No moon today as it is quite overcast. The drive out is quiet and just as beautiful as ever.
My first stop is at Tower. In the dim light I notice a small group of elk behind the Ranger station making a move to cross the road. They are very wary. One ventures right to the edge and pauses, then at the sound of an approaching car she retreats. After the car passes a tall older cow advances. She has more confidence. Once she is half-way across at least 20 elk follow her and enter the flats on far side. Only a few stragglers are left. These cross timidly and somehow spook themselves. Some slip on the ice in their haste but manage to avoid going down. Finally only one last animal remains. She pauses at the roadside so long she loses her nerve. The rest of the herd is now far ahead. She turns around and wanders back behind the Ranger station to graze by herself.
I move on into Little America and stop at the Boulder Pond where a gorgeous dawn is beginning. I turn off the engine and listen to a chorus of yip-yapping coyotes who seem as happy as I am to greet the pink and purple sky. I see Jeff's van approach and he stops to chat. He gives me the morning's news and then we both head west.
I figure Charles will be at Elk Creek by now so I go on up to join him. I find him with Mark and Carol and they have 6 wolves bedded down on an open slope above a burn. 103 is one of them, as is the Big Grey, the "dominant black", two other blacks and a collared grey. Then a seventh wolf appears, another black. This is the "burnt tree" group. After a while they start to walk uphill, the Big Grey in the lead. Some elk at the top see them and stare, then get the heck outta Dodge. One by one these wolves top the ridge and drop down the other side. Just as the last two reach the top, an eighth wolf appears below them, another grey, following their trail from a distance. This wolf eventually tops the ridge too. There is much speculation as to who this last grey might be, and why it keeps such a distance, but no one knows for sure.
That sums up the view to my right. To my left another wolf story is in progress. The Druids are way out there, at their Junction Lake kill. Charles helps me find them. I see the Alphas, 21 and 42 as well as a black wolf. Then I see 6 more Druid members in this area, moving on and off the kill, for a total of nine. It's just 8AM and already I have seen 17 wolves! I also hear a report that 106F, (the collared-grey former-Druid) is bedded down with an unknown black wolf near a kill that's visible from Hellroaring.
A beautiful dawn breaks over the hills. The day promises to be very bright.
But the good weather brings some news that I'm not sure I like. The wolf project folks have been waiting for conditions like this to begin darting in order to fit some more wolves with radio collars. I am generally in favor of scientific research that helps animals but this procedure makes me squeamish. I don't like to see animals run for their lives from people with guns. I've seen this in wildlife films and I am not eager to witness it live. But apparently today is the day.
The procedure involves a spotter plane, a helicopter and a team on the ground. Once a wolf is darted with a drug it is transported to the ground team. The wolf is fitted with a radio collar and a blood sample is taken. Then it is airlifted back to where it was caught and watched from a distance until the drug wears off. Rick is on the radio with Doug Smith who is in the spotter plane. Ed Bangs is in the helicopter. I think he is the rifleman, but I guess he could be the pilot. Rick is pleased that there are a number of wolves visible today and given the clear weather the day has much potential for success.
For the time being I enjoy watching the Druids. I see the alphas get up and move to the left, going out of sight. The youngsters get rambunctious and tussle with each other, then eventually follow the alphas out of sight. A little while after this we all hear the sound of the helicopter. I hear Jeff on the radio from his position in Little America saying that the chopper spooked a lot of bison out of a dozen hidden pockets and they are all heading straight for him. Bob Landis teases Jeff saying "It's called a stampede. Film it".
I head down to Tower in case the "burnt tree" wolves are now visible from that side. I'm in luck. From a position near the Roosevelt gate I am able to watch all kinds of cool wolf behavior up on Jeff's Hill. The first wolf I see is a grey sitting by itself in an open snow patch between two trees on the northwest point of the ridge. I guess this is the wolf we saw shadowing the others, the separate grey. This wolf remains apart from the group the whole time I am watching, yet it seems to want to be connected to them.
