Cameras at the ready, West German tourists poured from their bus earlier this week to photograph a herd of elk a few miles inside Yellowstone National Park.
Climbing over dead trees, they aimed lenses as long as fenceposts at the nearest animal. That cow elk seemed as unperturbed by the cameras as by the effect of the forest fire that raced through the area only days ago.Park naturalists say most of the large animals Yellowstone has been famous for have come through this summer's fires as calmly as that elk.
"This is not a Bambi situation here," said Jeff Selleck, a park information officer. "Even while the fire was burning, the animals seemed fairly serene."
As fires burned near here last week, many animals could be seen grazing in green areas between blazes. Last weekend, a motor cavalcade including Interior Secretary Donald Hodel and Agriculture Secretary Richard Lyng passed close to where a bison grazed, its shaggy shape silhouetted against a blazing tree.
At frequent intervals along the route between West Yellowstone and the Old Faithful cluster, cars pulled off and tourists scrambled to photograph a deer, a dozen elk grazing in golden grass or a dozen bison lumbering through a parking area like circus elephants.
"We'd planned this trip to Yellowstone for a year, and we were darned disappointed to hear about the fire," said Russell Wade of Osceola, Ind., who arrived in time for Old Faithful's 11:52 a.m. eruption.
Like others who visited the park this week, Wade said he had come hoping to see the bison, elk, moose and mule deer for which the park is known.
As danger to park structures has abated, questions have been raised about the fate of the animals that bring such visitors here from around the world.
Yellowstone is home to an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 elk, 2,500 bison, between 900 and 1,000 moose and a similar number of mule deer. Its 2.2 million acres are also populated with pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, coyotes, minks, marmots, weasels, ravens, goshawks and other birds and animals.
In an interview this week, park naturalist Joe Halladay said that while there is considerable uncertainty about the effect of a food shortage on the animals, "We want people to know that the park is not destroyed. It is still worth coming to see, and there are going to be animals here for visitors to see when they come."
Many small animals - ground squirrels, chipmunks, field mice and the like - were undoubtedly trapped by fire, he said.
"Small animals tend to panic and there's always the chance they may go in the wrong direction," he said. "Some may have died from the smoke.
"On the other hand, the large animals do not tend to panic," Halladay said. "We have had reports of two animals found dead, one of them a black bear, but we have not been able to get people into much of the burned area yet to see how extensive the losses are."
Loss of grazing land is now the main threat to the animals. "We haven't had a chance to assess how much winter range has been damaged by the fire," the naturalist said.
"Much will depend on how severe a winter we have. Some shelter is gone, shelter the animals need for protection from winds and blizzards. The animals will need more fat to use as fuel. Healthy middle-aged animals are likely to make it, but the older ones may not. And the young might not be able to dig through the snow to find grass."
In the long run, this summer's drought will prove more deadly than the wildfire that has burned over more than 1.4 million acres of the park.
"The problem isn't that the forage was burned but that it wasn't there in the first place," Halladay said. "We would have had problems this winter even without the fire. The fire simply compounds earlier problems."
Halladay said the park will change in some positive ways as a result of the drought and fire. "I think we are going to have an increase in the number of birds and small animals, and in the number and variety of flowering plants. The forest has been opened up so that sunlight will reach new areas."
There will be food for certain species that were unable to live in the deep forest. I think it's going to be interesting to see the changes."
One park visitor was Don Stewart of Greenville, S.C., who said he has been vacationing at Yellowstone for years.
Like Halladay, Stewart was looking forward to the emergence of a new park. "It is sad to see the devastation here now, but I will continue to come back to see how the animals fare, and to study the way the park regenerates itself."
Will those who come to the park next year be able to see animals like the ones Stewart was admiring?
Said Halladay, "I'll be amazed if they don't. Population levels may swing down, but animals have a terrific ability to come back."