This morning I find Lexi covered with 3 inches of snow!
On the way up Gardiner Canyon I follow two sets of tracks but when I make the turn to the east only one remains. I figure that set belongs to Bob Landis. He and I are both ahead of the snowplow! There are no tracks at all in the left lane, if there IS a left lane!
The landscape looks wonderful, fully transformed, even in the dark. In places the wind is so fierce that the driving snow approaches blizzard conditions. Elk tracks are evident and I keep an eye out for others.
At the bison carcass in Little America, a grizzly is having his breakfast, attended by dozens and dozens of birds. The bear makes a show of rushing the birds, first one way, then the next. I think to myself that Doug would really like this set-up. Softly falling snow, cool blue light of pre-dawn and a great big griz. I bet Doug could zoom in close on his great bear face and you’d never see the collar. Here's my effort.
My radio crackles with the news that Rick got Druid signals from the confluence area. Welp, now I know where I’m going this morning. When I get to Lamar I find the blizzard has worsened. By the time I pass the Old Picnic area I‘m in white-out conditions again. Can‘t see Specimen at all, nor even Druid Peak!
However, at Hitching Post I see Cathy’s jeep and then see her out on one of the low hills. I decide to join her. Of course it’s ridiculous to think I’ll see anything in weather like this, but I can’t help trying. With three black wolves in the Druid Pack, I think I may have half a chance to see one of them. But I never see a single animal, not even a bison! On top of that, the snow is gritty and icy, and my face starts to smart from being sprayed with it.
I swing the scope around and put the wind behind me but I see nothing this direction, either! We’ve both heard predictions that this storm could last for three days, but we try not to believe it. It’s very cold this morning. Snow begins to accumulate inside the protective hood of my scope.
We give up. Cathy takes a nap in her car and I take a trip east. The valley is nearly empty of human presence. Oh, how I love it! What a break from the herds of humans I’m used to on the streets of New York.
I turn around at The Thunderer and go back to Slough, where I find that I can’t even see the hill the den-site is on. But I notice scopes pointed at Specimen Ridge. Way up on top I find two bighorn sheep. Then Jan and Bill tip me off that two Agate yearlings are bedded to the right of the Crystal Creek drainage.
I move down to a less-congested pullout just past the Lamar bridge and join Lou and Dr. Halfpenny. With their help I find the two wolves easily, a gray and a black, bedded about 100 feet apart just below the trees. A bison herd to their right seems a bit on edge. After a little while, the gray gets up and stretches. He looks over at the black, then sinks into a stalking posture and begins to advance, stealthily. At the last minute the black looks up, sees the gray and jumps up. Hah! It was a game! The two wolves begin to wrestle and chase each other. It is very charming to watch.
Once they get that out of their system, the wolves move west in the direction of the bison herd. Maybe they’re going after the calves? The herd reacts quickly: the calves run uphill to their moms and the moms bunch around them, forming a lopsided circle. The wolves don’t look serious at all, yet the bison take no chances. Eventually a few of the bison turn on the wolves, tails high, advancing on them. The wolves get the message and leave the area at a brisk trot. They head downhill and scare up some elk. Suddenly we see the elk running out from between two hills. It must feel good to these two young wolves to see what effect they can have on an elk herd. I see several elk raise their heads high and do that pronging step I love to see. The wolves seem to be making their way downhill and it occurs to me that they might be heading for the bison carcass. Perhaps they fed on it last night, before the grizzly got there?
While we are watching these wolves, two collared coyotes trot by along the road. They pay us no mind at all. One is much larger than the other and they have collars with, alas, antennas. Poor things! That’s a fashion faux pas for sure.
Then I am shocked to see the sun come out. Blue sky appears. Well, so much for the three day blizzard!
With the wolves now out of sight I move back to Slough for my puppy fix. I climb Dave’s Hill and join Jan and Bill. After a few minutes I count 6 adult Sloughs, including 380F, 453M, the alpha male 490M and my favorite, the grey-faced-black alpha female. After observing the alphas in close proximity to each other, I am a little disappointed that I don’t see any special bonding behavior between them. Perhaps the old Druid alphas, 21M and 42F were unique in that way?
When the alpha female moves up to the den porch she is greeted by an eruption of pups! They jump all around her as she goes headfirst into the den. To my surprise she completely disappears inside! When she comes back out the pups follow her and she lies down to nurse. This gives me a great chance to count pups and I get my highest yet, 9! But as it turns out, the blizzard is not finished. It returns, along with a nasty wind and we decide to end our morning session a little early.
My wolfer-friends invite me to join them up in Cooke City for lunch at Beds and Buns. After a lovely but uneventful drive I share a meal with Jan, Bill, Anne and Cathy in this friendliest of restaurants. I am introduced to the proprietor and her husband and we have a great time yakking about wolves, teasing each other and telling stories. Cliff joins us, too.
Parked across the street is a bashed-in red pickup, the very same vehicle that flipped over on Sunday in the accident I heard about over Frank’s scanner. It’s a mess, but somehow not nearly as bad as one might have expected. Apparently, the driver has now been arrested.
