Yellowstone is awfully dark at 6AM!
But I get up as planned and head out for my first full day in the Park. The road looks wonderfully spooky but without the thick snow cover of years past, I miss having tracks to watch.
I meet up with Chloe and Becky at Hellroaring. They are not driving their distinctive van this time but a regular car. They give me an FRS radio to use so we can stay in touch. We pass a coyote in the road near Floating Island Lake - right about where I saw one yesterday afternoon. Then I see two more coyotes feeding furiously on fresh, road-killed elk on a high curve. The carrion smell seems to linger along the road an awfully long time, and I don't learn why until the next day.
I want to report it to a Ranger so the carcass can be dragged somewhere further from the road. I worry that any animals coming to feed on it will be hit themselves. We all remember that this is what probably happened to 103F. But when I get to Tower, the Ranger's cabin looks dark and still, so I decide not to wake anybody up. Instead I will make sure someone calls it in over the radio.
So, we travel on through Little America and into Lamar and stop at Mid Point to see if the Druids are still on the bison carcass. Yep, they sure are!
Dorothy and Ted join us here and we have a nice, long, leisurely sighting. Dorothy tells me that the Druids didn't kill this bison; it simply died here at the ripe old age of 20!
This morning I see 7 Druids, the whole pack. An 8th Druid, # 348M has been keeping to himself lately. These are the ďnew DruidsĒ and I try my best to learn to distinguish the individuals. The most amazing thing I learn, though, is that the new alpha of the Druids, the large black male wolf Rick calls "the New Black" is none other than Ellis, the formerly skinny buddy of 302's whose cocky behavior so annoyed us in June. He has certainly filled out and grown strong and handsome in the intervening months! It is quite an education in wolf biology to learn that a little scrawny smart-alecky wolf can grow up to be a bold and successful leader. I think IĎll have to go on calling him Ellis, though.
Former lover-boy 302 is still a large and handsome black wolf but he now has a slight limp, less pronounced than that of his former rival 253. 302's limp also stems from injuries received in a skirmish with invading wolves. 302's attackers were themselves driven off by Ellis. It seems to me that 302 is not quite as happy-go-lucky as before. He has achieved his apparent goal of becoming a Druid, though; he is the beta male of this pack and I thoroughly enjoy seeing him. The alpha female is 286F whom 21 chose as his next mate after he lost his long-time love, 42. She is a black-going-grey wolf and has a light face. I also see 255F, another black-going-grey who is greyer than 286, nearly silver. She was once the consort of 302, and also showed what looked to me to be strong leadership skills in the confusing days after 21's disappearance. She has always seemed to be a very independent wolf and seems now to have been relegated to lesser status. Lately she has been seen in the company of an unknown grey wolf, possibly a new suitor.
I also see black wolf 375F, whom I know very little about. I do remember this wolf being one of the Druids I saw in the spring. The other two wolves present this morning are both pups, one black and one grey. They are the most playful of the pack.
The wolves feed and roam and bed and yawn and stretch and roam some more. I keep smiling to myself. I can't believe I'm really here, watching Druid wolves in Lamar Valley.
After a while, we get a report that the Slough Creek Pack is in view in the eastern part of the Valley. For those who donít already know, this is a neighboring pack. A couple of days ago they came over the pass from their home territory into the Pebble Creek area, made a kill in Round Prairie and have not yet left. A rival pack in Druid territory while the Druids are at home is something we want to see. So we pack up and head east.
At the Soda Butte Cone I recognize Dan Hartman in the sage, looking through his scope. There is a sizable herd of bison grazing on both sides of the road in the area, and I am a little nervous about that. But we pile out and set up our scopes near our cars.
The Slough Creel wolves are actually visible to the naked eye, thanks to the number of blacks in the pack. They move across a snowy slope in and out of beautiful fir trees. This is a big pack; I count 12 and then 15. They look particularly healthy and robust, perhaps because they are eating so well lately, poaching the Druidís elk! While I watch this pack it's hard to keep in mind that they are NOT Druids, they seem so confident.
As for individual wolves, I notice a silver-faced black wolf who seems to be in some kind of leadership position and a large fluffy black with a raised tail, and also a big grey with a raised tail, too. We notice lots and lots of bull elk in this area and it occurs to me that we might see a chase.
Then I am distracted by some grunting. Oh, those bison are a lot closer than before. About a dozen of them on the north side of the road seem to have decided they want to be on our side of the road. A braid of the Soda Butte creek comes very close to the road at this spot, which means that in order for the bison to join the rest of the herd, they have to cross the pavement, head down a steep hill, cross the creek at the bottom and head back up another hill. This means they will hesitate and try various ways to avoid one obstacle or another, which means, they might wish to travel in the area where we are standing. All in all Iím feeling too close to bison so I pick up Layla and head back to my car. Just then Becky calls to me - Chase! Wendy! Thereís a chase! I think she means the bison are chasing me or that someone is chasing bison but she means wolves!
