DAY FIVE - Tuesday, December 29


We begin the day with a slow drive Mammoth, hoping for a glimpse of the Canyon wolves but they elude us.

We stop at Elk Creek and suddenly Calvin finds wolves! Three blacks and one gray, then another collared gray come bounding out from behind some trees into the open flats below us. Blacktails! They entertain us for about 15 minutes - all but the collared gray are pups - well, nearly yearlings by now.

They romp and chase each other in the flats. Then we hear howling and soon see more wolves, appearing over the lip of the hill - I recognize Big Brown, Medium Gray and all the two black females. We have a full count!

They begin to move into the rocky hills to the west and a few minutes later a herd of elk comes running into view along the next ridge top. Wolves are running behind them. The elk split into two groups - one goes downhill out of sight and the other continues up a low slope to the east. Then I notice at least three individual wolves sitting on the lip of the hill. They seem to be watching.

Hey! Maybe they are not hungry but they sure are not helping! Must be pups I say to myself. Nevertheless, the group of elk still in sight is taking it seriously. They remain tightly bunched, ready to bolt if wolf attention falls on them.

The sitting pups do seem to be watching something so we wonder if a kill was already made, but we don't see any bird activity. And soon several more wolves appear and the pups stand up to welcome them. There is a rally of sorts, rather disorganized, but when they head nonchalantly back to the hills we are pretty sure the elk are safe.

We lose them over the next ridge and once they are out of sight we are reminded of the temperature. It's minus 2! Well, at least that's better than yesterday!

We pack up our scopes and move further east. We stop at Boulder and climb up the little hill to catch a glimpse of two more wolves - the two females of the Lava Creek Group. They sleep on top of Junction Butte. Someone mentions that they have an elk carcass in the flats just below the Butte, and it is very close to the road, so they were quickly scared away from it by cars that passed and stopped.

We scan for other wolves but don't find them. We do, however, find the very large herd of bighorn sheep up on Specimen Ridge that we have been seeing the last few days.

Then we hear a report of a large collared gray wolf seen in Lamar so we figure it's one of the Wyoming wolves. We decide to head there. Somewhere along the way I lose Chloe and Becky but Kathie and I stop at Footbridge while a few other folk stop at Hitching Post. As soon as I get out I hear howling to the south AND behind us to the north.

I set up Layla and keep my radio close. The howling intensifies from both directions. The southern voices are hard to pin down, but the northern howls are coming from a spot that I judge to be just north of Hitching Post. I am about to head there, when suddenly Kathie points to Mt. Norris. Wolves!

On the sloping shoulder of Mt. Norris, right on skyline I see wolf shapes. As best I can tell in this light, I see three blacks and one gray. I can see their muzzles raised as they howl so there is no doubt these are the wovles we have been hearing.

One of the blacks seems very large. All of them look intently downslope and I assume they are seeing another wolf down there. But then Kathie notices a group of cross-country skiers heading out along the Cache Creek/Lamar trail. Aha! That is what they are looking at!

We assume these are Mollies, because we know they were on Specimen yesterday and because of their numbers (people at Hitching Post have counted at least seven). But we don't know if the voices from the north are Mollies who became separated, or other wolves.

The Mollies go out of sight so we all move to Hitching Post. I set up on one of the low hills and look back to the north, generally in the 21's Crossing area. The howling continues nearly non-stop for the next hour. One voice is very low and quite throaty and hoarse.

I finally find the two howlers, and immediately recognize the two black Wyoming wolves we saw yesterday from the Institute. It's the large collared black, 682, and the smaller uncollared black. That leaves the dark-gray alpha 697, unaccounted for.

These two are bedded on a forested, snow covered slope just above the ledge trail. The hoarse voice belongs to 682. He apparently has a LOT to say this morning. Several tour groups and many individuals get out of their cars and climb out on the hills to see these wolves and we happily share our scopes.

The smaller black finally stops howling. He does another long and luxurious stretch, then curls up to sleep. Chloe and Becky join us and we watch them a bit longer. But now it looks like these two are going to rest for a while so we head off to our next adventure.

