The cold has returned Ė itís minus 17 this morning! Brrr!
I join the crowd at Hellroaring at 7:30. The Junctions are still in this area but luckily have moved to a more-easily-viewed spot, at the bottom of Tornado Drainage. I set up downslope of the tall people and have a good view.
The lot is jammed full today, with numerous guide vans. Laurie & Dan decide to go west first to see if Rescues are still in view.
I see 12 wolves, milling around, harassing 5 bull bison. I see wolves do this all the time but instead of testing them and moving on, these 12 wolves continue this back-and-forth behavior with no sign of tiring. I find this perplexing because these are all healthy-looking bulls.
I decide it must be pups, being curious and showing off. One black pup play-bows a lot. The bison charge the wolves and the wolves dash out of range, then they come back and get charged again. A couple of times a bull will chase a single wolf round and round, before letting it go.
I ask Dylan if this is just pups and he says itís a mix. He adds that several wolves have moved uphill to the east and are bedded on the basalt cliff. I didnít know that, so I scan the cliff and see three blacks bedded up there. They are each facing downslope, as if watching the show with interest.
I swing my scope back to the bottom of the drainage. The situation is unchanged Ė 12 wolves continue to harass 5 bull bison. Something doesnít make sense to me. Why are the wolves so invested? Why are they not giving up and moving east? This has been going on for too long a time for it to be bored pups looking for excitement.
Then, like a light going on in my coffee-less brain, I suddenly see that ONE of these bison is NOT like the others.
One bison bull stands oddly, his back end hunched, lots of hesitancy in his movement. When he lunges towards a wolf, his lunge is an empty threat, almost robotic. The wolf evades the lunge but comes right back to try again.
Finally, I get it. The wolves donít want the other 4 bulls. They want THIS bull.
Something has happened to him, heís sick or injured. Or maybe he has been slowly worn down by fighting these wolves for who knows how long? The other four bulls are hanging around their buddy, trying to help, as bull bison often do.
This bison is thin, unlike his robust companions. The number of wolves around the bison changes, sometimes more, sometimes less, but the play-bowing black pup is right in the thick of it. I count as many as 15, darting in, dashing back, interacting excitedly with each other.
Some of the wolves seem to huddle off to the side as if discussing strategy. Then a gray darts in and grabs the bisonís back leg. The black pup grabs the bisonís nose! The other bison quickly rush to his aid, forcing the wolves to back off. One wolf gets chased further than usual.
Soon after, the gray returns for another go at the bisonís legs but the bull kicks out. The bull seeks to get closer to two of his buddies but several wolves close in quickly. Both back legs are seized, and they yank him down.
Suddenly a mass of wolves converges on the fallen bison. Some actually jump on top of him. There are so many wolves you cannot see the bison at all! But two healthy bison charge in again, and the wolf-pile scatters.
The sick bison is still alive. He manages to sit on his side, keeping his head up, but it looks like heís now in a very bad way. One back leg sticks out at an odd angle.
I wonder how long the other bison will be able to keep the wolves at bay? And I wonder again just how long this dance has been going on. Iím thinking now it may have been going on all night.
There are suddenly many more wolves at the bottom of the drainage. I count 20. They must have come down from above when the bison was down. There are none up by the basalt cliff anymore.
While the sick bison is protected by the healthy bulls the wolves mill around, looking for something to do. Twice the sick bison tries to stand. He canít. His buddies stay near him, but they are only prolonging his agony.
The wolves try to amuse themselves, waiting for the dinner bell. A few pups romp downhill to an icy spot, chasing and roughhousing. Oh, they have endless energy! Others seem interested in a fallen log bridging another icy spot. Some start to dig in this spot a while, passing the time.
Others wander uphill to bed again, each facing downhill to keep watch.
About 15 minutes later, though, the last two healthy bison seem to tire of the job and walk slowly west. Maybe they know something, but it seems heartless on their part. 907 charges down and the wolves swarm the body. At least now his misery is over.
I have never seen wolves take an adult bison before. I have seen them test and harass countless bison; Iíve seen them feed on bison already dead and scavenge on winter kills, and I have heard of such kills witnessed by others. But this is my first.
For the next two hours we watch them feed. Someone suggests that the healthy bison left because they knew the guy had died. Could be.
I move to Lower Hellroaring because you can see the carcass just as well from there, and itís a pullout thatís flat, not icy underfoot and in the sun.
Itís a bit further away but still a good view. And itís great for sharing scopes with first timers. As the wolves move off and others take their place, I see a dark red stain on the snow below the bisonís body.
I recognize 907F as she leaves the area. She moves very slowly but stops to wash her face in the snow before bedding down.
Several pups leave the carcass carrying pieces of meat. Twice I see a pup toss its piece in the air, then jump on it once it lands. The third pup to do this suddenly hops backwards on all four feet. I think maybe there was a bone that hit his paw and scared him.
1276 walks away with a big chunk and sits down on a slight knoll to gnaw on it. Another gray walks off and stops to rub blood off its cheeks.
There are many birds in the area, including two bald eagles perched in a tree.
Around 1PM I take a break to warm up. I drive all the way to the Confluence, hoping to find otters. I get lucky and see them in a narrow channel south of Confluence. Itís a brief sighting of the mom and two pups. Later they reappear further west, porpoise diving, popping up and down. Then they hop onto the ice for a bit, sniffing here and there, then dive back into the water, smooth as silk.
I go back and spend another hour or so watching the wolves. The day has risen to 3 above zero. Most of the wolves have left to bed down and digest their heavy meal, but there are still six actively feeding; 3 blacks and 3 grays.
Plenty of dark red meat is still visible. One wolf turns to chase birds.
Just before 3PM, the sun dips behind the hill and boy, does it get cold fast! It also looks like more snow is coming our way from the west. When I look higher, I see that fog already shrouds the high peaks to the north.
I leave a little after 3PM after a very satisfying day.
On my way back I see two moose at Warm Creek.
Today I saw: bison, coyotes, 2 bald eagles, elk, 2 moose, 3 otters, 20 Junction wolves
including 907, former alpha female, 1229, 1276 and the spirits of Allison, Richard and Jeff.