti

      Thanks so much David! I have an idea for another blog so you should see that one soon.

  • brenda carvin

    What a delight to read. If I had choosen a different path in life I’d be there also. What am I saying lol we all are there with you. So cool. Thankyou.

    • Sandy Sisti

      Thanks Brenda! I’m glad I can bring Yellowstone to you.

  • Matthew “Twig” Largess

    Hello Sandy. I have featured you as
    Star of the Week on my new Largess Forestry facebook page. Congratulations on your passion. Your photos bring joy and hope to all of us who care about the natural world. Your blog is fabulous, keep ’em coming!

    • Sandy Sisti

      Thanks so much Matthew! I’m honored that you’d share my blog. Cheers to you!

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  • sean

    Awesome story, made me feel like I was there.