Well, Iíve gotta see this! I scoot back down to where Becky, Chloe and Dan are standing and suddenly I barely need my scope at all. Fifteen Slough Creek wolves come tearing down a wide snowy slope after a big bull elk. I watch, breathless, and at the same time glance over my shoulder at the bison. Most of them are already across the creek. A few move over to our side of the hill but they seem aware of us and tolerant of us rather than belligerent.
I turn back to the chase and see the wolves have now nearly caught up to the bull elk which is rapidly nearing the bank of the main channel of the Creek. Suddenly the wolves slow down and the elk turns to face them. Then suddenly the wolves seem confused. The elk stands still with its hindquarters only a few feet from the edge. What happened?
The wolves look right at us and my heart sinks, thinking that our presence may have denied the wolves a meal. Only the silver-faced black wolf still seems intent on her prey. The bull elk faces her calmly, as if instinctively knowing she wonít proceed. Do the bison have something to do with this inexplicable change of heart? The wolves mill about and some of them turn around and head back uphill into the forest. The silver-faced black looks longingly at the elk and back at her retreating pack. A few of the bison that just crossed the creek trot in the direction of the elk and for a split second I think that they are deliberately protecting it.
I ask Becky and Chloe why they think the wolves stopped and they both say it was probably the noise of the diesel truck that came by. Ah. My New York ears hadnít registered that sound as a distraction at all! But I do remember hearing it. At the time it worried me only because I thought it might drive the bison even closer. Chloe adds that this pack has a history of reacting to road sounds this way. Hmmmm.
Secretly I hope that such road sounds remain a deterrent to them, as I hate to think of wolves getting hit by cars. Plus, as a Druid fan I want them to leave and go back home!
Then we notice that the bull elk is bleeding. I see blood on his hindquarters and his rear leg and now I see he limps. His leg is quite swollen below the knee joint, so that's not a new injury. I think it is all the more unusual that the wolves let this elk go. Then again, maybe they know they can always find him later.
We watch the wolves move higher and deeper into the trees, while the wounded elk moves off in the opposite direction, escorted by several bison. I wonder what the elk is thinking; he sure looked like a goner five minutes ago. I bet he feels like the Luckiest Elk in Lamar Valley.
All this excitement makes me hungry and I am suddenly eager for bacon and eggs. Soon we are headed into higher altitudes. The beauty of Lamar grows darker and snowier up here and we meet some icy patches of road.
We arrive in Cooke City at the Soda Butte Lodge in time for breakfast. We have a merry old time, although I drink way too much coffee! On the way back down I spot a snowshoe hare hopping away from the road just past the northeast entrance and a little further on a short-tailed weasel makes a mad, successful dash across the road.
We stop at Barronette to scope for goats but have no luck. I wonder where goats spend the winter?
We stop at Round Prairie and find a lone black wolf, a youngster from an unknown pack. There is an elk carcass visible in the riverbed. It looks mostly picked-over but a coyote and some birds are finding enough morsels to keep them happy. The black pup is to the left of this in some high grass tugging on something, perhaps a portion of the carcass that he dragged over here or some left-over brought here by another animal. For a while he is hard to see; I catch glimpses through the tussocks now and then but eventually he moves over to the main carcass. This gives all of us an excellent extended view and we all appreciate it. He has a thick black coat and a round belly and he looks pretty good for being on his own. He has a young look and beautiful yellow eyes. But what is most striking to all of us is how his tail is so thoroughly tucked between his legs. It almost looks like he has no tail at all. And he seems exceedingly wary and ravenously hungry all at once.
When he first arrives at the main carcass he chases off the coyote but soon the coyote returns and they feed together in surprisingly close proximity. There are two sections to the carcass, one is the backbone and head of the former elk - the other is the pelvis and still-attached legs. The two sections lie about four feet apart and each animal holds forth on his own section. At one point while we are watching, both the wolf and the coyote abruptly raise their heads and look off to the west. Is it the Slough Creek wolves coming back? I see the coyote rear up on its hind legs and leap forward in an unusual balletic move. The wolf stands still and watches for a good while, then returns to his meal.
A little later, a second coyote appears, which is what both animals saw. The two smaller canines have a spat, they posture and feint, competing for a place at the carcass. In the end they both partake. The wolf begins to tug and tug at the pelvic joint and finally chews off a good sized bone. He then flops on his belly with the bone between his front paws, gnawing happily.
This sighting provides an excellent chance to see a wolf fairly close. He fills up my scope and I love seeing his piercing stare when he looks my way. But who is he and to whom does he belong? How long can he live this way, scavenging left-over kills? We canít help but wonder if he belongs to the Phantom Pack, a group of wolves with a white alpha female that were video-taped on a kill in this spot in November and became the talk of the town.
Eventually the pup moves off the carcass back to the high grass area where we first saw him. And then he moves further away so we take this cue to move on ourselves.
Itís time to check on the whereabouts of the Slough Creek Pack. In wolf terms, we left them awfully close to the Druids. The anticipation of the two packs meeting really gets our blood going.
