I am out at 7 this morning. It looks like another couple inches of snow fell last night. I have a little trouble getting out of Laurie's driveway as the snow is a bit soft in spots and it's very deep. But I've learned a thing or two from Chloe about driving in snow and I get past it.
A full moon reveals tracks all over the road; coyote, maybe deer, maybe moose and bison. The sky is clear and full of stars and the temperature gauge reads 10 degrees! Woo hoo!
Dawn moves reluctantly forward and I enjoy the amazing landscape.
Dark firs border snow-blanket meadows, unbroken by tracks. The ungulates know not to bother with these spots. Leave them for the photographers!
Up ahead at 21's Crossing I see a big bull elk is climbing up the north slope. The trail he made to the left, through the river bottoms, is clearly visible, revealing his belly-deep trudge.
First light arrives, but instead of it making the road easier to see, it does the opposite. I'm not sure why, but the light seems only to make everything murky and indistinct. There is no texture or variety which makes the edge of the road really hard to see. I find myself wishing for more frequent orange markers and realize I am mostly guessing where "too far to the right" is!
I hear some promising radio chatter and keep driving east until I get to Dorothy's. I hop out, delighted to hear that wolves are in view. It's the Lamar Canyon pack.
There they are! My scope reveals them just as they reach the far edge of the flats and I watch them ascend the snowy hill below the western end of Jasper Bench. Apparently, Bob L got the first spot today: on his way east he saw them coming down the northern slope just east of Fishermans. He slowed down and watched the pack cross the road between him and Coyote Overlook.
Well, almost the whole pack.
One wolf, a female pup, has been left on the hill and although we cannot see her, we can hear her! Her high-pitched howl floats out from the clump of trees opposite Fisherman's. I try in vain to see her, but she eludes me.
Did I mention it's snowing again? Yes, a fresh squall has come in, spoiling visibility. But I am hopeful it won't last.
I turn back to the Bench and see The 06 lead her pack through deep snow between the tree trunks, trudging uphill. I see both adult males, 755 and his husky brother, 754, and three gray pups. Laurie points out the darkest gray, a male. The other two pups are very similar in color, but the female has a collar: she is #776F.
The pack has now reached the top of the Bench and the snow lets up long enough for us all to get a good view. Seeing the difficulty they have getting through the snow makes me realize how hard it must be for them to hunt, although it must be dreadful for the elk as well.
The little lost girl howls again and again, and her pack responds, letting her know exactly where they are. Of course she can see them as easily as we can, too.
Laurie tells me that this is a pattern that has developed with the light female pup. She confesses that the regulars have nick-named her "Barbie" because she's pretty but not so smart. It is not known if she deliberately stays behind, or if they sneak away from her or if she just forgets to follow them, but she has done this numerous times.
So far, each time, she has either finally caught up with the pack or they come back for her. It's humorous at the moment, but it's not very safe for Barbie. She needs to stick with her pack.
The pack rallies and howls again, and heads across the windswept top of Jasper towards the "back" side of the bench. Something draws their interest. Then a cry goes up that other wolves are being seen. High above the bench to the west, on a snowy ridge bordered by an old burn, are the Agates!
Seven wolves run diagonally down the slope. They may be chasing elk but we don't see any ahead of them. They are not close enough to the Lamar pack to be after them. The Agates go out of sight and we see the Lamar pack standing at attention near some boulders at the back of the bench.
The Agates howl, faintly but unmistakeably, from their unseen location; a nice, long group howl which reverberates through the chilly morning air. I watch the alert posture of the Lamar pack wolves during this rival pack's statement. Once the Agates have finished, the Lamar pack lets loose their response, asserting their right to this patch of land, and putting the Agates on notice that they aren't going anywhere!
Several weeks ago there was an incident between these packs - the Lamar pack was near the big fan and the Agates had been roaming high up on a slope of Amethyst. One Agate adult, 586M, had been away from his pack and was now travelling back to them, and when the Lamar Canyon pack howled, he apparently mistook them for his own family. He came bounding down the hill, right towards the rival pack of seven.
Only when he was very close did he belatedly realize his mistake and turned tail, running across the flats, with the Lamar Canyon wolves in hot pursuit. They caught him and rolled him but he was able to get away.
Curiously, he was not pursued further. He was clearly outnumbered, and one would think that 755 and 754 were within their "rights" to finish him off, but they did not.
