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Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA

Wildflower species of the Yellowstone National Park...

The snowmelt from the Rocky Montains gives birth to some of the most famous rivers in the world: the Snake River, the Salmon River, the Green River, the Lochsa River and, last but definitely not least, the Colorado River. The Colorado, which is a delightfully pretty stream up high in Rocky Mountain National Park, gathers such force in its descent that, over the millenia, it has carved out the mighty Grand Canyon.

A Grizzly Bear in Yelowstone National Park
A Grizzly Bear hunting for grubs in rotting wood in Yellowstone National Park in mid-June
The Firehole River

Many hot springs drain into the Firehole River. Often by high summer the river has to be closed to fishing in order to protect fish, which become stressed by the high temperature and low oxygen content of the water.

Yellowstone National Park has its fair share of iconic rivers - the glorious Yellowstone River itself, which gleams with gold, the Madison, the Firehole, the Gibbon and many others. Not only are these rivers exceptionally beautiful but they are some of the most revered trout streams in the whole of America, attracting thousands of anglers to try their luck every year. Although the rivers are renowned for their Brown Trout and Rainbow Trout populations, both of these species have been introduced to the region, and it is the Cutthroat Trout that is the most sought-after native species. Cutthroats are strictly protected by conservation law.

Another native species that keeps the Cutthroat company is the Mountain Whitefish which is similar in body shape to an Arctic Grayling, but the Whitefish lacks the large dorsal fin.

The History of Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone, the world's first officially declared national park, was established in 1872. The Park covers an area of 3,472 square miles of semi-arid sagebrush, dry and wet meadows, arctic tundra and river valleys.

Although to many of us Yellowstone represents a vision of wilderness and of untamed nature, it was already far from that when it was designated.

Compared to the devastatingly destructive nature of our lifestyles today, the Native American Indians who inhabited Yelllowstone long before the Settlers arrived could be described as living sustainably, although not altogether without impact upon the land. They were expert agriculturalists in their own way, but without the use of the heavy machinery and agricultural herbicides and pesticides used in farming today, Mother Nature was able to fill the vacuum created by the resources they used and to absorb their impact in her domain. This is not to say that in the natural order of things like replaces like, and while Nature may abhor a vacuum she may not necessarily fill that vacuum with what was there before.

Two-lobe Larkspur
Two-lobe Larkspur, Delphinium nuttallianum - one of the beautiful spring flowers of Yellowstone National Park.

The Indians were reputed to use fire to clear land for growing food, but hard evidence of widespread use of this method within the area occupied by Yellowstone National Park remains elusive. Modern science and methods of assessing accurately the archeological finds in the Park are giving us a clearer picture of life in the area before the arrival of the settlers, but to date only 5% of the Park has been explored in this manner.

At the beginning, the designation of the National Park was far from a guarantee of protection for the wildlife within its boundaries, and the slaughter of animals for their pelts and meat ran out of control throughout the remainder of the 1800s. When protection did come, it was curiously balanced in favour of those animals that had been valued by the hunters and very much against their real and perceived predators. With little or no knowledge of how ecosystems work, it was almost as if the animal species were variously classed as 'good' or 'bad', and the latter continued to be persecuted mercilessly. A prime example of this was the Grey Wolf (spelt Gray Wolf in the USA) which was driven to extinction within the Park's boundaries. Among other unwanted effects, this allowed equally damaging predators to gain ground, leaving the 'preferred' species just as exposed as before.

Even though our understanding of ecosystems and the often delicate interactions among each and every element of the environment around us is increasing, the immense complexity of the habitats and species within Yellowstone presents those charged with its management with an incomprehensible set of parameters. It is not simply a matter of putting right the damage done to species and habitats by earlier generations, but also a fine balancing act to deal with current threats presented by the huge number of visitors to the Park. All this is made more challenging by the effects of climate change.

A Bald Eagle in Yellowstone National Park
A Bald Eagle sits on a favourite perch in Yellowstone National Park. This one was photographed beside the Madison river.

Yellowstone National Park Today

Described as the 'jewel in the crown' of nature conservation, Yellowstone today is sustained by the millions of visitors who come to wonder at its unparalleled scenery, geological wonders and wildlife. Park managers must tread the fine line between potential damage to the Park and its wildlife by accommodating the seemingly never-ending queues of cars and people, and earning enough money to ensure its preservation for future generations to enjoy. The awful irony of people cruising around in V8 trucks and RVs admiring an environment they are actively degrading by so doing is inescapable. Nevertheless, the more people who see and value the amazing wildlife of the Park the greater chance there is that they will fight to keep it funded and protected. More than three million people visit Yellowstone National Park each year. Shockingly, the vast majority of them never leave their cars, or if they do they only walk on the roads and boardwalks close to the 'honeypot' features. By driving every inch of road in the Park, visitors will see a paltry 2% of what it has to offer. Getting onto the hiking routes and trails offers an altogether different view of the Park, one in which the scenery, birds, plants, butterflies and other wildlife are a revelation.

