No new snow this morning, but there is layer of frost.
It seems very dark driving in today. The roads are mostly dry & clear, but when I get to the valley, visibility is poor.
Laurie & I go straight to Slough but find nothing happening here yet.
And visibility is bad anyway. The campground road is still open and we see cars down at the Knob lot, so we give that a try. But then we see Rick heading back from the Knob. He confirms no wolves in sight, but he also says Jeremy got faint signals of the Phantom pack west of Hellroaring.
Hmm. So the word is “spread out”.
Laurie & I pick Wrecker. It’s snowing like mad with big thick flakes, making scoping pretty much of a joke. But there is a huge Douglas Fir here with a circle of bare ground beneath it, so I set up under its protective branches and aim north. I can just barely see the big eroded cliff where, over the years, I have seen many wolf packs congregate. But given the poor conditions, I’m not sure I’d see them even if they were there today!
Finally it clears enough for me to see shapes out there – but it’s elk and bison. Some people are at the Yellowstone Bridge, others at Elk Creek and still others at Hellroaring, both upper and lower.
Carl calls from Elk Creek, reporting a quick glimpse of a black out by Junction Lake, heading west. Laurie & I join him and find it clearer here, but we see only elk on all the hillsides. Hmmm. Wolves oughta be where the elk are, right?
Then we hear from Krystina. She’s at upper Hellroaring. She says the Junctions have just arrived!
So on we go. I find the lot here has not been properly plowed – it is quite icy and very bumpy. It’s no easy feat to get all the cars in, but we manage.
Once I get set up I see them straight ahead, on a wide snowy slope, surrounding a small herd of bison. Apparently this is the whole pack, all 21. It looks to me that they are seriously testing these bison. However, the bison are not having it. They charge the wolves several times. Some of the pack gives up, moving west and uphill. Some pups, easily distracted, start to play. After a little while, the pack begins to move across the wide, white slope and I get a full count of 21 myself!
Then they seem to split into a few groups. One is led by the black AF, across the trail towards a drainage lined with conifers. Another group heads higher on the hill and I notice a group of bedded elk up there. While those wolves are moving uphill in a fairly scattered way, a different group of elk sneaks past them, lower on the slope. And several individual elk move quickly uphill as do some bison, all in reaction to the presence of this pack.
I see a group of wolves begin to move behind a tree-covered ridge, using the trees for cover. They emerge at the top, right behind a large bedded elk herd. The elk jump up and the chase is on. I have to switch from my scope to binocs because so much is happening. The herd splits. Most run straight downhill, while about 20 elk head diagonally to the west. Surprisingly (to me) the wolves give up pretty soon. The gray yearling keeps at it the longest but never really got close.
After this a big group of wolves (mostly pups) gets playful. The serious hunters among them move west. We hear some very nice bugling from one big bull. I have not heard that sound in quite a while, and it’s really cool!
Despite their failure, the wolves have a nice big rally, which I always find heart-warming. Afterwards, most of them stop to bed on a high, open knob. Just as they are beginning to settle, Jeremy calls out “Phantoms! Phantom wolves below the basalt cliff!”
Unfortunately, a snow-squall arrives at the same time. I have major trouble finding this new pack. At first I see two grays below the basalt cliff, but I lose both almost instantly. Then I find a black and quickly lose it. The angle is really hard for me because they are down low and the route they are on is blocked with numerous trees and branches in the foreground. So I just listen to what people are saying and try to pick them up from those clues.
The snow gets thicker so I try changing my position. People are seeing as many as 12 wolves but not me! Finally I catch movement again and see 3 grays and 2 blacks just as they are about to cross the creek. These five approach some elk that had moved into that area earlier this morning. These elk stand their ground and I realize the wolves are not quite as close to them as I first thought.
Then these five wolves begin to romp and play with each other, so they are very likely pups. A fourth gray appears, and joins in the romping. I forget how many pups this pack had this year but it’s pretty many.
The rest of the Phantom pack starts chasing elk but I still do not see them. Laurie says elk are all running, some east and some west. This all takes place far, far below where the Junctions are bedded.
I catch a glimpse of one gray chasing elk to the west but quickly lose it in the thickening snow.
I decide to give up on the Phantoms and just try to find the Junctions again. But the Junctions are no longer where I last saw them. Well, no, there is a single black. I follow this black hoping he will lead me to the other Junctions.
But the snow interferes and we are suddenly in white-out. Even my black wolf disappears from view.
And then…I hear howling! It’s below me and out of sight so it must be the Phantoms. What a gorgeous sound! We soon hear a return howl from the Junctions, and it goes on long enough for them to be found. Aha! There they are. They are slightly higher and a bit further east.
The Phantoms howl again and the Junctions reply. Laurie says these two packs know each other well and have probably had this type of howl fest many times.
I check the time and realize we have been watching wolves for 5 hours! While the snow continues I compare notes with Laurie. She saw all 18 Phantoms, so she has seen 39 wolves today!
It’s time to head east. On the way I stop at Lower Hellroaring to see if I can locate the spot where I left the Junctions bedded and howling. The snow lets up enough and I do find them. I make note of the differences from this angle.
Then I continue east.
My only other sighting today is a coyote mousing in the flats south of the Ranch.
Today I saw: bison, coyote, elk, 28 wolves (21 of the Junctions and 7 of 18 Phantoms - others saw all 18) and the spirits of Allison & Richard.