When I returned to Bozeman Memorial Day weekend, I found my adopted town in full bloom. Our tulips and daffodils were dazzling, my rose bush had produced a dozen buds and my five lilac bushes were fully leafed. All over Bozeman, flowers and trees were lush and blooming.
What I didn’t know was that leaving Yellowstone when I did caused me to miss two historic wolf events. In the afternoon of that rainy May 29th, the Junctions Pack moved their entire brood of pups from the south den we’d so happily been watching from the roadside to a new den on the other side of Divide Ridge. There is an area on the western end of Jasper Bench that the pack had used as a rendezvous site last fall.
The difference, though, is that this year’s pups are a full three months younger than last year’s were. We’ll never know quite what prompted the move, but Laurie and Dan and several other wolf watchers were lucky enough to witness the event, which took almost 7 hours, starting around 11:30AM.
This is the story, as I got it from Laurie. Several females were involved in carrying the pups, 907, 1276, New Mom and the (formerly) limping female. Most pups were carried by mouth but a few simply trailed along behind female carrying a sibling, managing the long, uphill journey on their tender little legs. At least one of these brave adventurers was a tiny gray pup.
907 carried at least 6 pups in her mouth, and was quite the champ, depositing the pup on the far side of the hill and hurrying back down for the next. All the female wolves present at the south den were willing, diligent assistants to 907 and New Mom.
Her behavior that day added another layer of bafflement, as her actions expressed a possessive/protective instinct in over-drive. 1341F was NOT in favor of this move. Every time she saw a female carrying a pup, she would chase it, jump on its back and wrap her front paws around the adult, trying to both stop its movement and “rescue” the pup. She did this repeatedly to every female except 907.
Luckily, she was mostly unsuccessful. Once, she tried a new tactic, travelling over the Divide to the spot where pups were being temporarily stashed. She reappeared on skyline with a pup in her mouth, hurrying down the hill back with it to the den. She entered with the pup, apparently attempting to keep it inside with her.
After witnessing 1341’s attempt to “rescue” this pup, 1276 began to dig a side tunnel to the right of the den as though she was creating an escape route for the “captive” pup!
The last to go was a large gray pup, shuttled by 907. The larger pups are harder to carry, and 907 had to put her charge down several times along the journey. But she eventually disappeared with hit over skyline.
the end, Laurie & Dan counted 15 pups safely transported over the Divide by 7PM in the evening. By that time, the steady rain, cold (36-32) and wind became too much for them to continue watching.
1048M was in the area but played no part in the transport. In fairness, it is historically unusual for male wolves to transport pups. It seems to be the females’ prerogative.
The next day, people stopped at Coyote Overlook in Lamar, trying to spot wolves and puppies in this new den area. Alas, the pullout is not quite high enough to see the pups or bedded wolves if they are in this area. You can sometimes catch a glimpse of a random adult passing through, but that’s about it. To get a decent view, you really need to climb quite far up the hill north of the pullout. The days of easy pup-watching are over for a while!
Meanwhile, at the traditional den area north of the road, the alpha pair has kept vigil, occasionally being fed by various pack members, while the number of pups in their care has dwindled. The day I left, three were seen: one large black, one small black and a large gray.
Three days later, however, only one was seen, the large black. Perhaps the other two were transported by New Mom or others, but we will just never know.
The second historic even I missed happened on June 2. Laurie and Kathie were prime witnesses to a showdown for the ages.
On that morning, Laurie and Kathie set up to scope at Slough, watching the sage den. The alphas had been seen early but were currently out of sight. Kathie spotted several Junction wolves above the den cliff, moving west. This turned out to be 907F and two yearlings, one black and one gray.
They are both surprised, because 907 has not been seen on the north side for over a month.
Anyway, down the cliff she comes, heading toward the sage den. The large black pup emerges from the den to greet her, wanting to nurse. She nurses the pup for a bit but has another plan in mind. She keeps trying to pick it up!
She finally succeeds and carries the pup down the lion meadow to Slough Creek, intending to swim the pup across to the south. As she nears the water, the pup begins fighting her, squirming, perhaps afraid of the water.
907 is determined, though, and makes it across, depositing the pup in the grass of the far bank. She then re-crosses the creek without the pup. Suddenly the alpha female re-appears at the sage den, only to find her sole remaining pup missing. She does not look happy. She scent-trails 907 down to the creek.
When 907 sees the alpha approaching, she raises her tail and charges right at her. The two wolves go after each other very aggressively, up on their hind legs, lunging and biting. Laurie calls it a “mouth to mouth” fight (as opposed to more “traditional” wolf vs wolf fights in which they try to inflict tearing bites to the underside or genitals). Laurie says: “Blood can be seen on both. 907F is 9 and the alpha female is 5. They each have advantages: 907F has experience; the al pha has youth. It is an intense duel, with both wolves defending themselves very well.”
The yearlings are both nearby, but do not interfere. This is also somewhat unusual for wolf fights – often pack members get caught up in the excitement and pile on, choosing one side or the other. These yearlings just bedded and watched.
Finally, the females break apart. 907 turns to the creek and swims across. The alpha female heads back uphill to the sage den.
Laurie and Kathie leave Slough, wanting to see where 907 is headed, worried she might be injured. She seems to be fine though - she travels a good deal west, crosses the road safely and continues upslope, aiming for Divide Ridge.
The alpha female also seems to have avoided any serious wounds. Interestingly (at least to me) the yearlings remain at Slough with the alphas.
Later in the day, the lone black pup is spotted on the far side of the creek. The alpha female, two black yearlings and a gray yearling travel down to the creek and sit on the near bank a while, directly opposite the pup. They cross and recross the creek, making four attempts to get the pup back on the den side of the water. They do not succeed and the pup stays put.
Finally, the alpha female and the two blacks return to the sage den, while the gray yearling remains near the pup. The alpha female seeks comfort from her mate, who is bedded near the Western Trees. It is unknown whether he was a witness to the fight or not.
So, THIS is the situation I return to – with a plan to spend three more days watching the ongoing
wolf drama, before Laurie & Dan head back to San Diego on the 6th. Little did I know that an even
bigger drama was building, one that would affect not only the wildlife of Yellowstone but every
visitor and employee as well.