National Geographic : 2016 May
58 national geographic • may 2016 released into the park back in 1995, after an absence of almost 70 years following their systematic extirpation early in the century. We could see yellow flowers peppered across the meadows of grass and sage—the rich yellow of balsamroot, the paler yellow of biscuit-root, which signals a tuber that bears eat. Lacking geysers and a great canyon, the Lamar Valley isn’t for everyone, but to some eyes it’s the most exquisite corner of Yellowstone. We flew down the east shore of Yellowstone Lake into a roadless area, protected on one side by water and on another by the crest of the Absaroka Range. Near the south tip of the lake’s Southeast Arm is the delta of the upper Yellowstone River, a broad bottomland of willows, grasses, and shrubs in five shades of green. This day the upper river was brownish olive, reflecting fast July runoff from melting snow, though I noticed one oxbow pond, its water a deep, tranquil blue. We buzzed upstream in stately progress, so low and slow that it felt as though we were riding a kite. We crossed the park boundary, an invisible line, and turned east to follow a tributary called Thorofare Creek toward its rocky headwaters, where the Yellowstone, which is America’s longest undammed river (outside of Alaska), has one of its sources. This area, known simply as the Thorofare, is the most remote spot in the lower 48 states. “Thirty miles from anything,” Stradley said. After three hours of flying we pointed ourselves back toward the airport, but first we swung over the Norris Geyser Basin, getting a nice view of all the little hot springs and ponds dotting the area in shades of aquamarine, orange, yellow, and chartreuse. Ahead of us then was the Gallatin Range, not as lofty and jagged as the Absaro- kas though high enough to retain snow patches and cornices at this season. On one of those white patches we glimpsed a cluster of dark figures and, swooping closer, made out their forms: seven wolves plus a grizzly bear, sharing a little snowfield at uneasy proximity and 9,000 feet elevation. Stradley pulled up his camera, wanting to get a photo of the animals as we circled back. Now he was flying the plane with his knees. “I don’t know why they’re up so high,” he said. “ What’s the attraction?” Before I knew it, we were two mountains along, looking down on another bear, a huge one. This grizzly was on a flat above Fan Creek, munching contentedly amid a patch of yellow balsamroot and other vegetation. Again we circled. Stradley seemed puzzled. Balsamroot is not usually mentioned as a grizzly food, although the bear’s dietary choices in Yellowstone are formidably diverse, according to a recent authoritative paper. The list includes 266 kinds of plant, animal, and fungus, ranging from bison flesh to morels, from western waterweed to moose, and from chipmunks to 25 kinds of grass. Was the bear grazing? Didn’t seem to be. Digging up tubers? No. “Might be eating the flowers,” Stradley said. And it was possible: Kerry Gunther, the park’s senior bear biologist, later told me that balsamroot flowers have indeed been found in grizzly scat. So that’s what I took away, my last vivid impression from our eagle-view tour: a humongous grizzly bear alone on a hill above the Gallatin River, eating flowers. Can we hope to preserve, in the midst of modern America, a remnant of our continent’s primordial landscape? If the answer is yes, the answer is Yellowstone.