It is with a good deal of apprehension that I head down to the valley this morning. Last night Laurie, Dan and I discussed the historic event of the Mollies invasion of Lamar Canyon territory while they have pups in the den.
Laurie feels strongly that, based on the behavior she saw, the Mollies were simply hunting elk and the elk led them to the Lamar Canyon home base. She thinks the lack of blood and the fact that they left the area fairly quickly indicates there was no battle.
My first good omen is a sighting of a cow and calf moose at Round Prairie. They are standing in shallow water at a bend of Soda Butte Creek, looking towards the road. It's still dark but their large shapes are visible. Annie is parked in the pullout watching them, too. I'd like to chat with her but the animals are fairly close to the road and I don't want to disturb them, so I move on.
I join Rick at the Footbridge and get more good omens: all Lamar Canyon signals are present and accounted for, all in the den forest area and none in mort mode!
Looks like Laurie was right.
I drive on to Hitchiing Post and Rick continues to use his telemetry. He gets 06's signal from here, too. It seems the Lamar Canyon wolves reacted normally to the unexpected appearance by the Mollies: they scattered. On the two occasions when I have witnessed a brawl between packs, this is exactly what the smaller pack has done. Hopefully they were able to regroup overnight. Oh how I wish I had been able to see that reunion!
I decide to scope from here a bit in hopes of getting a glimpse of one of the Lamar Canyon wolves, or maybe hear them howl, while Rick continues west. As I scope around I find something else unexpected. To the north of the pullout are some sheer cliffs of Druid Peak, and lo and behold, there are four male mountain goats up there! They scramble and browse, stark white against the dark copper rock. This is the first time I have seen goats this far west.
Then I hear a radio report of Mollies in view. I stop at Midpoint and see them across the river, testing bison. I count 12 but Rick says there are 15. Apparently a little while ago they got a bison calf - it might have been a stilborn. They have already made short work of the tiny carcass and they are now testing the adult bison, including one who behaves as though she is the mother who lost her calf.
It is still unusual for me to see wolves seriously test adult bison in the Lamar Valley. The Druids never managed it while they roamed the valley, although there were still so many un-wary elk available, they hardly had to bother!
Now that the elk numbers have dropped and the survivors have become far more wolf-savvy, the tables have turned a bit. But bison remain so much harder to subdue: it takes teamwork, agility and a concerted effort. The Mollies grew up in the Pelican where there are plenty of bison and very few elk due to heavy snows, so the Mollies have learned to hunt bison. I find it absolutely fascinating to watch their maneuvers.
We watch them for over an hour. Even the Mollie yearlings are very experienced with bison, and really put them on notice that they are on the menu, whether they like it or not. They test and worry them, lunge and feint, all the while showing great respect for the formidable defense weapons bison come equipped with and use freely. The wolves show impressive athletic ability, dancing out of the way just in time.
Eventually they tire of this effort and bed down, but in a short while they are up again and moving east. We follow them as they move up the valley and watch them eventually arrive in the old Druid rendezvous.
Some bed in the eroded areas and some take up positions on the foothills. I muse about how often I have seen wolves in this spot: the original Druids, the Sloughs, the Unknowns, the New Druids, the Silvers, the Lamar Canyons, and now, the Mollies.
Calvin proposes that the spot we are watching can also be viewed from Hitching Post, and since we have heard a report that the Lamar Canyons were heard howling earlier today, we head there, where we can keep our eyes and ears on both packs. Shortly after we are set up here, several of the Mollies jump up suddenly and rush into the trees behind the foothills. There are a few bison right at the edge of the trees, so maybe another one is giving birth? But we never find out what they saw, heard or smelled and they soon come back out of the trees and re-bed.
After they settle down, the day begins to warm and the sun gets fierce. My skin is not ready for it so I take cover in my car. I decide to drive west for a while. I stop at Dorothy's and watch some bison swim the river. A man here tells me he saw two wolves, a black and a gray, up on Jasper Bench around 1:30 or 2. Hmmm. Could be some Mollie stragglers I guess.
I stop at Slough and look around this beautiful spot a while, then continue west. There are bighorn sheep all around Junction Butte, many close to the road. I go on to Hellroaring and scope there, finding elk & bison. I hear from a visitor that the Quad Mom with her two yearlings was seen in Swan Lake Flats this morning. (Quad Mom was named last year when she was spotted regularly with four coy, a very unusual number in one litter, including a very small runt who rode on her back frequently.) Alas, she seems to have lost two cubs over the winter, but the two that remain seem very healthy.
I find myself tempted and start to drive west. I get as far as the Children's Fire Trail but then I realize it's awfully late in the day for a bear sighting and if I drive that far I will not likely get back to Lamar in time, so I turn around.
Along the way I see a pair of red tails soaring and a lone golden eagle.
This time as I pass Junction Butte, instead of bighorn I see a small group of mule deer in the forest to the south. I look for fawns even though I guess it's really too early yet.
Next stop is at Slough, where I see Bill Hamblin looking through his scope up towards Specimen. He has found his first coy of this year, a sow with two! Well, I may have missed Quad Mom but I'll take this! Thanks Bill!
