Soft feathers tickled my palm and little black eyes calmly looked up at me until a gentle nudge flipped the bird over and she flew away. It was still early morning at the Conservation Research Center near Jackson, Wyoming and my family was fortunate enough to be participating in an annual bird study funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service.
The Yellowstone/Grand Teton area is the largest complete ecosystem in North America. Spectacular, unique scenery and a wide variety of wildlife make Yellowstone and Grand Teton two of the most popular national parks in the United States. Get away from the most visited spots and off of the main roads in the parks and your visit will quickly turn into an experience you will never forget.
We were part of a group visiting Teton Science School in Jackson to celebrate the graduation of our kids from the graduate program. For a week we had the opportunity to explore the Jackson area with scientists and biologists and get up close and personal with wildlife, as well as hike and canoe with the experts. You can have the same type of experience.
Six bird nets had been set up around a group of ponds on that early morning. In order to keep the birds safe, each net had to be checked no less than every 30 minutes — which meant a lot of fast walking through the woods and around the ponds. Once a bird was discovered in a net the location was recorded, the bird carefully extracted and carried back to the banding station for weighing, identification and overall condition noted.
Another early morning we hiked into Death Canyon and were rewarded with the sighting of a big moose grazing in the river. The biologist accompanying us identified flowers along the way and told us where to look for ripe huckleberries, which we greedily ate. Our five-mile hike into the canyon was followed by a welcome boat ride across Jenny Lake back to our cars.
Different areas of the parks are known for certain types of wildlife. The locals know where to look; as a result we saw loads of bison with their babies, in fact there were several times we had to wait for bison and babies to cross the road. We were also told that if we walked in the woods by ourselves we should make a lot of noise to scare the bears away. So evening walks tended to be down the 2 mile gravel road that led to our cabins; even then elk walked along in woods beside us, grouse ran from one clump of sage to the next and coyotes howled as twilight approached.
If you get tired of wildlife and hiking the Jackson area still offers plenty to do. Have you ever been to a hootenanny? Any idea what it even is? Check out Dornan’s in Moose, across the river from the entrance to Grand Teton National Park. Monday nights anyone with the nerve to get up in front of a crowd and perform can meet with organizers for the chance to sing under the big canvas tent. Some of the performances are great and some aren’t so good but it’s sure to be fun. Bill Briggs, the first person to ski down Grand Teton is one of the masters of ceremonies. He’s a legend and quite a character.
Wander over to the Craig Thomas Discovery & Visitors Center near the Moose entrance to Grand Teton National Park and you can see an exhibit containing the gear Briggs used to ski down the mountain. Rumor has it that Briggs had his hips recently replaced and fused into a position that will allow him to continue skiing.
There are a total of four Visitor Centers in Teton National Park with a variety of programs. Rangers generally hang out around the Visitor Centers. They are very knowledgeable and tell great stories about the history of the area as well as lead interpretive hikes and talks and answer questions. Schedules are posted online and in the Park Newspaper. Rangers can significantly enhance your experience in the parks with their knowledge and tips.
It’s breathtaking to wake up and look outside of your cabin window to snow-capped, towering mountains, especially in the summer. A momma fox and her cubs denned right outside our bedroom window. We would have never seen her if the biologist hadn’t told us where and when to look. We enjoyed many of the typical tourist activities in Grand Teton but because of our time with the folks from Teton Science School and local park rangers we experienced once-in-a-lifetime activities. How often can your kids climb a mountain and see an endangered pika (a relative of the rabbit), or climb a snow field in the summer, or hold a tiny bird in your palm?
About Teton Science School
Teton Science School is a leader in place-based teaching, field science and experiential education. They offer over 100 courses each year across six program areas with two campuses and a diverse teaching faculty and research staff. Programs for all ages are offered during the summer. Responsible wildlife observation along with educational fun are the themes for excursions ranging from an evening hike and campfire, evening canoe tour, bird banding to multi-day expeditions designed to optimize your wildlife viewing. http://www.tetonscience.org/index.cfm?id=wildlife_expeditions
Grand Teton National Park http://www.nps.gov/grte/index.htm
The Teton/Yellowstone basin has arguably some of the most environmental issues in the nation. As soon as we drove onto the Kelly Campus of Teton Science School we were confronted with problems created by drought.
Climate changes have had significant effects. Warmer temperatures over the last few years have brought unwelcome changes and dangers to the area. Pine Bark Beetles are killing pine trees stressed by drought. Pikas, the smallest in the rabbit family, can’t survive at warm temperatures. 80 degrees can kill a Pika in less than six hours so they are living higher and higher in the mountains.
Ranchers don’t want bison on neighboring farms for fear that cattle will contract Chronic Wasting Disease despite the fact that there is no agreement on how the disease is transmitted. There is still a lot of controversy about the 1995-1996 re-introduction and subsequent management of wolves in the Yellowstone area. To learn more read Shadow Mountain by Renée Askins.
By Donna Jefferson