DAY THREE - Thursday, July 2, 2009


I am up at 4:30. First light is just beginning and I detect a cloudy sky overhead. I have decided to start my morning by trying to see the Blacktails, and hopefully, 302.

The S Curve lot is empty when I arrive a little after 5AM and get set up. I am soon joined by other wolf-fans; Bonnie, Dorothy, Alan and Sue. I don't have wolves but at least I know I'm looking in the right place.

We see pronghorn, bison and two squabbling sandhills. Doug S and his team arrive and pack up for a hike to retrieve information on a carcass the Blacktails got in this area several days ago. They confirm to us that there are signals from the collars in the neighborhood of where we are looking (and thus, not likely in the area where they are going). They head off, making good time, and disappear behind a hill.

The wind kicks up and a storm arrives with an initial burst of hail, switching to a steady rain. I scan from inside my car for about a half hour. I sympathize with Doug and his team, they must be soaking wet.

When the rain finally ebbs, we get out to start looking again. Still nothing. Finally a crackle comes over the radio, that some Agate wolves have been spotted near upper Crystal in Little America. It is now nearly 8AM and I've been here, wolfless, for three hours. I decide to move in order to change my luck.

There is a black bear jam just above Roosevelt Junction. A single black bear walks through the meadow on his way somewhere. Little America is empty of cars and the rain comes down harder now. I don't see anyone at Crystal so I stop at Slough and scan the area, beginning to wonder if the wolves may have moved over to the Lamar side?

Just then a car pulls in and the lady passenger rolls down her window and says "we just saw two wolf pups playing right next to the river." Ding! Ding! goes my heart. Immediately I think Footbridge and Druids, so I ask her "how far back?" The woman turns to the man for a distance guess and the man says "just around the bend", pointing to the Canyon. Hmm, I think he means Fishermans. I ask "What color were they?" Both the man and woman answer "gray".

I thank them for telling me and decide to investigate, even though I suspect they probably saw coyotes. I'm sure they are sincere and it is very nice of them to share the information with me, but given the known pack territories I can't think of which pack's pups might be visible from the road without adults nearby.

Off I go to the east and soon see three cars stopped this side of Fisherman's, with people out of them aiming cameras towards the river. There is no one behind me so I stop to look myself. A woman with a camera turns and points to her companion, saying something in Italian. I look where she's pointing and hear her say, in English this time, "wolf!". About 30 feet away from from her I see a pair of ears and a tail moving through the sage.

It's a coyote.

I pull in at Fisherman's. Through my binocs I see that same coyote and another one on the hill north of the river, south of the road. I scan around, hopeful there still might be wolves in view. But no, I see just the two coyotes.

Nevertheless, I drive on to B & B and try this view. I see a couple in a truck that I recognize as trustworthy spotters. I walk up quietly and say "excuse me, but some people told me there were two wolves playing in the river. Did you see any wolves?" The man laughs and says "You know, the situation changes depending on the frenzy of the crowd!" I laugh with him and say "yeah, that is true!" Then he adds that there was a grizzly with two coy on the hill earlier and there were two coyotes in the river heading north about 10 minutes ago, but they are gone now.

I thank him and head back to Ruby, then notice Rick driving by so I follow him. The rain comes down harder as we drive back through Lamar Canyon. Rick pulls over at Slough and I tuck in behind him, along with a now substantial wolf-watcher entourage. I look towards Crystal and watch it disappear in fog. Nevertheless we all scope and scan for a while, but the visibility does not improve.

Eventually I learn that several Agate wolves were spotted here in the early morning, headed up hill. They have since gone over Specimen but it is thought they might still be visible, on one side or another, if the fog were to clear. I also learn there is a "new" bison carcass in the rendezvous area, in deep sage.

We scope a while longer, then Bonnie, Dorothy and I decide to head to Roosevelt for breakfast. No sooner do we get parked and out of our cars the rain stops and the sun comes out!

After a great breakfast, we go our separate ways. I stop at my cabin a while, then head back east. I drive down the bumpy Slough Creek road and stop at the first turnout, amazed to have the place to myself! It's so beautiful here. The hills all around are decked out in their fresh green garments. I see many geese and ducks and just sit and soak up the serenity.

Next I head further east and stop at Dorothy's to scope there a while. I find the eagle's nest easily because the eagle has just landed in it! Then I am distracted by a small group of bison bulls coming down the hill via the big game trail on the left side of Jasper Bench. They head for the river and begin to cross. Several of them stop half way and just stand there, enjoying the cool water. I see a few elk on the north side of the hill, behind me, but none in the valley.

I stop at Trash Can to see if I can locate the "new" bison carcass. Bonnie joins me on the small hill across from the pullout. I turn Layla's great eye toward the rendezvous. It takes a while, but soon we find ravens and then a dark something, moving in deep sage. I think I've found it.

It's a grizzly on the carcass. I never see its full body; mostly I see its hump and sometimes its head coming up to chew a bite or two. The bear stomps on the carcass and scrapes at it with his claws.

