I’m up at 4:30, feeling overdue for a good long wolf sighting. So, I head off to Lamar with high expectations.
The empty roads make me feel like I have the Park to myself, but there isn’t a lot to see in the way of animal life until I get to Tower. Just to the left of the Ranger Station I see a black bear ambling about in the sage. It looks like he is aiming to cross the road. I pull in at the gas station and watch him through my binocs. This could have been a great close-up bear shot if only I had a working camera! Ah well. He crosses the empty road and heads along the base of Jeff’s Hill. I watch until I can’t see him any more.
I drive through Little America where I see a group of bison and a few pronghorn. And then up I go into Lamar Canyon. I laugh as my predictable daydream plays in my head: THIS TIME I’ll see a mountain lion, or maybe only its tail as it leaps for cover behind a huge rock. I bet I am not the only one who has such a fantasy along this road!
Then into the Lamar I sail, so happy to see it again. I note the raggedy osprey tree but see no osprey, and I think about stopping at Dorothy’s to scope but decide what I need this morning is someone with a radio to give me the inside scoop. So I head further east, looking for wolfers.
I find them at Hitching Post so I pull in there. The air is chilly this morning and I’m glad I have my hat and gloves. The furthest hillock looks too crowded so I opt for a closer. I say good morning to the three spotters here and set up. I aim for the r-v area, hoping to find the wolves I think these people are looking at. But I find black bears, three of them, one slightly bigger than the other two. I figure it’s a sow and two yearling cubs. Well, that’s nice. My trip continues to be good for bear sightings!
The bear family prowls the tree line east of the double foothill. I see the sow look up and then hustle uphill into the trees, followed by her cubs. I swing the scope left, thinking she may be reacting to a wolf and…I find another black bear! Is this another cub? No, it’s too big. This bear looks in the direction of the family but then he turns south and moves off. I catch one last glimpse of the sow and cubs before I lose them in thick timber.
I scan to the east, looking for wolves but part of the area is obscured by the tops of the trees growing in the confluence. I notice that one of these trees is covered with large dead leaves. Wait a minute! Those leaves are birds! Then it hits me. A whole bunch of birds in the same tree, and a whole lotta people looking that direction? Aha! Something is dead. A kill?
I follow the tree trunk down to a grassy spot, and in between the bushes and willows growing there, are wolves. Druid wolves. I count three: two blacks and a grey. Oh! And there’s another grey! They are tugging on something, yep, they have a kill! Every once in a while I see one of them dodge away. Oh, there is another black wolf, wow, really big and oddly shaped… WAIT A MINUTE! That’s not a wolf! That’s a bear!
Whoa! A bear sharing a kill with four wolves? Well, no. Sharing is definitely NOT the word for what I’m seeing. The bear is feeding and the wolves are trying to snatch bites for themselves. Several times I see the bear suddenly charge a wolf and the wolf dashes, tail-tucked out of the way. The bear does this a half-dozen times, sometimes it’s just a lunge or a swipe of its paw, other times he actually takes three or four strides. But every time the wolf escapes unharmed.
I start to wonder that the wolves don’t band together and force the bear away. I have seen wolves team up against a black bear. I would think they would prefer to get rid of him and eat in peace. But it doesn’t happen. I start to wonder if this has anything to do with 21’s absence.
After a while the wolves move away and bed down. One wolf begins to howl, followed quickly by the others. Ahh me, my first howling! How I love it. Then, to my endless delight, I hear answering howls from behind. That’s coming from the den! I hear several high-pitched voices, which I know are the pups! I may not see them this trip but I can say I heard them! After the howling is finished, I figure it’s time to introduce myself to my comrades on this hill. I meet Craig and Janine, and Nancy from Red Lodge. I learn from them that I am looking at a bison carcass, but that it wasn’t killed by either the wolves or the bear. It died sometime Sunday night or Monday AM and this black bear found it first and has been fending off a steady stream of Druid wolves ever since!
