Another inch of snow has fallen overnight. It’s a cold 9 degrees to start, but it drops to 1 when I reach the Soda Cone!
There is some light fog along the river which I enjoy seeing as I continue west. At Fisherman’s I notice what I suspect are wolf tracks on the side of the road. They continue through Lamar Canyon, and at one point I can see at least two distinct sets. They soon leave the road leading down to the river.
Nothing is going on at Slough or Boulder. As I pass Junction Butte, I notice a small bison herd bedded on the far side of the pond.
At Tower it’s fully light and now minus 1 degree! Brrr!
Jeff wakes up the radio with a report a single howl north of Elk Creek. Laurie & Dan reply that they have stopped at Lamar Canyon West to investigate the tracks. Rick passes me, heading back to Lamar.
Just as I pull into Lower Hellroaring I hear a voice on the radio saying “come to Picnic”.
I relay this info to people west of me and head back east. Snow starts falling again; soft, fat flakes. I assume that the caller means Lamar and steel myself for the possibility of arriving too late. But as I approach Yellowstone Picnic I see brake lights ahead. Five cars and a van have either stopped or pulled over.
I glance north and see the group of formerly-bedded bison now standing at attention, tails up watching several smaller animals pass in front of them…
I realize now the caller meant “Yellowstone Picnic”. And I’m not too late!
I pull over and hop out with my binocs, belatedly recognizing Michael as the caller. The wolves are so close I don’t need my scope. There are at least seven; one collared black, 2 more blacks and four uncollared grays. They move quickly in a single line due east.
My first thought is that these are likely Wapiti wolves, not because I recognize any individual, but simply due to the confidence they display so close to the road and a line of (now) 8 cars. Only the Wapiti pack behaves like this.
They are moving fast so I re-locate to the big Trailhead lot, joining several tour vans and a dozen or so happy visitors. Rick arrives and agrees these must be Wapiti. He counts 9 total, four blacks and five grays. Only one black is collared.
Everyone gathers again at Boulder, where the wolves can be seen moving through the flats towards the river corridor. My count rises to ten with six grays, four blacks. I learn that the collared wolf is 1267F, one of the two “cocoa pups” I saw from the Ski Lot back in March. Most of the wolves in this group are pups and yearlings with one older uncollared gray.
They quickly move northeast, becoming hard to see in the tall sage. At first, I predict they will aim for the Buffalo Ford but they don’t go that far north. They stay on the near side of the river, angling more east. I lose them beyond the pond where the “white thing” is.
We gather again further east, at Boulder Pond, where John W has re-acquired them. The Wapitis are now climbing a low, partly-treed slope just west of the Peregrine Hills. A few have already bedded; the rest are sniffing here and there.
The crew joins us for a short time, relaying that the Junction Pack is again in an unviewable spot. They decide the best use of their time is to hike into the Aspen Drainage from Slough to process a carcass from a week ago.
It’s 10:30 and still cold at 5 degrees, but the sun is out, so it feels warmer. The Wapitis remain semi-alert even as they are bedded. They are not in their home territory and the scent of Junctions must be everywhere.
I have to admit, they are particularly beautiful wolves and it’s a nice switch to see them here. I wonder if the tracks in Lamar Canyon were theirs – perhaps they came over Specimen last night for a visit and are now heading back?
Laurie mentions that she saw evidence in the Tower lot that the Park might be mounting a collaring operation today. I remember seeing the lot blocked off but didn’t realize its significance. Sure enough, right around noon, we hear the plane approaching.
A little later, I hear a different sound. A helicopter. It suddenly zooms into view, painted an un-mistakeable bright red, flying low and fast.
Uh oh, the Wapiti wolves are in for a surprise!
The plane remains high, circling above the wolves. The plane noise seems to have no effect on the bedded wolves. But the helicopter noise is different. One black is bothered enough to stand. The helicopter swoops towards them, so low it kicks up a cloud of snow spray. The rest of the Wapitis jump to their feet, hesitate a moment, then scatter in all directions. It’s every wolf for himself!
Three of them run west, and one of those (a black) turns back east. The chopper zooms behind the hill, and I see a net flung out the open door.
The chopper turns sharply, astonishingly fast, almost recklessly! How do they do that? The black wolf doesn’t know which way to go. Most of the pack ran east then turned south towards the road.
