Yellowstone in Winter
February 20, 2012
Yellowstone in February.. Endless Memories.
The weather in Yellowstone is unpredictable, and forever changing. Comparing this winter to last, it actually gives a feel to Yellowstone’s Spring. So it was for our most recent trip, and then the last three days it started snowing again. Yet still, the temperatures were still well higher than normal. At least for Yellowstonne in February. We met Nathan Varley along our journey into the Park and I asked him about the weather and if he was concerned about a possible fire season. He replied not just yet. He said you never know with this weather. While it might be warmer and less snow, the Spring could be a soaking one with a lot of heavy rain. Nathan would know best..he grew up inside the park and has lived there his entire life. Whenever I have a question about the Park, the weather, the wildlife or the habitat, I go to Nathan. He is for sure the best source when talking about Yellowstone. That is why I highly recommend his Wild Side trips for first time visitors. Many people return year after year actually, and sign up for his trips into the Park. He and his wife, and fellow biologist, Linda Thurston make the trip educational, fun, and amazing. (See their website at www.wolftracker.com.)
This trip I was joined by fellow NWC advisers and wolf watchers Elke Duerr , Brandi Nichols, and Chris Cross. Along with good friends Jay Tutchton and his son Aleck,, joining us were Ted Bennett and his daughter Lizi. Good friends make for a great wolf watching experience. Elke is a noted filmmaker and her deep passionate insight into wildlife as a connection to the Web of Life is most spiritual and fascinating. You always come away with a different perspective and appreciation for life after talking with her. And now Brandi. Brandi is such a positive spirit, and she has lived in Gardiner for sixteen years and has never seen a wolf, until this trip! Chris, Texas born and raised, calls Utah home now. Chris is a noted graphic design artist. Jay is a dedicated wildlife attorney doing a lot of work with WildEarth Guardians, and Ted is an attorney in Washington DC., working with Jay on many issues. Aleck proved to be quite the wildlife spotter, and Lizi could watch wolves for endless hours. What a great crew! For those of you that have never been to Gardiner, it is a small quaint town just outside the famous northeast entrance where the Arch was built and dedicated to Teddy Roosevelt. When you look out your window from any building in Gardiner, you are looking into Yellowstone! Out every morning before the first ray of sunlight, and staying until the very end of the day for the most part, this wolf watcher group was dedicated to the cause, and for this week that was watching wolves and other wildlife. And boy did we keep very busy!
Traveling along the north ridge one afternoon we made the bend at the Confluence and saw a few vehicles pulled over to the side of the road. We found a spot in a turnout close by and gathered our scopes and cameras and walked very close to the Soda Butte River. the Confluence is just to the east of Lamar Valley where the Lamar River and the Soda Butte River join as one. It really is beautiful there and one of my very favorite places in Yellowstone. Picture this in February: Snow capped mountains, and traces of snow throughout the valley . Having snowed the day before there was a fresh coat of snow on the ground, and for what we were about to experience it made for outstanding viewing. Otters! Three of them. All of a sudden they popped out of the cold running water and onto the snowy bank. Every bit as playful as you may have seen otters in a Nat Geo special, these otters surely lived up to their playful reputation. There is little doubt in my mind that they saw all of us there watching them, and decided to perform. Wrestling , chasing, and tumbling this show has it all. They slid with grace down and across the snow covered ground into the Soda Butte, where the show continued. Once in the water it was all about diving and posing for this rambunctious crew. Swimming ever so gracefully in the Soda Butte they would pop out of the water and strike a pose, then dive again. Boy were they having fun! The otter experience continued for quite awhile and finally they disappeared out of sight to the west.
The majestic beasts were out in force this winter and all looking very healthy. With less snow and more grasses visible it made for a much heartier menu for the bison this year. This does not come without controversy, however. Greater Yellowstone on the fringe of the Park was now lethal for our fine enormous friends. A decision was made to haze and shoot the bison once they left the Park. Believe me this is a hard pill to swallow . They are an American Icon and should be treated as such. There are efforts now to change the management plan for bison. We surely need to better protect them for their population is a fraction of what it once was, and it would be hard to imagine Yellowstone without the sheer presence of this mighty animal. One can never truly appreciate the size and power of these creatures without first driving slowly by them in person. Bigger than your car, it is an awe inspiring event that you will never forget. I know I never will. Remember..More people are injured yearly in Yellowstone National Park by bison than any other animal. While they look quite docile they are very protective of their space, and heir herd. Especially in the Spring when they young calves are born. Give them their space!
