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Yellowstone…..Winter’s Wolf Land

February in Yellowstone. The snow was not as deep this year, which changed things a bit, but the cold was as brutal as ever. You simply have to be prepared for the temps to hit 20 below, and surely it did at times.  Warm boots are a must.  Boots and gloves and everything in between. I was loaded with LL Bean, North Face, and EMS so I felt pretty well prepared.

Arriving on a Wednesday in the middle of February and finding mostly just wolf watchers in the Park was actually quite awesome. I could not believe how tranquil it was. The silence, at times, was deafening – but much appreciated – as it would seem you might be the only human there sharing this beauty with so much wildlife. I had to take a deep breath of that icy air at times to realize I was really there.

Feb 17, 2010  Day 1
As I drove through the Park I heard about the Druid Peak Pack, and only two remained,  Number 690, a beautiful black wolf, and her sister White Line. I remember 690 from my June trip and how beautiful she was. There were reports that the two had killed a coyote in Lamar at the first turnout after passing through the Lamar Canyon. I drove directly there.

After setting up my Nikon scope quickly, I located the carcass some distance out and back toward the canyon, however it was not the Druid sisters I was viewing. A group of three wolves had run them off: A beautiful and powerful female gray called simply 06, the year she was born. Two black males were with her and had been collared: 754 and 755. 755 was obviously the dominant of the two.

I watched as the three wolves walked the coyote kill, and at one point 755 picked up the dead coyote, or what was left of him, and shook it violently, then dropped the carcass and walked away. Up to seven Golden Eagles were scavenging the site. What I viewed next was most amazing, and I shot the scene using my Nikon D-80 attached to my Nikon HD scope, at quite a distance of several hundred yards…

Wolf 06 and the dominant male, 755, mated, and I photographed the tie. I would later report this to Rick McIntyre of YNP, and also Kathy Lynch, who was working along with him for the week.  I showed them a couple of the pictures, and we agreed it was 755 as 754 was submissive during and after this tie, and at one point on his back and submissive to 755 during the tie as well.

This occurred right before and up to dusk around 6pm and I continued to watch them as they eventually ran toward Lamar Canyon and disappeared. As I was breaking down the camera set up, I observed the three running back toward Lamar Valley and continued easterly until I lost sight of them. This being day one, I was quite optimistic of what was in store for the two weeks I would be there. One thing I did notice…the 06 wolf was very much the dominant of the three…she had to run up front, and when 755 would hold his tail straight out, 06’s would be straight UP, reaching for the stars. I knew this wolf was special from that moment.  **You can find the tie pictures and others on the homepage of my website Click on “photos,” or the link to my Yellowstone wolf watcher trip. I returned to the Absaroka Inn, in Gardiner, to prepare for the next day.

Feb. 18…Day 2

Up and out early as once again I drove through the Stone Arch of the north entrance.  I entered the park around 5am, as I couldn’t sleep anyway, and drove through some snow showers and across some icy roads at times until I reached Lamar Valley. I pulled into the third pullout and waited for daybreak, determined to see 06 again. I should note that with all the weather Yellowstone experiences in the winter the Park really does a good job at keeping the lower roads open and passable;

A major relief! I looked for 690 of the Druid Peak Pack without any luck this day, and pretty much it was a wolf-free day. Rick had some strong signals for 690F in Lamar Valley but she was not visible today. I took a lot of photographs of other wildlife, which my daughters reminded me there were other animals in Yellowstone, not just wolves!!! I met with Rick and Kathy and they brought me up to date on pack structure in the park, which I surely appreciated.  I gave them each a WolfWatcher cap. Rick McIntyre has an amazing “everyday for several years without missing a day” record for watching the Yellowstone wolves. Who better to wear a wolf watcher hat?

Feb 19th….Day 3

Arrived in the Park by 7am and it turned out to be a great day! Right after passing through Mammoth I spotted a lone coyote crossing the road so I stopped in a pullout to take some pics. I took several and the coyote was approaching me. I thought he might be habituated and maybe fed in the past so I kept my distance as he approached almost to ten feet of me.

