This morning we have mule deer at the curve in the road before the entrance gate. The sky is clear and both the moon and stars are visible. There is a trace of new snow in Mammoth and I finally see the bunnies that Chloe and Becky have seen nearly every morning in this area.
There is a bit of drifting on the S Curves in Blacktail but we get through it ok. There are lots of elk tracks crossing the road all the way through Black Tail. Calvin and Lynette decide to stop at Elk Creek to try to see the Agates but I keep on driving. Becky and Chloe do the same.
We have a coyote in the road at Junction Butte and two more at Lamar Canyon.
There are many elk in the flats to the north of the road at Midpoint and a gorgeous bull elk walking toward the road through the willow flats before Hitching Post. We stop at Footbridge and as soon as we step outside we have a beautiful howl to greet us.
The Druids are still up on DPH. I set up and watch them as they begin to rise and stretch and head downhill in several small groups to have another go at their carcass. 302 and 480 are fairly high on the hill and move slowly. Despite a fierce wind in the face, I get a full count of 16 Druids: 8 blacks and 8 grays. While they feast, the pups treat us to the typical wolf rough-housing.
I always try to remember to scope behind my position and while I am doing this I find a coyote chewing on an old backbone and set of ribs. It's kind of small, so I wonder if it maybe once was a pronghorn or a mule deer.
After their snack the wolves meander back up onto DPH for their morning nap. It times out perfectly because I have to leave anyway: I'm meeting Frank to go snowshoeing on the Blacktail. On my way there, I see two coyotes in the road at the bottom of Lamar Canyon. It makes me wonder if perhaps there is a carcass nearby?
Just past the Hellroaring overlook I see a mule deer up ahead on my right. I stop to let it cross the road and then see a second, smaller deer. Mama bolts quickly and heads up the steep hill on the other side. Her yearling is hesitant, hiding stock-still beside a tree. Finally the animal decides my car is far enough away so out she comes. She steps onto the road and stops to look at me, long enough for a nice photo. Then she crosses and lunges up the hill after mom.
I see a lot of elk in various spots on this drive, more than I have seen together in several winter trips. I surmise that the higher amount of snow this year may partially be the cause of it.
As Frank and I head out from the Frog Rock, I note that it is 11 degrees. Every once in a while the sun peeks out, greatly helping to counteract the steady wind. We start out on the trail but pretty soon leave it, heading south, on a course that will take us in a rough loop around South Butte.
The windswept wilderness of snow beckons and again I discover how fun it is to see how much unexplored country there is. We follow animal tracks (elk and bison) as much as possible. There are places where the sun and wind has made a crust stiff enough to hold us without sinking. We seek out those sections, as they are easier to walk on.
We see where various elk or bison have fed and bedded and look for other signs in the snow. Despite our valiant attempts to stay out of the wind, I am teary-eyed and chap-cheeked fairly soon. We stand on a hill high above the road and look down at three parallel trails: the paved road, the human-made ski trail and an animal highway made by elk and bison!
As we stand there, one of my poles flicks off a hunk of crusted snow in the shape of a small disk. It begins to roll down the hill, gathering size into a wheel, like in a cartoon. It keeps rolling all the way down to the line of trees.
This hike is a great workout but we decide to cut it fairly short because of the wind. Once back on the ski-trail, the wind becomes even more fierce and pretty soon more icy snow is stinging our skin. I try walking backwards for a while to give my face a break! We reach the cars and decide there is plenty of time to head back to Druidville.
So off we go back east.
When we arrive at the Footbridge, we find it still as busy as this morning. We set up and find the group of alphas on a snowy slope. I recognize 569 and 571 and the two big males, along with a few younger wolves. On the carcass are several pups and between the carcass and the trail up DPH I see two pups engaged in a game of tug of war with a piece of hide. They are so serious, pulling with all their might, and evenly matched. I can imagine they are both growling as threateningly as their young voices will allow. This goes on for a full half hour! When one of them gives up, the other tosses the hide in his direction as if to taunt him into playing some more. It is too cute.
Up on the hill we see 302 make what looks like an amorous move on High Sides, some preliminary sniffs and nudges. He gets the attention of 480, though, and the alpha male comes over to make sure everyone knows the rules. 302 shows his finely honed sense of place by licking 480's muzzle in reassurance of his brother's dominance.
A little later some pups come up to get some affection and roll submissively on their backs, with all four legs in the air and their front paws curled like kittens do! 302 stands over this pup in a confident display of dominance. We also see an interesting show between two of the yearling females, High Sides and Bright Bar. According to Rick, these two yearling females have not yet worked out which of them is dominant. It is common to see a dominant wolf put his or her head over the back or shoulders of the less dominant wolf and the less dominant wolf will allow it, standing without response. However, when these two are together, they each put their head over the other, in a sort-of silent version of arm-wrestling, wolf-style.