We drive up to Round Prairie to see if we can see the otters. While we were at Hitching Post, many visitors told us they had seen otters right along the road in the Soda Butte Creek so we want to see them, too!

We find many otter tracks on the shore and on the ice islands in the stream and we hear more stories about what a wonderful sighting they had this morning, but it seems that the otters have moved on. We wonder if these are the same animals that we've seen up at Trout Lake, and wonder if anyone has ever seen an otter cross the road?

Eventually we head back east and run into Rick at Trash Can. He is looking south, trying to find the Mollie's. He has their signals but as of yet, no visuals. We all set up to help. Then J & P stop by (a couple from Massachusettes I met last April) stop by and tell Rick of a wolf sighting they had while snow-shoeing out the Slough Campground road. They suspect there might be a carcass in the flats to the east, although they did not see one themselves.

So Kathie, Marlene and I decide to go there, while Chloe and Becky stay with Rick. They had misses the Mollies and are hoping for their own four-pack day. The three of us stop at Slough and head out to Bob's Knob. Kara joins us, too.

Despite the cold, this is a lovely spot, one of my favorites, no matter what season. We see several bison herds and a golden eagle perched in a tree.

We watch a nice little coyote drama on the frozen river. Three of them are travelling together and seem to want to cross the river, but do not agree on a crossing point. Coyote #1 is the boldest; he begins to cross the snow-covered ice at a fast walk until about 2/3 of the way he stops short. He has clearly sensed something - a crack? Perhaps a "give" in the ice? Anyway he turns and heads back to the bank, then trots further upstream. Meanwhile, Coyote #2 has found his crossing spot, further east. He employes a very careful "splayed-toes" walk and makes it across. Coyote #3 sticks to the bank, climbing up, down and around the irregular surface of the bank. Coyote #1 attempts a second crossing further upstream of where Coyote #2 did, and zips across easily. The sight of his two companions safely on the other side is enough to embolden Coyote #3 and he quickly bolts across as if to say "don't leave me behind!"

All the while we are scanning the landscape around us, searching for signs of a carcass, which is to say, looking for black birds. Kara wins the spotting contest and suggests we look further to the west. In a curve of the river, below the bank she consistently sees birds coming and going, and now I see two more coyotes heading there from the east.

We don't see any wolves, but it's hard to tell how deep the gully is from our angle. It could be a wolf kill or perhaps a bison fell through the ice? We can't really tell. So all we can do is continue to watch in hopes that some animal will come in and tell us more of the story. When the coyotes arrive, they disappear into the gully so we are pretty sure no wolves are out there at this moment.

Then one of the bison herds begins to approach the gully and we are sure something dead is down there. The yotees move out quickly and the bison parade through, taking their time to sniff whatever it is.

A second bison herd is also on the move, this one coming up from the river's edge toward the Campground Road. There is a single orange plastic cone at the edge of the road, marking an icy spot. As the bison parade past it, each one stops and takes a turn to sniff the odd object. Some of them lick it. One accidentally knocks it down. This makes the bison even MORE curious. I have seen them do this when they come upon bones, but surely they do not mistake this plastic cone for a distant relative?

But the day is getting late so we head back to the cars. As we near the lot we see Becky & Chloe pull in. They found the Mollies! Yay!

We stop at Boulder to check on the Lava Creeks who we last saw on Junction Butte, but don't find them where we left them. So we head further west and stop at the large lot by the Swan Pond. Aha! There they are!

They are still up top, but have moved further around to the west. We see both grays, well at least their heads, looking out over the edge, the 06 female and 471. The 06 begins to howl. She always has a lot to say and is probably complaining about us being nearby. We remember about their carcass and decide to leave them in peace so they can eat a nice meal.

We head to Gardiner and have a great "breakfast any time" meal at the Town Cafe.

Today I saw: bison, 5 coyotes, a bald eagle, a golden eagle, bighorn sheep, 17 wolves in 4 packs (9 Blacktails, 2 Lava Creeks, 4 Mollies, 2 Wyoming wolves and the spirit of Allison

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