I remember reading recently a passage from a book called Yellowstone is Dead. It referred to the wildlife within and surrounding the Park. Well, I am here to say that is far from the truth! When you hear of low elk populations in Montana that is not accurate. Herds of elk were everywhere, and even when you travel into the Park through the big stone Arch they stand before you like an army of gentle giants. Elke would say, ” I am an Elk, with an E!”A great time to come into the Park for elk is in the Fall. Late September -early October you can witness quite the show when the elk are bugling. Probably the best place is right in Mammoth. They seem to gather there at that time and bring audio! It’s something you won’t soon forget. Best times to catch them are very early morning, and at dusk.
You never know just where you might spot them. The consensus is your best chance to see moose is over by Pebble Creek, which is east of Lamar toward Silver Gate. I have never seen one in that area, but this Fall we did spot a family of three climbing the hill above the Confluence. This winter we spotted a moose cow and her calf near Lava Creek along the tree line. They are quite spectacular, and like all wildlife you want to keep your distance. When a cow is with her calf, and she licks her lips, expect a charge to soon follow. These are large animals and not to be taken lightly. Actually, as with bison, more people are injured every year from bison, and moose are not the gentle creatures they appear to be , especially with young. It is wise to be well prepared and pay attention to the literature you receive at the Ranger stations when you enter the Park.
Quite spectacular, and especially in the winter months when the cliffs are snow covered in places. How agile these sheep are, and with their majestic presence they rule the places that humans can only traverse with ropes and pulleys.We located a pair of bighorns resting on our trail along the Lamar River at Butte Junction. In the winter especially it is important not to make a decision which causes wildlife to move and use the much needed energy they require to make it through the colder months. Food source is notably reduced , and for sheep, elk, bison and even moose, they need to replenish any energy that is lost in order to survive. In the winter it is difficult. A milder winter as we experienced this year does go a long way in helping these species. We did make note that all of the wildlife appeared remarkably healthy. Climate and climate change plays a big role in the survival of all wildlife. Another place where the Bighorns can be easily viewed is at the bend of the Soda butte in the Confluence. Look up the jagged rocks and you will quickly spot six or more ranging across the ledges like Olympian gymnasts on a balance beam.
American Bald Eagles
What more can you say than our nation’s symbol of freedom. When you see them in flight they are incredibly spectacular. They simply demand respect as they make such graceful turns on a dime, and the sheer power of their talons as they fish the rivers and hunt along the open spaces makes them a favorite of all Yellowstone wildlife watchers. As you drive along the northern range keep a keen eye in the trees along Lamar Valley. In one tree we continually spotted a nesting pair. Another sure sign to see eagles is when the wolves have brought down an elk or bison. You can find the carcass by following the many birds as they flock to the scene. Wolves are amazing for the ecosystem in that they feed so many other species since their return. Coyotes, birds, fox, and all the way down to insects make it through the harsh winters thanks to the diligent work of the wolves. So keep an eye to the sky and when you notice ravens and magpies headed in the same direction, undeterred, and then followed by circling bald and golden eagles, that is where you need to head. You will be in store for a display of wildlife that will keep you watching for hours. We saw many of these scenes play out this past February. A great spot right now is along the area known as China Gardens. It is located as you drive through the north gate from Gardiner. As you continue driving you will pass some large rocky hills on the left where they experience falling rocks. Continue and as you wind through an area abated by the Gardiner River you are there! The famous Canyon Pack patrols this area and while we were there they had two elk predations in the river. The Canyons are pretty smart and feed during the night hours as they , like all wolves, avoid human contact at every turn. That leaves the usual suspects to show up during the day and you will find many coyotes and birds of all types getting their fill.
While I truly love the American Bald Eagles, there is just something extra special about the Golden Eagle. They are the largest eagle that you will see in Yellowstone. I have witnessed an elk predation and watched as there were two Bald eagles feeding from it one early winter morning. So the usual suspects were on their way, which included the magnificent Golden Eagle. As the Golden zeroed in on the carcass and started his descent the Bald eagles quickly flew away. they are no match for the Golden eagle. What happened next was most amazing. I watched three coyotes move in on the carcass, and the Golden eagle. Expecting the eagle to quickly make his escape I was quite astonished as I watched this lone Golden Eagle continue to maintain his ground on the carcass and fight off the coyotes for sometime, until one coyote made his way around to the back of the eagle on his blind side and move in quickly. Begrudgingly the eagle finally took flight and landed in a nearby tree. He was sure to return as soon as he had an opportunity.