The wolves gather on a mound a few yards away with a bare mud spot at the top. They are easier to see here and I note that one of the blacks is collared and the dark grey is, too. I also notice that the other, lighter colored grey, has a very bad leg injury. It’s her front leg and it is painful to see. But then these wolves show us their lighter side as they begin to play. The two blacks and the dark grey chase each other around a tree and then seem to begin a wolf-version of King of the Hill. They look very pup-like; the black one lowers his head and spreads his front legs in a classic doggy-wanna-play stance. They jump on each other and rough-house. It is very charming to see.
Following this bit of play they bed down so I go back to watching the bear. Then I hear someone say “grey wolf”. And suddenly I see a collared grey wolf moving in the low area in front of me. This wolf has just come down from the den area and crossed the road! I can’t believe I missed that! The new grey wolf works its way past willows and sage. It crosses a braid of the river and shakes off. I watch it climb a low bank and head for the grassy area where the carcass is. Now it is this wolf’s turn to harass the bear. I watch this newest version of bear/wolf interaction and find it endlessly fascinating.
After a while this grey moves off and beds near the others. The bear looks thankful for a chance to feed in peace and tugs off big chunks. Then he, too, takes a break and rests his head right on top of the carcass!. With this lull in the action I scope around the other areas to see what I can find. There are pronghorn walking along the bank above the river. A coyote appears in the low brush area closest to the river. He seems to be thinking about going towards the carcass. But then he thinks better of it and skirts around out of sight to the east.
The sun is warm and plays beautifully on the green flats and the flanks of the mountains. I no longer need my hat or my coat. I look at my watch and remember I need to get back to Mammoth before check out time. Hopefully my camera charger will have done its job on my batteries by now. So I thank Nancy and Craig and Janine for their help and company and head west.
At Elk Creek I see a jam and wrongly assume it's for the same black bear I saw this morning. The crowd is bigger and a Ranger is here, but I foolishly keep going. I find out later that it was a sow and two cubs!
Back at Mammoth I collect the stuff I left in my cabin, but alas, even after 10 hours my batteries are NOT re-charged. Oh well. I have some lunch and then head back east again. I pull in to the Frog Rock hoping for a Leopold sighting. I watch two hawks riding thermals and have a little more lunch. Then I get the mid-morning drowsies so I lower my seat and close my eyes. When I wake up about an hour later I hear a most unexpected sound. Jets.
In the northwest sky I see a pair of grey military planes. They streak over the Blacktail Plateau in close formation and I see their oddly shaped tails - bent back like a shelf. They zoom overhead and then veer off one north, the other south. Why the heck are military planes flying over Yellowstone?
I head back to Lamar and run into Tonya. We have a nice visit. I tell her how nice Allison’s Memorial was and how so many Loons came and how soothing it was to be in such company. We also talk about 21 and 42 and how we miss them. I tell Tonya I don’t know how to recognize 286F or 376F and she says she hardly knows them either! Then Beej joins us and we yak some more, and I pass around the Milano cookies I bought. Beej tells us about her Trout Lake drawing class which sounds really cool.
After this lovely visit I go up to Baronette to see if I can find any goats. I find a stormy weather instead. No sooner have I set up but the wind turns fierce and rain comes pelting down. I hop back in the car intending to wait it out. But then hail comes smashing into my windshield. Then gropple, snow, then all three at once. There are strong and sudden bursts of wind and Baronette is repeatedly crowned with stark lightning. I can’t help but wonder what the goats do during such a storm?
I decide to head for lower ground. As I pass the Trout Lake pullout and come back into the valley I am enchanted by what I see. The hills on both sides are an exquisite shade of green and something about the stormy afternoon sky makes them seem to glow! I just can’t get over how much I love looking at this place!
The rain is intermittent all the way to Roosevelt. When I check in I am assigned a great cabin way in the back. The view out my door is little Lost Creek and I can hear it gurgling away. I will be staying here for four nights so I take some time to arrange things in my room just the way I want it. I plug in the charger once more and hope for the best. Then I head to the Lodge. Jake and Leslie and Brian are meeting me here for dinner once their Mt. Everts Hike is finished. I think I’ll sit on the porch and write while I wait for them. I go inside to buy a coffee and before I have a sip I see their red car pulling in!
