DAY FIVE - Saturday, July 4, 2009


Happy Fourth Everybody!

There is some beautiful fog in the Yellowstone River corridor as I come out of Roosevelt this Independence Day morning. I see a bright star above the eastern horizon and then another very bright star to the southeast. I'm sure the first is Venus but I can only guess at the second...maybe Saturn?

As I drive between Coyote and Dorothy's I see some small pieces of shattered glass and metal in the road. I find out later that bison was hit in that spot last night. Someday maybe the Park will lower the speed limit at night and actually enforce it!

At Mid-point I pass a car heading the opposite way very slowly. In my mirror I see the car stop in the road. It's clear they see something out across the river but it's still too dark to tempt me to stop here. Besides, I want to be at Footbridge. I have a hunch that Druids will be seen this morning.

The pullout is nearly full when I arrive, but I park right behind Laurie & Dan. We have been missing each other so far and it's nice to have a hug and chat. Laurie tells me Druid signals are in the den area and a bit east but nothing in sight yet. I mention the car I saw stop at Mid-point and Laurie says, yes, the bear guys found a "new carcass" out there, by which she means another bison has died of natural causes.

Hmmm, that will likely provide some interesting viewing today. I see Brian C is here today and we have a nice catch-up chat. I continuously scan the rocky knoll and the thin fingers of green, sometimes called runways, for signs of Druids or pups, but I keep thinking about that car stopping to look at the carcass this morning. So as time goes by and the Druids don't show, I decide to drive back west.

As I am about to leave the pullout, three young people at the western end of the pullout signal to me. I tell them where I'm going and they light up and say they just came from there, they saw three grizzlies on it. They ask about where they should be looking for wolves here and I give them some basics. I assure them the morning is young and something could still happen here in this pullout. They grin and go back to their scopes.

I step on the gass and move about four car lengths from the pullout and then slam on my brakes. An elk is tearing down the hill from the western side of the den area, chased in earnest by a singly black wolf. I stick my head out the window, calling and waving to the three young people at Footbridge to make sure they see it.

Yes, they do! The elk crosses the road about 30 feet in front of me with the wolf about six lengths behind. I grab my radio, press the button and say "Footbridge. Elk running. One black".

Then I back up into the pullout, hop out and watch the chase continue via binoculars. The elk is a healthy spike bull and seems to easily outrun the wolf. I expected it to head to the river, but instead it skirts the knob on the north side of the river, taking a route that will lead to the low-hill area south of Hitching Post. I look up the hill towards the den forest several times to see if any other wolves are about to join the chase, but see no movement.

Both animals are now out of sight, so I get back in Ruby to head for Hitching Post. Laurie and Dan come driving up and I twirl my hand in the air, signalling them to turn around. At Hitching Post I join Rick and several other wolf watchers, heading out to one of the viewing knobs. The elk is now in the river, standing in water above its knees. The wolf is sitting on the bank to the west of it, looking longingly at the elk. They are both breathing hard.

The young bull's antlers are covered in velvet. He looks very fit and lifts his head very high, so he can see behind him as well as in front of him. The wolf seems resigned that he has lost his chance, but can't help being tempted by prey so close. This wolf is black and uncollared and surely a Druid but otherwise has not been identified.

The wolf gazes back at the group of us on our knob fairly frequently and Rick becomes concerned that we are too close. He moves over to Brian's Knoll and most of us follow. The wolf then makes a decision to abandon the elk and head back home. Laurie and Rick identify her as Dull Bar, a Druid 2yr old female.

Dull Bar treats us to a wonderful close sighting as she travels confidently through the willows and sage towards 21's crossing. Dull Bar is a road-savvy wolf and she has little hesitation as she nears the road, even though there are cars coming and going. She makes it across quite quickly, no muss no fuss, and remains visible for a good while as she climbs the hill toward the den forest.

She stops and seems to gaze back longingly toward the elk and then disappears into the trees. I take a last look at the elk still in the river. He stamps in the water, and seems a bit unsure about his next move. I wait a bit longer, then head back to Footbridge, where I run into Kathie L. She has actually been in the Park for quite a while, but we have somehow missed each other. We talk about the short chase and then she finds a grizzly in the flats south of the rendezvous and we watch him a while, showing him to various visitors.

