I leave a little earlier today, at 6:05. Itís warmer, at 39 degrees, with stars overhead.
Today is the first day of Winter Study when the young crew is out from dawn to dusk with telemetry. I have high hopes for a good day.
I stop at Picnic to listen for howling. Itís quiet but I enjoy the dark stillness.
As I approach Dorothyís I see bison in the road. The group is in one of those ďnot movingĒ moods, so I stop, then inch forward, giving them time to figure out which way to go.
A car approaches from the west so I slow down to see if it might be the crew. No, itís Jim and Elizabeth. They stop and tell me they just clipped a bison and are going to the ranch to report it to the ranger. They are ok and think the bison may only be sore, not damaged. They say it was a young animal that just bolted right into them.
I feel bad for them. Thatís got to be a real shock.
Susan and Reve are stopped at Slough but havenít seen the crew yet. Hmm. Thatís odd. I keep going west, wondering if the crew might have been at Wrecker. But when I get there, I donít find them.
I continue to Tower. Hereís the crew! Turns out they were at Wrecker, and saw the Junctions from there, briefly, moving west. But now they are standing at their scopes attentively so I hop out to join them.
Itís snowing lightly but I can see what they see: wolves in Tower Flats at the bottom of Vader Hill. Yet these are not Junction wolves but the Rescue Creek Pack.
The wolves mill around along the trail, with some starting to head up slope. I count 9 total, including the alphas (Gray Male and 1154F), plus 1273M and 1278M. They all let loose with a beautiful howl.
I hear the Junctions howl back, unseen to the north of Vader Hill, on the far side of the Yellowstone.
The Rescues howl again, and I try to imagine what the two packs are saying to each other. Whatever is said, it does not cause any stress to the Rescue alpha female. She and her handsome mate lead the pack slowly up Vader Hill, not in a line but scattered all over the hill.
They top out in a generally western direction.
Laurie & Dan join me at Tower and we debate our next move. Stay here with a ďbird in the handĒ or try to find the Junctions when they come into view west of here, which it is highly likely to happen.
We split the difference and go to Rickís pullout, where we might see both packs. The crew moves to Elk Creek with the same idea in mind. Laurie finds the Rescue Creek wolves again, briefly.
I move on to Elk Creek while the crew moves to Hellroaring. From Elk Creek I find a black and a gray, both approaching Flat Top hill. Laurie & Dan see the same two from Rickís. They are Rescues.
When they go out of sight again, we move to Hellroaring. When we arrive, the crew has just spotted them, down low near the cliffs. Their arrival has caused a large herd of elk to bunch up. At first, itís fairly difficult viewing, due to all the trees in the way. In fact, I canít actually see wolves; I can only infer where they are by watching the elkís behavior.
At least one wolf must be approaching the herd from the east because several cows and a big bull charge toward something. Then they relax so the wolf must have backed off.
The herd bunches again, then settles a bit. Soon wolves begin to appear west of the herd, heading away from us to the north. More and more wolves file into view. I guess they feel the herd is too healthy. I quickly get a count of 21 (Jeremy has 22 Ė one short of the current full count).
I start to count the elk herd, stopping at 80. There are likely a few more I canít see.
The wolves move steadily upslope towards the big curve in HR creek. I quickly see a much larger elk herd above the creek, west of the basalt cliff. I start counting and stop when I get to 200 animals (there are likely more). This herd is very alert; semi-bunched in three groups.
The Junctions cross Hellroaring Creek quickly and continue up the slope, clearly aiming for the large herd. The wolves tighten their ranks as they prepare to test these elk.
The elk begin to run, moving as a unit, spreading, condensing and reshaping like a flock of birds. Itís fascinating to see. They form an arrow-head shape, first moving left, then the arrow-head elongates into a spear, then they turn sharply uphill. The wolves fan out, with clear intent to engage this herd.
On the east end of the herd, I notice a cow moving much slower than the others. A group of four or five wolves seems to see her too, and suddenly advance on her. The herd heads upslope while the cow splits away and runs downhill.
I decide to keep my scope on her. Suddenly a gray wolf makes brief contact with her hind quarter. The cow continues downslope with that gray and now a black very close behind. The cow continues to run, swinging east. The gray drops back, letting the black take over.
The black makes contact. The elk keeps going anyway with the black and the gray still in pursuit, first gaining, then falling back. Suddenly a second gray appears running full out from above. This gray passes the black and catches up quickly. The elk goes down! OMG! She tripped! The fast gray is on her, and I think itís all over, but no! The elk gets up and takes off yet again.
The cow now has three wolves still after her, with the second gray closest. The elk is clearly aiming for Hellroaring Creek but donít think thereís deep enough water to save her. The second gray catches up with the elk, runs alongside her for a few strides, then gets AHEAD of the elk. The gray turns to lunge at the elkís throat. Contact is made but the wolf canít hang on.
Again, the elk is free and bounds down the final steep slope to the creek. The three wolves follow her, and all disappear.