After lunch it’s siesta time. All my wolfer buds have rooms either in Cooke City or Silver Gate so I head back to the Park by myself. I have my siesta at the Footbridge pullout. Before I fall asleep I note a lone bald eagle in the area of the Druids’ kill from Tuesday.
When I wake up it’s raining. Visibility is bad again so I head west. But I don’t feel like leaving Lamar so I stop at Dorothy‘s and catch up on my notes.
Eventually the rain stops so I get out to watch some antelope in the flats, hoping to see a fawn. I see a lone coyote exploring the river’s edge. Then Jan and Bill pull in, a little early for the evening session at Slough. We scope from here a while and Jan finds a grizzly, way down beyond the rendesvous, walking along the old riverbank, heading towards the confluence. We watch him until he moves out of sight. Just as we are packing up to set off to Slough, I hear that 302 has been spotted at the confluence. I sheepishly remind Jan and Bill that I am a Druid fan, first and foremost. They completely understand so we head our separate ways.
At the confluence I find two people scoping right on the shoulder of the road. One is Lou. He is kind enough to lower his scope so I can see 302, bedded all by himself on a gravel bar. Yay! I do a mild version of the Druid Dance and Lou says “don’t you want to see the bear?“ Bear? What bear? “On the carcass” says Lou. “Carcass?” D’oh! So Lou re-adjusts his scope again and I see a large, brownish grizzly standing in shallow water on a brown lump that used to be an elk. The grizzly leans forward in an odd posture, mouth slightly open, staring at something on the opposite bank. He looks drunk and probably is. Meat-drunk, that is.
I don’t feel comfortable being this exposed to traffic, even at this time of year, so I decide to climb the hill behind me. Cathy and Betsy are headed up, too, so I will have good company. I met Betsy last spring when 21M was missing. She had one of the last close-up photos of him, growling fiercely at a grizzly bear on a carcass.
It‘s an effort to get up here, but well worth it. First I check on 302 and find him dozing, unperturbed, near some driftwood. About 200 yards to his left, the brown grizzly sits half on the carcass and half in the river. He tips forward, mouth agape, looking half asleep. I don’t know what makes this so comical but it is.
Then I see movement on the east bank. A black bear appears from behind a tree. (photo through my scope) Despite his smaller size this black bear prowls the river’s edge, looking longingly at the carcass on the other side, determined to find a way to it. The grizzly is fully aware of the black bear‘s intentions, and the black bear knows it. That is enough to keep the black bear from attempting anything too foolish. A hawk is perched in a tree above the black bear, cooly watching. A pair of noisy cranes strut along the bank in the background. But with three predator species in such close proximity, something interesting is bound to happen soon.
And it does. Someone notices (I think it was Cathy) another bear out there, in the flats north of the confluence. It‘s another grizzly! Oh yeah! Then we realize it’s TWO grizzlies out there. They walk side by side a while, ambling slowly toward the river. These two look like twins: same size, same classic grizzly coloration, including the silver/golden “vest” from hump to shoulder. They sit down in some willows and begin to play-wrestle. They are very relaxed with each other, jawing, rolling, and gently pawing each other. They may be a courting pair, or they may be siblings; it‘s hard to tell. But one thing is certain, they enjoy each others’ company.
These two look well fed and I begin to wonder that they may not be interested in the carcass at all, since they seem to be taking their sweet time. I wonder what will happen when they see the other bear? I wonder if 302 is in danger? I check on him and find him comfortably bedded. The brown grizzly has moved off the carcass and now sits on the gravel bar about two feet away, looking at the carcass, leaning forward as if he is about to fall asleep. I don’t see where the black bear has gone, but then I find him further away, wandering around in the low grass where I often see the beaver.
Well, now one of the twin grizzlies seems to have gotten a whiff of the carcass because he begins to walk pretty fast towards the river. Yep, he smells it for sure. He now runs down the river bank and splashes across the river. Now he’s on the same gravel bar as both 302 and the brown bear. He proceeds briskly to the left, head high, moving along the water’s edge, getting closer and closer to the carcass. The brown bear sits with his back to the approaching twin bear. 302 has his head up but is still bedded.
When the twin grizzly is only about 30 feet from the brown bear it finally notices and stands up. The twin bear turns AWAY from the brown bear and moves west again. The brown bear heads east for the carcass, stands on it and faces the twin bear. They are now about 100 feet apart, facing each other. It looks very tense between them. They don’t look directly at each other, but tilt their heads slightly sideways. But they are sharply tuned to what the other is doing. Both their heads are low I see the brown bear chomping his jaws. I wish I could HEAR them!
Then the brown bear makes a sudden rush at the twin bear. As soon as he does this, my eye is drawn by movement of a black animal the opposite direction…It's 302! He makes a dash for the carcass, cagey opportunist that he is! He reaches the carcass and feeds, tail tucked. The twin bear avoids the charge of the brown bear and deftly counters behind him. Now the bears have switched positions. The are about 20 feet apart and are posturing like crazy. They both adopt stiff, slow movements, inching ever closer, subtle and very tense.
