Critters Of The Parks; 20 Things You Might Not Know About The Creatures That Crawl, Fly, Swim, Wade, Waddle And Run Through U.S. National Parks
It’s really not all happening at the zoo. Although most Americans may see their first wild animals in a cage, the best way to observe wildlife – paws down – is in their natural habitat.
Concessioner Xanterra Parks & Resorts, operator of lodges, restaurants, gift shops and activities in many national and state parks, offers tours in Yellowstone and Grand Canyon National Parks that allow binocular-laden travelers to observe and learn about wildlife while leaving the driving – and the price of the gas – to someone else. And staff at the lodges, restaurants and gift shops operated by Xanterra – many who are ardent naturalists – are happy to provide tips and share wildlife experiences with their guests. Xanterra also operates concessions in Death Valley, Petrified Forest, Rocky Mountain, Crater Lake and Zion National Parks and Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
“While most national park travelers know about the bison in Yellowstone and the elk in Rocky Mountain National Park, they might not realize that national parks are home to thousands of other wildlife species,” said Dave Hartvigsen, vice president of sales and marketing for Xanterra. “Some are so rare that few people ever even see them. Fans of wildlife will have the best experience if they know a little about what animals they might see and how best to find them.”
The National Park Service (NPS) operates many visitors centers in national parks, and most feature displays and information about the park’s creatures. NPS also offers a variety of free programs with wildlife themes.
Here are 20 things to know about park wildlife.
1. Keep your distance. It’s the law. NPS requires that visitors be at least 25 yards from most wildlife and 100 yards from bears and wolves.
2. Buffalo or bison? The largest land mammal in North America, most people in the park call these ungulates bison instead of buffalo. Though the term buffalo is acceptable, some argue it is incorrect because the only true buffalo species exist on other continents. Bison are beautiful, powerful creatures, so keeping a wide berth from them is strongly advised by NPS.
3. The most dangerous animal in a national park is the mother of a newborn, no matter what the species.
4. Anglers fishing in Yellowstone Lake are required to kill any lake trout they catch. Lake trout were illegally introduced to the lake and its tributaries, and now these species threaten the survival of the park’s native cutthroat trout.
5. Hunters eradicated Yellowstone’s wolves, but they were reintroduced to the park in 1995 and 1996. Last year, NPS reported there were about 100 wolves and eight wolf packs in the park.
6. Another wildlife success story, there are now more than 70 California condors in Grand Canyon National Park. These remarkable and rare birds, the largest land-based bird in North America, have a wing span of up to 9½ feet. In 1985, when only nine birds remained in the world, wildlife biologists began a remarkable captive breeding program. In 1996, six captive-bred condors were released in Arizona, and they were soon seen flying over the Grand Canyon.
7. Contrary to the dire sound of its name, California’s Death Valley is a thriving natural environment and home to more than 900 species of plants, six types of fish, five types of amphibians, 36 reptiles and 55 mammals. The park’s vast array of species can be explained in part because of the various microclimates that result from the park’s elevation differences. From the top of Telescope Peak to the bottom of Death Valley at Badwater, there is an 11,331-foot drop in elevation, roughly equivalent to twice the depth of the Grand Canyon.
8. Hayden Valley in Yellowstone is one of the best places in the park to view shorebirds and birds of prey. Sometimes lucky travelers will also spot bald eagles and osprey hunting for fish along the Yellowstone River.
9. Oregon’s Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the U.S. and seventh deepest in the world, has no indigenous fish species. Six species were introduced to the lake from 1881 to 1941, but all but two of those species have died. NPS permits and encourages fishing (with artificial bait) for the remaining species – rainbow trout and Kokanee salmon.
10. One of the most interesting inhabitants of Southern Utah’s Zion National Park is the ring-tailed cat, which is nocturnal and often quite inquisitive around picnic tables of unsuspecting visitors.
11. Another critter that happily scams travelers is the raven. In Yellowstone, ravens have been known to open unattended backpacks with their beaks and rummage through the contents for goodies like fruit and snack bars.
12. A favorite small mammal among Yellowstone guides is the river otter. Growing to as long as 54 inches and up to 30 pounds, these aquatic mammals can stay under water for up to three minutes then emerge from some other spot in the water. Children and kids at heart will enjoy trying to predict where these frenetic creatures will pop up next along a river.
13. Mountain goats like to graze near the 60-foot-high sculptures of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt at South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore National Memorial. And every so often, these pretty critters will wander down to munch on a patch of grass in the main visitor area, oblivious to close-by travelers taking photos.
14. Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona and Yellowstone are both excellent parks for watching pronghorn – the fastest mammal in North America – race through the grasslands at up to 60 miles per hour.
15. Until the early 1970s, Yellowstone visitors gathered each night at NPS-sanctioned feeding grounds to watch habituated black and grizzly bears feed on garbage. Although the bears are no longer allowed to frequent these areas, they often appear in the Hayden and Lamar Valleys or on the high mountain slopes of the park.
16. Bighorn rams in Colorado’s Rocky National Park challenge each other with head-butts and other displays of aggressiveness, and their fights can be heard for a mile during the rutting season in November and December. There are about 800 bighorn sheep in the park.
17. Yellowstone was once home to a type of zoo, with bison and other wildlife confined to a small island on Yellowstone Lake. An early concessioner charged a fee to take visitors by boat to see the penned animals – even though they could see the same animals in the wild wandering around their hotels.
18. White-tailed ptarmigans are sought after by Rocky Mountain National Park birding enthusiasts, but they are very hard to spot because they blend into their surroundings. Hikers in the alpine tundra region – above 11,000 feet – have the best shot at catching a glimpse of these rare and beautiful creatures.
19. Two of the rarest animals across the national parks may both be found in Yellowstone – the Canada lynx and the wolverine. Both of these animals are uniquely adapted to survive and thrive in the heavy snows of the park, due in part to their large paws. Few visitors – or even park rangers – ever see these magnificent creatures.
20. The largest wild fowl in North America is the trumpeter swan, which gets its name from its trumpet-like call. There are two flocks in Yellowstone. The birds can fly up to 80 miles per hour but they are grounded for up to two months every year – typically in the summer – when they molt all their feathers and are rendered flightless.