Bonnie and I continue a conversation we began at Breakfast, about various short hikes we'd like to try. I have always wanted to see the confluence of the Lamar and the Yellowstone. Bonnie wants to see the old Rose Creek Pen. So we decide to do mine today and hers tomorrow.

After a little more bear watching, we head west for the hike. On the way we see a black bear east of the Boulder pullout on the south side of the road. And while we are stopped, a golden eagle soars overhead.

We park at Wrecker and start out along the trail. Today is much cooler than yesterday, perfect hiking weather. The trail is high above the river and we are both amazed at the volume of water being carried downstream. We see gorgeous wildflowers, including wild roses, yellow salsify, lupine, sticky geranium and forget-me-nots and also several butterflies.

The river is amazing: rough and churning, and the views of the cliffs that form the channel are steep and awesome. I notice several paths down to the water, none of which tempt me as they are all too muddy, but clearly deer and elk and probably sheep do use them.

After about a quarter mile, the land begins to slope downward, and we come around a bend to find an extensive bench area back here that you'd never guess was here. We begin to explore it while a red-taile hawk flies slow circles above us.

The bench ends in a rocky point above the actual confluence. You can stand here, right between the two rivers. It looks to me that the Lamar carries about one third the volume of the Yellowstone, although I am hardly trained in such matters. But I am suprised at how substantial the Lamar is, and I sure would not want to try crossing it.

We explore some more and toy with the idea of hiking further up the Lamar. Now that I have seen this spot, I am all the more interested in exploring the area called the Buffalo Ford, a place further up the Lamar which is apparently a preferred spot for animals to cross it. But I will save that for another day, with a larger group.

About half-way back we see a critter on top of a doghouse-sized boulder. He rises up on his hind legs to check us out. It's a yellow-bellied marmot. We get photos but he soon scrambles away.

Once we get back to the cars we see some sort of jam going on in the road. I think it is probably bighorn sheep, as I know they like this area, but as it turns out, it's a bear! In fact, it's a black bear and two coy; probably the same family I saw at Elk Creek yesterday. The view from here is better, though, and there is plenty of room for parking and easy scoping. The bears are visible to the naked eye, and better through binoculars, but as usual, Layla shows you their whiskers!

The sow is all business, walking all over the slope, investigating trees and boulders, while the cubs just play and run and romp. It is wonderful viewing as they stay visible for a good hour. Everyone is friendly and happy. Big John works this jam, but people are so well-behaved, he is hardly needed.

He tells me there are some pronghorn with fawns in view up at Junction Butte. So I pack up Layla and drive further east. At the trailhead pullout I see them, six pronghorn females and three fawns. They are already quick on their feet and very alert, trotting close to their moms as they move through the sage.

The group seems to be aware of the growing crowd in the pullout and heads for the back of Junction Butte out of sight. As they go, I realize i would have missed them completely if John hadn't tipped me off. Thanks Big John!

My next stop is Slough. I am just casually scanning the Secret Passage area when I notice a car coming down from the hill suddenly stop. Then another car headed east suddenly pulls over in the same spot. The doors fly open and an entire family of four dashes across the road and up the sage hill. Two other cars stop and more people follow the family up the hill.

I don't know what animal might be up there, but it's crazy for people to do that! I scan the hill in the direction they are pointing and see a single black bear walking north at a good clip about a football fields ahead of the nutty people. Thank goodness they do not continue any further than that first hill. This is a perfect example of summer visitor behavior, something rarely seen during the shoulder seasons.

The bear is now on the slope directly east of Dave's Hill and continues to wander, unperturbed. I suppose he may have crossed the road in front of the first car. I now see the people going back down the hill to their cars. Oy. That was crazy.

Heading east again. A cute little coyote trots along the road, then hops into the brush and disappears. It starts to rain again as I reach Exclosure, and I see two people perched up there with one scope and a jacket over their heads. They are looking at the rendezvous, so I figure the bear is still out there on the bison carcass.

I wait out the rain at the Confluence and watch the river flow. There is a noticable and repeated commotion in a tall bush on the hillside behind me. Every minute or so a magpie flies into it and I hear a lot of bird chatter. Aha! I bet there is a magpie nest in that bush! I pay stricter attention and see not one but two magpies taking turns bringing food to their growing (and loud) babies!

There is movement in the sage across the river to the right. Two pronghorns roam the bottom of an old channel. Hey, what's that? A smaller animal, perhaps a coyote? No! It's a fawn! It's two fawns! Oh how cute! I get Layla trained on them, despite the rain.

The markings of antelope fawns are so distinct, they have the appearanc of being sharply dressed. And they prance about so upright and alert, they remind me of a little kid at a wedding, dressed up in a three-piece suit. These two dash about in short spurts, prancing, tossing out a leg here and there. One moves several yards from mom, but is not gone long. Mom nuzzles her little one, but lifts her head quickly, looking every which way.

The rain lets up again so I head on to Footbridge. Bill W is here, and Bonnie and Dorothy. Alas, there are no Druids in sight at the moment, but with the rain banished for a while, we are all in good spirits, enjoying the idyllic setting. To the east we find a big blonde grizzly roaming the flats just at tree line. Then we see two additional bears, perhaps a courting pair, moving in and out of the trees above the blonde one. I think they are black bears, not grizzlies, but I cannot be sure.