We arrive at Mid Point just in time. Before I get my scope up on the hill I hear people describing wolf action over the radios from various points of view. What I see are fifteen Slough Creek wolves running west across the middle of the wide alluvial fan on the far side of the river. I see four coyotes streak across the flats in four different directions. I see two wolves, a black and a grey, running uphill toward Jasper Bench and I see a grey wolf running flat out north across the valley towards the road. I follow this wolf as he seems to be running for his life. I watch him cross the road east of the Institute and run straight uphill until he finally stops at the top, where he spins around and stands still on all fours, panting, looking straight back to the river.
I look back to the river and see the still-running Slough Creek pack divide into two groups. Half go uphill after the two wolves that went that way and the other half run down hill toward the river in the general direction of the old bison carcass. Then I see silvery wolf 255 running from west to east on the valley floor, as far from the river as she can manage, ready to bolt for the road if need be, right past the hill I am standing on. She runs a long time, looking worriedly over her shoulder at the Slough wolves until she eventually crosses the road somewhere around the Picnic pullout.
So many animals are moving in so many directions it is really hard to keep track of things. Only after comparing notes later with the others am I able to see the full picture, which goes like this: While we were at Round Prairie watching the black pup, the Slough Creek Pack got up and started a tour of Druid territory. They traveled steadily west, passing the confluence and the rendesvous site without spending much time in either place. Meanwhile, the Druids were still bedded on a slope above the bison carcass, just east of the Institute. When the Slough Pack got to the widest fan, they began to run west at a steady lope. Chloe said she saw Druid alpha 286 suddenly lift her head, as if she smelled or heard something. Then all the Druids got up. Then, to Chloeís surprise, she saw the Druids suddenly take off at a dead run TOWARD the advancing Slough wolves. In response, the Slough wolves switched into high gear and came on at a dead run to meet the Druids, which they outnumbered, 2 to 1. At that moment, the Druids must have sensed their inferior position and suddenly it became every wolf for himself.
It was 302 and 286 that I saw first, running uphill towards Jasper Bench.
The four coyotes had been hanging out on or near the kill, waiting their turn. When the Druids suddenly abandoned the area and ran east, the coyotes figured the kill was theirs for a while. Moments later it turned into what must be a coyotes worst nightmare - 22 wolves rushing at full speed in their direction. I'm telling you, they got out of the way lickety split!
I didn't see where 302 and 286 ended up as my attention was pulled in so many directions. Now I see the two factions of the Slough Creek wolves start to regroup. They come together in a huge celebratory dog pile, tails high with excitement and wagging furiously, hearts beating with pride. Then they begin to howl and Oh, how glorious it sounds! It is like a huge hi-five session by the victorious team. Oh, man do they make noise! It is loud and raucous and goes on and on. Their self-congratulation seems fully deserved as they have just kicked Druid butt in the the Druids own house.
Believe me, I feel bad for the Druids. But I'd be lying if I said it wasn't thrilling to watch.
In the end, no Druids were injured. It's too soon to know whether the outcome, if there is an outcome, will be permanent or temporary. The Sloughs won this round, though, and they are a beautiful bunch of wolves.
After the howl-fest, some of the Sloughs move into the forest at the top of the fan and I worry that 302 or 286 might be hiding in there. But after a few nervous minutes, I see those Sloughs come back out from the trees and they have an endearingly bouncy welcome-back huddle. Now the group heads down to the carcass. I see the silver-faced alpha female in the lead and after her comes a big black wolf. They sniff around the area but no one feeds and none seem particularly hungry.
Now we get a report that Ellis and 375 are at the rendesvous site. I swing my scope in that direction. Ah, good. There they are, on the western foothill. 375 is bedded, probably winded, while Ellis stands on all fours and begins to howl. He howls again and again but gets no answer. I donĎt speak wolf, but it seems he is saying, Have faith, Druids! We survived, Letís regroup! A while later we hear a lone howl from somewhere in the forest on Specimen Ridge. This howl continues off and on quite a while but we never find out who it is. Eventually 255 and the two pups are seen approaching the western foothill, and Ellis comes down to greet them. A little after that 375 comes down too, and these five wolves head southeast.
The Sloughs put on another tail-wagging huddle and then head jauntily up the slope toward Jasper Bench. As they march one by one across the snow I get a good look at them and count all 15. Again I am reminded of the days when I watched 26 Druids marching across these same hills. It's probably the air of confidence that makes them seem so familiar. They just look like stars.
As the light fades I catch a glimpse of a coyote sneaking back to the abandoned bison carcass. All this drama over wolves, he must be thinking. Canít a guy grab a bite in peace?
Our "pack" gathers and we head to Gardiner and the Yellowstone Mine for dinner. We have a great time, talking about our terrific sightings and trying to figure out what it all means. We talk of our concern for 302 and 286. I argue that they are both hardy survivors, especially 302, but secretly I worry that they might be caught alone on a snowy ridge.
We bid each other goodnight with fervent hopes that we'll find the Druids reunited by morning.
As I drive back up to Mammoth I ask Allison to see if she can do something about that for me!
What a great day!
Today I saw:
Bison, 12 coyotes, elk, magpies, ravens, a snow-shoe hare, a short-tailed weasel, 24 wolves (including 7 Druids, 15 Sloughs, an unknown grey and a lone black pup) 6 Lurker Loons and the spirit of Allison