The chopper zooms back and the black bolts downhill. Behind the hill I see a gray running fast. Another net goes out of the chopper and covers the gray, bringing it down. A guy jumps from the chopper, going right to the netted gray.
He uses a tool that looks like a big “grabber” to pin the wolf’s head while he somehow ties its four legs like a cowboy ties a calf.
The gray is tranquilized and as soon as it’s safe, the man hauls the wolf into the helicopter. I see the wolf’s head drooping over the man’s arm. Once it’s placed inside, the wolf’s head droops over the edge of the seat.
We think they might have gotten two wolves behind that hill, it’s hard to tell.
While this drama is playing out, other people are watching the larger group of Wapitis (six or seven) approaching the road in a bunched group. There are very few cars around (luckily) so the frightened wolves dash across the pavement safely and lope across the flats to the south.
The red helicopter takes off after them, speeding low to the south, with at least one and maybe two wolves inside. The Wapitis run parallel to Specimen ridge with the chopper right behind, kicking up even more snow spray.
The wolves disappear behind a berm. There must be a deep pocket back there because the chopper disappears too. Only the swirling snow tells us where it is. It seems to be hovering now and we believe they’ve netted another wolf. (They got three total).
We move to Straightaway for a little better angle. For a while I can barely hear the chopper’s motor. Laurie fills me in on what is likely going on; she has seen this happen countless times.
Once the “cowboys” have the wolves immobilized, they place them on the ground all together and the chopper goes back to Tower to pick up the scientists (Dan and Erin, most likely).
We see the chopper speeding away towards Tower. I can’t get over how low and fast that thing flies. It really is amazing.
In just a few minutes it’s back again. It lands, drops off its passengers and quickly returns once more to Tower.
Laurie says Dan and Erin will take blood samples from each wolf, weigh them, measure them, and fit the collars. They look at their teeth, their paws and check their overall fitness.
Suddenly the crew car comes zipping into our pullout. Barely a word passes between us, but Jeremy looks in my scope to see where the wolves and scientists are; then he, Taylor, Hannah and Cameron charge across the meadow to join the operation in progress.
About five minutes later, the rest of the crew, Dylan, Maddie & Tyler, drive up, hop out and radio for permission to join the processing. They are told yes, so off they go.
I tell Laurie I want to go, too!
The day has been cold, but for the last few hours, the sun was out, making it quite tolerable. However, a few minutes ago thick clouds closed in from the west, bringing a nasty wind. It’s suddenly quite chilly.
And now more snow arrives!
After about a half hour, the red chopper appears once more. The snow spray tells us it has landed (to pick up Dan and Erin we assume) and zips off again.
We have all retreated to our cars, needing the comfort of our heaters. I tell Laurie & Dan I want to stay until the crew comes back. They do too.
Finally, I spot them, almost back to the road. Oh! They look chilled to the bone.
When they get back, they dive into their coats and just sit in the car with the heater on full blast. We eventually get the story. They were coming back to their car at Slough from processing the carcass when they heard the collaring was going on. They were still warm from their hike so when they got here, they were not wearing their usual heavy coats.
Once they got out with the wolves behind the berm the wind kicked up, and since they were now mostly standing around, rather than walking, they about froze!
The tranquilized wolves were getting cold, too. Jeremy had to hold one of them in his lap to keep it from getting hypothermic. She is now 1331F (gray pup). The other two are 1329M (black male born 2019) and 1330F (gray pup).
He says all three wolves were healthy. They stayed, shivering, until all three wolves began to “wake up” and move around.
It’s now 3:45. A tiny sliver of moon has appeared. The light of the setting sun on Druid peak is gorgeous.
I wonder again what made this group of Wapitis decide to visit Junction territory? But Laurie and I agree; it’s been a fascinating day.
We head back east and another snow squall arrives, with those soft, fat flakes I especially like to see. When I reach the Confluence, I gasp at the gorgeous alpenglow spreading over Mt. Norris and its fingers. The Lamar River itself has become liquid gold.
This really is the most beautiful place on earth!
Today I saw: bison, elk, coyote, 10 wolves including 1267F, plus newly collared 1329M, 1330F, 1331F and
the spirits of Allison and Richard.