Winter Ecology

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A line of bison walking through deep snow.
Though the wildlife and plants of Greater Yellowstone are adapted to its cold, snowy winters, surviving the winter season can be a struggle.

NPS/Jim Peaco

 

As remarkable as Greater Yellowstone and Yellowstone National Park are during the rest of the year, in winter the park is a magical place: steam and boiling water erupt from natural cauldrons in the park’s ice-covered surface, snow-dusted bison exhale vaporous breaths as they lumber through drifts of white, foxes and coyotes paw and pounce in their search for prey in the deep snow, and gray wolves bay beneath the frozen moon.

Yellowstone in winter also is a place of vulnerability. Wildlife endure extremes of cold, wind, and the absence of ready food. Their tracks through deep snow tell of tenacious struggles through the long winter. Park conditions in this most severe of seasons become critical to the mortality of wildlife and even to survival of park species.

No wonder the park is so popular in this magical, vulnerable season with those who have enjoyed its charms. It is often said among park staff who live in Yellowstone that winter is their favorite season. Many park visitors who try a winter trip to Yellowstone come back for more.

 
A bison head covered in snow balls with the nose obscured by snow
A bison has elongated vertebrae to which strong neck muscles are attached, enabling the animal to sweep its massive head from side to side to clear off up to three feet of snow.

NPS/Neal Herbert

Animal Adaptations

Deep snow, cold temperatures, and short days characterize winter in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Resident plants and animals are adapted to these conditions. For example, conifers retain their needles through the winter, which extends their ability to photosynthesize. Aspens and cottonwoods contain chlorophyll in their bark, enabling them to photosynthesize before they produce leaves.

Behavioral

  • Red squirrels and beavers cache food before winter begins.
  • Some birds roost with their heads tucked into their back feathers to conserve heat.
  • Deer mice huddle together to stay warm.
  • Deer, elk, and bison sometimes follow each other through deep snow to save energy.
  • Small mammals find insulation, protection from predators, and easier travel by living beneath the snow.
  • Grouse roost overnight by burrowing into snow for insulation.
  • Bison, elk, geese, and other animals find food and warmth in hydrothermal areas.

Morphological and Physical

  • Mammals molt their fur in late spring to early summer. Incoming guard hairs are longer and protect the underfur. Additional underfur grows each fall and consists of short, thick, often wavy hairs designed to trap air. A sebaceous (oil) gland, adjacent to each hair canal, secretes oil to waterproof the fur. Mammals have muscular control of their fur, fluffing it up to trap air when they are cold and sleeking it down to remove air when they are warm.
  • River otters’ fur has long guard hairs with interlocking spikes that protect the underfur, which is extremely wavy and dense to trap insulating air. Oil secreted from sebaceous glands prevents water from contacting the otters’ skin. After emerging from water, they replace air in their fur by rolling in the snow and shaking their wet fur.
  • Snowshoe hares, white-tailed jackrabbits, long-tailed weasels, and short-tailed weasels turn white for winter. White provides camouflage but may have evolved primarily to keep these animals insulated as hollow white hairs contain air instead of pigment.
  • Snowshoe hares have large feet to spread their weight over the snow; martens and lynx grow additional fur between their toes to give them effectively larger feet.
  • Moose have special joints that allow them to swing their legs over snow rather than push through snow as elk do.
  • Chickadees’ half-inch-thick layer of feathers keeps them up to 100 degrees warmer than the ambient temperature.

Biochemical and Physiological

  • Mammals and waterfowl exhibit counter-current heat exchange in their limbs that enables them to stand in cold water: cold temperatures cause surface blood vessels to constrict, shunting blood into deeper veins that lie close to arteries. Cooled blood returning from extremities is warmed by arterial blood traveling towards the extremities, conserving heat.
  • At night, chickadees’ body temperature drops from 108°F to 88°F (42–31°C), which lessens the sharp gradient between the temperature of their bodies and the external temperature. This leads to a 23% decrease in the amount of fat burned each night.
  • Chorus frogs tolerate freezing by becoming severely diabetic in response to cold temperatures and the formation of ice within their bodies. The liver quickly converts glycogen to glucose, which enters the blood stream and serves as an antifreeze. Within eight hours, blood sugar rises 200-fold. When a frog’s internal ice content reaches 60–65%, the frog’s heart and breathing stop. Within one hour of thawing, the frog’s heart resumes beating.
 
A wolf on top of snow-covered rocks howls
The howl of wolves contributes to the winter soundscape of Yellowstone National Park.

NPS/Jim Peaco

Winter Soundscapes

Greater Yellowstone’s soundscape is the aggregate of all the sounds within the park, including those inaudible to the human ear. Some sounds are critical for animals to locate a mate or food, or to avoid predators. Other sounds, such as those produced by weather, water, and geothermal activity, may be a consequence rather than a driver of ecological processes. Human-caused sounds can mask the natural soundscape. The National Park Service’s goal is to protect or restore natural soundscapes where possible and minimize human-caused sounds while recognizing that they are generally more appropriate in and near developed areas. The quality of Greater Yellowstone’s soundscape therefore depends on where and how often non-natural sounds are present as well as their levels.

