DAY THREE - Wednesday, April 7, 2010


I am out late this morning. It's 25 degrees at 7:30 as I drive up Gardiner Canyon. There are elk grazing both sides of the road near the campground.

I have bison in the road near Wraith Falls and I stop to let them decide where to go. I hook up with L & C at the Children's Fire Trail and we scope the area for Blacktails but find no sign of them.

The roads are clear except for the right lane at Phantom Lake, where four bison have found their sweet spot to sleep. Clearly, they are aware of the light traffic at this time of year and take full advantage. Luckily they are using only my lane so I creep slowly past in the left lane without disturbing them.

I meet up with Laurie & Dan at Elk Creek. They had a glimpse of the Agates from here about a half hour ago, but they are now out of sight. They are packing up to head to Boulder so I go there myself. As I make the turn at Tower a flock of bluebirds sweeps by.

I set up on Boulder hill with Jeff, Calvin and Lynette. Rick is at Curve. Everyone has their eyes peeled, because Agate signals are good and getting closer. Laurie and Dan decide to move down to Curve and as they do, three gray wolves appear on the left, and cross the road right in front of their car.

They are the two males, 641 and 586, both formerly Mollies wolves, and the famous Agate matriarch 472F. They move through the sage on the north side of the road, making for Junction Butte.

It's a nice, close sighting of these three. I find myself unconciously frowning at the sight of 641, feeling some remaining animosity. This is the wolf who deposed Big Blaze and probably killed him. I saw 641 for the first time about a year ago, sitting on a hill in Little America, and I remember how big and "tough" he looked then. Although I know he was only acting on a survival instinct, I guess I haven't forgiven him yet.

We speculate about why the Agates are here today. Laurie thinks they are looking for 715F who has been seen in this area on and off lately, sometimes in the company of a lone male called Narrow Blaze. Perhaps the males are trying to urge her to return?

We think they are going to climb up Junction Butte but instead they contour around the south-facing slope. So we move further west and pick them up again from the roadside pullout. They are travelling along the lower edge of the basalt section of the hill, where the shrubs & grass begins. This affords them some excellent cover.

They find an old cougar kill, perhaps a deer or a sheep, and stop here for a snack. 472 seems especially interested in it, which makes sense as she is pregnant. She picks up a set of ribs at one point and they look pretty small, perhaps from a yearling fawn or lamb. 586 finds more left-overs lower down under a small bush and settles down to gnaw. 641 seems restless and keeps looking to the west.

Eventually he goes back to join the others in some bone chewing.

After about a half hour, 586 gets up, followed shortly thereafter by 641 and they begin a slow progression to the west, sniffing all the way. This affords us all a pretty close and unobstructed view and Laurie helps me recognize the difference between the two males. 641's face is kind of "mean" looking while 586 is actually quite handsome.

They continue on their unhurried way and finally reach the edge of the slope, where they stop, sitting on their haunches, looking to the southwest. They remain silhouetted at the skyline with their backs to us for a bit, while 472 is still munching. Finally she seems to realize they are gone, because she gets up and begins to trot slowly after them.

We now move to Wrecker Grade and find them again, still sitting on the slope, facing west. They do not seem agitated at all, but more in an exploratory mood. We see elk above them and around the western slope of Junction Butte. The elk are aware of the wolves, but not nervous. The Agates do not seem at all interested in the elk.

Then suddenly Jeff notices a black wolf - right there! He moves down the hill opposite us, between the road and the Agates. Laurie confirms it is Narrow Blaze!

Oh man! What a dangerous route he is taking! Does he not know the Agates are barely a quarter mile away? They probably cannot see him at the moment, but they will soon!

We watch him move past us until he is nearly to the edge of the slope that leads down to Wrecker pullout. The Agates suddenly see him and they are off like a shot after him. 472 is a little late to the gate, but she begins to run, too.

It looks like this is exactly what the Agates expected to find, so I think Laurie's guess was right. I catch a last glimpse of Narrow Blaze heading for the river. The Agates look serious but they don't seem to be running full out. Laurie reminds me that this is not the first time Narrow Blaze has been in this predicament and he knows the territory well.

Calvin is at Wrecker and sees the Agates come over the hill. They turn and run down the trail towards the confluence of the Yellowstone and Lamar. By the time I get to Wrecker, the males are out of sight but 472 is still in view, trotting briskly down the trail.

We stay at Wrecker a long time, thinking the wolves will re-appear on one hill or another, because there is a lot of country visible from here. We eventually walk out on the western-facing slope of Junction Butte to get the widest possible view but we never find them. We see birds and elk and a mousing coyote, but no wolves.

The day has warmed up so we relax and pull out our lunch food. We chat and scope and enjoy the day, soaking up the welcome sun.