Flora and Fauna of Yellowstone National Park

Geological Wonders

Hot spring in Yellowstone National Park
One of the many hot springs in Yellowstone National Park.(Picture by kind permission of Sue Clark.)

Despite the fabulous wildlife of the Park, it is the geology of Yellowstone that is its main visitor attraction. Evidence of the restless core of our planet is frighteningly obvious as you travel around, and this energy source powers the geysers, hot springs, seething mudpots and other amazing features that draw so many awestruck visitors to the Park every year.

The origin of this geological activity was a devastating series of volcanic eruptions which began around two million years ago. The most recent, about 600,000 years ago, caused the complete collapse of the centre of what is now Yellowstone National Park. This event created a massive depression (caldera) of close on 47 miles by 28 miles, now the location of so many of the strange fizzing, boiling, bubbling and seething features for which the Park is so well known.

Other than Old Faithful - the most famous of the geysers in the Park which erupts very predictably about every 90 minutes - other great places to visit to see the geology in action include Norris Geyser Basin, Mammoth Hot Springs, and Lower Geyser Basin.

Bison graze in Yellowstone National Park Bison are one of the favourites with visitors to the Park. Here they are seen grazing beside the Firehole River.

Mammals

Next in the popularity ratings of 'things to see' in the Park are the large mammals. Bison frequently stroll along the roads between grazing sites, creating massive traffic tailbacks. Grizzly Bears (an endangered species) patrol the forests, while Black Bears, although mainly nocturnal, are also frequently seen 'capering' along river banks and even across the roads during the day. Moose are quite often spotted in the meadows and beside the rivers, which are also home to Otters, Muskrats and Beavers. Notable among the other 50+ mammal species that make Yellowstone their home are Wolverine, Pronghorn (Antelope), Bighorn Sheep, Lynx, and the American Marten.

The higher-altitude parts of the Park are home to the Yellow-bellied Marmot. Easy to spot in the spring and summer and seemingly unconcerned by proximity to people, these creatures lead an extraordinaly life. They hibernate from August until March, when they emerge from their dens (invariably near large boulders) to breed, to eat voraciously in order to build up fat for the next hibernation season, and to laze about in the warm sunshine. Nice work if you can get it!

If you are lucky you may hear the eerie howling of Grey Wolves or, with even greater luck, catch sight of them. Having been persecuted and driven from the Park area, they are now making a comeback due to a reintroduction programme. Although largely nocturnal, wolves are sometimes spotted in daytime in those areas of mountains and valleys where they are restablishing their lives. The reintroduction programme is highly controversial, and many people fear that wolves will proliferate at the expense of other species.

Sandpiper
Sandpipers scurry along the edges of rivers.

Birds

Three hundred bird species have been recorded from Yellowstone National Park, making it a truly outstanding destination for the ornithologists among us. Raptors are particularly well represented: Bald Eagles and Ospreys are common sights along the rivers.

Golden Eagles live in the forests and mountains of the Park and can be seen drifting on thermals above open areas in search of prey. During the summer they feed on rabbits and large rodents, but in winter they will scavenge on even larger animals up to the size of Pronghorns.

Hummingbirds are a delightful addition to the birdlife of Yellowstone. They live in a range of habitats but are also frequently seen in parks, gardens and around houses. There are four species in the area: Black-chinned Hummingbird, the colourful Broad-tailed Hummingbird, the Rufous Hummingbird, and both last and least the Calliope Hummingbird, the smallest bird of North America. The latter flies silently and inhabits canyons and dry coniferous forests.

Pelicans
Pelicans roost in large groups in shallow parts of the rivers

The rivers and lakes are great places to see birds, and a special treat is to see the Belted Kingfisher, which is much larger than the Kingfisher in Europe and grows to around 13 inches (about 32cm).

Various sandpipers scurry along the riverbanks and, in summer, large numbers of Canada Geese are in the park proudly marching their offspring along the shingly river edges and through riverside meadows.

Resident throughout the entire region is the American Robin. Much larger than the European Robin this bird is actually a member of the Blackbird family. It lives in woods, parks and gardens where, in summer, earthworms are its main food; in winter the American Robin benefits from the berry-laden shrubs.

Pelicans delight non-fishing visitors far more than they do the Park's anglers. During the day Pelicans feed out in the lakes and on some of the rivers, but at night they come together to roost in large groups, creating an unforgettable photo opportunity for those floating down the rivers.

Plants and Flowers

The Rocky Mountain States have around 3,000 wildflower species, and the floral displays in springtime are spectacular. To see as many wildflowers as possible, timing is critical because spring and summer are so short in the area. June is the peak time, and by the end of July the foral fireworks displays are nearly over with only a few species still in bloom at lower altitude parts of the Park, although higher up in the mountains several species continue blooming well into August.

