Canid Capers

Let me tell you something about wolves, child. When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives. In winter, we must protect one another, keep each other warm, share our strengths.

~George R. R. Martin

One of the best things about Yellowstone in winter is the enhanced viewing opportunities for many species of wildlife (not bears, of course). The usual heavy snow at high elevations forces many animals down into the valleys, which include the major roadways, so they are closer to the usual viewing locations. Plus, most species are much easier to spot against a background of snow. This is especially true of the much sought after wolves. With so many packs in the park having at least a portion of their members being the black color, it helps spot them at even great distances in winter. And, where there are wolves, there are other creatures nearby – Ravens, Black-billed Magpies, and the other park canid cousins, Coyotes and Red Foxes.

We hoped to have a few days to figure out where the wolves were being seen before the students arrived since most visitors (especially first-timers) really want to see wolves as part of their Yellowstone experience. On the day we arrived, I saw a FB post showing an amazing roadside kill of an Elk by a pair of wolves in Lamar Valley. We drove out the next day and saw the blood-stained pavement and snow indicating the kill was made within about 20 feet of the highway! We were told that rangers had used a winch to remove the carcass and transport it to a more remote location where animals could feed undisturbed by the horde of humans that would undoubtedly congregate nearby if the carcass were to remain that close to a roadway.

The bloody scene of a wolf-killed Elk. We arrived a day too late to witness it (I can’t imagine what a chaotic scene it must have been with people striving for a better look/photo of the action) (click photos to enlarge)

The next morning had us back out on the road and before sunrise we saw a group of photographers on a hill. We managed to get a space a couple of hundred yards away and climbed a small knoll where we saw wolves headed up the hill away from an apparent carcass (the presence of lots of Ravens and Black-billed Magpies was the give-away even though we could not see the exact scene from our location). Others on our knoll confirmed there was a carcass just out of sight below a low ridge. It turned out, the growing number of people down the road could see the remains of a Bison and all the action, but we opted to stay put with only about a dozen watchers instead of the shoulder-to-shoulder group of 50+ on the other hill. Though the wolves were a bit too far for great photos, the views through the scope were amazing. We could see them wiping their blood-stained faces in the snow as they walked up the hill for a post-feeding siesta. A couple of the wolves played with each other as they went, and they treated us to a group howl when most were gathered far up on the slope.

Gray Wolf from the Junction Butte pack headed away from the carcass site to join the rest of the pack
A black wolf passes by two Bald Eagles waiting their turn for the carcass
Members of the Junction Butte pack resting high above the carcass site after a feeding
The Bison carcass with Ravens in attendance

Suddenly, we heard a group of Coyotes behind us, undoubtedly anxious for their turn at the Bison buffet, but forced to wait until their larger cousins all moved up the hill. The Coyotes were a bit hesitant to cross the road to the carcass because of so many humans. Unfortunately, some of the people exhibited bad behavior by closing in on the Coyotes and, in one case, howling back at them – I lost my cool and yelled at that person to stop as that is a clear violation of park regulations). Eventually, the Coyotes made it across.

— Melissa shot this video with her iPhone through a spotting scope while we were watching the wolves. Holding the phone exactly in the right spot without a dedicated phone mount is tough (especially when the temperature is less than 10 degrees F!) so that results in some of the moving dark edges you see. These Coyotes were waiting to cross the road a couple of hundred yards from a bison carcass where wolves from the Junction Butte pack were feeding.

A full week after we watched the wolves feeding on this carcass, it was picked clean. From the road, we saw numerous human tracks headed out to the carcass, so we figured it was okay to walk our group out to survey the scene (in general, you don’t want to approach a fresh carcass to avoid disturbing the site, but enough time had elapsed for the active feeding to have ceased).

Though we saw Coyotes on several occasions, we had a hard time encountering wolves once the students arrived, and we never saw a Red Fox.

A Coyote with a full belly headed away from the carcass site
A few days after the wolves had stopped feeding at the carcass, this coyote managed to haul away a chunk of it for some solitary chewing time…
…but a pair of Black-billed Magpies followed, hoping for a morsel
And another, apparently subordinate, Coyote soon arrived
Coyote, after crossing the road at Tower Junction
Distant Coyote at Fountain Paint Pots
Fresh Gray Wolf tracks on the boardwalk at Old Faithful

On our last couple of days, we worked hard to find wolves for our group. From Melissa’s contacts, we knew the Wolf Project team was going to be flying to track and dart some animals during our stay and we finally saw the spotter plane. Melissa then recognized one of the team member’s vehicles at a pullout so we stopped and climbed a knoll to join them. It was a very distant view, but our group was thrilled to witness the helicopter crew capturing a wolf. They do this in order to place tracking collars on them for research (about a third of Yellowstone’s wolves have collars). A young technician was on the ridge explaining everything that was happening and answering all the student’s questions. It wasn’t a great viewing, but it was a great learning moment for everyone.

We ended our time in Lamar in a memorable way. Late in the day, we were headed back through the valley and spotted some cars near the Buffalo Ranch with scopes and long lenses looking up on the hill. We slowed and asked, and they had wolves high on the ridge behind the facility. We pulled in and started searching. One of the people we had asked was kind enough to walk up the road and put our scopes on the wolves to ease our search. The late afternoon light was hitting a hilltop and on it were a couple of wolves resting. Then a couple more and some interactions, all clearly visible though the spotting scopes. One viewer told us the wolves were “yawning” and we shushed everyone…indeed, the wolves had started howling (due to the distance, there is a delay from when you see them start to howl and when you actually hear it, so it looks like a big yawn at first). They continued howling for a few minutes, quite a long howl! Soon, four more wolves joined the party. This was a magical last afternoon in the park – golden light on a group of wolves (members of the 8-mile pack we later learned) and our group was able to watch and listen to them without being surrounded by a crowd. The wolves eventually made their way into a patch of trees and disappeared from view.

This was all the more special given the current controversy over increased hunting and trapping pressure on wolves in many Western states. Management of wolves was turned over to the states about ten years ago when wolf numbers reached recovery goals set by the federal government. New legislation in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho has allowed for increased killing of wolves including those that wander out of the protected areas of the park. As of February 1, 24 wolves that usually live in packs inside Yellowstone National Park have been killed after they crossed the park boundary. This has huge implications for pack structure within the park and there is great concern among scientists about the impacts of this on their research and on local wolf populations. Many area businesses have also expressed concern as they understand the huge positive economic impact that wolves have for local communities from the thousands of tourists that come to see the wolves and other wildlife each year. As a result of issues raised from several law suits, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is scheduled to issue findings on their review of the status of re-listing of Gray Wolves in Western states later this fall.

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