Wyoming offers the wild side of honeymoons
The largest terrestrial mammal migration on the planet takes place in Africa’s Serengeti ecosystem. I haven’t visited the region, but never tire of watching documentaries on life and death struggles as animals move across the plains. Gazelle must outrun cheetahs to stay alive; cheetahs must catch gazelle or starve. Giraffe, wildebeest and zebra must stay alert; lions, crocodiles and spotted hyenas are ready to pounce. A whole host of scavengers wait to sap every last nutrient from the carcasses.
The same story, only different, happens right here in Jackson, Wyoming. The ecosystem survives on the give and take of the population, and I watch up close and personal.
Listed on my itinerary as a Wildlife Safari Tour, I envisioned a drive through a park stocked with ostriches, camels and other nonthreatening, free-range zoo animals. Instead, I’m picked up from the Teton Mountain Lodge by an expert guide/biologist from Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris who knows every inch of the Wyoming countryside and the wildlife inhabiting it. Armed with binoculars and spotting scopes, we drive on public roads looking for animals. The first moose sighting happens within five-minutes, the first mule deer in 10. Soon we’re up to our elbows in elk and scoping out bald eagles. We find the first carcass less than 20 minutes into the trip.
Two bald eagles on the ground in Jackson’s National Elk Refuge make my guide suspicious. We climb back in the van and drive to a different vantage point. The fresh dead elk carcass is in the shallows of a small pond, a third eagle on top of it, just beginning the recycling process. There are no visible wounds and no wolves; it appears this beast died of natural causes. Coyotes hunting less than 100 yards away are not even aware an easy meal is nearby.
As we watch a herd of big horn sheep work their way down a cliff and across the road right in front of the van, the guide receives a text from one of his coworkers. Wolves on a moose a few miles away! The action’s hundreds of yards from the road, but crystal clear through the spotting scopes. Tracks in the snow preserve the story. The moose had come off the mountain, out of the trees and into the flats. That’s where the wolves attacked. The moose was brought down as he tried to get back in the woods; his blood staining the snow at the tree line and leaving a trail as the predators pulled him down to a flat spot. It takes 24-hours for a carcass to be devoured; this one was killed about 18 hours ago. The wolves have eaten their fill and moved on; we watch as half a dozen coyotes pull and chew on the remains. Ravens and magpies are swooping in and out trying to get their share.
After 5 hours of nonstop action we head to Café Genevieve in downtown Jackson to get our own nourishment. Over soup and salads we discuss our adventures. We saw swans, bald eagles, fox, buffalo, osprey, coyote, antelope and most other types of animals in the ecosystem. Wolves and wolverines remained elusive; bears are hibernating. Going forward, I’m going to keep my eyes open while I drive down the road. There’s a lot happening just off the highway!
By Tom Flynn