I hear mention of wolves being seen to the east so I head that way, but I get there too late. Apparently, while Dull Bar was chasing her elk, seven adult Druids, including the alphas, were moving east on the north side of the road, on a route that could take them to Trout Lake. They were not seen for long and are now no longer in sight, but I do see some elk grazing high up on these hills, and they look totally relaxed.

Welp, now it sees time for me to see the new carcass. I drive down and stop at Picnic. The carcass is easy to find because it is covered in birds. The area can easily be seen from Mid-point, Picnic or Trash Can, because it's out in the big fan amid grass and sage. There are three grizzlies in the area but none on the carcass itself. They have probably all eaten their fill already. I can see one of the bison's horn's and a bald eagle perches regally in a nearby tree.

Laurie says last year at this time there were seven bison carcasses. This makes the fourth so far this year. She says all the carcasses are cows, and that generally each one leaves an orphan calf. She says that she's been told the calves cannot metabolize grass as food until they are about 6 months old, so unless a calf-less bison mother is around to adopt it, the calf will succumb, either to starvation or predators. It's very sad.

We can't really make sense of how a grass-eater could die in the midst of what looks to us like a time of plenty. Later I learn that bison can sometimes overeat to such a degree that they get bloat, or methane poisoning. The grass is so rich that perhaps they eat too much too fast and it actually kills them.

I watch from here until the bears move out of sight, then head further west, stopping again at the Lamar Bridge west. Bearman Ralph has a bear here - a gorgeous golden-brown grizzly roaming lower Crystal Creek. Oh, that's a nice sighting.

Next stop is at Boulder where several wolf-watchers scan the hillsides far to the west, which happen to be the hills above the Tower Ranger Station. Apparently there is a report that 302's signal came in fairly strong from that direction and they have been seen hunting that area in the past.

Today is Bonnie's last day and she is anxious to see the Blacktails again, so we head further west. As we pass the Petrified Tree area I see three elk, two cows and a calf, standing on the side of the spur road, looking down towards Elk Creek. I slow down to see what they'll do and they move down the hill and begin to lope across the area. I stop to give them room to cross the road if they want, but they don't. Instead they trot up the opposite hill and walk along a dusty section of the Blacktail road.

I wonder if they just escaped being hunted by 302 and his Blacktails? The calf looks very strong and stays close to mom. They are gorgeous, so sleek and fit.

My next sighting is a black bear wandering around the jumbled-rock area in the low spot east of the Children's Fire Trail. There is a pretty big crowd and very little space to stop so I don't stay long. I hook up with Bonnie again at the S curves. Linda and Marshall are here, too. We all make a valiant scoping effort but see no Blacktails. We do see two hawks, a coyote, some elk and some pronghorn. Around noon we all say farewell to Bonnie and off she goes.

I head back east and stop a while to scope at Hellroaring. It's a gorgeous view but no wolves or bears. As I continue on, there are suddenly cars and people all over the road. I thread my way down to Lower Hellroaring, where I know there is ample parking, while catching a glimpse of a black bear north of the road. I park and shoulder Layla and hike back up to watch the bear. On my way, a man with a camera hastens back down to his family, anxiously waiting in the car he abandoned, calling excitedly "And there's a grizzly right behind it!" This gives me a momentary pause but then I glimpse the "grizzly" through the trees: a cinnamon black bear, wandering the meadow about 50 feet behind the black bear.

Ah summer!

The cinnamon looks a bit larger than the black to me so I wait for confirmation that they are a courting pair. Alas, they do not interact enough for me to figure that out. Two Rangers try valiantly to find the owners of all the abandoned cars and get traffic moving again.

Then the black makes a sudden move toward a log and begins to rip into it. He/she changes position several times and really goes at it, like he can smell something tantaliyzing inside it. Those with cameras are getting great shots but then the Rangers begin to shoo us back to our cars so I head back to Ruby and drive on.