Mimulus with sulphur
Monkey Flower Mimulus guttatus has adapted to live in one of the most inhospitable habitats in Yellowstone National Park.

The wildflower habitats in the Park are extremely variable and range from lush wet meadows all the way through to downright inhospitable parched heathland and sulphurous bubbling bogs. There are plants that have adapted to each of these habitats, and this can make life difficult for the less well adapted visitor. Great care is needed when pursuing that photo of a lifetime in some parts of the Park. In this respect, we feel, our other interest of flyfishing has proven to be a huge help with wildflower photography. Perhaps more flower fans should wear chest waders and lifejackets on their Yellowstone expeditions!

If you are a fan of wild orchids there are a number of species to see in Yellowstone National Park, but most don't jump out at you. There are two exceptions: the Bog Rein Orchis Platanthera dilitata var albiflora , which blooms in all the damp riverside meadows in considerable numbers in June; it even appears along some of the roadsides in the more sheltered parts of the Park. Looking very similar at first glance and growing in the same habitats, is Bog Candles, also referred to as Sierra Rein Orchis, Orchid Platanthera dilitata var. leucostachys. This is a much larger plant with up to 75 flowers appearing on each stem. In some areas the sheer numbers of these two orchids will turn the green meadows white.

Western Coralroot Orchid
Western Coralroot Orchid, Corallorhiza mertensiana is widespread but localised, making it hard to find. This specimen was photographed in Yellowstone National Park in open coniferous woodland.

Harder to find, although quite common throughout the Rocky Mountain States, is Western Coralroot Orchid Corallorhiza mertensiana. This orchid grows in sheltered positions in pine woodland. Close inspection reveals beautiful multi-coloured flowers attached to a dark red stem. Although America (along with Europe) has its share of dull-looking coralroot orchids, Western Coralroot Orchid eclipses its diminutive dull-green European relative Corallorhiza trifida (which also grows in America) without question.

Other orchids in the area include Hooded (Irish) Lady's-tresses Spiranthes romanzoffiana, Giant Helleborine Epipactis gigantea, and the Calypso Orchid (also called Fairy Slipper) Calypso bulbosa. All wildflowers are protected by law, and the Calypso Orchid is an endangered species. Like most wild orchids attempts to dig it up and move it will result in its death, and even picking the flowers could contribute to its extinction.

Another lovely and rather endearing plant of the area is Elephanthead Pedicularis groenlandica, a common sight in damp meadows close to streams; its flowers really do resemble elephants' heads. During spring in Yellowstone large areas are turned purple by this plant, interspersed by spikes of White Bog Orchid - a treat for wildflower lovers.

Mourning Cloak Butterfly
Mourning Cloak Butterfly

Insects

Today we are suddenly aware of insects in a way that we have not been in recent times. Around the world there is a crisis among pollinating insects - bees in particular - and it seems the cause of their demise is our over-dependence on agricultural chemicals for crop production.

Not only do insects pollinate the wildflowers that most of us take for granted, but they also pollinate many of our own food crops. Unless we solve the problems that are having this impact on insect populations, there will be a catastrophic effect on our own lives as well as on the lives of all the other creatures that depend one way or another on insects for their survival

As ever, the one thing that we can rely upon is the selfishness of mankind: once our comfort and convenience are under threat then we will, eventually, do something about it!

Top Anise Swallowtail Butterfly and below Western Tiger Swallowtail
Top - Anise Swallowtail Butterfly and below - Western Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly

As everywhere, insects are a vital element in the health of the ecosystems of Yellowstone National Park, and many thousands of species make their homes here. The butterflies and moths are many and beautiful, but so are the Mayflies, Caddis (sedgeflies) and Stoneflies that fuel another very important part of the livelihood of many people who live in the Rockies - the fishing community. These are the insects that are copied by fly-tying fishermen in an attempt to fool and catch the insect-eating trout found in those world-famous angling rivers that flow down from the mountains.

In springtime the trout gorge themselves on the enormous (for a stonefly) Salmon Fly, and then feed on a succession of mayflies and sedgeflies that hatch from the rivers and lakes throughout the rest of the season. Once the fleeting lives of these insects are over, the fish depend on the harsh prairie winds to blow other land-based insects into the water from the riverside vegetation. Trout then turn to eating the large grasshoppers, crickets and other terrestrial insects which are plentiful at that time of year and which inadvertantly find themselves becoming fish fodder courtesy of a vicious gust of wind.

Fungi

Many hundreds of fungi species occur in the Rocky Mountains, and the majority of them fruit earlier than they do in Europe because of the shortness of the seasons. Some species that we would not see until late autumn in countries where the seasons last longer appear from July onwards because spring, summer and autumn roll into one continuous but relatively short season. By October in the Rockies the first snow is beginning to lie in the higher parts of the mountains, and the vice-like grip of winter is close at hand.