It’s always great to hang out with Leslie and Jake and I'm slowly getting to know Brian. We have a nice dinner with a much better waitress (LOL). Jake has forgotten what Roosevelt beans are so we take this opportunity to enlighten him. They tell me about their hike (which they did in record time, natch) and about the Bighorn sheep that walked right by them. I tell them I can pretty much guarantee a wolf sighting tonight due to the presence of the bison carcass. I have a pretty good reputation with Jake and Leslie for finding wolves and I wouldn’t want to disappoint them!
Leslie rides with me but she and Jake talk back and forth via their radios; we have a comical time. I tell them about what I call the Dead Zone: an area in Little America where I have never seen a single animal (to the best of my recollection) in any season. I figure once I say it, Jake will find something there to disprove me. Jake proposes we each pick an animal we think we’ll see first. I pick bison and guess what? I win!
Since we’re so early we get a good spot at Confluence East and prepare for the hike up. Jake seems impressed with my choice of lookouts when he sees both Rick and Bob are here. Up the hill we trudge and I find it almost too steep, with a scope on my shoulder! But we make it up and the view is great. You can see the whole confluence area from here as well as the r-v to the right and the den hills to the left.
We say hi to the only two people up here, a young couple assisting Rick.
It takes a while for me to find the carcass because the angle from up here is so different from this morning. Finally remember to look for the birds. Once I find them, the rest is easy. The black bear is atop the carcass, asleep! He must be so full he can’t even move. Besides the birds in the trees there are many more flitting around on the ground, grabbing morsels here and there. I see no wolves.
We look for them in the r-v. In no time both Jake and Leslie find them. At first I see only two, just ears and heads, since they are both bedded in a kind of bare spot in front of the eastern foothill. One is black and one is grey. Some bison move into this area and the bedded wolves stand. Then a third wolf comes into view, another black, smaller than the first one. This wolf moves toward the bison and for a while it looks like he might be interested in the calves. Several adult bison apparently think so. I see a few raised tails and some high-alert behavior from them. But the wolves are just trying to regroup and move past the herd.
Eventually they manage to avoid the herd and the three wolves come together in a bouncy greeting. The large black wolf with the heavily shedding coat is none other than 302M, the Leopold-interloper and Druid-wannabe who is so good at romancing Druid females. He is the possible father of the two pups weaned out here in the r-v and perhaps the father of other pups born this year and last. I am very pleased to be seeing him again; I have learned a great deal about this fascinating individual from Doug.
The dark grey wolf is 286F, the current alpha female of the Druids. Judging from the attention she gives 302M, it seems he has won her over, too! I want to try to get to know her since she will no doubt figure prominently in the lives of the Druids for the next few years. The third wolf is a non-Druid, the same wolf I found Sunday morning. His pack origin is unknown but the most likely bet is Leopold. He is currently dubbed “302’s buddy“. He’s all black and smallish, probably young and seems a little “cocky”. As the greeting subsides, he apparently does something that offends 286, because she snaps sharply at him, and then charges him, chasing him for about 30 feet, chastising him rather severely. Then she trots jauntily back to 302M, whose tail is flying very high. They stand close together, brushing shoulders and flanks and showing wolf-style affection.
Jake announces he sees a black bear roaming in some trees west of the foothills. So we watch the bear and the three wolves a while. Bob Landis sets up his heavy film camera a few feet away from me and we chat a bit. He asks about Doug and the book and I give him the latest. I ask if he will be finishing a third film about the Druids, implying that there is now an “end” to that story. He gets what I mean and he confirms that he has the footage for a third film. However, National Geographic has been cutting both programs and funding and he is concerned they may not actually see it through to broadcast. That would be a terrible shame. The story of the Druids is as dramatically compelling as they come, and Bob's cinematography is exquisite.
He asks about the hike to Fairyland and I point to Jake and Leslie telling him they’ve been there four times! And then we are interrupted by a radio crackle with a report of a possible pup sighting from the den area. We hustle back to our scopes and aim that direction. Bob catches some movement but it turns out to be a coyote. A rather brash coyote, I think to myself, hanging out so close to Druid Central!