My heart is in my throat. I have never seen such tension between bears. Then are now nose to nose, and will surely come to blows. Then WHAM! They rise and slam into each other in open-jawed contact. Each swipes a vicious forepaw at the other. Their heads go down to the gravel together, one bear’s shoulder is lower than the other’s. It's impossible to tell which is which. Suddenly the twin bear bolts away and the brown bear gives chase! The twin bear looks over his shoulder once, sees the brown bear behind him and kicks into high gear, opening daylight and thus saving himself a worse thrashing.
The brown slows and stops. He’s won. He turns back to the river, rubs a paw over his muzzle as if his nose hurts and then stands there huffing. After a moment, he looks to the river and sees 302 feeding on “his” carcass. He charges 302 but the crafty wolf sees him coming and slips away easily, smacking his lips.
Twin one has stopped running but looks defeated. He wanders a little further off and beds. 302 casually moves back to his driftwood spot and beds too. I can’t believe I just saw two grizzlies fight. Contact was made, oh yes, and I think they both were bitten. I have no idea what the brown bear did that gave him the edge because to me the twin bear looks slightly bigger. The only time I‘ve ever seen bears fight has been in obviously staged situations in movies. Let me tell you how ferocious the actual thing is. Yet it was over in less than a second. It was not unlike what elk do before they clash antlers. A build-up of ritual posturing and a then a lightning round. Fantastic!
Then I remember the second twin bear. It’s still out there. If those twins get together…
The victorious brown bear begins to scrape up pebbles around the carcass as if attempting to bury it. 302 lowers his head to sleep. He got several good mouthfuls, I think. After a while the second twin bear appears above the far bank. Where he’s been all this time is anyone’s guess. He stops at the edge and sniffs the air. A coyote appears out of the sage right behind him. Man, what a night for seeing predators! The second twin heads down the bank and crosses the river. The coyote takes a look at the situation before him, sizes it up as three-bears-too-many and trots on east.
But instead of heading to the carcass, the second twin moves west and reunites with the first twin. They nose each other affectionately and engage in a little more play-fighting.
Now for the comic relief.
The black bear reappears on the bank across from the carcass. He moves down the slope, into the river and wades toward the carcass. I’m not kidding, it‘s like he‘s trying to SNEAK UP on the grizzly who just whipped the butt of a grizzly bigger than him. It is hilarious to see how seriously the black bear takes himself. He stops mid-stream and re-thinks. He turns back, stops, tries it again. He is now belly deep in the river staring at a carcass he’ll never taste.
The brown bear has his back to blackie, absent-mindedly scraping up pebbles around the carcass. But when he turns his head one time he sees the black bear and fixes him with a gaze. This is enough to re-awaken the rational side of the black bear. Blackie moves back to his side of the river and we all laugh, amazed at his chutzpah.
Then the twin grizzlies begin to move together towards the carcass. The brown bear forgets about blackie and stands protectively over his carcass once again, facing the two incoming bears, ready for anything. The second twin bear leads, moving slowly along the bank. At about 100 feet he stands straight up, and looks straight over at the brown bear on the carcass.
When he drops back to all fours, instead of mounting a two-bear attack, this second twin enters the river and crosses to the other side. I guess he is a peace-loving bear. The first twin, instead of crossing behind the other, moves to the spot where he and the brown bear had their fight. He sniffs the spot and then makes some odd movements over it. He may be marking it. He sort of shimmies over it and scratches the ground with his rear paws. Then he heads to the river and crosses, following his twin.
A squall moves in from out of nowhere and suddenly I am scoping through wind-whipped snow again, just like this morning. It gets very chilly. It looks like there will be no more fighting this evening, so I decide to take my opportunity and head down the hill before more snow comes.
When I get to the road, the second twin is resting on the far bank and the first twin is again in the river, approaching the carcass. But he ignores the brown bear and goes instead toward 302, making the wolf get up. 302 doesn’t sweat it. He moves off and waits for the bear to leave. The twin sniffs the spot where 302 was bedded, then does another shimmy/scrape thing.
Next, this grizzly takes a long wander downstream. He crosses the river channel twice and a second gravel bank, heading in the general direction of the road. When he gets to the edge of the main channel he stops on the bank and sniffs the air. He must be able to see the road and the people and cars on it. He sniffs and sniffs and finally turns around. He retraces his steps back to the very spot where 302 is bedded. Again he pushes 302 around a little, then finally crosses the river and hooks up with his peace-loving twin on the far bank.
The snow has ended and a beautiful evening light creeps in, bathing the still-wintry landscape in warm gold.
I take a last look at 302 and find him relaxed and bedded. Then I bid the others adieu and head home. There is fog all through the Blacktail Plateau, but the light stays in the sky the whole way back. What a great night!
Today I saw:
Antelope, a black bear, 5 grizzly bears, bison, 5 coyotes, two sand hill cranes, elk, a hawk, four bighorn sheep, 18 wolves, (including Druid wolf 302, 6 Slough adults including 490M, the alpha female, 380F and 453M as well as 9 pups, and two Agate yearlings) 1 Loon and the spirit of Allison.