The temperature in Silver Gate this morning is a chilly 43, but it warms up quickly as the day proceeds.
Today I start on Exclosure Hill, joining Doug M as we watch a grizzly on the bison carcass. It is the sam e carcass but it's now in a different place, downstream and on the south bank. It may have been dislodged by the animals that fed on it, and then it floated down to its present spot, or it may simply have been moved by the river itself. Here in Yellowstone, mountain rivers are still untamed, and they rise in the evening as they swell with snowmelt from their upper tributaries, and then recede by morning as the swell passes.
In any case, I am grateful, because the carcass is now in a spot that makes it not only safer for the public but easier to see!
The grizzly is having a very nice time feeding, while a bald eagle waits its turn in a nearby tree
There is a bison herd on this hill, well above us. The bulls tend to bellow a great deal at this time of year and we hear them before you see them. Both of us cast our eyes uphill fairly frequently to check on their location.
There is a larger bison herd in the flats between the river and the road. They are beginning a slow progression to the east as they graze.
But as we continue to watch the bear, we notice that several bison cows have now crossed the road and are beginning to graze the low slopes to our right, close to our cars.
If the bison continue east on the road or to the south, it's no problem, but if more of the herd starts grazing on our side of this hill, well, where do we go?
The logical answer is to climb higher on the hill and cross behind the bison to the west. But that means we'd have to go closer to those bellowing bulls.
More and more grazing cows begin to climb our hill to the right and I am now officially cut off from my car, my best protection. There are no trees on Exclosure hill!
I tell Doug if we don't do something soon we will literally be surrounded. So we pick up our scopes and begin to walk east. Unfortunately the scene below us keeps changing; more and more bison are now crossing the road, heading our way.
I'm pretty sure Jeff is at Footbridge so I radio him and ask if there is someone in his lot who can come with a car to rescue us. Jeff asks "is it urgent?" I say YES!
Doug and I are now walking east as rapidly as we can, heading downhill to the road. At this point I would jump in any car that came by but I know I have to keep my head.
Jeff radios back the make and model of the rescue car that is now on its way. I keep hearing the bellowing bulls and watch the herd making its inexorable way towards us.
Our champion arrives just in the nick of time. It's a woman named Anne and her teenaged daughter, Rachel, whom I remember meeting last night at Footbridge. She stops in the road as several cow bison pass in the east-bound lane. Doug and I have already folded up our scopes. He hops in the front and I hop in the back, hugging our scopes on our laps. We sit there, breathless and grateful, as bison pass by Anne's car on both sides, grunting and mooing.
I tell her I have NEVER been so glad to see an SUV in my life!
Anne drives slowly and carefully through the moving herd, until she is parallel with Doug's car.
He waits for the right moment, then transfers to the safety of his own car. Anne drives a few more feet to my car. There are still bison in the road so I wait until I feel safe. I thank them over and over for coming so quickly.
THANK YOU ANNE AND RACHEL!
A little while later I join them at Footbridge, where there are no bison within a quarter mile!
And as if to reward my new friends for their selflessness, we see wolves!
Several of the Lamar wolves come bounding down 480's crossing. I recognize 755M right away. I also see several grays as well as the two black yearlings. This is a very playful and bouncy group, delightful to watch.
There is great anticipation in the air about the pups. Everyone wants to see them but I think Jeff is the only one who does. He was the first to notice this group coming out of the trees. He is fairly sure he saw pup-sized tails among the larger ones that were wagging in view above the ridge.
But we think the pups remained there, and the adult group moved further towards the road. In any case, when they do reach the road, there are 7 of them, all adults.
This is the largest number of wolves I've seen together yet this trip. My only disappointment is that the 06 is not among them. Besides 755, I also see 820, Middle Gray and 776, along with three yearlings, two blacks and a gray.
Once they are across the road, the group begins to play in earnest. The crowd at Footbridge is delighted. They race and leap and tumble along the cut bank. Just like the other day, the black yearlings are especially rambunctious. One races above the bank and the other races just below it. The one on top would then invariably launch herself smack into the other, sending them both tumbling happily down hill in a cloud of dust.
It just makes you beam, inside and out, to watch such carefree frolicking. They are such a happy family. Only once am I distracted from this joyful sight - when I hear a sudden loud crash-rumble to the north. A rockslide, I guess, has just occurred. I turn to see if there is a telltale cloud of dust or anything, but I don't see anything. It's strange and wonderful and I hope no animals got hurt!
The pack finally musters some discipline and heads off to the east in somewhat of a line. Once they are nearly out of sight, I drive further east. I join Bob L in a pullout on the north side. Bob hauls his heavy camera and tripod out to a low hill. I ask if I will be in his way if I stay in the lot and he assures me I won't.