My next stop is at the Roosevelt Corral where I try to join a trail ride at the last minute. Alas, the afternoon ride has been cancelled due to trail conditions. Apparently all the rain has made the steep spots too slick with mud.

So instead I head up the road to collect some firewood. But as I am pullout back onto the road I see three young hitchhikers, all Roosevelt employees. They are going to Canyon on their day off. I offer to take them as far as the Tower store and they pile in. All three are all from Eastern Europe, but the young woman speaks excellent English, so we talk about animals and what to do in Canyon when they get there. I drop them at the store, and wish them good luck.

I head back down the hill and stop in an empty pullout across from a clearing where I have seen Rosie's cubs playing during past trips. There is an abundance of dead and down wood here so I gather it up in my coat. Back in my cabin, I prepare a teepee of kindling inside the stove so I can start my fire tonight with a minimum of effort.

Now for a shower and a nap!

Thus refreshed, I head out to Little America for more animal watching. I stop to watch a large bison herd for a while, enjoying the antics of the calves. Some of them are already turning brown. I bet some of them are the same ones that I saw in early April, when they were just a few days old.

I think about how nice it would be to be in the Park often enough to get to know a few individual bison in these herds and watch their lives progress, the way I have done with wolves. Someday, I say to myself. It starts to rain again, so I hop back in the car. I drive down the Slough Creek road and stop at the 2nd pullout to watch two coyotes roaming around. I hear howling. It seems to come from the low hills beneath the old Slough Den area, but it's coyote howling, not wolves.

Whatever the howlers said, they prompt no response from the two wanderers here. They keep on walking, sniffing, walking. The rain stops and I hear yellow headed blackbirds calling from the nearby pond. It's so peaceful down here, I just love it. A third coyote joins the other two. This one's winter fur is really hanging low, and I wonder that he doesn't just find a boulder and scratch it off. He looks like a kid wearing his older brother's coat!

One by one the coyotes move off. The last to leave climbs a low hill and then stops. He drops into a stalking posture and then pounces, grabbing a ground squirrel. I think the squirrel might have bitten him, because he flinches and drops it but then quickly pins it to the ground with both his muzzle and a front paw. This time he gobbles it.

Once he tops the hill and goes out of sight I head back up the road and drive into Lamar.

I stop at Fisherman's to watch some bison running down hill towards the river. Three young bull bison. They plunge into the river and wade/swim across, then gallop up the other side. They are very frisky and I wonder what's gotten into them.

Then I see movement to my right, close. Oh wow, a badger! They are so cool. It waddles up a little rise and suddenly I see another one pop his distinctive face out of a burrow-hole. Now the second badger comes out of the hole and the other goes inside. They both look about the same size. Do male badgers tend pups along with the females? Well, whatever their relationship, the second one now disappears into the burrow, too.

I wait a while, hoping they will re-appear but they don't. This burrow is awfully close to the pullout and the road. I bet the photographers love this pair. It is a pretty great set up for photos.

My next stop is at Dorothy's, where I have the whole pullout to myself. I find the eagle nest and this time I see a chick! It sits on the nest flapping its wings. Ooh, I wonder if that means it's close to fledging? One parent eagle is here, too, perched above the nest to the right. Some pronghorn run in the flats below.

It's lovely and sunny right now. About 60 degrees, I'd guess. Just about perfect. My next stop is at Midpoint where I stop to check on the "new" carcass. I see an animal on it but can't figure out what I'm looking at. After a moment or two I realize this is the hairless wolf I've heard about. He has an extreme case of sarcoptic mange. It is very sad to see. He looks somewhat like a great dane with wolf ears. His poor tail is just a bone covered in skin. Oh that's sad. I wonder if he is a Mollie wolf, or a Slough. Or the Jasper Male. I doubt anyone knows for sure. I'm glad at least that he's getting a decent meal.

I move on from this sad sight and continue east. The sky releases intermitent sprinkles as I go. I stop at Baronette to try to spot goats. It takes a while but I finally find two; a nanny and a kid. I see the kid first, bopping around in the cleft of a hill. Brave little fellow. I finally see the mom's head. She seems to be standing in a clump of bushes, nibbling away. At one point, it looks like the kid is standing on her back. Then she moves to another group of bushes and the kid goes up into the cleft and I lose him a while.Then he appears again, climbing and hopping and exploring his little goat heart out.

