Itís a cold 9 degrees and cloudy so first light will likely be later than yesterday. My poor little car has to really work hard to warm up!
By the time I reach Lamar, the temps have dipped below zero!
I join the crew at Boulder East where itís minus 16! Shortly after I arrive, Dylan spots the Junctions way up high to the north. I catch glimpses of them between trees on the skyline. They are heading east.
Laurie suggests Slough, so we go there and set up just beyond the lot.
We start to complain of the cold when suddenly wolves run right into my scope. ďI have two blacks! And a gray! And another black!Ē Everyone quickly gets the spot. They are north of the conifer-aspen forest, bounding downhill with what looks to me like joyfulness.
The crew finds them from Lamar River. It looks like theyíll soon be in Slough flats so we start walking out to the Knob. At least the hike will warm me up!
Michael climbs up Daveís Hill for a higher view.
When I get out to Bobís, the wolves have already arrived in Slough flats. Most are beginning to bed down. Others, probably the pups, run along the cut bank to the south, sniffing and exploring.
The adults eventually bed in two groups about 20 feet apart, most choosing the soft snow on the bank above Slough Creek.
The creek is mostly frozen and snow-covered. I see one oval section of open water along the near bank. The pups run back and forth along the far channel, chasing each other.
Itís still very cold, 14 below. The sun is out but has little warming effect yet. This level of cold never seems to bother healthy wolves. Around 9AM, the pup group seems to be bored, and starts to look for something else to do.
Several of them begin to move northeast, climbing onto a rocky knob, higher and higher. They seem to be aiming for the area above the natal den, where we often see bighorn sheep.
And they find them. The highest wolves stop, glaring at a few impressive rams, After a short face-off, the rams begin to run downslope to the west, zipping confidently over boulder fields, much faster than wolves can run.
Nevertheless, a handful of the youngsters dash after them. Most of us consider this a foolish pursuit. I glance down at the adults bedded below and see a few raised heads. The adults seem to share our opinion of the chase, and soon go back to their naps.
The sheep easily get away and the pups finally give up. I expect they will now come down the hill for a rest but after about 15 minutes, we see several of them heading right back up the same hill. They still have energy to burn!
The adults look up again but donít join in. I hear a lone howl coming from below the den area and spot a single gray ahead of the others, sitting on his haunches below the western trees, looking intently to the east. I follow his gaze and see four cow elk bunched together, two with white collars, about 200 yards away. The elk stare back at the single gray. (I find out later this wolf is 1340M)
A black wolf joins 1340M. The elk spook and run, and wolves generally cannot resist a chase. The four cows first run east, then change direction and head down, cutting across the slope at a diagonal, aiming for the lion meadow, which we all know leads to Slough Creek. The wolves are serious now. Other wolves emerge from all over the west side of the hill, intent on the four elk. 1340M starts to gain ground.
Iíve seen elk use the strategy of running to water many, many times, but this elk may not have known that a large group of adult wolves was already bedded right at that Creek!
The gray catches up to the group and grabs the leg of the slowest elk, which is collared. The elk kicks but the wolf hangs on. Kicks again and the wolf lets go. As the wolf loses his grip, the elk turn left, and the two collared elk trip in deep snow. The wolf is up in an instant. As the elk regain their feet, he latches onto the thigh of the one he bit before. She kicks again and gets free. The other tripped elk (also collared) now runs uphill to the east while the remaining two gallop off west, the way the sheep went. The bitten elk continues towards the creek.
Some wolves follow the single elk running uphill, but they give up quickly and head back downslope. Other wolves go after the two running west but never get close.
I stay on the bitten elk, expecting to see her run smack into the adults. But they miss their chance. A few stand up, but most stayed bedded, as if they prefer to watch the show from their seats!
The bitten elk reaches the creek bank, and vaults over the bank onto the frozen snowy surface. She gallops across about 50 feet of snow-covered ice and splashes into the oval pool of open water. How she managed this last 100 feet without slipping on ice is incomprehensible, but she did it.
The water, however, is quite shallow, barely up to her knees. She splashes through to a slightly deeper area, not quite up to her belly, where she turns defiantly to face the gray.
The gray lost ground as he reached the bank, taking much more care getting down the bank to the ice than the elk did. I still canít believe she didnít trip!