586M found a spot to hole up a while, nursed his wounds, and eventually headed back to the Agates. He survived; he is one of the wolves we see today. But today's count of seven means that the Agates are one short of a full pack - one black is missing.
Laurie tells me that one of their black pups, a male, has been seen wandering on his own off and on the last few days, and she believes he is the missing member. He is the same age as the Lamar Canyon's pups.
The Lamar Canyons are now bedded but I notice several heads remain up and alert. Some of us feel we hear a lone howler from time to time, coming from the east. Laurie believes that the lone howler is probably the "missing" black Agate pup. He must be somewhere close by, judging from his howl, but far enough to keep the Lamar Canyon's from pursuing him.
Another snow squall comes along and settles over Jasper Bench, cancelling our view.
So we scan the other areas where the snow is not obstucting the view. Very soon someone finds a fox, in fact, two foxes. Bob L says that when the snow is so deep like this, it forces the foxes to come out from the forest areas where they usually hunt and try their luck on the crusted slopes. They are light enough to walk on top of it.
They seek out areas where bison or elk have been grazing and pawing up the snow, which makes sense because they help expose the hideouts of mice and voles. I find a third fox on the same slope - each fox is a good distance from the other. It looks like there is an unspoken spacial understanding between them. No crowding, please!
The little lost girl continues to howl every 10 minutes or so, but her pack has given up on howling back, at least temporarily. They know she knows where they are and so does she!
Three hours of standing in the cold has gotten to me so I hop in the car and head toward Slough for a chance to warm up. I go slowly down the hill, grinning when I see the deep paths in the snow made by the Lamar Canyon wolves as they came down from the north to cross the road.
I find Rick and Kip at Slough and learn that they saw the Agates from this vantage point while we were seeing them from Dorothy's. The have no wolves in sight at the moment, though. I tell Rick we keep hearing a lone howler and think it could be the missing black Agate.
He tells me he's had signals of 692F in the area, somewhat near the Peregrine Hills. He would like to find her to learn a bit more of her current story. She is a former Agate female, technically part of the Blacktail Pack, but her alpha female sister (693F) has pushed her out. As breeding season approaches, some alpha females become quite competitive and I suppose 693F didn't care for the way things went last year, when two of her sisters bred along with her.
This year, she has followed the behavior of various alpha females before her, in driving out her sibling. I remind myself, that this does not always lead to a bad result for the one being booted, but it is just sad to see a naturally sociable wolf forced to be on its own.
Who knows, this may give 692F a chance to find an unattached male and perhaps start her own pack?
I drive to the Straightaway pullout and stop to scope for her here a while, but fairly soon another squall comes in and ruins visibility again. I scope Specimen Ridge instead but don't find here there! After another half-hour of fruitless scoping, I head back east.
When I get back to Coyote Overlook, the sun has come out again. I find the Lamar Canyon wolves in exactly the same place I left them. 754M is bedded furthest east of his pack, and remains in an alert, head-up position, as if on guard duty.
And then I hear the likely reason why. The lone howler is heard, faintly, from somewhere to the east. 755's head is up, too. I get the feeling that they know exactly where the lone howler is and who he is, too, probably.
Barbie howls too.
A little later, 754 gets up, goes to his brother as if asking permission for his next move. He is so submissive! I am reminded of 302's behavior with 480. 755 seems to say "yes", so 754 heads down to The 06 and sniffs her, only to have her snap at him! Oh, poor 754. He is very easy going, though, and just heads back up to his brother. He grovels enthusiastically at 755 and then beds nearby.
The 06 is perturbed, though. She gets up and moves to the west a bit. She tramps down the snow in a circle and re-beds by her self-sufficient self.
After a while of watching bedded wolves, I decide it's time to head to the confluence to see if I can find any otters. No sooner do I reach the curve by the river than the radio crackles to life. A lone wolf has been spotted in the flats. A black.
I pull into the confluence lot and take a quick look for otters. I see no tracks or sign to encourage me, so I head back to see the lone wolf.
Most of the other wolfers are at Coyote Overlook so I stop at Dorothy's for a different perspective.
I find the lone wolf with no trouble.
He is below Jasper Bench, right at the edge of the flats, a good distance east of the bedded Lamar Canyon's. I can see the trail he has made coming down the steep, forested slope, and some of the trail he made coming across the Bench from the "back".
