Each year since 2001 Billie and I have gone to Yellowstone at this time of year. We went up the first time because we were curious about the reintroduction of the wolves and how the park might have been changed by their presence. As you will see below, we found much more than we bargained for. Now our primary activity in the park is watching wolves, and a few grizzly bears when we’re lucky. We have seen some incredible things, most of them visible from the side of the road.
Due to some scheduling conflicts, we won’t make it this year. So I thought I would post a few of my journal entries from our Yellowstone years during the next few days. Save for Alaska, there is no place I love more than Yellowstone, and especially the Lamar Valley, the valley of the wolves. And it all began on this spring day.
17 June 2001
Silver Gate, Montana
It was just getting light, just before five, when Kim’s knock came at the cabin door. I was already awake, and it didn’t take us ten minutes to throw on some clothes and brush our teeth.
We are off at 5:30, early enough that there isn’t a ranger at Yellowstone’s Northeast Entrance just a mile from Silver Gate. We drive in silence, following the pick-up of Bob Crabtree, the park’s chief coyote researcher, sipping our coffee and taking in the natural spectacle of the sun blazing on the rocky peaks, Baronnette on the right and Abiathar and the Thunderer to our left, all three at about 10,000 feet, some three thousand feet vertically above us. All blazing gold in the morning’s first rays.
Elk are grazing several hundred yards from the road as we pass through the Pebble Creek area. We were here at this broad meadow late yesterday morning and spent an hour glassing wolves feeding on what was left of an elk or antelope carcass the pack had killed the night before. It wasn’t more than a quarter mile from the road. The caravan pauses for a minute while a couple of people from our group silently glass the treelines for movement.
We pass the burned-out Soda Butte itself, a formation which names this valley and creek, go around a curve or two, and we are below Druid Peak, at the place where Soda Butte Creek flows into the Lamar River and snakes west through a broad valley.
Billie and I took a walk into the meadow here yesterday afternoon, hardly realizing that it was home turf for the Druid wolf pack, at 26 members the largest in the park since the reintroduction of wolves in 1994-’95 and now one of the most observed packs in the world. Their den is high above the road, several hundred yards away.
We learned on that walk that wildlife is plentiful here. We watched a badger in an area where the landscape was crawling with ground squirrels. An unfortunate squirrel was in the badger’s mouth as it walked the ridge eyeing us before disappearing in the short brush.
And we found a large, heavily eroded wallow next to a creek at an intersection of trails. The bark of the trees had been worn smooth by bear scratching that we recognized as similar to trees bear biologist Charles Jonkel showed us at Pine Butte Ranch in Montana last spring. It’s located at a busy
We don’t know if bears scratch trees to announce their presence, mark territory or for the same reason we love our backs scratched. But the trees at this crossroads were crawling with bear hair, and we weren’t more than a mile and a quarter from the road, though out of sight of vehicular park traffic.
But we never realized that every Druid wolf in the den area could, and no doubt did, watch us walking out and back to our car. Which is pretty cool, when you think about it.
Crabtree, who is near the end of a 12-year study of park coyotes, told us during his campfire talk last night that there might be as many as three litters of wolfpups up there in that den. Wolf packs usually only have one set of pups, that of the alpha female, but it’s just another of the many new things we’re learning about wolves as they repopulate the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Crabtree’s truck pulls over, and we all follow suit, get out and head up a steep trail to a location about 75 to 100 feet above the road that offers a great vantage point right above the spot where Soda Butte Creek runs into the Lamar, which then bends and stretches north and west into an immense, broad valley as it heads downriver toward its rendevous with the Yellowstone River.
As we set up and begin to watch, we can see a scattered herd of bison grazing and patches of antelope dispersed in the short grass.
There’s something else going on out there in the meadow, too. Crabtree comes over and sets the scope onto a carcass several hundred yards away. As our eyes become accustomed to the lenses, seven or eight wolves can be seen in the general area around the kill site.
The animals are exhibiting many of the same types of behaviors we saw yesterday morning at the Pebble Creek site. Individual wolves seem to be in a state of anxiety, eating, tearing at the meat, running around, biting and scratching, communicating with each other.
Some are just sitting or lying around, perhaps in the “meat drunk” state the canids enter after “wolfing down” large quantities of meat, their only real food source. Unlike bears, they are true carnivores.