A little later the LGS shows up, only to be run off quickly by 302 and several pups. The LGS runs far enough and fast enough to let 302 know he gets the point but the minute 302 stops running, so does the LGS. 302 and several other wolves head into the trees below DPH.
After a little while, the LGS shows up again and we see him suddenly running for his life along the base of DPH with 302 and 480 behind him. He looks like he could be in trouble but he veers left and heads up the steep hill, curving toward the south as if headed to Cache Creek. 302 follows him uphill for a while but soon stops. He is mobbed by the younger Druids and I see him eat snow, as if he has a mighty thirst.
302 now heads down to the carcass. A black pup joins the "I love 302" club and grovels so much that he actually loses its balance and rolls down the hill like a kid. 302 ignores him and heads to the carcass. While he and the others are thus engaged, we are startled to see the LGS re-appear on the western shoulder of DPH. He stands there, audacity itself, and begins to approach the resting alpha female and her handmaiden, 571.
This instance reminds us all of the persistence and audacity of 302 back in 2003. The females stand up and face the LGS. The gray approaches tentatively, yet boldly. The females re-bed. He moves closer. All this time we keep checking on 480 and 302, who are still down at the carcass. The LGS is one wily wolf!
Then the LGS makes another quick move to within about 30 feet of the alpha female, at which point she and 571 suddenly get up and run to him. They sniff and bounce around him, with the LGS remaining mostly still. We notice the LGS is looking over his shoulder the whole time in the direction of the carcass. And a good thing, too!
Suddenly 302 is on the move! He comes roaring up the slope. The LGS sees the jig is up and heads out the back door, running east. 480 sees something is going on and joins 302 who is now panting heavily. When they get to 569 and 571 they make nice and do the waggy-tail nuzzle to nuzzle greeting, and then all four bed for a few minutes. Thus re-assured, the males get back up and set off down the hill in pursuit of the light gray yet again.
This last chase is pretty short, though, and when the LGS is sent running with his tail tucked, the alpha males ascend the hill once again and bed near the females.
A light and beautiful snow has begun to fall, making it sometimes difficult to see what's happening. But since the action is so close, no one even thinks of leaving! Instead we take turns brushing the snow off each others' hoods and hat brims and scope covers.
A little later, someone notices movement in the flats to the east. A black wolf is chasing a red fox! Whoa! The tiny fox with his enormous tail leads the wolf right and left, uphill and downhill, across the river and back again. The wolf gains ground a few times, sending my heart into my throat but each time the fox puts on a burst of speed and zig-zags out of reach.
While this is happening, the Dark Gray Suitor shows up - having just crossed the road close to the Soda Butte Cone. Two blacks and a gray come out to greet him. The handsome DGS is on alert for either 302 or 480 and seems a little nervous with the young wolves who are so happy to see him. Sure enough, in a few minutes, 480 and 302 are standing and then head down the hill towards the DGS. Even the alpha female deigns to come down off her throne to help chase this fellow, but she gets quickly distracted by something she finds far more fascinating. Digging!
Several of the Druid yearlings and pups follow her lead and begin to dig at a spot on the hillside. Apparently this is a favorite activity of theirs. No one seems to know what it is that intrigues them so much but they are intent as can be, tugging and pawing and digging, sometimes from above and often three or four at a time.
There is activity all over the place, so much that it's hard to know where to look. Laurie has returned from visiting her family and we give her full credit for inspiring this fantastic viewing. And Montana Senator Max Baucus is in the pullout as well. He saw Bob's film about the Druids and seems tickled as can be to be seeing the real 302 right in front of him. I overhear him make a comment to Rick that pleases me - he says the wolves seem very affectionate with each other. Of coures the two gray suitors may dispute that contention!
Then the Druids give us a gorgeous group howl that fills the evening air and temporarily silences the whole pullout. And all the while the snow falls, gathering in the creases of our coats.
As the light retreats, people begin to pack up and leave. Soon it is just the die-hards left. The Druids begin to trudge back up the hill to bed for the evening. Then someone points....at the base of the hill I can make out a slim gray shape. The Light Gray Suitor is back! He trots stealthily along the bottom of the hill, with all the Druids bedded high above, along the same trail he was chased about three hours ago.
We watch as the wily Light Gray Suitor makes his way, unimpeded to the carcass and begins to feed.
It feels like the last act in a great play we've been watching. The Silver-Gaters head east and the Gardiner group head west on the long road to dinner and home.
Tonight we end our evening at the Town Cafe where you can get breakfast anytime! The theme of discussion is...Druids! Oh yeah, man. The Druids are BACK! Long may they reign!
Today I saw: bison, coyotes, four mule deer, elk, 1 fox, 18 wolves (all 16 Druids and both
LGS and DGS) 1 Loon and the spirit of Allison