There are pronghorn and bison in the flats and of course, we scan relentlessly for signs of Druids, adults or pups. At one point while I am facing Druid Peak, a pickup drives by heading west and the 30-ish female driver yells to the group "I hate you all!" which makes the whole pullout of wildlife watchers burst out laughing! It still cracks me up to remember it. Oh, haters. 8~)

We also see a beaver right at the water's edge. He climbs out and chomps on vegetation, leaving a trail of smashed-grass. The photographers go crazy! When he disappears into the brush I notice several other telltale spots where he has climbed out.

But I still haven't seen a wolf, so I decide to try my luck at Exclosure Hill. I figure the Druids should be showing up any minute now.

On Exclosure I find about 25 people here already and the crowd is growing! Once I get Layla set up I see a coyote moving away from the area but when I find the carcass itself I am pleased to see the bear is still on it. And wonder of wonders, resting nearby is a gray wolf. Finally! My first wolf sighting on this trip. YAY!

Rick is surrounded by visitors, sharing the view in his scope and answering questions. I learn that the wolf I am seeing is a Druid, 691F, a female formerly known as Low Sides. I do a modified Druid Dance because space is limited. 8~)

As happy as I am to see this wolf, the real action tonight is with the bears. Grizzlies. Yes, I mean more than one. In fact I mean three. See if you can follow along. The light-brown grizzly on the carcass I'll call Bear #1. He is about to be joined in the outdoor dining room by two other bears. Bear # 2 is also light brown and about the same size as Bear #1. #2 approaches from the tree line on a west to east diagonal, heading for Bear #1 and the carcass, walking slowly with a bit of a swagger. Bear #3 has just emerged from the tree line. #3 looks larger than the other two, and is darker colored. Bear #3 heads straight down from the trees to the carcass area.

Bear #1 gets wind of Bear #2 and stands up on his back legs. The crowd gasps in appreciation. Bear 1 takes two or three deep sniffs then bolts from the carcass slightly to the east. In that instant, wolf 691 bolts from her place of rest straight to the carcass, full force. She wastes no time tugging off a mouthful. Her color seems slightly orange-ish to me and she has a pretty face.

I try to watch the wolf eat and what is about to happen between the bears but it's hard to do and I miss stuff. But at one point, Bear 1 moves west dn Bear 2 moves east. They pass each other, about 50 feet apart. Bear #2 now heads to the carcass but then Bear #1 changes his mind (or has been pretendind) and suddenly charges toward Bear #2. I am sure we are going to see a fight but Bear 2 whirls around and suddely the two of them are nose to nose. It looks for all the world like they recognize each other!

Another gasp rises from the crowd as they both ignore the carcass and begin to wrestle, in a rambunctious, playful way. You can tell it is friendly, not serious. What? Soon they both walk off toward the trees, about 3 feet apart. The wolf, no fool, continues to gorge herself. Now Bear #3 approaches the other two and the brown bears move apart. I wonder if Bear #3 will challenge either of them, or just take the carcass. Bear 3 looks perfectly capable of dislodging a single wolf. But Bear 3 never gets any closer to the carcass. Instead, Bears 1 & 2 come back together for more wrestling. Bear 3 changes direction and slowly heads back to the trees.

It's very perplexing but endlessly fascinating. It makes me want to see this sort of thing far more frequently than I do so I can begin to understand it. Eventually Bear 2 claims the carcass and dislodges 691. As the consolation prize, 691 picks up a rib and carries it past the middle foothill to the western foothill. She disappears for a while behind the western foothill, then comes back out and picks up the bone again. Now she starts off to the east, at a determined trot. I watch her progress until I lose her in the river corridor.

Once she is out of sight, I turn back to the bears. Bear 2 is still on the carcass while Bear 1 remains in the general area. Bear 3 remains visible, far from the carcass near near the tree line, grazing and grubbing. I am surprised that 3 is not aggressive with either of the smaller bears and I ask Rick about it. He says that their behavior strongly suggests all three bears know each other pretty well and are most likely related. He thinks the wrestling behavior we saw, coupled with the fact that they are similarly sized, indicates that 1 & 2 are siblings rather than a courting pair. Seeing three bears tolerate such close proximity to each other while near a carcass is unusual, but it would make sense if they are all related. So our theory is that Bear 3 is 1 & 2's mom.

It's a great cap to a great day. In addition to my own enjoyment, I witness many people get their first glimpse of a wolf on this hill tonight as well as seeing some unusual bear behavior! And as if this isn't enough, the sky delivers an enchanting orange and pink sunset.

As Bonnie and I climb down together I tell her, well, I guess I know where I'll be at first light tomorrow!

Today I saw: 8 black bears, 4 grizzly bears, 1 beaver, bison, butterflies, 4 coyotes, 2 sandhill cranes, ducks, bald eagle, golden eagle, elk, geese, 2 marmots, pronghorn (including 5 fawns) 1 gray wolf (Druid 691) and the spirit of Allison

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