Barbie can still be heard, plaintively howling her tale of "woe is me". The young black pup clearly hears her, and it sure looks to me that her call is drawing him. He pauses, ears attentive, then moves forward.
He is a good-looking young wolf, robust, yet graceful, with thick black fur. He leaves the cover of the trees and trots into the open, clearly visible against the pure white. He seems a curious young fellow, but at just 9 months, it's hard for me to believe he is ready for the responsibilities of breeding.
He stops and sits. He seems to be close to the edge of a narrow channel of the Lamar, surely frozen over. From my viewpoint, the channel seems to be a steep-sided gully, a bit treacherous in such deep snow. The wolf stretches his head high, trying to see the terrain, perhaps to judge whether to jump over the gully or tread across it. He is hesitant which indicates to me some maturity on his part. Hmm, I'm impressed.
He sits down again, as if to think it over. He howls!
A pair of coyotes venture out from below Dorothy's, not at all pleased with this intruder. They are emboldened, perhaps, by their knowledge of the territory and the wolf's obvious trepidation.
The coyotes move closer to him and I think he gets a whiff of them. Barbie howls, he howls and the Lamar Canyons remain silent.
Finally he seems to make a decision. Now is not the time and today is not the day. Perhaps he hears too much whining in Barbie's voice? Or perhaps the approching coyotes have troubled him before? Maybe he gets a whiff of Barbie's dad or uncle or mom nearby? Whatever his thought process might be, he turns around and leaves the open flats.
The coyotes stop and watch him go. Then another snow-squall blows in, blurring the story. When it clears again, the black Agate pup has travelled half-way up the front slope of Jasper Bench. He pauses near a large boulder, and looks back over his shoulder.
Barbie howls, he howls, and I imagine him saying - see you later, when we're older!
I glance over to the west and see the Lamar pack is up and moving.
For the next two hours, we watch the black Agate pup retreat to the back to Jasper Bench while the Lamar Canyon pack moves from their siesta spot over to the east.
The 06 leads, of course. She heads down the slope through thick snow, and it flies out behind her. I do love to watch her. She is so fearless and tough.
The Agate pup seems to have known somehow that the Lamar Canyon pack was about to get moving. He keeps well ahead of them, neither rushing nor lingering. He seems quite confident for one so young and alone.
The 06 crosses the saddle and waits for the pack to catch up to her. The pups take various different routes through the deep snow before realizing, belatedly that mom chose the most sensible path and that they ought to have simply followed her!
By the time the Lamar pack has re-united on the front edge of Jasper Bench, the Agate pup has reached the "back" of the Bench and is moving just in front of the line of trees.
He climbs a snow-covered boulder and rests there for a bit.
The 06 now follows the front edge, and her family follows in a fairly straight line, but in doing so, they get awfully close to some cornices, which worries me. Then suddenly they bolt in many directions as if scared by something. They soon recover and come together for a re-assurance rally. I wonder if part of a cornice broke, making a scary sound?
Soon after this they find something fascinating, because they stop and have a sniffing fest. It's hard to see what has piqued their interest but they sure give it a good smell.
Next the 06 leads them straight back across the bench. I gaze ahead for the lone black and see he has already moved west, well ahead of them.
The sun is westering and casts magic-hour light on the slopes. As the black wolf moves, his coat is outlined in sunlight, giving him a warm, reddish tinge. Then he leaves the sun for the shadows, yet we can still follow his progress in an absolutely lovely way: as he trots, he kicks up a spray of snow which the sun turns to glitter as he goes.
By about 4PM we have lost them all. Ah me. What a nice day with the Yellowstone wolves.
A final snow squall moves in so I decide that is my cue to head home. As I near the Institute, I notice a fox in the flats quite close to the road so I stop to watch him a while. The low-angle sun turns his reddish coat to gold. He is gorgeous!
My last stop is at the confluence to watch some dippers. Now I head towards the mountains, going slowly and enjoying my winter paradise.
Today I saw: bison, coyote, mule deer, elk, 3 foxes, bighorn sheep, 14 wolves (6 of the Lamar Canyon Pack, including 754, 755, 776 and The 06. I heard, but didn't see "Barbie" their light gray pup, plus 8 Agate Pack wolves, including 641M, 586M and 715F ) and the spirit of Allison.