When I look back to the r-v I see the lame grey hobbling down from the foothill into the sage to greet her friends. As painful as it is to watch her struggle, it is heartening to see the other wolves’ affection for her. Then they start to howl. Oh yeah! Howling! We all expect a response from the den, but we don‘t hear it.
The howling session is short and sweet and then these four are off. They head over the sage straight for the carcass at a purposeful trot, 286F in the lead. As I watch her move, tail high and nose to the ground, I can’t help but be reminded of 42F. They are similar in shape and manner although not coloring. 302M trots with his tail high, and he seems to have grown deeper-chested than I remember, but to me, those are his only similarities to 21M.
I check on the black bear. It is up feeding again and seemingly oblivious to the approaching wolves. I wonder what kind of wolf-bear altercation we are in for tonight? Will 302 and 286 team up to run the bear off? The carcass is in a sunken grassy area below a bench of sage. When wolves reach this bench they separate and spread out, then stop and sit on their haunches so only their ears and eyes are visible. To me, this pause looks like they are strategizing before they launch their attack. The bear still doesn‘t see them. And then 302 makes his move! But not at the bear. He gets up and trots over to 286. She responds and the two of them have a charming bonding moment together on the hilltop. So much for the surprise attack. The bear, of course, is now aware of them and stands at the alert. I laugh to myself because it sure looks like 302 is a lover, not a fighter!
Now 302 saunters down to the carcass, followed by the others. The four wolves surround the bear and begin their harassment. They fake and lunge, they retreat and dodge. The black bear is thus kept in a hunched defensive posture most of the time, broken only when he attempts a lunge or a swipe. Although I can’t hear him at this distance, I bet he is making some ferocious sounds! When a wolf succeeds in drawing the bear’s attention, the wolf on the opposite side darts in and grabs a bite. As long as they keep taking turns this way, everyone gets enough bites to make a meal. The lame grey participates fully in this strategy, and takes just as many chances as the others.
This show would have been more than enough to satisfy me as a good night of wolf watching. But it’s about to get even better. Jake spots a grizzly bear, way out in the alluvial fan. As we watch, the grizzly raises his nose, sniffing the wind. And I bet that dead bison smells sweet. Well, at least to him! The grizzly heads straight for the carcass and we rub our hands with glee in anticipation of a show-down. The big bear frequently pauses to sniff, and gives us a real thrill when he stands upright.
302 takes a break and moves off to the mud spot to bed there. The other three wolves continue to prod the bear for mouthfuls. Our hill is suddenly invaded by a large group of teenagers who arrive with a few scopes and many binoculars. I think I recognize some of them from when I checked in at Roosevelt. They seem aware of what's going on out there but we offer to help just in case. And now the grizzly starts to gallop. WHOA! What a sight! His bulk ripples as he runs; he is graceful and powerful and, we assume, hungry.
The anticipation builds. None of the animals near the carcass are yet aware that he is coming in. 302 is bedded on the mud spot, oblivious. The black bear is oblivious, and the three wolves nagging at him are oblivious. The grizzly reaches the sage bench and pauses, just as the wolves did. One more sniff and then the grizzly roars down the bank. 302 looks up: “Wha?”. The black bear bolts east. Wolves scatter every which way. The grizzly reaches the kill and stands on it, looking mean as hell, reminding me of the roaring T-Rex at the end of Jurassic Park. This bear is fully 3 times the size of the black bear!
The wolves get over their surprise faster than any of us expected and surround the grizzly as they did the black bear. The grizzly makes some scary moves towards the wolves but they dash away each time. The wolves are far more aggressive with the grizzly; it now looks like they were only toying with the black bear. Again, the lame grey is just as tough as the rest of them.
I gasp as the grizzly suddnly charges at 286! But she deftly avoids him and I breathe a sigh of relief. Whoa, that was a viscious move! Then the grizzly grabs the carcass in its jaws and drags it backwards, flipping it over. Two limp hind legs flop crazily, a gruesome reminder that this was once an entire live bison. The grizzly hauls it back a few feet from where it had been. It is simply awesome to see the jaw strength of this animal, and this move earns the bear a big reaction from the crowd on the hill. And then the grizzled monster looks up. At us.