A bit lower down and to the left of this wolf I find the kill from yesterday evening. lt's easy to find because of all the birds on it. Soon I see that there are wolves all over this hill! I see the Big Grey and the Dominant Black interacting in what looks to me like courting behavior. She rests her head on his back. Another black comes rushing up the hill towards these two and submits to the Big Grey. The Dominant Black gets into the act, too, snarling and tussling with the begging black.
Some movement on the lower slope draws my eye. Well, look who it is! I recognize 103 from her raccoon-mask and greyish muzzle. She romps downhill to the kill and scatters the birds. She makes a game of it, rushing back and forth. Then I see three other wolves come to the kill for a late breakfast. 103 joins them and I watch her tug at the carcass. Then, in a bold move, 103 grabs a long white bone, a pelvis with some spine attached. She drags it uphill away from the others and behind a tree. She sits down by herself and starts to gnaw.
The other wolves remain on the kill and every once in a while one of them will dart to the left or right to chase birds. I see two golden eagles in a nearby tree, one on each side of the trunk, patiently waiting their turn. The separate grey moves higher on the slope and beds down again.
Eventually Mark, Carol and Charles join me down here. Every once in a while I hear the helicopter and it unsettles me. I hope the Druids are not so bothered that they leave the area for deeper backcountry. Mark and Carol get a report that some mystery wolves have been seen in the Lamar, roughly near the trail to Cache Creek. Rick would like to someone to check on them as he can't go himself.
Mark and Carol are game for it and so is Charles. I say count me in! I haven't been out in Lamar for three days and I want to see it again. I find the snow is deeper and more lovely than ever and the sun is very bright. The elk herd on the Jasper Bench is still here although there are none in the main valley. Along the road near the Institute in a thin layer of yesterday's snow we see a clear trail of wolf tracks!
On the Lamar River I see melted spots that weren't here before and dippers out in force. Mark and Carol choose a pullout opposite the confluence and we get out our stuff. Mark breaks trail for us and up the hill we slowly trudge through thick and crusty snow carrying our gear. Once at the top on level ground I am amazed by the view. We look directly across the river bottoms to the Cache Creek Trail. In winter this is a cross-country ski trail and the tracks are quite visible. It tickles me to see it this way, knowing that I walked that very ground last Spring.
The sun is quite warm and we are flushed from our climb. I'm glad I brought my sunglasses! We scope every inch of the area but find no wolves. We find the bighorns and many bull elk. Carol spots a coyote which actually turns out to be a fox! Wow! My first fox in Lamar. Then Mark finds another one! I study them in my scope so that I will recognize how they differ from coyotes. I see a daintier version of a coyote, its tail is as long as its body and its body tends to slope down from head to rump. It is too far away for me to tell color but then I learn that these are not "red foxes" but a special sub-species called a "mountain fox".
The country is simply stunning and I am grateful to Mark and Carol as I would never have ventured up here on my own. We have our lunch and keep scoping but none of us has any wolf luck. Carol tries to report to Rick but the signal doesn't carry. We stick it out a while longer but then call it a day. Down the snowy hillside we go and back to the warmth of our cars. On the drive back I search hopefully for otters as usual, but still no luck. We stop to take photos of the three bighorns. They are just below the cliffs, which are tinged orange today. We also get another beautiful sight on the way back; a big bald eagle perched in a cottonwood above the Lamar, showing up nicely against the blue sky.
As I pass Fishermen's pullout I notice movement on the steep hills just above the river on my left. I stop. The herd of elk that has daily occupied this westernmost knob of the Jasper Bench has made its way down to the river. Two dozen elk are marching in a loosely formed line on the frozen Lamar River and more are moving cautiously down the steep hill to join the leaders. I have never seen this and find it particularly interesting so l watch for a while. More joys of winter trips in Yellowstone; not only seeing animals use the river as a road but also having the luxury of stopping right where you are without causing a traffic jam.