We can no longer see whatís happening so we call out to each other. None of us see the elk come out the other side, nor do we see any of the three wolves, either. It looks like they probably got her right in the creek.
If that happened, I am just as glad not to see it.
Additional wolves appear on the slope just above the creek. They stop and seem to be watching with interest. Two head down, perhaps to help or perhaps to feed.
Two ravens alight in a nearby tree. Boy, theyíre quick! More and more wolves arrive above the creek bed. I look further up slope to find out what happened to the big herd. Itís gone.
Where the herd used to be, is a group of unsuccessful hunters, including the alphas (!) bedded on a knob just west of the basalt cliff. They seem unaware that a kill has been made.
Usually, a chase is so chaotic I make the mistake of trying to watch everything at once. This time, luck is with me because I chose the right elk (and wolves) to follow!
I turn back to the slope above the creek. There are six wolves here, sitting on their haunches, looking at something interesting below them. I would think they would race down to the carcass if the elk were already dead, to begin feeding. Laurie reminds me that they often need to catch their breath after a chase before they can eat.
Laurie says the gray who ran alongside the elk and lunged at her throat was none other than eight-year-old 907F!
Wow, thatís impressive!
I watch the wolves bedded up high, unaware of the feast going on for the last 10-15 minutes. They are bedded in two groups; maybe 12 total.
Finally, a single gray in the lower group seems to notice something. It stands up, then heads downslope. This wolf starts a slow exodus of both groups. Finally, all of them get up and travel down to the creek.
A black wolf appears coming up from the creek bed. Itís 1048M. He was one of the original chasers. He reaches the upper bank and proceeds to wipe his bloody muzzle against the sparse snow and ample sage. Then 907F comes up, doing the same thing once she gets to the top.
A second black appears, carrying a bloody chunk of meat.
The late arrivals reach the edge of the bank and head down to the carcass.
More and more birds arrive, and I notice three eagles perched in the nearby trees: 2 bald eagles in one and a golden in another.
I witness several greetings among the pack members, and the alpha female takes time to dominate 1276F.
When the pups come up after feeding, some rambunctious play develops, delightful to see. They play keep away with a chunk of fresh meat, bounding this way and that in their carefree style. One of them makes a game of chasing magpies.
A black pup races upslope and literally crashes into a gray sibling. Another gray plays all by itself, carrying a morsel in its mouth, racing around, teasing its siblings with a game of ďcatch me if you can!Ē
After most of them have fed, the leaders begin their walk upslope to bed and digest. The place they choose has a particular flat-topped rock. A black wolf perches sweetly on this rock and a gray poses next to it for a while, before spying its own place to bed. 1229F wanders the hillside below the group, tooling around by her independent self.
Around 11AM all the wolves have settled into two bedded groups. I tell Laurie I want to stay out all day instead of going in. She agrees.
The temperature has warmed to a balmy 51. Itís still overcast, and an occasional breeze keeps us wrapped in our warmies.
I finally have a chance to chat with Jeremy and Taylor about their amazing trip to Africa. And I meet new wolf-project member Hannah, a very nice addition to the group.
I also learn that while we were watching the elk chase from here, Susan, Reve and Doug M were watching a long line of 8 Mile wolves on the Blacktail, south of the Nature Trail. It was a fairly brief sighting, but they managed a three-pack-day!
With the wolves mostly bedded I scan the wide-open slope for other creatures. The large elk herd, now with one less, never re-appears. They are likely far to the west by now.
The smaller herd of 80 is still visible directly below us, still close to the cliffs, but spread out and relaxed now, grazing.
There are numerous bison herds scattered about the open slope. The largest group grazes near a dark spot, likely a marshy area. Within this herd is a single ďred dogĒ; a bison calf born late, perhaps only a month or two old. This seems to happen with a handful of calves every year.
Around 2PM, some of the wolves start to fancy a snack. They get up and stretch and soon are headed downslope. One of these is the alpha male. We chuckle a bit when the alpha female also gets up and follows him. Laurie says she wants to keep her eye on his, with mating season just around the corner.
Around 3PM Rick M arrives in the pullout, having just gotten back from his trip to LA. He is warmly welcomed and once he has his scope on the wolves he begins telling us stories.
More and more wolves get up to have their second turn at the carcass. I suppose there is little left of it by now. This time, as they move down and then back up, I get a high count of 22.
Just as the sun is westering, the wind increases, bringing with it an unwelcome chill. With only bedded wolves in view people start to leave.
I stick around till 4:30 and then bid the wolves goodbye for now. I head back east, watching the moon try to break through the haze.
Itís been an excellent day!
Today I saw: bison, 2 bald eagles, 1 golden eagle, elk, 35 wolves (22 Junctions including the 6 remaining pups, the alphas,
907F, 1048M, 1228F, 1229F, 1276F and 9 others; 13 Rescue Creeks including Gray Male, 1154F, 1272M, 1273M, 1278M
plus 8 others but missing 1274M) and the spirits of Allison and Richard.