Others are dispersed as much as a half mile from the kill, on the move, sniffing, urinating, running errands, performing their wolfpack duties. They’re interacting with each other in all kinds of ways. One male is trying, rather unsuccessfully, to mount a female.
But as we angle our glasses westward along the plains, we catch the unmistakable gait of something else moving toward the kill site. It’s a grizzly, the hump immediately and plainly visible. And two smaller versions scampering around it. The trio is perhaps two hundred yards from the carcass. No doubt led by that amazing sense of smell, it is a grizzly sow and her two offspring, from their size probably a year old already, maybe even in their second year. The cubs are playing with each other and bouncing around, and they’re heading in the same general direction as the trio we saw last night.
The situation changes rather quickly and dramatically in a very short time. About the time we spot the bears, the wolves at the kill pick up on them, too. Several head over toward the bears at a very high rate of speed, running in that loping style that’s deceptively fast. Soon they all leave the kill site.
Encountering the trio, they immediately begin circling. While the mother&cubs gather themselves together to evaluate their situation, I glass a couple of the straggler wolves, who are hightailing it to join the circle around the three bears.
Quick count: eight wolves; a female sow grizzly and two yearling cubs. At one point, there are bison and antelope, curiously indifferent to the encounter, as well as the bears and most of the wolves, in the ken of our scopes and glasses.
Can this possibly be happening? This part of Yellowstone has been compared to the Serengeti, the wild game preserve in Tanzania, in the richness of its wildlife and beauty of habitat, and we are in no position to argue.
As this curious life-and-death tango between two top predators begins, I’m thinking the wolves have a serious advantage. My sympathies immediately shift to those cubs and their situation, which doesn’t look promising.
The drama intensifies. The wolves continue to circle and stalk, charging occasionally, darting in and out and then backing off. But this doesn’t smack of the almost paramilitary teamwork often attributed to wolf packs. Sometimes, the wolves seem indifferent, walking away from the action, then just as suddenly charging and nipping.
The mother is tenacious. She charges individual wolves several times when they come in too close, once in a dash long enough to make my heart beat a couple of extra times when the bearlings are seemingly left to the whims of the rest of the pack. And the mother can’t seem to control one of the cubs, which is pretty tenacious itself. Two or three times it charges a wolf on its own, just enough to keep them away before backing off closer to mom.
They are too far away for us to hear, but we know from our McNeil experience that mom is no doubt making those scary popping and chuffing noises with her mouth. The wolves are squealing and barking and howling and snarling and yipping as they move in and out of the circle.
“Who’s benefiting from this encounter,” asks Bob Crabtree. A look over at the kill site, now just 50 yards from the bears and unattended, offers one answer: The ravens and other scavengers are getting an extra half hour at the carcass. Crabtree says you can bet there are coyotes hiding somewhere out there on the plain, keeping their distance from the wolves, hoping for their chance at the last pickings from the carcass, too.
I ask him about what’s going on inside their brains, and Crabtree says, “Give me one second inside there.” That would be something, but ’til then, he adds, we can only guess their intentions, and we’re limited by our own perceptions as humans.
The wolves continue to lose ground as the dance progresses ever-so-slowly toward the kill. I catch one wolf leaving the group, going back to the carcass and coming off with a big leg piece that has a chunk of flank attached. spinning it wildly in its mouth so that it hangs funny and throws the wolf off balance before disappearing into a swale of grass.
Crabtree suggests that the wolves could be yearlings themselves and perhaps learning or practicing their pack skills. They are probably low-level pack members, the last wolves at the kill. The alpha is not present. And many of the wolves, while interacting, have their tails down or between their legs, both which indicate submission. It’s the b-team, the scrubs.
It takes awhile, but the mother grizz moves ever closer to the kill, and then, in one motion, moves to take it over and immediately turns to face any wolf who wants to try and take it back. There are no takers, thank you, and the three bears tear into the remains.
Most of the canids immediately give up and head off after she takes the carcass, though a couple stretch out and settle in to watch the action. Most scatter into the timber or down the draw while the bears munch down.
There isn’t much left. After about twenty minutes, the bears head off upriver again and soon are lost to our sight as they head for the wallow where we found the bear hair yesterday afternoon. Hopefully, they spent some time there scratching and smelling our scents from yesterday and making their own marks over them.
Billie points to her watch. It’s five to eight.