When I was in the Park in April this year, I was thrilled to be watching the Junction Pack localized at the Slough Creek den area. Two den openings can be seen from the road and various lookouts near the lot; this area offers both eastern and western travel routes to hunting grounds that do not require any road crossings, which means humans may observe with little threat of interference.
Happily for wolf watchers, this area has served as a den site for numerous wolf packs since re-introduction: Rose Creek, Slough Creek & Lamar Canyon. Just two years ago, in 2016, the Junction Butte pack denned here; happy visitors (including myself) spent almost 60 straight days watching the pups grow from timid and wobbly to boldly adventurous.
Last year, an offshoot of the Prospect Pack chose this area as its den site. I was very much looking forward to seeing those puppies, too. But when I hurt my knee I had to postpone my visit. Just days before I finally arrived in the Park, the Prospect pack unexpectedly moved their pups to an out-of-sight rendezvous. I was very disappointed, as were many, many people.
So, in April of this year, it was thrilling to know that the Junction Butte Pack had again chosen this area in which to den. As my June visit approached, I kept reading wolf reports about the antics of the pups, including some very odd behavior by some of the males. But then, the day before my flight to Bozeman, I was crushed to read that the Junction pack had moved their very young pups from the visible area to some other spot where we cannot see them. We have since learned (because of their GPS collars) that they are in an area used by the Rose Creek wolves in years past. But the site is not visible from any pullout.
So, I postponed my trip a few days, hoping that perhaps the Wapiti pack down in Hayden might fill in for the loss of pup-viewing opportunities. But that, too, has not panned out. The Wapitis do have pups, but are not raising them in the “usual” area visible from Grizzly Overlook but on the opposite side of the road, and far out of sight.
Observers have noted what seems like a form of dysfunction going on in the Junction Butte Pack this year. The alpha female, 969F, has never gotten along with her sister, 907F. The alpha position has flipped between these two females a few times over the years, but for the last full year, 969 has been the clear leader. In March of this year, it appeared that all four females in the pack were pregnant (in addition to the collared grays, this includes two black females who were both born in 2016). I admit to some concern that four litters might be awfully hard to provide for by the remaining four males. It’s possible, but will require a good deal of cooperation.
And cooperation seems to be in short supply with this pack. In April, quite a bit of squabbling among all four females was observed as their due dates approached. It is believed that at least three litters of pups were born the week of April 17. The natal den, the sage den and possibly the northern den were all used initially, but by the end of April, it seems the females had consolidated all the surviving pups into the sage den.
The fourth pregnant female, newly collared 1109, seems to have denned on Specimen Ridge, near Antelope creek, a den area that was likely used by 969 and 907 last year. Pups may have been born there last year, but none survived. Most likely 1109 had pups, too, but we dont know if any are still alive.
Back at Slough, however, in May, as pups began to appear for brief intervals above the sage den, several unexpected things occurred. First, 969 presented with a bad injury to her front foot and is now submissive to 907F.
But things got weirder. On three occasions, male wolf 996 was observed with a single pup, carrying it in his mouth. World-renowned wolf researcher David Mech happened to be in the Park that day and had never seen such behavior. At least one pup died from this male’s treatment, which may not have been predatory, but just ill-considered curiosity.
On one of the occasions when 996 took a pup in his mouth, he was immediately and violently chastised by alpha male 1047 and the females. Nevertheless, 996 did this again, when no other adults were in view. A second male wolf, 1048, was also observed doing this on at least one occasion.
It is thought that at least three pups ultimately died from this rough handling.
GPS tracking showed that wolf 1048 was visiting 1109’s den regularly. It is thought that he was providing food for her and her pups, although we cannot know for sure. Whether he behaved or mis-behaved with her pups as he had done at least once at the Slough den, is impossible to know. Whether or not 996 paid any visits to 1109's den and accidentally hurt any pups is also impossible to know.
Only if 1109 is later seen with pups will we know the outcome of her den choice. But the indications are not optimistic.
When they were last seen at Slough, there were 8 living pups. We have no way of knowing how many are still alive, or if all 8 survived the move. It is at least two miles between den areas, and possibly further. Various pack members have returned to the Slough den area many times since the move, howling and sniffing, as if to make sure no pups were accidentally left behind.
So, pup-viewing season has been quite a bust. There has been rampant speculation about what may have caused such unusual behavior by the males. It has long been known that wolves show an increase of certain hormones during whelping season that encourages a nurturing behavior in both males and females. So one theory, which could be tested by blood sample, is that perhaps 996 and 1048 are missing this hormone (or have an insufficient amount) for some reason.
Those who observed this behavior did not describe it as typical predator behavior (i.e. he did not stalk or chase any pup, nor did he shake nor bite it violently). In each case, the pups innocently wandered to him, where he was bedded, and climbed on him, and perhaps inadvertently annoyed or hurt him. Those who observed 996’s behavior thought that the male simply did not know what to make of the small creature, and did not understand that gentle handling was required. Or perhaps, a pup may have made a distress-type sound, which the male wolf mis-interpreted.
We cannot help but wonder if this explains why the Junctions had no surviving pups last year?
So it is has been a strange spring in the wolf world.
A SAVING GRACE
I should note that alpha male 1047 has proven himself to be an excellent and loyal provider for the females. He has consistently exhibited gentleness, patience and fatherly protection with his pups.
So I approach this trip eager to see whatever wolves I might. In particular, I hope to see the Lamar Pack again, as they seem to have a litter (perhaps two) and I would dearly love to see them thrive after their many years of very hard luck.
Thanks are always in order to John Uhler for making it all possible. And to Rick McIntyre, who retired this year (March 1) to write his books, and to my dear friends, Laurie & Dan for their generosity and invaluable friendship.