It snowed all day yesterday and into the night. So, this morning I have another 8 inches to brush off the car. The good news is that finally the sky is clear and the moon is out.
The drive this morning is stunningly beautiful – meadow after meadow of unbroken, pure white snow.
When I get past Trout Lake I see Specimen Ridge is still enveloped in cloud. And there is a ribbon of fog hugging the river, too.
Wow, it is so gorgeous, the most beautiful place on earth.
It’s also colder today; only 9 degrees at Confluence.
The few of us here all congregate at Dorothy’s. We are learning to stay apart from each. It’s the new style. We scope every direction even though there is still almost no visibility.
I remember Rick told me once that the area around Picnic tends to lose fog the earliest, so I decide to head there. A nice fellow named Jeff follows me.
I scope the shoulder of Norris, find the Cache Creek trail and finally see the tree line. I find two bison & a bird. It’s very peaceful. The fog is lifting oh so slowly.
Someone over the radio says things are beginning to clear at Slough so people start to head that way. As I pass Lamar Canyon West I hear Jeremy say “We’ve got ‘em from here”.
I end up spending the entire day at Slough watching Junctions.
I arrive in the lot at about 8:15. The whole pack is here, high on Specimen above Crystal Rock on a mostly open slope. There is quite a bit of romping about by various pups. The beautiful gray male joins in with glee. He is their older brother (or their favorite uncle) and seems to enjoy playing with them.
Three or four black pups race across the slope and the gray chases them, at one point leaping across something like a gazelle. I guess it could have been a gully of some sort up there that caused him to jump. It was thrilling to see.
The Junction Pack is quite large at the moment (17) and they tend to congregate in two groups: an adult group and a pup group. The adults are currently moving upslope in search of bedding spots. But the pup group remains active; romping and wrestling; rolling and pinning; chasing and ambushing.
Two black wolves take a walkabout away from the group, heading up hill toward a small group of bison. Before they get too close they turn around, heading back down the hill, leaving pretty trails in their wake for the sun to find.
I see 907F pin 1109F, so that old dance continues.
Sian is here, and tells us how nasty the snow was in Gardiner Canyon yesterday. We all agree she did the wise thing by turning around.
The pullout is jammed – I think every single person visiting the Park today has stopped right here. Normally this would be an occasion of joy, to have a sighting easy to share with first time visitors or those without scopes. Normally this would be an ideal way to introduce visitors to Yellowstone's iconic animals, or perhaps to show someone their very first wild wolf.
But these are not in normal times. Now, each of us poses a potential danger to each other, and to our fellow visitors. A sense of uneasiness pervades the pullout. I find it quite distressing to suddenly feel this way.
Still, everyone is friendly and many do have binoculars. Several of these visitors admit they came to Montana to ski our famous slopes. But over the last three days, all the resorts shut down to avoid contagion, so many of them tried to salvage their vacations by coming here, instead.
I see the Alpha Female’s tail wagging a lot. It is post mating season now, and too soon for the females to look pregnant. But it’s clear that she remains firmly in charge. She is at the center of several pack rallies.
A group of pups starts to gang up on another black pup, chasing it downhill. For a moment it looks kind of serious, but it turns out to be all in fun.
Three black wolves have another walkabout, heading downhill below the main group. They seem to be interested in something going on in an area we cannot see beyond the crest of a hill.
After a good hour of movement here and there, the pack begins to settle down and bed. Lucky for us, they choose spots that are easy to see. I count 17 wolves in total and for many hours, at least one or two of them are moving.
Around noon, we suddenly get very unpleasant news. Out of an abundance of caution, the Park has decided to halt the winter Wolf Study. They don’t want to risk infection of employees or visitors.
This means that Jeremy, Taylor & Sidney all have to leave, right now. These dedicated young people just lost their income. Sidney will go back to Bozeman; Taylor will stay in Gardiner a while at least. Jeremy might be allowed to remain employed for a while, but not in the field, and not with telemetry. He’ll likely be confined to working in the office or on the computer.
Ugh it’s just awful.
We say our sad goodbyes and off they go. Laurie & Dan decide to head back east. She asks me to call her if anything develops, which I can actually do because Slough is one of the few places I get cell service.
Gloom descends over the pullout, the site of so many happy memories. Despite our having 17 wolves in view, good visibility, and increasingly warm temperatures, we are just crushed by this development. We know it likely portends a decision to close the Park itself.
