We leave the Fawn Pass trail and start bushwhacking upslope toward the 8,002-foot peak of Terrace Mountain. Halfway through a stand of conifers, I spot the distinctive claw marks of a grizzly bear high on a trunk. Excited, I beckon Leo, Mary, and Karen to come look. We scrutinize and discuss and agree that we hope to see a grizzly today. Mary and I, after spending the last four winters in Yellowstone when the bears are sleeping and out of sight, are especially hopeful.
We turn away from the claw marks and look out across Gardner’s Hole, past shallow Swan Lake, and to a line of snow-covered 10,000-foot peaks of the Gallatin Range: Quadrant Peak, Antler Peak, Mount Holmes, and Trilobite Point. Clouds have formed, cooling the late-May morning. We decide to move on and warm up.
When we reach an area filled with knee-high sage, I reach down, break off a few leaves, and rub their oily aroma on my mustache, kicking my olfactory into overdrive. I smile as a hidden sandhill crane offers its rough, primordial gurgle, and a squirrel chatters its alarm call.
We follow a narrow animal trail, hoof prints of bison, elk, and big horn sheep intermixed in soft soil, moist from recent spring rains. We high-step through a criss-cross of downed timber and slalom through short young pines. We reach a small meadow covered with dried grass flattened by the vanished snow of last winter. Through the pale golden remnants sprout this year’s green, only inches high, but likely what has attracted the grazers to this trail. Yellow, purple, and white ground-hugging wildflowers freckle the meadow. Karen and Mary drop to their knees to study and identify one.
Leaving the meadow, we climb again until we reach a large, flat bench. Bunsen Peak, the remains of an ancient volcano, rises nearby, close enough, it seems, to touch. The four of us gather and survey the floor of Gardner’s Hole a mile or so away, a quilt of light and dark green, enhanced by Yellowstone’s ever-changing mix of clouds and sunlight.
Mary, squinting in concentration, asks, “What’s that moving out there? Is that a bear?” She raises and focuses her binoculars. “Yes. Yes, it is!” She jabs a clenched fist into the air in celebration.
“Where?” Leo implores. “Where?”
Mary directs him and he zooms his binoculars. “I got it!” he cries. “That’s a big grizzly. It’s running. Look at those muscles rippling! And there’s a smaller one to the right.”
“Yeah, one’s light and one’s dark,” Mary says.
I’m enthralled by the play-by-play that Leo and Mary provide, describing how one bear stands, the other sits, they both run or come together with playful movements.
“Do you think that they’re looking for early elk calves?” Mary wonders aloud.
“I think it’s a male and a female, and that we’re seeing courting behavior.” Leo watches in silence for a moment and then adds, excitement evident, “That could be the bear called Quad Mom. She had four cubs in 2009.”
The mating season for bears is mid-May to mid-July, and since June is just around the corner, it’s likely that the dance has begun. There are, according to Jim Halfpenny in Yellowstone Bears in the Wild, four steps in the mating ritual: courtship, rejection, acceptance, and copulation.
Courtship, the step we are viewing from the slopes of Terrace Mountain, starts when a male smells a female coming into estrus. He may follow her around day and night, and the courting pair may stay together more than a week. The excited male will drive away other interested suitors. Right now, we see no other bears in sight.
During the rejection step, this smaller female may spurn this big hopeful by sitting, growling, swatting, biting, or slipping away. She may encourage other males by displaying more submissive behaviors.
When she starts estrus, the give and take of the acceptance step begins. This male will try to mount her, but she may not cooperate. If he loses interest, the female may nuzzle him to rekindle the fire.
The final step, copulation, occurs during the first two weeks of June, and by the end of that month most of Yellowstone’s bears have mated. Copulation may fertilize an egg, but the egg goes dormant and simply floats around the womb.
If all goes well, by as early as the third week of September the female we are watching today will be pregnant—from this male or possibly several other suitors—and entering her den. If she is healthy and well fed, the eggs will implant in late October or early November and one to four cubs will begin developing. About 60 days later, while the snow flies, wind howls, and temperature falls outside, she will give birth in the comfort of the den to one-pound bundles of joy, each cub hairless and sightless. While she sleeps, the cubs will nurse and grow. From the time she entered the den till the moment she and her five- to ten-pound offspring emerge almost six months will have passed.
But September is far away and it’s not certain that this couple will complete all the mating steps. We watch the courting until the bears disappear into the conifers. Then we continue our meander toward the peak on another track-filled animal trail that climbs gradually through a burn area, the fire perhaps started by lightning.
Looking to my right and upslope I see the beige, dried travertine spotted with orange and black lichen that gives this mountain its name. I pause, let the others move on, and settle onto a large, smooth chunk. I imagine how 50,000 to 60,000 years ago this was an active thermal feature just like those at nearby Mammoth Hot Springs. But for some reason the water stopped flowing, the travertine stopped growing, and the hot spring died. Centuries of plant growth and erosion have broken the edges of the table-flat terrace into strange shapes called Hoodoos.
As I marvel at the immensity of geologic time and the power of nature, another sandhill crane, a bird that has changed little in the last two and a half million years, calls again. I look again at Gardner’s Hole and think about the countless generations of cranes, bears, and other wild creatures that have called this valley home. How lucky they—and we—are to have this magnificent and protected area we call Yellowstone.
Rick Lamplugh lives near the north gate of Yellowstone and is the author of the Amazon Bestseller In the Temple of Wolves: A Winter’s Immersion in Wild Yellowstone. Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from Rick.