I backed up all the time and got into my truck to keep the distance. Still a great encounter and you can find him on the website in some wonderful close ups.  I then drove through and ended up once again in Lamar Valley. I set up and after some time spotted three coyote on a carcass, and then heard a wolf howling. Jens, a nice guy from Sweden with a passion for photography, pulled in and we both spotted and watched 690 of the Druids for awhile. 690, a black wolf, has mange and was very weak and her coat was thin and spotty. I put only two photos on the website out of respect to her. She is such a beautiful wolf and should be remembered that way. I was really saddened to see her walk out to a large branch in the valley and stand on it, looking to lay down to rest, but the mange would make that even too painful for her, so she slept standing up. I wish the park could do something for her, but understand that they leave the wildlife mostly alone to go through life with as little human intervention as possible. That’s what makes Yellowstone so different. It is wildlife and it is wild. For once us humans do not control the course of things.  That has to be appreciated. In Yellowstone you truly are in the wild.

I then drove to Slough Creek where there was a sighting of the “Lamar Canyon Pack” (06, 755 and 754. They were later spotted in Boulder (west)  and I watched and photographed them from a great distance as they got up from a rest and played along the ridge. They left running west and I drove as far as Specimen hoping to see them again with no luck. I am having the time of my life!

Feb 20,,,Day 4

I know I am checking into the Buffalo Ranch at 3 pm, so I plan on a full day leading up to then. I planned to spend some time in Lamar Canyon as 06 had killed an elk on the upper ridge, and it was attracting a lot of attention. I got there later than I wanted after checking out of the Absaroka. When I did get there I observed a lot of vehicles along the road as 06 had chased a large bull elk across the roadway where people were standing, and down the ravine to the river. Jens actually had some shots of 06 on the attack and inflicting a serious wound to the right rear quarter of the elk. Quite a bit of blood and a blood trail was visible. The three wolves chased the elk into the river area and stood their ground without further chase into the river at this time. Jens spotted her sleeping under a tree in the area across the Canyon river and we all viewed her for some time.

Later that evening the three wolves circled the elk as he was partly into the water, but a predation was not recorded to my knowledge. I left and spotted and viewed 690 again in Lamar Valley…I didn’t photograph her again. I then went alone up to Lamar and met a couple who spotted the Canyon group once again cross the road and travel down the embankment of the Canyon. We hiked down the Canyon and I heard howling from the three wolves. We followed new tracks for some time but didn’t spot them.

I then headed back to the Buffalo Ranch and met up with Nathan Varley and Linda Thurston and their group. A really good mix of people from all over, including Washington State to St. Louis and across the ocean to Ireland, Scotland, and England. On their way into the park they spotted the Canyon pack just outside Mammoth, and also a calf kill by the Blacktail  Plateau Pack. I met the group and we had dinner(great food by Zack and his Montana menu!). A short orientation by Nathan and Linda and then off to our cabins…remember your flashlights as Bison sometimes wander about. I must say the staff at the ranch that I met…Bonnie, Betty, Don, John and others were so helpful and such nice people, and so very appreciated!

Buffalo Ranch Trip…Feb 21  Day 1

Spotted the Lamar Canyon Group in Boulder as they were heading west. Nathan immediately headed us east to Slough Creek where we walked out to the point and located them again across the river bank looking back west. We also spotted a third unknown wolf apparently following these three and wanting to join them.

We watched and photographed them for some time and eventually 754 approached the young black wolf and sent him on his way without violence. It was pretty tense for awhile, and Linda thought that he was probably young and not sexually mature and posed no threat to the group. We would see him again later in the week still trying to join this group.

We headed back to the Ranch where the group went snowshoeing and I headed back to Slough Creek and caught the tail end of a predation attempt as the 06 wolf was in hot pursuit of a big bull elk once again, this time heading east toward Boulder. She was running alone and right on this elk’s heels. They disappeared over an embankment so I followed in my vehicle and talked to a couple girls starting off on a cross country skiing trip. They were a bit nervous as they described seeing three wolves running hard across the road and then easterly toward Lamar Canyon. The very next day we returned and discovered the Lamar Canyon group was on a kill right where they were last seen running…no doubt the bull elk that 06 had chased down from the cliffs above Lamar Canyon. We also spotted that third black unknown wolf camped out in the area, still trying to join up with the three… it will be interesting to see how this plays out. I am most anxious to see what Spring brings as far as new life in Yellowstone, mostly how the wolves are realigned now that the historic era of the Druid Peak Pack is coming to an end. Hopefully there are offspring in the future for the 06 wolf from the tie she was in with 755. Both are very strong wolves, and 06 is quite possibly the most dominant wolf I have seen since wolf #40. She is just so magnificent with her tail held so high, and how she needs to be out front of the others, making kills of very large prey all by herself. Amazing is the only way to describe this large gray wolf of Lamar Canyon.