Human-caused sounds that mask the natural soundscape relied upon by wildlife and enjoyed by park visitors are, to some extent, unavoidable in and near developed areas. However, the potential for frequent and pervasive high-decibel noise from oversnow vehicles has made the winter soundscape an issue of particular concern in Yellowstone. Management of the park’s winter soundscape is important because oversnow vehicles are allowed on roads in much of the park.

 
A bull elk bugles in front of a building

Soundscapes

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has many sounds with important ecological functions for reproduction and survival. They form a soundscape.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Yes, though not all roads are open to cars. You can drive into the park through the North Entrance year-round. The winter season of services, tours, activities, and ranger programs typically spans from mid-December to mid-March.

At Mammoth, you can take self-guiding tours of Fort Yellowstone and the Mammoth Terraces, join a guided walk or tour, cross-country ski, snowshoe, ice skate (sometimes), rent a hot tub, watch wildlife, attend ranger programs, and visit the Albright Visitor Center. Visitors may legally soak in the Gardner River where hot thermal water mixes with cool river water. You can also arrange for oversnow tours to Norris Geyser Basin, Old Faithful, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River.

From Mammoth, you can drive past Blacktail Plateau, through Lamar Valley, and on to Cooke City, Montana. You may see coyotes, bison, elk, wolves, eagles, and other wildlife along the way. You can also stop to cross-country ski or snowshoe a number of trails along this road. The interior of the park is open to various oversnow vehicles. Tours can be arranged through the park concessioner or operators at the various gates.

The interior of the park is open to various oversnow vehicles. Tours can be arranged through the park concessioner or operators at the various gates.

You can also stay at Old Faithful Snow Lodge, from which you can walk, snowshoe, or ski around the geyser basin, take shuttles to cross-country ski trails, or join a tour to other parts of the park such as West Thumb, Hayden Valley, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River.

Average winter highs are 20–30ºF (–6 to –1ºC); average lows are 0–9ºF (–17 to –13ºC). The record low was –66°F (–54°C) at Riverside Ranger Station, near the West Entrance, on February 9, 1933.
 

Resources

Bjornlie, D.D. and R.A. Garrott. 2001. Effects of winter road grooming on bison in Yellowstone National Park. The Journal of Wildlife Management 65(3):560–572. Abstract

Borkowski, J.J., P.J. White, R. A. Garrott, T. Davis, A.R. Hardy, and D.J. Reinhart. 2006. Behavioral responses of bison and elk in Yellowstone to snowmobiles and snow coaches. Ecological Applications 16(5):1911–1925.

Borrie, W.T., W.A. Freimund, and M.A. Davenport. 2002. Winter visitors to Yellowstone National Park: Their value orientations and support for management actions. Human Ecology Review 9(2):41–48.

Bruggeman, J.E., R.A. Garrott, P.J. White, F.G.R. Watson, and R. Wallen. 2007. Covariates affecting spatial variability in bison travel behavior in Yellowstone National Park. Ecological Applications 17(5):1411–1423.

Cassirer, E.F., D.J. Freddy, and E.D. Ables. 1992. Elk responses to disturbance by cross-country skiers in Yellowstone National Park. Wildlife Society Bulletin 20(4):375–381.

Creel, S., J.E. Fox, J. Sands, B. Garrott, and R.O. Peterson. 2002. Snowmobile activity and glucocorticoid stress responses in wolves and elk. Conservation Biology 16(3):809–814.

Fortin, D. and M. Andruskiw. 2003. Behavioral response of free-ranging bison to human disturbance. Wildlife Society Bulletin 31(3):804–813.

Forrest, L. 1988. Field Guide to Tracking Animals in Snow. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books.

Fuller, J.A., R.A. Garrott, and P.J. White. 2007. Emigration and density dependence in Yellowstone bison. Journal of Wildlife Management 71(6):1924–1933.

Halfpenny, J.C. and R.D. Ozanne. 1989. Winter: An Ecological Handbook. Boulder: Johnson Books.

Marchand, P.J. 1996. Life in the Cold. UNew England.

Thompson, H. 2004. Preserving natural soundscapes in the US national park system. In The George Wright Forum.

Olliff, T., K. Legg, and B. Kaeding. 1999. Effects of winter recreation on wildlife of the Greater Yellowstone area: A literature review and assessment. Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee, Greater Yellowstone Winter Wildlife Working Group.

Tanner, R.J., W.A. Freimund, W.T. Borrie, and R.N. Moisey. 2008. A meta-study of the values of visitors to four protected areas in the western United States. Leisure Sciences 30(5):377–390.

Yochim, M.J. 1999. The development of snowmobile policy in Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone Science. 7(2).

 
A skier enjoys a winter sunrise at near a steaming geyser.

Explore in Winter

Ready to brave the cold? Check out this information for planning a winter visit.

Snow blankets rolling hills and conifer trees grow along the ridges.

Play in the Snow

Winter is a magical time to explore Yellowstone by skis, snowshoes, snowmobile, or snowcoach.

Snowmobilers drive cautiously by a herd of bison on a snow covered park road.

Winter Use

The winter use debate spans more than 80 years, with each participant asking: should the park be accessible in winter?

Bison grazing in the grassy areas around a hot spring with snow covering part of the ground.

Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

Yellowstone is the heart of one of the largest, nearly intact temperate-zones on Earth.

Last updated: July 29, 2019

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