6:30 a.m. is one of the best times to watch wildlife in Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar Valley.
Everything smells like sage. It’s really cold and there are a bunch of retirees staring through hire-powered telescopes at a lush, verdant hill.
Carol Rickman is trying to help people spot a wolf den.
“So keep watching, just to the right of the tree,” she said.
And then a baby wolf pops out of the grass and topples over himself. His mother watches.
The wolves blend into the jagged, purple rocks and minty sage. But when they start wrestling around they look like big, scruffy dogs.
This is one of the reasons why Rickman loves coming here to Yellowstone to watch wolves.
“I’m really into dogs,” she said. “It’s kind of the wild extension of watching your dog,”
She’s not alone. There are at least 50 people perched up on hills or leaning against their cars, watching the wolves.
It’s a misty, wet morning so some folks are wearing raincoats. Their eyes are all trained on the wolves.
“It’s like watching a soap opera,” Rickman said.
But this Yellowstone soap opera doesn’t just star wolves. There’s also bighorn sheep, bison and grizzly bears.
A couple of enormous brown bruins are pawing at the ground near a snowbank. They look wet from the morning dew. Some bighorn sheep are perched on a nearby mountain. A small herd of bison move through the grass and sage.
There are even pronghorn antelope. They may be the fastest running animal in North America but they look like overweight goats.
Mike Engel is visiting from Pennsylvania and is nice enough to train his scope on one trotting across a dirt road.
Nate Hegyi: “I think they’re amazing.”
Mike Engel: “Yeah, they’re cool. I love the colors on them. The sounds they make.”
NH: “The pronghorn?”
ME: “Yeah. kinda… RUFF!”
NH: “Yeah it’s weird, it’s a goat sound, it sounds like a goat.”
The sun is starting to break through the clouds and it’s getting warmer. The pronghorn disappears into the tall grass. Soon the wolves will bed down for the afternoon and the grizzly bears will find a good place to lounge in the shade.
And for a while, most of the animals in Yellowstone National Park will become quiet and still. Until the only sound is the “click, click, click” from tourists taking pictures of grazing bison and elk at the nation’s oldest national park.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.