My day starts with no frost or snow overnight and a normal 20 degrees.
I stop at S Curves to listen and look but all is quiet.
There are some sizeable drifts in the road on the highest part of the S curves but my Subaru takes them in stride.
At Elk Creek I see Melba and Krystina so I stop to chat. They tell me Wapiti wolves were on the bison carcass in the dark but were pushed off by a person who was spotlighting them.
The spot-lighter was observed by several ďregularsĒ and information is being gathered for the Rangers.
I drive on, into Little America, hearing nothing on the radio. I figure Iíll head to Slough, hoping I might find Junctions in the area. When I arrive, I see Bob and Rick starting to walk out to the knob, so I follow.
Itís gorgeous out here but alas, there are no wolves in view. Susan and Reve arrive. I have not seen them the last two days and was worried they had already headed back to Arizona. But it turns out they changed their plans and will be around for several more months.
Around 8:15 we decide to pack up. Just as I shoulder my scope, Taylor saves the day. She has found Junctions from Boulder, traveling west. Now why didnít I stop there to look?
They are taking a low route and suggests we go to Wrecker. As I enter the lot I almost immediately regret doing so. Only one lane is drivable, and itís solid ice. But I find Rick here, so I join him. With his help, I see the Junctions traveling west in a disciplined line. I count 19 so far, including the alphas (Rick has 26 including 7 grays).
This is a much closer look than yesterday, and I can see several of the pups have mange. A couple of gray pups look especially thin. But they do not behave as though they are ill; they just look less robust.
We have found over the years that wolves with mange during the winter months can still survive as long as they stick with the pack and continue to get enough nutrition.
We donít have them long before they move out of sight.
We go further west, trying the Ski Lot, then Elk Creek. The Wapitis donít seem to be around today, which is surprising.
We have no luck, though and wonder if the Junctions may have stalled out in the river corridor, where we cannot see them from the road.
Around 10:30 I decide to give Hellroaring a try. I find Taylor here with her very nice clients. She has no wolves but is trying to find other sights for them. I set up my scope and turn towards the Little Buffalo drainage andÖIíve got wolves!
Yay! Of course I just got lucky but itís always fun to be the one who finds them.
At first I see just a few blacks in a sparsely forested area, on the lower left side of the Drainage. They are standing still, looking intently at a small group of bison above them.
The wolves approach the bison and begin to test them. This group of 5 wolves gives up pretty quickly and move beyond the bison up a side drainage to the northwest.
For whatever reason, the pack is travelling in several groups of 5-6 wolves, rather than a steady line. As it turns out the group I found is the second group. The leaders are already higher up climbing the drainage to the northwest. As each group appears among the original site of scattered trees, they stop, look, and accost the same group of bison, just like the group ahead of them did.
Each group quickly abandons the bison and continue on, scent trailing the wolves ahead of them. It becomes slightly comical as this set of events repeats with the arrival of each small group of wolves. The bison seem to get crankier as wave after wave of wolves arrives to test and then abandon them.
I try to keep an eye on the leaders, though. They emerge from the side drainage at about the middle of the big open slope. The leaders wait at the top until the pack catches up. As they set off across the open slope, the groups close ranks and we get that long, beautiful line. There are just so many wolves in this pack, it is really impressive! I try another count and this time get 26.
The enter thick timber fairly high up, east of Hellroaring Creek. For the next half hour we have no wolves but we remain diligent scopers. They are bound to reappear somewhere!
And they do! Someone calls out. They are chasing three bull elk! I miss most of this but try to follow the commentary of what others are seeing.
One bull is quickly separated. He goes down a few times. Despite being swarmed by wolves he manages to get up again. Bull elk are very strong.
The chase goes in and out of sight, still coming downhill, until the bull makes it to the creek, on the left side of the big curve. He puts up an amazing fight. I count 15 wolves surrounding him.
He collapses a few times and I think itís the end but he gets back up. He breaks through ice of the creek, losing then regains his footing. He is defending himself by standing in the icy water.
The wolves remain excited and try various ways of lunging at the elk but I notice most are hesitant. No doubt the wiser ones are loathe to enter the icy water. The bull swings his formidable antlers at any wolf foolish enough to approach him from the front. This goes back and forth for about 15-20 minutes.
The wolves break off and move to the upslope side of the willows. They bed down to wait it out.
After about 10 minutes, we notice more wolves coming down from above: two blacks and a gray. Ahh, itís the slow pokes. 1047M, 907F and perhaps 1048M. These three are greeted happily by the pack and a rally ensues.
After the rally a few of them make another attempt on the elk, approaching from various angles, all to no avail. The elk stands his ground bravely. But I canít see how he will survive this.