The wolves have stopped to do some sniffing almost directly across from me on a bench above the creek. In the forest above the bench is a remnant of the large bison herd from last night. The wolves approach the herd and I laugh to see the yearlings drop into stalk positions.
I think they were just wound up. Or they are practicingm but they do not threaten the herd or any of the calves. Instead they sniff all over and some of them bed down. Another group starts to dig around a stump on the side of the bench, and still others continue to play and roughhouse.
Dozens and dozens of visitors get to see these wolves, including a whole family from India. Their little girl is so excited when she sees them, she hops up and down.
After about a half hour, the wolves begin to move back west, giving us a great variety of views and behavior. Eventually they are back at the cut bank east of Footbridge, so I drive back there. The three yearlings remain near the cut bank while Middle Gray fakes us all out and slips across the road, heading back to the den. Laurie says she is a great homebody and loves babysitting the pups.
755, 820, 776 and the gray yearling head further west, travelling along the base of DPH and out onto to the Middle Flats. I assume they are heading toward the bison carcass in the river but, as you will see, I am wrong.
I stay at the Footbridge a while where I am treated to another amazing display of joyfull behavior by the two black yearlings. The cut bank is to them like a jungle gym plus sandbox is to little kids. They repeat their racing behavior and continue to ambush each other. The one yearling again earns her name as the flying wolf! This marvelously entertaining play goes on for nearly a half hour - boy do they have energy!
And the crowd just eats it up.
Eventually the yearlings tire of their play and move uphill to cool off among the trees of DPH. At this point I decide to head west to see if the wolves have made it to the bison carcass yet.
Tom & Chris come with me, as do another friendly couple, Tracy & Kevin. There are, thank goodness, no bison herds in the area, so for the second time today I park at Exclosure and climb the hill.
Once we get set up we can see that there are no wolves on the carcass: but there is a nice looking grizzly. We watch him a while and soon he takes a break from eating and ambles to the water for a drink. Then he moves further into the shallows, and lowers his body for a cool soak. Ahhhh.
While he is away from the carcass, the bald eagle flies in, and wins a battle against the many smaller birds, who squabble noisily but hop aside to let the eagle have his meal.
Having such a nice grizzly to watch has made me temporarily forget about the wolves! But then I hear Tracy say "they've trapped an elk!"
So, bye bye bear and hello wolves. I turn towards the confluence. I can see a loop of the river, which has formed a deep pool. A high bank curves behind the pool to the right. Four wolves are bedded on the bank, staring at a single elk standing in chest-high water. The elk appears to be a spike bull, his sprouting antlers still covered in velvet.
Suddenly I see two additional wolves SWIMMING in the water towards the elk. As they near the elk, he rears and lunges at them, plunging back and forth in the water, stomping at the wolves.
One wolf goes under, but comes up quickly and swims away. The other swimmer turns around, too. Good lord!
The four wolves on the bank get up, pacing back and forth, eager to join in but intimidated by the depth of the water and the strength of the elk. I wonder out loud how long this drama has been going on?
I know one of the swimming wolves is the 06. I think the other is 755. Laurie and Dan are on Confluence hill with a better view. She ID's the others on the bank as 754, 820, 776, and the uncollared gray yearling. Later, Laurie fills in the story for me - she thinks that the 06 probably chased this elk down from the den area and that she and 754 had it cornered all morning, while we were to the east, watching the other 7 wolves.
She thinks it was only luck that brought 755 and the other grays to this spot, after their journey east. But once they saw what the 06 and 754 were up to, they joined in.
It's an amazing sight. Over and over, various wolves (mostly the 06) launch themselves into the water. swim towards the elk and the elk fends them off. There are several close calls, several momentary contacts, but each time the wolves are thwarted by the brave and vigorous efforts of the elk.
In comparison to the swimmers, the wolves on the bank seem cowardly. The swimmers are clearly risking their lives. Since one of them is The 06 I realize I am witness to the example she has set for her offspring. And I also see how she has made 755 a braver wolf, too.
I am pleased to see that the 06 is no longer alone in her dogged pursuit of a potential meal. She does have help, but she is still so clearly the leader.
The elk is consistently able to escape each attack and we wonder whether this might go on all day. After about an hour, the 06 and 755 take a breather. Their tongues hang out and they bed down.
The elk gets a needed rest, too, although I can't imagine how hard it is to keep his wits about him, surrounded as he is by 6 determined wolves. The water probably feels good to him as the day is now hot, but I'm sure it wants to run for the trees or wouldn't mind some help from a buddy or a passing bison.
