Ever since wolves were introduced to Yellowstone, the Wolf Project has conducted what they call “The Winter Wolf Study” in which employees spend all daylight hours during a 30 day period observing wolves, collecting data and visiting carcasses. This happens twice a year (mid-November through mid-December) and usually March 1-30.
In past years, when wolves were abundant in Yellowstone, there were as many as four crews, each assigned to a different pack. In recent years, only the Junction Pack has been studied during both time periods.
This year, the Project assigned two crews of three members each for the Nov-Dec Wolf Study; one to follow the Junction Butte Pack and a second to follow the Rescue Creek Pack. Because the packs are so closely related, I think it will be especially interesting to see what the data eventually shows.
I have recently started timing my visits to coincide with the study period in an effort to glean some of what the crews notice during the stufy.
I find it very pleasant to be around the dedicated young people who do this work. I have come to know and respect them, and I find it refreshing to share insights with intelligent, science-minded young people. They often remind me of my nephews and my niece, who are all engaged in scientific pursuits.
RESCUE CREEK PACK (Jeremy is leader with M and N)
Current count: 12 (7B, 5G)
Females: (2) Alpha female (B, possibly 3 yrs old) 8 month old pup (G)
Males: (10) Alpha male (G, 4 years old); 1273M (B, 3); 1278M (G, 3); 2 two-year-old uncollared blacks, 1 two-year old uncollared gray, four 8-month old pups (3B/1G)
This pack formed when former Junction male (gray male) left his natal pack and joined with two black former Eight Mile pack females (originally 1154F and the current alpha female). Sometime in the summer, 1154F was killed by other wolves, most likely members of her former pack.
This pack is currently male-heavy. It is possible that during the 2023 mating season, several of the adult male wolves in this pack may seek unrelated females and form packs of their own, although there is not much room left!
JUNCTION BUTTE PACK (Taylor is leader, with D and M)
This large pack grew to 30 members in the summer of 2022 when four pregnant females raised a total of 15 pups. However, the pack has lost adult members and some pups since then.
Former Junction members:
Wolf 1048M, long-time beta male no longer travels with this pack but has joined the Mollies, likely due to poor breeding opportunities with Junction females. Except for 907, the rest are too closely related to him, but since 907F is alpha again, the current alpha male would likely make it hard for 1048 to breed with her, even though she might be ok with it. He seems to have decided to take his chances with the unrelated members of the Mollie pack.
Wolf 1272M, who often split his time between Junction and Rescue, has dispersed to the Mollies, too.
Wolf 1229F was trapped and killed in the hunt (5 of 6) in the Jardine area. She was a true individual; quite recognizable, a slender black with some gray areas – always on the move, often leading. She will be missed.
Current Junction Members
In January, 2023, the Park collared five Junction wolves. 1382F (Black, 6 years old, former alpha); 1383F GPS (black yearling), 1384F GPS (gray yearling), 1385F (black pup) and 1386F (black 3 year olf adult AKA New Mom)
Current pack members total 25; (13B, 12G) including 15 pups, (8B/7G)
Females: 9 adults (5B/4G) and approx. 4 female pups (2B/2G); 907F (9 yr old gray female with drooping belly); 1276F (4 yr old black female with graying areas. Often carries her tail high. Often leads); 1341F - GPS collar (2 yr old gray, very fussy and independent); 1382F (formerly the alpha female - black with some gray areas, white legs and feet); 1386F (formerly uncollared black adult – New Mom); Uncollared black females: Thermal girl (black with missing fur on right side belly); 1384F GPS (formerly skinny gray yearling); Uncollared gray yearling (formerly fluffy gray yearling); 1383F black yearling GPS; 1385F black pup; at least 3 other female pups (I think)
Males: 4 adults (2B/2G); Alpha male (large black with graying areas, slight limp, white lower legs); 1339M (large gray, darker than his brother; 1340M (large gray male, collar dropped, bulky); the rest are pups (I think).
The pack is too large and not seen close enough to know which/how many are male or female.
Interestingly to me, as winter study began, it became clear that the former alpha female (uncollared black 6-year-old) has lost her position. The Junction pack has a long history of fierce female competition for the alpha position, so it could also be just a continuation of this “drama”.
In my opinion, there were several incidents that may have contributed to this:
April 2022: the alpha female is injured somehow during a bison hunt. No visible scars or limps are obvious, but her behavior is notably subdued for many weeks.
May 2022: New Mother decided to move her pups from the north den which she shared with the alpha female to the south den shared by 907F and 1276F.
May 2022: the alpha female is not involved when three females, 907, 1276 and New Mother move fifteen young pups (six to eight weeks old) from the south den over Divide Ridge to the Jasper Bench den/rendezvous.
June 2022: 907F and the alpha female have a serious mouth to mouth fight when the alpha female catches 907 near the north den attempting to bring the last remaining Junction pup to the south.
The fight did not produce a clear winner at the time and both wolves continued to associate with the full pack in the days immediately following. However, regular/frequent viewing of the Pack was interupted by the flood on June 13 which prevented continued, frequent viewing of this pack's dynamics for several months.
As recently as October 29, the black alpha female was leading her pack as usual. But by November 17 (and likely earlier), it was clear she had lost her status.
Although Wolf Project personnel were able to collect some data while the roads were not open to visitors, extended regular viewing did not occur. As a result, less is known about the Northern Range packs than is usual. Once visitor observation resumed in October, it was still not clear, for example, which wolf was now the alpha female. Laurie contends that 907 and 1276 have a sort of “shared arrangement”. They are both seen pinning other females, including the former alpha female. The former alpha now often trails the pack and beds by herself, at a remove. It could be argued that we don't even know who the Alpha male considers his mate. We know very little about the surviving pups this year, how many are male or female, for example, or other distinguishing features.
And the upcoming breeding season may toss everything up in the air again.
LUPINE PACK and SHRIMP LAKE PACK
There are two newly-named (recently formed) packs on the northern range – The Lupine Pack, an
offshoot of 1232M and a black female (both Eight Mile wolves who were apparently not related closely
enough to stop them from breeding and producing 3 pups) and, my newest favorite, the Shrimp Lake pack,
with former Junction and long-time favorite 1228F (beautiful 4 yr old gray), her gray mate and two
pups born in 2022.