Back at the Ranch for dinner and an excellent lecture by Dr. Nathan Varley which I did video and will be posting it shortly to the website, with a link which will keep it under Nathan’s site in Yellowstone in the future.

Feb 22, 2010  Day 2

Nathan locates a kill in Little America by watching birds circling in a scavenger fervor. There were ravens, eagles (Bald and Golden) and other smaller birds. We set up scopes and quickly observed an elk carcass that appeared to be a mountain lion predation.  Nathan and Linda agreed, based on no wolves present, the way the carcass looked, and also what appeared to be big cat footprints in the snow nearby lead them to this conclusion. It was interesting to watch how the scavenger production played out…first the ravens, which were chased away by two Bald Eagles.Then a pair of large and aggressive Golden Eagles took over, only to be challenged by three coyote, which eventually won out.The scene kept changing and the coyote were a nervous bunch, constantly looking up the hill. They were so nervous and eventually high-tailed it out of there, to be replaced by a group of wolves about two hours later, including wolf 473F.

From there we went to check out the 06 group’s kill with little to see. We then trekked to Dan and Cindy Hartman’s cabin and gallery where most of the group snowshoed and I chose to stay at the cabin for a photo op of the local pine marten which I didn’t see, but I did take several pics of the local birds. And of course I bought an awesome black wolf print of the Millers Pack, called December Gaze. We returned to the Ranch where the speaker of the night was Dan Stahler, chief biologist for Yellowstone. Dan made a fascinating presentation which I video recorded, and had the opportunity to ask Dan about wolves and coyotes breeding with the possibility of viable offspring. Dan received his Masters Degree at the University of Vermont and was very knowledgeable with the topic and said absolutely that is what has happened. Dan stated that he has seen a 70 lb. “coyote” and agrees with the term “Coywolves”. Dan further stated that if a wolf should wander down from Canada into the New England area and run into one of these coywolves, they would absolutely mate with the possibility of viable offspring. I have been studying this for some time, and while I have been of the strong opinion that this has happened in New England, it was most reassuring to have it confirmed by Dan Stahler of Yellowstone Park. Thanks Dan, for the excellent and detailed input. Look for Dan’s video to be posted shortly.

Feb 23… Day 3

The group traveled to the hot spots once again and we did observe wolf 473 in the area of the elk carcass that we observed the day before. She was resting on the ledge wall above. We returned rather early as the group was going snowshoeing once again and I passed, choosing again to search for more wolf activity. I was joined by Elden of Washington State, a member of our group who was extremely knowledgeable of the history and activity of wolves in the park, pretty much since their reintroduction in 1995. I found him fascinating to talk to as he shares the same passion for this top predator as I do. We didn’t spot wolves but did have an encounter with two young bull bison, which I photographed, and also some good photo ops of big horn sheep. We then returned to the Ranch.

As there was so much time to kill I decided to take one more solo trip back to Lamar Canyon with the hope of seeing the 06 wolf one more time. I got more than I ever expected this time.

As I drove through the Canyon from Lamar Valley I saw Rick McIntyre’s car parked and empty at a turn out. I stopped and exited my car as I heard a series of wolf howls. I then saw Rick and a man named Kim. They were returning from the upper Canyon where Rick confirmed that Druid Pack female called White Line had been killed. White Line had been in a fight with 06 earlier.

Rick and I drove to Slough Creek and observed the Lamar Canyon group, and the most amazing goodbye from Yellowstone I could ever have hoped for was that of the big high-tailed and dominant 06, laying beneath a tree and howling.

I saw her then get up and walk over the ledge heading back toward the Canyon. I was a bit concerned as she displayed a limp in her right front leg, and Rick said he has noticed that same limp the last day or so. Hoping she recovers soon as I am going back in June and would love to see her with a “new family of pups”.

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