We are treated to the sight of a pair of bald eagles mating in air. It's amazing to watch their aerial skills. We also see a red tailed hawk, bighorn sheep, both males and females, as well as elk and bison. The coyote continues to entertain us, too, as he mouses with his tail high and wagging in excitement.

Around 2PM I head to Tower for a change of scenery. Glancing across Tower Flats I notice some elk. They are bunched and all looking in one direction. I look where they look but can't see what they see. Then one cow elk moves out from the herd, in a brave and aggressive manner. Her behavior and stance makes me sure it must be a wolf, but I just don't see anything there.

I begin to set up my scope and then hear a howl! Whoa! The howl comes from the same direction as the elk are looking.

The elk rushes forward very aggressively, as if to stomp on a threat. I get my radio and report the howl and the elk behavior, but do not see what the elk sees.

Just then I notice two hikers on a hill to the left of the elk. They are stopped, looking uphill and slightly toward the road. They seem to see whatever the elk see, too. l watch them move further up the hill, point, move further and then kneel down, as if looking at tracks in the snow.

I see Rick pull over at the Ranger Station driveway so I head over there. By the time I arrive, Laurie & Dan are here and as we compare notes, Laurie tells me 586 ran across the road in front of them as they were coming down the hill. She is about to tell me which way he went when another mournful howl sounds. It comes from the hills above the Ranger station, so I know exactly where the wolf went!

I look up there, but his gray coat allows him to blend in. I understand now that 586 is what the elk were watching and the hikers, too. He howls again, this time more muffled than before so I suspect he has reached the trees.

We wait a bit, expecting the other two Agates to come across the flats but they don't show up. Since we never heard any answering howls, we wonder if they are not nearby? Rick checks signals and finds them more to the east. We drive to Curve, figuring they may to their territory the way they came. But after a half hour of steady looking, we give up.

Then we hear that some visitors hiking down from the Tower store saw two wolves cross in front of them: one white and one gray.

Dan and Laurie call it a day but I hang out in Little America a bit longer, enjoying the views and the sun. Evenually head back west and stop at Hellroaring to scope around. I find hundreds of elk and bison and enjoy watching the subtle and not so subtle dynamics in the herds. And then suddenly another animal walks right into my scope frame - a nice big grizzly!

I follow his movements as he ambles down the hill, following a course just west of the Little Buffalo drainage. He scents the air and sniffs the ground. He makes the elk skittish and they move quickly away from him.

I call in the sighting but at this time of day, the only person in the neighborhood is Jeff. Happily he arrives in time to see the big bear. We have the pullout to ourselves. The bear begins to head for a gully at a slightly quickened pace. He disappears behind the low ridge and never comes back out. We figure he must have found something tasty in there.

We see elk looking warily in his direction so we are pretty sure he is still in there but we can't see what he is doing.

Once the bear is out of sight I realize how chilly I am. Even though the day has warmed to nearly 50, little of that warmth can penetrate the thick trees that shade this spot.

Nevertheless, I stay here until 5PM, hoping the bear will re-emerge, but he doesn't. I content myself with a soaring golden eagle and then begin to count elk - there are well over 500. I finally concede to the cold and head to Mammoth.

Just past Undine I see an ambulance and two ranger vehicles. A visitor's car has gone over the edge. I see a tourist with a dazed expression getting into one of the Ranger cars. This person seems shaken but not injured and I hope no one got hurt. A little further down I see two bison in the road, ambling downhill. I can't help but wonder if they were somehow involved in the visitor's accident?

At the Mammoth campground I stop at the big pullout and walk out to look at the Canyon's carcass from yesterday. Something has pulled all the bones out of the river and onto the far bank for better eating. Two coyotes are now nibbling at it, but I doubt they were the ones to bring it up on the bank.

I continue down Gardiner Canyon and stop just inside the Arch. I see elk, pronghorn, mountain bluebirds and a red-winged blackbird. I notice a group of five spike bull elk in the area and wonder if they are the same animals I watched on the last day of my Christmas trip. They seem to be in high spirits, play-fighting with each other and roughing up the sage-bushes. One spike seems to take things too far, and deliberately harasses a few pronghorn, whose offense seems to be wanting to graze in the same area.

Although there is no contact made, the elk keeps up the pressure on the pronghorn until they take the hint and trot further away.

Perhaps these pronghorn did something to deserve such treatment but it looks to me like the young elk was just being a bully. There is always something going on in the world of wildlife!

Today I saw: 1 grizzly bear, bison, mountain bluebirds, a red-winged blackbird, coyotes, two courting bald eagles, a golden eagle, elk, a red-tailed hawk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, 4 wolves (3 Agates - 472, 586 and 641; plus loner Narrow Blaze) and the spirit of Allison

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