In fact, he looks right at me and my scope on the hill.
For a split second I feel totally alone and vulnerable, and imagine this bear charging across the river bottom, over the road and straight up the hill for me. Then he lowers his head and chomps down on a mouthful of bison-burger.
He takes a few more bites but then he suddenly appears extremely nervous. He repeatedly stops feeding to raise his head and look smack at us. It wouldn’t surprise me if he heard the whoops and delighted laughter from our crowd on the hill. There's kind of a Friday night feel up here - a large group of young people, vibrant and boisterous as they tend to be.
The bear has gulped barely a half-dozen mouthfuls when he stands straight up and then wheels and gallops up on the sage bench. He stops and looks back at us again, as though he is afraid. Huh? The wolves dash instantly back to the carcass. The black bear peeks out from behind his tree, sensing an opening. The grizzly seems to be second-guessing himself. Have we spooked him? Or has something happened on the road below where we can’t see? Is someone hiking out to get a picture? We can’t tell. The wind is behind us, the same wind that brought the dead bison smell to him. There is no question he can smell us, and the road and whatever is on it down there, out of our view. Perhaps this bear has never been this close to people?
However, the bear CAN see wolves feeding on HIS dead bison. That can’t be a pleasant sight to a grizzly. He charges back down the slope to reclaim it. Again the wolves scatter. The grizzly resumes feeding but can’t seem to shake his nervousness. The wolves are already creeping back but he ignores them to sniff the air, stretching his head up, looking toward the road and half-standing several times. Then he stands straight up. Wow, that is so cool to see! Whatever he smells or sees this time makes up his mind. He wheels again and gallops back up the sage slope. And this time he keeps galloping, running steadily for at least a quarter mile, maybe twice that, without a backward glance, then finally slows to a walk. He’s outta here.
I am truly surprised to have seen this, and I think everybody on the hill feels that way, except perhaps Rick and Bob. I would have thought a big ole grizzly like this fella would stay as long as he wanted. Maybe he wasn’t that hungry. I keep thinking that if I ever meet a grizzly in the backcountry, I hope it’s this one. I like a grizzly to be afraid of humans!
The wolves take full advantage of the change in fortune and grabbing big mouthfuls. I am particularly pleased when I see the lame grey tug off a large chunk for herself. She flops down a few yards away to devour it. But the feisty black bear is not finished. Very quickly he climbs atop the carcass again, posturing and swiping, making the wolves work for every bite. So we’re back where we started. I see the grizzly way out there, relaxed again, prowling the sage.
I scope around for other critters and find two cranes in the riverbed, doing their prim thing. I find sheep on the far slopes of Norris, on the same hill where once long ago, before I had Layla, Oldtymer let me see them through his scope. And I find elk in the high meadows as usual.
The light is beginning to fade and some people start to pack up. Then Jake spots a beaver in a little channel of the Lamar. I see what looks like the lodge, and then I see him, quite a large one, swimming toward…what else? The new dam he is building! This is my first beaver sighting in YNP and I enjoy watching him a while as he adds new branches to the dam.
I keep scanning the den area in hopes of seeing pups or other wolves but they don’t show. The four wolves at the carcass have all bedded for the time being, giving the feisty black bear a chance to relax and have his own dinner. We notice a large bird in one of the trees that we think is a young golden eagle, perched cool and patient amid the fussy ravens, crows and magpies.
Eventually Leslie wisely suggests we head downhill before it gets much darker. So we do.
As we drive west, the weather that has been threatening all day shows up in the distance as some amazing lightning. I wave goodbye to my young friends as they head on to Mammoth. And now I’m back in my comfy cabin at Roosevelt. I stay up for a while, writing about this amazing day. I think of Allison and how I would have loved to share this day with her, and then I realize…I just did!
Today I saw: antelope, 7 black bears (including 2 yearling cubs), a grizzly bear, a beaver, bison, 3 coyotes, 2 sand hill cranes, ducks, a golden eagle, elk, big-horn sheep, ground squirrels, 7 wolves (including Druid wolves 286F (twice), 376F, the lame grey female (twice), as well 302M and his buddy), and 3 Loons.