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 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.
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.
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.
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.
There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story.
I recently bought another trail camera and have been putting them out in our woods the past few weeks trying to document who shares our 14 acres. I look for game trails and natural junctures (like our creek bed), placing the cameras on trees for a couple of days, and then retrieving the images. It is always a thrill to see what triggered the cameras and when. I’m also starting to look for places where there has been obvious recent activity, like the pileated log from my last post. Of course, the photographer in me wishes the images were a higher quality, but the naturalist in me is delighted with what the cameras are recording when the woods are on their own.
By far, the greatest number of captures have been of Eastern Gray Squirrels. Our woods seem extra full of them this year, perhaps due to the extraordinary mast year we have had that produced an abundance of acorns and hickory nuts. There have been many trips that did not record any animal as there is a delay between when teh camera senses movement and when it starts recording. The mouse on the pileated log from the last post is a prime example. During the day, a quick moving squirrel or a bird flying in front of the camera can leave me with nothing but guesses as to what set it off.
Below are some of my favorite captures from the last four weeks of trail cameras (best if viewed full screen) with notes on each…
I usually take my camera with me when I go check the trail cameras, but earlier this week I was in a hurry and just wanted to make a quick trip. As I headed down slope, I noticed something through the gray tree trunks. I pulled up my binoculars…it was the Red Fox staring at me. It looked at me for a few seconds and then trotted off down toward the creek. Suddenly, three deer, apparently startled by the fox, came running up toward me. It was a doe and two beautiful bucks (the 6 and 8-pointers shown above). They stopped, looked at me, and may have realized I was without camera, so they gave me a nice pose. I decided to wait another day to retrieve the trail cam footage. I hope the other wildlife neighbors will reveal themselves “in person” some day. In the meantime, I’ll let the trail cams tell me who is out there.
Here is a complete list of species recorded this month:
Eastern Gray Squirrel, Eastern Chipmunk, mouse (species unknown), Dark-eyed Junco; American Robin, Hermit Thrush, Pileated Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, White-tailed Deer, Raccoon, Virginia Opossum, Red Fox, Coyote, unidentified moths
I am back home in NC now after a great two weeks in Yellowstone. I will post a few more blogs about my trip in the coming days but wanted to start with what I witnessed on my last morning through the park.
Sunrise on my last morning in the park
The day started with an expletive when I realized at 4:30 a.m. that the power was off in Silver Gate. I had enjoyed my stay at the Log Cabin Cafe cabins but was bummed that I would need to finish packing by headlamp and, worse yet, might have no shower for my long day of plane rides home. But, there was enough hot water to get the shower, and as I got into the car, I was greeted by a spectacular sunrise. It was going to be a great morning after all.
Bull Moose browsing on aspen saplings
As I approached Round Prairie I could see a car pulled off the road so I slowed and saw a beautiful bull Moose browsing on some aspen saplings. The visitor had been watching the bull feed for about 30 minutes (and it was only 5:30 a.m. when I arrived). I got out and watched for a few minutes as the bull slowly worked its way into some thick tree cover and disappeared from sight. Such are the vagaries of wildlife watching – one minute a great view and the next an animal as large as a horse can vanish for hours by moving only a few feet. Luck was with me this morning.
The clouds thickened as I headed into Lamar Valley. About a mile down the road I could see a gathering of cars on a hill so I stopped to glass the valley to see what was happening. I quickly noticed some ravens and magpies far out across the Lamar River and when I stepped out of the car I heard the alarm barks of a coyote. That probably meant wolves were nearby. After looking near the raven activity I finally saw canids including the unmistakable black color of a wolf. It appeared that the wolves were digging and that was probably bad news for the coyotes. I drove on and found out that the three wolves were digging out a coyote den. As there was no place to pull over I kept driving with plans to check on several things I wanted to see in the area known as Little America before heading for the airport.
Black wolf out in valley
The dark skies were not great for photography, so, after spending some time watching a bison herd, I decided to drive back to Lamar one last time to check on the wolf-coyote saga. From the highest pullout I could see a black wolf a mile or more away headed down the valley. A half mile beyond me were about 50 people out watching. I drove beyond the crowd hoping the wolf would continue down the valley toward the den site a couple of miles beyond. When I stopped I could see the wolf was carrying something – a coyote pup. I later found out that this black wolf is a two year old female and is a persistent animal – she did the bulk of the digging at the coyote den (for over 45 minutes) while the other two wolves stood guard. She killed this pup and was carrying it back toward the wolf den with pups a few miles away.
Wolf running by me as I wait for black wolf
I, along with two other people, had positioned myself down the road ahead of the crowd in an area where I anticipated the black wolf heading. While I was setting up my camera, I saw a blur out of the corner of my eye – it was a wolf running full speed between me and the river! The black wolf was far across the river so we were all startled by this close animal – and this wolf was being pursued by two coyotes.
Coyote chasing wolf
I quickly spun the camera and fired a few shots and managed to capture a couple of somewhat blurry images before they were all out of sight. The three of us looked at each other and appeared stunned at what had just happened. I am guessing this wolf was being chased by the coyote pair that had just lost their den in a somewhat unusual turnabout of roles with the coyotes being the pursuers instead of the pursued. The images here of the other wolves are heavily cropped – these of the running wolf and coyote are not cropped at all, showing how close they were. Apparently the wolf had crossed the river far downstream beyond our view and was being chased along our side of the river when she blew by us.
Black wolf with Coyote pup
After catching my breath I turned my attention back to the black wolf who was approaching on the far side of the river carrying her prey. She moved quickly down the valley and then dropped the pup, looked back, and began wagging her tail.
Two wolves across Lamar River
I looked up from the viewfinder and saw a big gray wolf approaching ( I think this is the male of the group). After a brief greeting, the black wolf picked the pup up again and they moved on down the valley. The male turned and headed over a knoll and the black female continued on toward the river in the direction of the den.
Black wolf with Coyote pup getting ready to cross river
From my vantage point I saw the wolf approach the river and come out on the other side. By this time, many of the cars from down the valley had come down to try to see the wolf so there were people and cars on both sides of one of the mile-long no stopping zones that the park created along the road to allow the wolves to safely travel to and from their den site. When the black wolf finally crossed it did not have the pup carcass. I imagine it cached it somewhere amongst the willow flats along the river to be retrieved at a later time. I saw this same pack do that earlier in the week with a Pronghorn fawn they killed – the gray female carried the fawn’s body several hundred yards and buried it in an aspen grove.
Such is the cycle of life in Yellowstone. I heard people commenting on what we all just witnessed – most felt some sorrow for the coyote pup but were still thrilled at what we saw. This is part of the drama that is played out every day in this incredible place and awaits you if you simply take the time to observe. It is hard to put into words how it makes you feel – a mix of emotions and awe. But the drama of nature happens all around us every day if we only stop and look. As I am writing this, there is a Gray Squirrel out my window, perched precariously on a thin branch and reaching up and grabbing some Viburnum berries to eat. Granted, it is not a wolf with prey, but it is special nonetheless. One thing I have noticed over the years is that trips to places like Yellowstone, where we can more easily witness the behavior of wild creatures, helps us to better observe and appreciate the small wonders of nature back home. And that may be the most important lesson we can learn from this magical place.