The ‘Yellowstone Park Unicorn’: Tour group, guide spot wolverine inside national park

In addition to being rare, elusive and ferocious, wolverines often are found in remote places and in high elevation

By: - March 9, 2022 10:10 am
Yellowstone National Park

Visitors to Yellowstone Park walk around Old Faithful after an eruption on the park’s opening day in May 2020. (Jacob W. Frank/National Park Service)

The pictures are definitely going in the Ziploc bag.

While most people put their most cherished photographic memories on Facebook or in a photo album, MacNeil Lyons, the operator and guide of Yellowstone Insight, keeps his best, most memorable events in the center console of the Chevy Suburban so that visitors can see.

And so the pictures of a wolverine crossing the road in the northeast corner of the park on March 5 will head to the plastic baggie in the center console for other tourists and guests, while the memory of the moment will remain as Lyons’ most cherished (so far) from 22 years of guiding guests.

Lyons captured the equivalent of the Yellowstone Park “unicorn.”

While scientists have tracked wolverine movement around the park, spotting a wolverine as just another one of the animals in the park, along with wolves, grizzly bear, moose and bison, was a moment that hasn’t been documented previously — at least in such a well traveled area.

In addition to being rare, elusive and ferocious, wolverines often are found in remote places and in high elevation. Hunting for food can bring them lower in elevation, but that happens during winter when park tourists are generally equally scarce.

However, as Lyons was leading a small group consisting of a man who wanted to see Yellowstone as a “bucket list” trip and his 9-year-old daughter, they saw something people who visit the park regularly never see – a nearby encounter with a wolverine.

Lyons and his guest got the moment on video and still photography. What seemed like five, six – maybe even eight minutes – turned out to be more like three. But in that time, the wolverine stopped and took stock of the curious onlookers before loping over a hill.

For Lyons, it was fitting that he was the guide to see the rare animal. Lyons’ business promotes Yellowstone National Park eco-tourism. While other guides focus on hunting, fishing or even whitewater rafting, his is based on talking about the history of the park, the indigenous history and spotting the variety of wildlife that call the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem home.

“My goal is to create a memorable experience where the guests go away with better knowledge,” Lyons said. “Our company educates about the ecology, the geology and the cultural past – before 1872 (when the park was first established).”

Lyons was a National Park Service Interpretive Ranger before setting up his own service.

Last-minute booking

The once-in-a-lifetime moment almost didn’t happen.

Originally, Lyons was scheduled to be out-of-the-office and his guests called as a “last-minute thing.”

And the tour was already a success before the wolverine. They had seen elk, bison, a bull moose and a bighorn ram.

“We saw this small creature loping around like a small black bear,” Lyons said, “but it’s obvious it was different. The tail was different and the head. And it was this amazing wolverine. I couldn’t stop myself. It was unbelievable.”

As they watched the animal, Lyons moved to get a better photograph with his camera. At one point, the wolverine made one step toward him, but not in a menacing way. The wind was blowing at Lyons’ back, and the wolverine lifted his nose to the air.

“He was trying to figure us out,” Lyons speculates.

Lyons said that it’s not just about people seeing wolverines inside the boundaries of the park itself, it’s about the larger ecosystem that allows wolverines – and a host of other animals — to become part of the draw to Yellowstone National Park.

“There’s 2.2 million acres here and if we were say, in Miami, Boston or L.A., we couldn’t have this,” Lyons said. “It’s the larger area that is open, not just the public land, that is virtually open that allows this. Animals don’t know where the political park boundary line is.”

‘The presence of the animal’

Lyons describes the feeling he got as similar to that when he’s come across a grizzly bear paw print or even droppings – called “scat” – from them.

“You know that you’re in the presence of these creatures. That they’re around and you’re sharing this amazing place with them,” Lyons said.

He said because wolverines can be so elusive, what made this experience stand out was the time they got to spend just observing each other.

“I was surprised it stuck around,” Lyons said. “I think he was trying to figure out what it was. I never felt endangered. And that eye-to-eye connection we had will never be forgotten.”

As for the attention the event has brought on social media and beyond – he said interest in the national park, the ecology and the environment is a good thing. But the experience is not without a few drawbacks.

“It’s positive and negative – negative because in the grand scheme of things, there’s a bigger of issue of climate change in the Greater Yellowstone Area. There’s a decrease in snowpack and that means a decrease in habitat,” Lyons said.

And even though the moment was something he’ll never forget, he also hopes it doesn’t happen again.

“It had its moment in the road and then goes over the ridge. I hope for its own safety that he’s not around the road,” Lyons said.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.