Some people like to think of ravens as overgrown crows. They are portrayed in movies as somewhat of a caretaker of Halloween, and often appear in movies with werewolves and vampires. Basically, the raven is quite misunderstood. A true scavenger of Yellowstone it is the raven that leads us directly to wolf predations and in turn, wolves. When flocking to a carcass these birds can eat up to three pounds of meats at a time. So, if you have thirty ravens on a carcass, that is nearly one hundred pounds, thus shrinking the food source in a very short amount of time. Some people also believe that wolves look to the sky and ravens will direct them to suitable prey. But make no mistake, the raven and the wolf are closely intertwined in Yellowstone National Park.
Coyotes have certainly had it tough with the return of the wolf. They are highly visible as they often travel and den near the roads for fear of wolves. Coyotes are unable to take down the larger prey, and their numbers have been reduced with the return of the wolf. Smaller animals and rodents are more numerous now, and therefore other animals such as fox and badger populations are recovering. The coyote has changed their feeding habits as more of a scavenger, and while they fear the wolf , they depend on them now for survival, as they feed from wolf kills frequently. The coyotes this winter that we watched were really quite healthy . It’s fun to watch them as they nervously feed on a carcass, all the while keeping check for wolves. You can find four or five on any one carcass, and we had the opportunity to watch several very closely in China Gardens, thanks to the Canyon pack. I really like to watch the coyotes, maybe because they are so visible across the country and people can easily relate to them, however good or bad. They actually put on quite a good show when pouncing for voles or other varmints, and their yapping howls are quite special. Coyotes. They are a special ingredient that helps to complete Yellowstone.
WOLVES OF THE NORTHERN RANGE
SAVING THE BEST FOR LAST, THERE ARE FIVE ACTIVE WOLF PACKS NOW OCCUPYING THE NORTH RANGE IN YELLOWSTONE.
The Canyon Pack is currently made up of seven wolves. The Alpha Male, a large black wolf known by the name of his collar is 712M. He is quite a magnificent wolf and his mate is a very light, almost white, gray female, known simply as the Alpha female. There are a total of seven wolves in this pack and one black is known as “the pup,” and he will be turning one year old April. During this winter trip the Canyons have been very active in and around the area known as China Gardens, and have also been seen throughout Mammoth. On occasion they may actually be spotted in the Park close to the Arch, where many elk herds have migrated this year.
Lamar Canyon Pack
This pack is without a doubt a favorite of wolf watchers around the world. Led by the dynamic female known simply for the years she was born, 06 is perhaps the true rock star of Yellowstone National Park. This trip they crossed paths with the Mollies Pack and that proved nearly fatal for a black wolf pup of the Lamar Canyons. The pup was brutally attacked and it appeared to many that his wound could be fatal. We watched the pup as he hid out in Lamar Canyon to the north under some conifers, and eventually made his way back to the Confluence area where he knows his pack roams. A wonderful story of survival as we saw the pup rejoin the pack. A little slow, he was following the pack at a distance and in this photo you can see alphas 755M and 06 leading their pack, and the injured pup, to safe haven. Because of this situation and encounter with the Mollies the Lamar Canyon Pack was very low key during our winter trip.
Blacktail Peak Pack
Wolf pack dynamics have changed dramatically on the northern range this winter, and the Blacktails find themselves right smack dab in the middle. Like a daytime soap opera the Blacktails famous member known as Big Blaze (one of my all time favorite wolves too, by the way) is being pulled in two directions. The Blacktails are calling home from Boulder to Hell Roaring, and even further west. They have also been spotted in Mammoth from time to time. Right now during breeding season we find them in Boulder frequently, and no doubt Big Blaze is the reason why. Big Blaze was at one time the alpha male of the Agates, and is still a favorite of the alpha female of the Agates 471F. He has been seen in her company recently, along with her three year old daughter, a beautiful black wolf. So right now these two packs are so closely intermingled with one another, and why I am talking about them collectively. Well, this behavior of the Agates is quite unacceptable to the three breeding gray females of the Blacktails. So we had a scene play out one day where he was being called by these two Agates. What started as howls from 471F turned into a beautiful howl fest from the Blacktails. Beautiful to our ears, but to the Agates it was a sign to hurry up and go, and go they did. The Agates are a group of five, and the Blacktails number ten presently. The big question of the day, the week, the month, is what will Big Blaze do?
