In Yellowstone National Park, bison begin calving in early spring. Their young, colloquially known as “red dogs,” are the first wildlife babies, usually appearing in Lamar Valley and Little America in April. By early June, when I visited, it seemed like a full one-third of the bison in these vast herds were accompanied by a calf.
The size of the herds moving across the valley is nothing short of unbelievable. It’s hard to believe that the United States plains once looked like this – as far as the eye could see. They are such a big part of the ecosystem, from soil health to plant dispersal, habitat creation, and interaction with predators. The landscape is barren without them.
Twenty to thirty percent of the offspring will not survive their first year succumbing to accidents, predation, or winter stresses. They provide essential food for various wildlife; ravens, wolves, bears, mountain lions, coyotes, and more. For now, the red dogs, like all kids, run and play, spar with each other head-butting like bulls, and running off youthful energy in frenetic circles across the valley floor.Earlier this spring, a well-intentioned person “rescued” a bison calf from the Yellowstone River. It was separated from the herd and appeared to be drowning. It’d be hard to watch, but his intervention didn’t save a life. Rangers attempted to reintroduce the calf to the herd without success and, unfortunately, had to euthanize it. In another misguided encounter several years ago, tourists put a stray bison calf in the back of their minivan and drove it to a ranger station, hoping to find help. I thought I was about to witness a similar interaction in Lamar Valley. It turns out this red dog is actually a red dog!
Elk calving season comes next from May through June. They usually give birth to a single calf. Elk leave their scentless, camouflaged calves hidden in the sage until they are big enough to keep up with the herd at about 16 days of age.
I’d seen an elk cow-calf pair along the northern entrance road the last two mornings. There’s not a good place to stop there, so this evening after dinner, I went out looking. I drove along Old Yellowstone Trail just outside of Gardiner and quickly came upon a small group of elk with young. Like the bison calves and all kids, the spindly-legged, awkward, spotted elk play – running in circles and chasing each other. The elk’s individualities show in these interactions. Differing parenting styles and varying personalities are obvious.
The smallest/youngest of the three calves here stays by her mother’s side, never more than a few steps away (picture below).The boldest one roams out of sight of their mother. Periodically, her mom stops grazing to glance up and locate her calf. If the pair were out here alone, she might be more vigilant, but as it is, there are quite a few adults around keeping watch. Her little one keeps going over a hill to visit with another calf, pausing to look back to make sure it’s okay with mom.
Eventually, all of the calves come running to rejoin their mothers, where they are greeted nose to nose. The then routine repeats itself.
Meanwhile, as my attention was out the left side of my car, the rest of the group had been moving along the road, and this guy was suddenly near my passenger door!
Moose in Yellowstone usually give birth to one calf in late May or June. In other parts of their range, twins can be common. The Yellowstone National Park moose are Shiras moose, the smallest of the four North American subspecies. The moose subspecies are the Eastern (Vermont, Maine, New York, and eastern Canada), Alaskan (Yukon, Alaska), Western (Upper Midwest and British Columbia), and Shiras (Rocky Mountain states, Washington, Oregon, Utah, and southwest Canada).
Unlike most deer species, moose are solitary and, despite their size, are hard to see in the woods and willows they prefer. In Yellowstone, they are most often seen along Soda Butte Creek around the northeast entrance and near Silver Gate and Cooke City.
Pronghorn are the last of the big herbivores to calve in the Yellowstone spring. This may be part survival strategy because the wolf packs are already following the bison and elk, looking for a weakness and opportunity there. When I arrived three days ago (June 6th), I saw a couple of pregnant pronghorn, but I hadn’t seen any fawns yet. Pronghorn fawns, like deer and elk calves, also bed down away from their mothers for their first 2-3 weeks of life. Just past Pebble Creek Campground, I noticed a pronghorn doe on the hillside licking her new fawn. I pulled off and set up my tripod, watching a doe, buck, and fawn. Pronghorn don’t generally congregate in family groups like this. The bucks tend to go off on their own outside of the rut. So I’m not sure what the dynamic is here. I watched as the tiny fawn on wobbly, somewhat contracted legs from having been wrapped up in the womb not long ago, moved determinedly away from the adult pair. The adults eventually grazed in the opposite direction once the baby was tucked down safely in the grass.
Only her ears and eyes were visible once the fawn laid down, and then only because I’d watched her settle in.
This sighting completed a quartet of spring Yellowstone herbivore babies. I’m amazed and blessed to have seen them all on this short trip. Stayed tuned for more spring wildlife watching in Yellowstone stories.
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