I always try to get to the Park in the early spring. This year’s trip was short, and only came together at the last minute because I wasn’t sure I could miss more work. I had already taken an EXTRA vacation this year, a trip of a lifetime, to the Galapagos Islands with most of my family. I will eventually write my report of THAT trip and post it here, too.
This April trip is short, but happily, full of wolves, including a very sweet, up close and personal encounter with 926 and her new beau, Twin. There have been major developments for the Northern Range Yellowstone Wolves, so let me get into it.
8 MILE WOLVES – this large pack split in two a year ago. One of the two groups remains in their traditional territory, roaming the Northwest corner of the Park and often just outside it. They are sometimes seen on Swan Lake Flats or the slopes of Sepulcher Mountain.
PROSPECT PEAK PACK – this pack formed in 2014 with a splinter group of males from 8 Mile (including alpha male 763M – black going gray) and three females from the former Quadrant Pack (including 821F and third sister – both grays). They roamed all the way east into Lamar but have now taken up residence in Leopold/Blacktail territory. They are sometimes seen from the Nature Trail lot or the S Curves. We believe they have denned in the same spot as last year – again in an area used by the former Leopold and Blacktail packs.
JUNCTION BUTTE PACK – this pack formed in 2012 with a merger of Blacktail males and Mollie females. The original alphas were Puff and 870F. During mating season 870 was injured and lost her status to another female wolf we called Ragged Tail. 870F was most often seen alone, or sometimes in the company of an ostracized, mange-riddled pup, 869M. The two of them tended to follow the Junction Pack at a significant distance. Against all odds both these wolves survived. Then, when Puff and Ragged Tail disappeared in 2013, 870F regained her status, and 890M stepped up to be alpha. These two led the pack for a half a year, but for some reason, 890M allowed gray wolf 911M to take over his alpha status. 911M's ancestry is not yet known (They have his DNA but no report has been run). Both 890M and 911M seem to be fairly easy-going types (and they may be brothers, for all we know). 890M remains part of the pack but often keeps his distance.
Then the aggressive Black Female (now collared as 970F) re-ousted 870F. She and 911M are the alphas now. 870F was again on her own, and still trails the pack on occasion. The Junction alphas denned out of sight in the trough the first two years. This spring we believe they are denning on the south side of Specimen Ridge, perhaps in the old Agate territory of Antelope creek. We believe both 970F and 907F are pregnant this year.
During early winter 2015, the paths of the Junction Butte wolves and the Prospect Peak wolves often crossed, sometimes at Hellroaring or at Slough or on the slopes of Specimen Ridge. The territory of those two packs overlaps and altercations were to be expected. There were howl fests and the Junctions lost a pup or two.
LAMAR CANYON PACK – After the death of the 06 Female in December 2012, the rest of her pack scattered. Most became residents of Wyoming, and are not seen anymore, or have been killed in the hunt. 06’s original mate, 755M, had a series of short-lived mates and was approaching truly tragic status when he finally headed south and caught the attention of the beautiful daughter of the long-lived Canyon alphas. It is thought 755 and the white female are denning in the traditional Canyon/Hayden area and we greatly anticipate the possibility of pups for 755 to raise this year.
06’s daughter Middle Gray came back to Lamar in 2013 with a mate from Wyoming (Big Gray) and her younger black sibling (who eventually became collared wolf 926) and a black male 859. Middle Gray had pups in the traditional Druid Pack area in 2013 but by fall, all but one of her pups was gone. As of October 2013, neither she nor her pup ever returned to Lamar. However, her younger sibling (now 926F) was delighted to have the attentions of Big Gray, and they were spotted in Lamar behaving as a couple all through the winter of 2013.
In spring of 2014, 926 was visibly pregnant. She and Big Gray had become a highly proficient hunting team, and consequently raised 6 strapping pups, 5 black and one gray (2 females; 4 males). This rejuvenated pack of 8 were seen on and off throughout the fall and winter.
Big Gray (925M) and 926F were observed mating in February of 2015. By March she was visibly pregnant.
In late March 2015, 926F led the Lamar pack out of their home territory and into the Hellroaring area, likely in pursuit of elk. What they somehow did not know was that the Prospect Pack had travelled a high route from Hellroaring into the Slough Creek area that same day. The two packs seem to have crossed like ships in the night, but to get home, the Lamars had to travel through Little America.
As the Lamar’s progressed back east, they took the logical route through Slough, right where the Prospects were bedded. When the Prospects became aware of the Lamars, they gave chase. They caugh and killed 925, the largest and slowest wolf. 926 and all her pups escaped but did not travel all the way back home. We know they visited 925’s carcass because GPS tells us so. Two days later, however, 926 led her now fatherless brood back into the very same area. This time, when she returned to Lamar, several Prospect males came with her.
The arrival of the Prospect males (as many as six, initially, including Twin, Mottled, 965 and Dark Black) created a dilemma for the pups. They did not feel safe with these males, the very wolves that had killed their father. It was heartbreaking for a while for the few wolf watchers in the Park during this time. We know that if a male wolf bonds with a female, he will raise her pups, whether he sired them or not. In fact, the litter that Middle Gray raised with Big Gray were not sired by him. We know this because some of those pups were black, and two gray wolves cannot produce black wolves.
There were days when the Lamar pups (not yet yearlings) would howl their hearts out, across the road from their mother and the males. They must have wondered what had gotten into their loving mother. After a while some of the males returned to the Prospects and it looked like only Twin and Dark Black were inclined to stay with 926. But eventually 965 and Mottled decided to leave Prospect and accept lower status as Lamar wolves.
From the not-quite-yearling pups perspective, perhaps if only ONE male had followed 926 back home, the onus would have been on him to accept 926’s existing family. But four of the Lamar pups were males, and the Prospect males did not lay out the welcome mat for them.
It is hoped that the two female pups (both black) may eventually be “allowed” back in the family. But it will take some doing for them to get over their fear. To have strangers take over the home territory they grew up in, and to have those strangers be the ones who killed their dad, well, it’s easy to sympathize with those pups.
Before I headed to the Park, I was encouraged by reports that the six pups were sticking together, traveling as a group and making kills (they had great teachers). But being so young, they are very vulnerable. The prognosis is, honestly, not good.
And what are we to think about 926 herself? It took several conversations with Laurie for me to understand that her priorities had to shift after 925 was killed. She is left pregnant, and the only provider for six sub-adults. I’m sure she didn’t want to oust them, but she has to think of her own survival and the potential life inside her. It’s unlikely her offspring would have been able to provide for her AND her new litter; the adult, unattached males, all of which are healthy, strong and experienced, offer a far better option. And, like her mother, the 06, why settle for only one mate?
It took me a while to get over the death of 925M. And at first, before the Prospect males showed up, I was anxious that 926 and her 6 pups might not survive at all.
But finally, it became clear that at least some of these males were in Lamar to stay, and that nature had filled the vacuum that 925’s death had left.
Good luck, Lamar pups! Welcome, Prospect males. Long live 926F!