One pup, 1278M, gets very excited in front of the elk. He play bows and bounces on the ground, lowering his head. Each time he does this, the elk bows his head (waving his deadly antlers). It looks like predator and prey are greeting each other. If it werenít such a desperate situation for the elk, it would be amusing.
I figure the elk is saying ďI am still strong. I will hurt you if you come closer. Go after something easier.Ē
This attempt ends fairly soon and the wolves go back to their bedding spots. We talk among ourselves, most of us deciding to wait this out.
Although I believe I can predict the end of this story, seeing it is something new for me, and I admit I am curious. I donít want the elk to suffer; I prefer a quick end. We wonder if the stand-off might last until dark?
I decide my departure time will be 5:00PM and no later. I donít like driving at night and always try to be back before dark. Some of us begin to opine on various scenarios in which the elk could escape.
A young couple from PA is here, watching through binoculars. The woman asks what I think. I tell her I cannot see him surviving this situation. I explain that he is bleeding already, and standing in very cold moving water up to his knees, that both of these factors are bound to take a toll on his body, from which he really has no relief. If he could rest out of the water, he might survive his wounds. But if he leaves the water, the wolves have the advantage.
His only hope is for the wolves to become distracted to the point of leaving which is highly unlikely to occur. All the wolves need to do is sleep and wait it out.
Every half hour or so we watch another attempt to ďgetĒ the elk. Most likely the participants are pups or yearlings, those with the least amount of patience and experience.
As we watch each attempt, we wonder if THIS will be the end, but each time the wolves give up and go back to their bedding spots.
I notice that when a wolf approaches from behind, I donít see the bull kick. Perhaps he IS kicking but the water is deep enough to hide his legs from view, or deep enough to make the kick ineffective. Each wolf that makes an approach is noticeably hesitant.
It seems as though there is an edge with a drop into the creek, and the wolves are logically trying to avoid falling in. None of them seem to be able to get close enough to bite or grab the elk.
The elk turns around many times, fending off any wolf that gets too close.
We all start to get chilled ourselves, so we take turns warming up in our cars, making the others promise to alert us if something happens. During one lull a pair of mule deer cross the steep hillside opposite the pullout.
At 4:30 Rick announces he is heading back east. As so often happens, such a decision gets the wheel of fate turning. As Rick starts his engine, another attempt begins, so he turns off his car and we call everyone back to their scopes.
Two or three wolves get up and stand near, assessing the situation. The bull turns front and back a few times, still resisting their efforts. However I notice that the way he swings his antlers seems less strong than before.
More wolves get up. More than any previous attempt since he entered the water. Hmmm. Rick calls out that a single black wolf has braved the cold water behind the elk.
I see it! The elk suddenly lunges forcefully forward (east). His head goes down on the snow. The black wolf is right at his rear end and the elk is now a full body length further east than he ever was before and he does not move. I think he just died.
Suddenly a dozen wolves scatter and run away in all directions. What are they doing???? The elk is dead, why donít they start to feed? Incongruously, we all hear the noise of a helicopter! What????
Itís a Nat Geo helicopter, very high up to the northeast but the sound is very loud. The wolves associate it with collaring/netting efforts by the Wolf Project so they bolt.
Itís so distracting and frustrating. Just when the Junctions should be victoriously feasting, they are, instead, running for cover. I see only five, maybe six wolves braving the noise and beginning to feed. Probably pups who have not yet been chased.
The elkís final lunge took him behind thicker willows so I can only see his back half. But we can infer from other movements of that some wolves are getting a fresh meal.
There are wolves all over the place, visible between tree trunks, over here, over there. In truth, we donít think the Nat Geo people are even aware of the drama below. The chopper is circling closer to Momís Ridge, going in and out of view.
Most of us are cursing Nat Geo but Rick reminds us that it is high enough above the animals to be guilty of harassment. Each time the helicopter sound fades, more wolves come to the carcass. I now count 15 wolves there.
The helicopter circles three times, always to the north and I am convinced it doesnít see whatís going on in the creek below. Finally, the chopper leaves for good and we all relax. More and more wolves return and get a meal.
I am glad the elk is finally out of pain and Iím glad the Junctions got a meal.
Itís now well past my ďturn aroundĒ time of 5PM. My last view is of so many wolves gathered at the carcass that I cannot see the elk at all!
I leave at 5:30. Itís 29 degrees but feels much colder!
When I get to S Curves, I find bigger drifts on the road than this morning. I get through them just fine, though. Yay Subaru!
Snow starts falling again when I reach Undine and continues all the way to Gardiner.
Itís been a heck of a day!
Today I saw: bison, a coyote, 2 mule deer, elk (including a very brave bull), 26 Junction wolves including AF, AM, 1047M, 1048M, 907F, 1229F,
1278M plus 19 others and the spirits of Allison and Richard.