She is a beautiful bear and her tiny cubs look like black pom poms connected to her by an unseen string. They play on a fallen log, so small they disappear when they are behind it. I watch them for about a half hour, thoroughly enjoying my first set of bear cubs, too!
I head back to Lamar and meet up with Rick at Confluence. Up the hill we go again. He is much relieved about the apparent outcome of the tense event last night. He and Laurie agree, that the Mollies were not intent on destroying the Lamar Canyons or their den, that they were simply hunting elk, and the elk led them into Lamar Canyon territory.
From our higher vantage point we easily find the Mollies in the r-v. They are restless. They gather for a rally and then begin to head east. Our fondness for the Lamar Canyon wolves makes us hopeful that the Molliies will head up Cache Creek and leave the valley. But they don't. First, they chase an elk into the river but once it's in the water they give up.
There are many bison in the area and Mollies like bison, so they have reason to stay. They head along the tree line towards another herd of bison in the Middle Flats. Just then Rick notices two young grizzlies grazing and grubbing in the same plane as the bison herd, about 100 yards east of the two lead wolves. The two Mollie leaders see the bears, and stop. They drop into stalk posture which attracts the other Mollies. The trailing Mollies quickly fall into formation behind their leaders, in sort of a spear-shaped group, the leaders being the tip. Then they move forward slowly, condensing their ranks as they go, first at a stalk, then a fast walk, then they burst into a run. It is so cool to watch this!
The poor bears, probably three year old siblings on their own for the first spring, suddenly see this mass of wolves charging at them. One bear rears up on its hind legs. The wolves rush past him and chase the other bear. The bear and the wolves then go out of sight behind a hill for a while. I don't see what happens to the first bear (he may still be running!). Then the other bear reappears somewhat to the east, galloping straight upslope through jumbled dead-fall with about 10 wolves on his tail. Honestly I think it was a game to the Mollies, but the poor bear didn't know that!
The bear runs amazingly fast and the wolves are close but I see no contact made. They all go out of sight for a while, then one by one the Mollies re-appear coming back downhill, jubilant and cocky. Man! Those Mollies are fierce!
After a bit of body-slamming and high-fiving, the Mollies resume their trek, tails high, and we think (again!) that they are finally heading south back to Pelican, but no, they are just looking for bison.
Laurie and Dan are watching the same action from Hitching Post. They have noticed that the small herd of bison in the Middle Flats have a calf which they are protecting from the wolves. I cannot see it, even from up here, because the sage is so high, but I can infer where the calf is from the behavior of the other animals.
For the next 3 hours I watch this group of Mollies try to get a bison calf away from its mother. The mom and her herd are extremely determined, but a few times it looks like the wolves get a bite or two on one yearling or another. It is amazing to watch.
At one point it looks to me that they got it; I see their heads all low, noses pointing to the same center, but then I see adult bison rush them and they scatter. So maybe they had the calf for a second or two until the herd rescued it. Shortly after this I see them rally right in the midst of the bison herd! I ask Rick about that, and he says he thinks these wolves are just very used to bison, so it's not unusual for them; it's unusual for us to see it.
Eventually I head down and join the others at Hitching Post. We continue to watch the Mollies try to get a calf from here. Richard is here, too, joking around as he does. Then, just as he announces he'd better get going, we hear people whispering. We turn around, and, right behind us on the north hill, is a black wolf.
It's one of the Lamar Canyon yearlings.
He stands on the hillside, about 50 feet above the road, very curious about us. He has a gorgeous black mask of a face and the rest of his fur looks almost golden-brown.
There are perhaps twenty of us here in the failing light, and we are all quiet and respectful. Rick is able to convince those with cameras to remain in the lot and not approach the wolf any closer.
This is definitely the closest I have ever been to a wild wolf outside of my car. He is gorgeous, healthy looking, and although he seems curious about us, he is also quite shy. I am pleased that no one in the parking lot seems fearful, only fascinated.
Then above the yearling another canid appears. At first we think its a gray wolf, but it's a coyote. The coyote seems to be making sure the lone yearling does not try anything funny. The coyote sits on its haunches, watching us watch the wolf.
The yearling now heads down the slope and towards the road. It disappears in sage for a bit, then re-appears about 50 yards away at the roadside. It crosses the road and explores the river bottoms, then heads out in the direction of the Mollies - which are still trying to get the bison calf.
Laurie and I have some worried moments as we watch the young wolf trot closer and closer to danger. Rick reminds us that the Lamar River is still between the Mollies and the yearling, and as the river is fairly high at the moment it would serve as a pretty good deterrent, should the Mollies become aware of the yearling. It may be true but it's small comfort to us!
But finally the yearling gets wind of the Mollies, and we breathe a sign of relief when he/she turns tail and heads back home.
So now I follow Laurie and Dan up to Silver Gate for another pleasant evening there.
Today I saw: 5 grizzly bears (including 2 coy), bison, a coyote, mule deer, elk, a golden eagle, two red tail hawks, 4 mountain goats, 2 moose, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, 16 wolves, including 15 Mollies and one Lamar Canyon yearling, and the spirit of Allison.