Boletus edulis in Yellowstone National Park
King Bolete (called Cep, Porcini or Penny Bun in Europe) - Boletus edulis - in Pine woodland in the Rocky Mountains

Many kinds of fungi are inedible and a few are downright poisonous: inexperienced mushroom-hunters should never eat mushrooms found in the wild. For those who know what they are doing, some of the finest culinary fungi grow in the Park: King Bolete Boletus edulis and both Black Morels Morchella elata and Yellow Morels Morchella esculenta occur here.

Beautiful to look at but not edible is the Fly Agaric Amanita muscaria. This iconic toadstool is common in Yellowstone, particularly in Pine woodland and under Aspen trees. Look out also for the many colourful brittlegill mushrooms (Russula species) with their purple, red, orange, green, blue and white caps; most are edible, but a minority can cause unpleasant tummy upsets; these are fungi that form symbiotic relationships with the pines, but there are also wood rotters - recyclers that help convert dead wood to humus that new plants can grow in. Among these are the many bonnet fungi (Mycena species) and the rustgills (Gymnopilus species) that sprout from the trunks and branches of wind-thrown trees.

Yellowstone National Park is closed during the winter, and to see it at its best the months of May to September are the most favourable. The weather is always unpredictable, and we have seen snow there in June. There are frequent violent thunderstorms with torrential rain or hail that can spring up in next to no time, causing the temperature to drop by as much as 30 degrees F in as many minutes. Clothing for all weather conditions should be with you, especially if you are hiking a long way from shelter.

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Wildflowers in the Rocky Mountains States - Colorado, Montana, Wyoming

Scientific name

English name

Botanical Family

Anticlea elegans Elegant Death Camas/Mountain Death Camas Liliaceae
Aquilegia coerulea Colorado Blue Columbine Ranunculaceae
Aquilegia elegantula Western Red Columbine Ranunculaceae
Aquilegia flavescens Yellow Columbine Ranunculaceae
Argemone polyanthemos Prickly Poppy Papaveraceae
Asclepias speciosa Showy Milkweed Asclepiadaceae
Balsamorhiza sagittata Arrowleaf Balsamroot Asteraceae
Camassia quamash Common Blue Camas Liliaceae
Corallohriza maculata var. occidentalis f. immaculata Western Spotted Coralroot Orchid f. immaculata Orchidaceae
Corallorhiza maculata var. occidentalis f. intermedia Western Spotted Coralroot Orchid f. intermedia Orchidaceae
Corallorhiza trifida Early Coralroot Orchid Orchidaceae
Corallorhiza mertensiana Western Coralroot Orchid Orchidaceae
Dodecatheon pulchellum Shooting Star Primulaceae
Frasera speciosa Green Gentian/Elk Weed/Monument Plant Gentianaceae
Gaillardia aristata Blanket Flower Asteraceae
Gentiana parryi Parry's Gentian Gentianaceae
Gentianopsis thermalis Rocky Mountain Fringed Gentian Gentianaceae
Lilium philadelphicum Rocky Mountain/Wood Lily Liliaceae
Listera (Neottia) cordata var. cordata Lesser Twayblade Orchidaceae
Listera cordata var. nephrophylla Western Heart-flowered Twayblade Orchidaceae
Lithophragma parviflorum Woodlandstar Saxifragaceae
Minuartia obtusiloba Alpine Sandwort Caryopyllaceae
Pedicularis groenlandica Elephant Head Orobanchaceae
Pedicularis parryi Parry's Lousewort Orobanchaceae
Penstemon whippleanus Whipple's Penstemon Scrophulariaceae
Phacelia sericea Purple Fringe Hydrophyllaceae
Platanthera dilatata var. albiflora Rein Orchid/White Bog Orchis Orchidaceae
Platanthera dilitata var. leucostachys Bog Candles/Sierra Rein Orchis Orchidaceae
Platanthera huronensis Green Bog Orchis Orchidaceae
Platanthera hyperborea Northern Rein Orchis Orchidaceae
Platanthera obtusata Blunt-leaved Bog Orchis Orchidaceae
Ratibida columnifera Coneflower Asteraceae
Rhodiola rhodantha Queen's Crown Crassulaceae
Rholdiola rosea King's Crown Crassulaceae
Silene acaulis Moss Campion Caryophyllaceae
Spiranthes romanzoffiana Hooded Ladies-tresses/Irish Lady's-tresses Orchidaceae
Toxicoscordion venenosus Meadow Death Camas Liliaceae
Trollius laxus Globeflower Ranunculaceae
Yucca glauca Soapweed Yucca/Spanish Bayonet Agavaceae
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