Agate Creek Pack
Agates 471F and daughter howling in Boulder, Feb 2012You will find this pack in Little America and in Boulder. Their range has been changed greatly with the arrival of the Mollies, and so has their pack. About a month ago the Mollies encountered, challenged and killed the alpha male of the Agates. The Agates are quite a famous and noteworthy pack of Yellowstone. Alpha female 06 of the Lamar Canyon pack was an Agate. Their roots go back to the Druids 21M and 42F. I have fond memories of watching Agates’s High Side in Little America years ago. Now with the alpha male’s death and the crooning of Big Blaze I feel it might be their last best hope for this pack to endure. Watching them recently as they howled from atop a large rock in Boulder ws one of the most memorable things I will cherish from the many trips I have made into Yellowstone. To think we had front row seats and the cost was only our time, however priceless the performance.
The Mollies are named after Mollie Beattie, who headed US Fish and Wildlife when wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone. Out of respect to her strength and wisdom , the Mollies Pack honor her with nineteen members and are well known for their strength and courage. They are one of two packs, the Quadrants being the other, that routinely predate on the might bison. To feed a pack of nineteen strong it takes an animal like a bison to get the job done. This year the park wolf dynamics along the northern range has changed dramatically due to the Mollies moving down. They have arrived in force, and immediately have made their presence known as they have killed the breeding male of the Agates, and most recently attacked the Lamar Canyon Pack and doled out near mortal wounds to a black pup. The last day of wolf watching we found Big Blaze once again howling for the Agates without an answer. Pretty soon it was clear why the Agates didn’t answer the calls. The Mollies did with a thunderous howling for several minutes. Big Blaze and the Blacktails literally high tailed it out of Boulder back to Hell Roaring. The Mollies are making a statement that they are the big wolves on the block. With wolves its all about food source, and as the bison have migrated down the Mollies have followed and they will have no part of another wolf pack any where near their food supply. The photo I took here of the Mollies makes me think back of the amazing photograph friend and wildlife photographer Dan Hartman took of the mighty Druid Peak Pack, which graced the cover of National Geographic. It illustrates how wolves are wild once again, and a photo like this certainly cannot be produced within the confines of an enclosure at a wolf park or center. While it is at a great distance it is one of my all time favorite photos.
Lone Wolf of Lamar
I call him “of Lamar” because that is where we observed him as he was headed west. Maybe displaced from another pack, Rick McIntyre was uncertain which wolf he was, but he has been seen in Slough Creek as well. Some think he may be the gray male from the Lamar Canyon pack. Make no mistake this wolf is very healthy and quite beautiful. Watching him was fun as he encountered a group of bison and his instincts had him give a little chase, and his brain has him scurry off in a hurry as the bison responded with a short obligatory charge. Perhaps he too is also looking for a mate this winter and I hope he finds hos significant other. We watched him as he seemed to have purpose and direction in his travels, stopping here and there to rest after traversing the deeper snow. I will try to follow the journey of this lone wolf and follow up with reports on our facebook page “wolfwatcher.”
Whether you are in Yellowstone National Park or at home.. Whether you are watching wolves and bison in a National Park, , or birds at your home feeder.. Enjoy and respect what nature gives us, and treat it with respect. Give nature its space and admire from afar, without interference. They were here long before us, and our children deserve the right to enjoy wildlife as we do, and as our ancestors did before us. Wolves face many challenges in the changing world we live in. Please join with us as we attempt to attach education to wildlife, and it is ever so important to do so with wolves and the bad rap they have been given over the years. They are a valuable keystone predator and we ask that you follow us closely here, and on our facebook page “wolfwatcher” to see what you can do to protect wolves and preserve them for years to come. One of our most valuable resources lives all around us. Be sure to take notice and do your share. Together we can make this world a better place. Note: For more detailed and daily accounts of wolf activity and behavior along the northern range check out Yellowstone Reports, a minimal pay subscription organized by Nathan Varley. You can access it from the home page of wolfwatcher.org
For wolf watchers around the world.