I stop at beautiful Round Prairrie for a while. I hear a woodpecker in a tree across the road but can't find it. I'm feeling a little hungry so I boil some water and have some noodle soup. It's so good! Hah! It always cracks me up that food I'd never eat at home tastes so delicious on a car trip!

Eventually I head down to Footbridge. There is the usual large crowd here tonight, and people are looking towards the den forest and also out towards DPH. Since the Druids were likely hunting in the Trout Creek area today, there may be a good chance we'll see them returning. We find elk up high on Mt. Norris and three bighorns up there, too. People are looking every which way but no one finds any wolves.

I have to say something about the crowds at Footbridge. I noticed on this trip that the people who showed up in this pullout were far more "serious" about seeing animals than I remember from other years. I talked to a lot of folk and by far the vast majority knew a lot about wolves in general and the Druids in particular and asked really good questions. Most of them came here specifically to see wolves and were as prepared as possible to do so. It made me feel good about the future of wildlife.

At about 8:45, several of us notice cars stopping at the curve, in the "no stopping" zone. I see three cars. There could be more. Something is going on down there. Rick M is further to the west at the moment but Bill W calls him and in a little while he drives by in an attempt to get the cars to move.

The rest of us focus on the northern hill. I concentrate on the rocky knoll and the first "runway" clearing to the left. A car pulls in from the east and the people report they saw adult wolves and several puppies coming down the hill "back there" but that they all ran back up the hill.

We can't help but wonder that the wolves might crossed the road had they not been scared back by the stopped cars. Had they kept driving, then we all might have seen them once they got to the south side. Ah well.

But we keep our scopes on the rocky knob as that is often their route of travel back to the den forest. Very soon, Rik and Kara call out - they see five. Dan sees one. Kathy sees one further left in a clearing. I luck out and see a black wolf sitting at the top of the long green runway. He is looking uphill, perhaps at other wolves above him. Then I see another black crossing the same green runway from east to west, several yards below the sitting wolf. Then I see a smaller black wolf - hey! That's a pup! Woo hoo! He dashes through the clearing, followed by an adult gray. The sitting black has vanished. I'm not sure if the sitting black was a pup or an adult.

I look and look and look, but that's it for the Druids tonight.

This is one of the briefest "close" sightings I've ever had. The trees are so thick up there, that if they are on the move you only get a split second and you have to be looking in the right place. Most people in the pullout don't see them at all, either because they don't have scopes or they just didn't get lucky. There is no chance to share a viewing like this. I find myself apologizing to the visitors closest to me who have come here to see a wolf and have been patiently waiting for hours. I tell people that usually we are more generous when we have wolves in view. Nobody seems mad, just disappointed.

About 10 minutes later, Mark M sees a bear to the left of the rocky knoll, moving east. I see him! Mark says he now sees two bears, one is dark and the other cinammon. I only see the dark bear. I see him again for two seconds as he moves past another part of the rocky knoll. But that's it. No more sightings.

I stick around a while hoping for a Druid howling but not tonight.

The moon lights my drive back west. As I arrive at Roosevelt, there are some holiday festivities still going on - a few beer-drinking folk on the rocking chairs of the Lodge porch. The kids of the family in the next cabin row celebrate with sparklers, having great fun.

I wish Happy Fourth to my neighbors as I haul in my gear for the night. My stove fire starts so easily, I wish I had tried this every night! The stove flue really draws well and my room heats up to a pleasant temperature very quickly.

I toss in the bigger logs and fall asleep to the sound of a crackling fire, my fireworks for the Fourth of July.

Today I saw: bison, 2 badgers, 5 black bears, 2 grizzly bears, yellow-headed blackbirds, 3 coyotes, 3 bald eagles (including one juvenile), elk, 2 mountain goats, pronghorn, 3 bighorn sheep, 6 wolves (5 Druids, including Dull Bar and at least one pup, plus 1 hairless wolf), and the spirit of Allison.

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