I scan the hillside and find the other collared elk high up, close to the spot where I first saw them bunched. The other two have made it to the conifer-aspen forest.
The gray approaches the elk right to the edge of the water. He is very cautious. The elk lunges at him, doing her best to convince him she is not afraid nor willing to give up her life.
Many other wolves have now reached the ice. Several of them do their best to scare the elk. She bravely stands in exceedingly cold water, stomping her front hooves at them, daring them to enter the water.
I figure she is done for. We can clearly see blood on her upper back leg, like the gray has torn a small chunk of flesh there. It doesnít look like a lethal wound in itself, but it must hurt and will certainly weaken her.
We figure the wolves will simply wait it out, letting hypothermia and stress wear her down. I ask Rick if heís ever seen an elk survive such a situation. He thinks a minute, then says ďActually, yesĒ but he agrees she is in a bad position. Others tell tales of similar standoffs they witnessed.
Some think, given the cold temps, that it will take only a few hours. Others bet it will happen overnight. We all pretty much assume weíll be seeing wolves on her carcass tomorrow morning.
At 10:30AM, itís still 10 degrees below zero. Most of the wolves who were part of the chase have now retreated to the bank, and are bedded down.
I go back to counting wolves and get 23. Kara gets 26.
Laurie & Dan are both chilled, so they head back to Silver Gate but plan to come back later this afternoon. My toe warmers are working today, thank dog, and I figure Iíll stick it out for a while. The crew, of course, is stuck here. Itís their job and I chuckle at the inventive ways theyíve found to keep the chill away.
Around noon I get a surprise when I see a grizzly run in, just to the right of Marge. He disappears into the creek corridor where the pups had been playing earlier. I find out later that Michael saw the pups catch and kill a coyote there before the elk chase. He says the bear went right to that spot.
After about an hour, the bear re-emerges near the Southern round tree. He moves slowly back the way he came. I last see him entering the conifer aspen forest.
I go back to my car to take a warm-up drive, going to Tower and back. I stop at Curve to call Laurie, giving her an update on the wolf vs elk situation. She says they will be out again around 3.
I hike back to Bobís and watch, fascinated, as 1340 gets up again to check on the elk. A black pup follows him. They lunge at her, and the black pup is especially active with numerous play-bows. Ultimately they are both ineffective. The elk just stares them down. Each time the pup inches too close, she stomps at it, scaring it into retreating.
Taylor says this happened about an hour ago, too.
I find it curious that the adult wolves do not seem the slightest bit interested in her. Rick said earlier that the adults likely consider her healthy and not worth their energy, nor worth their risk of injury. He adds that they are likely not too hungry today either, since they had something last evening.
Itís now been four full hours since the elk has been standing in that water. The sun managed to raise the temp to one degree above zero, but itís already dropping again. All the wolves were napping.
Then, we are all astonished to see the elk take a few tentative steps towards the near bank. Very hesitantly she puts one hoof on solid ground, then all four feet. She moves maybe three feet from the water and begins to nibble on the vegetation she can reach. Is she trying to escape?
Two wolves stir awake and stand up. In response she turns and sneaks right back into the water. The wolves come close and again she stomps at them. The wolves retreat.
Laurie & Dan return, surprised to see the situation is unchanged. Twice more the elk sneaks out of the water for just a minute or two, grabbing a few mouthfuls winter sustenance, with the same result. Wolves notice, come her way, she returns to the water.
By 3:45 I am chilled to the bone, so I head back to Silver Gate.
As I drive home, happy for the warmth of my carís heater, I realize I want this elk to live. I want her to fool the wolves and sneak away from her awful predicament, even though I know itís impossible. I just admire her courage.
How does a animal stay brave, bleeding, standing in water, in below zero temps surrounded by 26 wolves? How does she manage that?
When Laurie & Dan get back they tell me the wolves had a rally shortly after I left and a few wandered off to the east. 1229F went over for a closer look at the elk but backed off. The rest of the pack bedded back down again. As of 4:45, when they left, the elk was still alive.
Today I saw: a grizzly bear, bison, coyote, elk, bighorn sheep, 26 wolves including 907F, AM,
former AF, 1048M, 1229F, 1276F, 1339M, 1340M, 1341F plus many more and the spirits of Allison,
Richard and Jeff