The pack has been bedded for a while but I notice several of the adult wolves getting up. They stretch and move to different bedding spots, mostly in shade on the back of the hill, leaving a few less in easy view.
I take a break and roam by myself to the west a bit, checking the view from several other pullouts to see if any of them are better. I try Crystal, Aspen and Lamar River Bridge but find no actual improvement so I go back.
It has gotten so warm that steam is rising from the pavement. In the pullout, the tramped down ice is melting fast, creating currents of running water within the puddles. One runs under my tripod until it reaches the end of the pavement and sinks immediately into the ground.
Sian has a new concern: because of high infection rates in Europe and now surging rates in parts of the US, there are new rules for overseas travelers. She is required to fly to one of a small number of European airports that offer a 14-day quarantine. She will likely have to change her flight and put up with a two-week delay returning home.
Around 4:30PM, the wolves begin to look restless. They have a rally and quickly move behind a hill. I can only see tails sticking out above the crest, wagging wildly.
They disappear for a while, only to re-emerge a bit to the east. After a while we realize they are traveling in earnest. They proceed up a switchback trail forming a traditional single line. I think this trail is the same one they used on their way down from skyline early this morning.
We now have the whole pack visible in 4 separate groups, following a clear trail up to the skyline. As we count them, someone notices one more group of three, higher on the slope than the group we thought were the leaders, making a full count of 17.
Above them, on skyline we see the same small herd of bison we had seen earlier today. The pack leaders (3 blacks, including the AF) begin to push these bison. The bison bunch immediately with tails raised. There is a considerable gap between the three lead wolves and the next group of 5 adults. When the additional five reach the top, we see they are seriously testing these bison. Maddeningly, we cannot see full bodies of either wolves or bison; only heads, backs or tails. But it’s enough to give us the general picture.
Every once in a while, a bison charges a wolf and sends it darting one way or another out of the way.
And all the while, we watch a steady stream of more and more wolves ascending the zig-zag trail.
When 12 of them have reached the top, they have a rally. As they are bouncing and body-slamming each other, the bison make an amazingly smart move; they suddenly charge the wolves, full force as a group, right into the rally. This instantly breaks up the rally, scattering the wolves in all directions, and, I suspect, messing with them psychologically.
I don’t usually think of bison as strategic, but this was as bold a move as a human army, and extremely effective.
After this, the wolves cease testing these bison in a serious way. Most of them just stand a while, staring or sitting on their haunches. We jokingly call a few of the wolves “chicken” but in fairness, some of them may have been somewhat winded by the climb.
After a while, the bison move a bit west, still on skyline, but the skirmishing stops. I do call Laurie and let her know what we have.
There are still straggler wolves (pups of course) continuing up the trail. Most of us stay until they top out. I watch the last one disappear, heading southeast.
Sian and I pack up with the intention of stopping at Lamar Canyon West, but when she gets in her car - uh oh! Her battery is dead.
Various people in the pullout try to help her but eventually, I move my car to face hers and get my cables out. Scott and Jeff and Pat and a tourist named Blair all help. Luckily, Sian’s car starts right up but she is advised to head straight back to Gardiner without turning it off again. Everyone says the drive should serve to re-charge her battery.
Sian thanks everyone and heads west.
I head east and decide not to stop at Lamar Canyon West. Instead I assess that I have just enough light to stop at Dorothy’s to see if I can find the traveling pack. I set up all by myself and scope the whole skyline of Divide Ridge. I find nothing. I keep scanning further and further east, saying to myself “this is too far east; they couldn’t have gotten this far so fast…” and then a wolf walks into my scope.
I call out on the radio and soon Jeff, Scott and Pat pull in. They are happy and so am I. We watch them for 10 minutes, travelling across the ridges, mostly at skyline, sometimes a bit below. Some of them pose beautifully and other times some become nearly invisible in the rocks. It’s gorgeous to see.
But the light is going and I don’t want to be late for dinner. Finally I pack up and head east.
I drive through Lamar during the tail end of golden hour. It could not be more beautiful. All around me I see a thick white blanket of pure white snow in shimmering light. Druid Peak looks spectacular and I am the only one here.
Oh, except for that coyote.
What a great day.
Today I saw: bison, coyotes, elk, 17 Junction wolves (including 907, 1109, 1047, 1048, 996, the alpha female, the gray male and 10 others) and the spirits of Allison and Richard