The elk is safest in the deep water. I doubt it could outrun all six wolves should it decide to make a break for it.
After about 15 minutes, nap time is over. The 06 and 755 launch themselves again into the water. The elk resists, the wolves go under, then pop up and drag themselves out on the bank again, shake off, then plunge in again. There is an enormous amount of splashing. Contact is made several times but the wolves cannot hang on. Several times it looks like the wolves will drown. Laurie tells me she has never seen anything like this.
Then suddenly the elk seems to make a mistake, because two wolves are now swimming upstream of it. A third wolf enters the water from the upstream bank. Suddenly I see the elk's head and neck rise higher than ever before, then its head disappears and the remaining wolves on the bank lunge and converge on one spot, behind a bluff, out of sight.
A few second pass in which I can see nothing, then Laurie's voice over the radio. "They got it".
Our view is now blocked, which is fine with me as I do not like to see an animal die. We pack up and move to another spot, hoping the elk goes quickly.
Laurie tells me later that it was over very quickly, that the 06 was actually on the elk's back, and that she was helped by 755, 754 and 820 at the end.
We set up further east and the view is quite different. The 06 stands at the carcass, alone, feeding ravenously. I can clearly see the elk's hindquarters to her left. I also see the two males about 20 feet away, bedded, staring. There are rules in this pack and everyone know that mama eats first. 755 seems stoic, while 754 wanders a bit with nervous energy, then plops down near his brother, rolling on his back. 820 paces a bit above the carcass and the other two grays are bedded further south.
The 06 feeds alone for a solid 45 minutes!
Finally she is finished. She walks a few feet up the bank and methodically wipes her bloody muzzle back and forth on a sagebrush. She heads back down to the river bottom, wades into the channel, and takes several big gulps of water. She is so swollen from her meal it is comical!
Now she heads east through the gravel and bracken, to bring the food in her belly to her three-month-old pups. If she had looked back, she would have seen the males rush headlong to what was left of the carcass, but she doesn’t look back. She is focussed on her next task.
She traipes through the grasses and willows on a steady path to the road. She makes no gesture towards the other wolves who helped her. Nor does she need Rick to stop traffic for her. She crosses efficiently, no muss, no fuss. She has pups to feed.
Meanwhile, the boys now get their turn. I think 820 is first, dashing in as soon as mom left to clean her muzzle. 755 and 754 have no problem sharing a turn at the table. They eat for a long while, too. The gray females come and go but I have some trouble following which one does what.
It's almost 2:30 - and I am getting a bit fried by the sun, so I decide to take a break and head down the hill. On my way down I see the grizzly is finally finished with his meal - heis off to the west, walking across the flats, heading towards Amethyst bench.
My friends and I believe that this carcass will draw wolves this evening, too, so we plan to meet at the Confluence around 6PM.
I decide to head to Roosevelt to get more ice for my cooler. On my way through Little America, two pronghorn mothers cross the road, each leading a tiny fawn.
I need a nap, so I head up above the Tower Store to a shady spot I know. On the way I notice the enormous construction project around the Calcite lot - it looks to me that they are building a second pullout across from the existing lot. It's too bad, as they have taken down several large trees that I have seen black bear cubs climb on many occasions.
And there is construction in the Tower Store area, as well. It looks to me like a lower lot is being built. I hope it will ease the terrible summertime congestion in this area, but I worry that it will only create additional bottlenecks.
After my nap I head back to Lamar, where I meet Tom & Chris. We climb up Geriatric to the spot where Laurie & Dan were this afternoon. We get a brief glimpse of 776 in the area but then lose her. We think the river has moved the carcass a bit and put it further out of sight.
While we wait for wolves to show up, we chat a bit and amuse ourselves with sightings of other animals - mostly bison and pronghorn. Tom & Chris ask me to explain various landmarks and place names, and as I love such nomenclature I am happy to comply, at least to the best of my knowledge.
But it's not until 8:15 that we finally get our second wolf! Tom spots 754 out in the sage, south of the carcass, where he probably has been bedded the whole time. He is now trotting towards the river, coming in for another serving.
We follow his journey to the carcass. Kathie L chooses this perfect time to arrive and we are able to help her see her first wolf of the day.
754 feeds a good while, but no other wolves join him, so we finally call it quits around 9PM and head in from this remarkable day.
TODAY I SAW: a grizzly bear, bison, a bald eagle, a very brave spike elk, 9 wolves (all from the Lamar Canyon pack including 755, Middle Gray, 776, 820, the 06, 754 and three yearlings and the spirit of Allison.