I stop at Tower again and I'm glad I did. I hear the howling first. Layla helps me find 103 and a grey on Jeff's Hill and then I find two more greys in the flats. These two wolf pairs begin a howling dialogue that goes on for 20 minutes! Oh how I wish I could speak this language! Back and forth, back and forth they go, telling stories, suggesting where to go, what to do when we get there, this is what I suppose they are saying.
Finally the greys in the flats get up and head for the road. They cross it and move uphill through the forest, presumably to join 103 and the other grey at the top. Then I see a third wolf with the greys, a black that until now escaped my sight. The black crosses the road too and moves through the trees. After I lose them I drive on to Elk Creek.
I rejoin Charles and Mark and Carol here. I tell my tale and they share theirs. They now have four wolves asleep on the snowy flats right in front of us; a grey and three blacks. The sun is bright and the wolves are really zonked out, enjoying the unexpected warmth. One of the black wolves stretches its legs straight into the air and holds them that way for a while. It's very funny. Several visitors stop by while we're here and we offer them views in our scopes. It's so fun to do this and the people really love what they see. Then I find out that the Leopold darting did not go well; the wolves eluded the chopper in heavy timber. The helicopter will soon be coming for these wolves.
Mark and Carol and Charles head west to Hellroaring to peek at 106. I stay here and soon I'm joined by Steve and Diane and Bob Landis. He sets up his equipment and I prepare myself for the inevitable. The four wolves below us are still asleep. None of these are collared and we suspect they have never had an experience with a helicopter. All four remain bedded until the chopper is nearly on top of them. Now two blacks are up and now the third black. Two start running, one behind the other, and the third soon catches up beside them. The chopper swoops low and suddenly they scatter in three directions.
I focus on the grey, who amazingly is still stationary, sitting on its haunches. Suddenly it bolts with helicopter in hot pursuit. The grey runs uphill, tries dashing behind a boulder, no good, tries another boulder, finds this better but still not safe. The grey takes off again and just that quickly the dart gets him. The helicopter veers off and the wolf begins to run slower. The helicopter lands below us out of sight and takes off again a short while later, presumably carrying the darted grey.
Bob seems happy overall as he got some good footage. I admit it turns out to be a quicker process than I expected. Ed Bangs (or whoever it is) must be a really good shot, leaning out on the skid of a hovering helicopter as he did. But I still wish there were another way.
After a while I take a ride to Hellroaring to see 106 myself. Mark and Carol help me focus on the right spot and I see two wolves curled up asleep on an elk carcass. It is far cooler here under the trees than in the sunlit pullouts and standing around gets to be pretty cold work. I am fond of 106; she was the first wolf I saw back in May 2000 that could be identified for sure, so I am a little disappointed to only see her fast asleep. She and the black have been bedded down all day!
I return to Tower in hopes of finishing out the day with one last sighting. But the activity down here seems to have ceased. No doubt the wolves are spooked by the flying invaders and are understandably taking cover. A little while later I hear some chatter on the radios. I notice people laughing and shaking their heads as if some joke is making the rounds. Well, it turns out that the joke was on us. As Charles tells it, while he and Mark and Carol were waiting for 106 and the black to wake up, a raven dropped down and perched on the carcass right next to the sleeping wolves and proceeded to peck off beak-fulls of dinner. Mighty tolerant wolves, those two. Or, more like, no wolves at all. We had all been fooled. It was never 106 or any wolf at all. It was nothing but wind-ruffled tufts of hair on an elk carcass!
Later that evening we all have a good laugh over this at Outlaws Pizza. We talk about the future of wolf research and all the interesting activity of the day. We enjoy each others' company and express our hopes for good sightings tomorrow.
After all, tomorrow is my last day.
Today I saw: 17 wolves including 21, 42 and 103; 3 bighorn sheep, bison, coyotes, elk, a bald eagle, 2 golden eagles, 2 mountain foxes, magpies, ouzels and ravens