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Wolves Everywhere in Little America

Tuesday October 10, 2006
Pine Edge Cabins
Silver Gate, Montana

We were in the park before 6:30. Everything in the Lamar Valley is wrapped in a foggy shroud, the conifers white with yesterday’s snow, wraithlike, ghostly. Very cold and very beautiful.

We are rewarded once again for our diligence, as we get to see a total of eighteen wolves in two packs operating in the Little America area.

We stop at an overlook near the west end of the Lamar Valley. Rick McIntyre’s yellow Xterra is parked there, so we pull in next to him. McIntyre, who lives in Silver Gate year round and is the nerve center of wolf watching in this part of the park, says telemetry indicates there are members of the Slough Creek pack high on a shelf above the river near a scattered herd of grazing bison.

McIntyre and some other Watchers are walking up Cardiac Hill, a lookout point high behind us. From there, you can see more deeply into the shelf, which leads out of the valley to the west. We spend awhile glassing the area with Bill, a Wolf Watcher from Kansas that we have seen every year. He says that he and his wife and their dogs have been here a month, with two weeks to go. “Then we go back to work to make enough money to come back in the spring,” he grins, pulling on his long, white beard with a strange grin. “It’s a vicious cycle.”

After about twenty minutes, McIntyre is trudging back down, his voice crackling in the radio that the wolves are heading west out of the Lamar in the direction of Slough Creek.

We drive the couple of miles over to a pull-out near Slough Creek and glass for awhile. A short, cherubic woman is first to spot members of the pack running west along the timberline. We spend the next hour or so leapfrogging the Slough pack members as they parallel the road, running in that familiar wolf lope.

They disappear behind swales and into patches of timber and then pop back out into view. Some stay together; others lag behind, sniffing and playing, like all canines. We keep moving west, setting up ahead of them, watching awhile and then heading off again to get ahead and watch them pass again.

At one pull-out, McIntyre quietly says that if we shut off the engine, we can hear the wolves howling, and he is right. A couple of times in the scope I see a wolf raise its head and mouth a howl, but the sound doesn’t come until a few seconds later as it travels to us.

At another stop, as we’re getting out the scope, a coyote with reddish brown ears runs right past us heading north, glancing every now and then over his shoulder. He pauses at the road before bursting across and continues to wander north as far away from the pack as possible. I am reminded of Bob Crabtree’s comment about coyotes in the wake of wolf reintroduction: There are half as many coyotes in the park — but they are damned smart coyotes. This one might live to see another day.

We get out to the turn-off known as The Boulder in the Little America area, which offers a commanding view to the north that stretches for miles. A squadron of Watchers are scoping a high ridge far away. We join them, and soon enough, we have the Hellroaring pack in our sights, climbing and loitering near a small herd of about a dozen elk near the crest of the ridge. The elk seem to be on alert, which they should be, but the wolves don’t seem to be remotely interested in hunting.

This is our first look at the Hellroaring Pack. I have read in Ralph Maughan’s blog that this pack tends to hang farther west near the Yellowstone Valley. And for all we know, the ridge they are traversing might be above the Yellowstone River – it’s that far away.

In the binoculars, the ten wolves are very small dots with black or grey coloring. Even in the spotting scopes, they are smallish, walking above a big tear in the ridge. Several are loitering along the edge of cliffs.

Other Watchers are looking in the direction of the Sloughs, three of whom apparently crossed the road behind us while we were watching the Hellroaring wolves. The intercom is chattering with questions and reports: “I see three blacks and the grey, one of whom lifted his leg”; “do you see number 490 in that group?”; “has anyone seen that one cross the road?” McIntyre’s even, polite voice dominates the conversation.

Three Sloughs, two black yearlings and a three-year-old grey, are passing through a swale below us, a couple hundred yards off.

McIntyre is sitting at his scope, talking into a tape recorder with times and observations. He turns from the Hellroaring Pack to the Sloughs and back again, occasionally picking up the walkie-talkie to summon and direct his spotters. A couple elk cross the road in the opposite direction of the three wolves, alert, their heads up, noses in the air. They know who’s patrolling the area.

Someone on the radio indicates that Number 490, the Slough pack’s alpha male, crossed the road and then re-crossed back to the south. I hear McIntyre on the intercom telling a Watcher in a pick-up down the road to stop and watch the truck’s red lights come on almost immediately. The wolves are apparently just around a corner.

The Hellroaring pack moves away and up the ridge before bedding down, where they disappear into the sage. We are not macho enough to linger and wait for them to awaken, though some of the more serious and dutiful Watchers will do just that. So we leave after locating three Slough wolves north of the road and watching five others, including Number 490, running back east up a long hill in the direction of the Lamar again. The Watchers are still watching both packs intently as we drive off.

In the afternoon we head out again, with Anne in the van as guide. We don’t have any telemetry, so we’re just going to drive out and see what we can find. We have stopped across from Specimen Ridge, which looks completely different than this morning, when it was covered in white. I can see a bear with my naked eye strolling out across the meadow a couple hundred yards off. In the scope, we find that it is a grizzly, so we watch it for about twenty minutes as it wanders the plain before disappearing beyond the tree line.

This one is slick black, almost blue-black, with a sleek body and what appeared to be a little fat under his belly, like a good bear should possess at this time of year. Its large head would seem to indicate a male, and the head rises often like he’s taking in scents – I wonder if he can smell us? Just before we got here, someone in the car next to us says it rose on his back legs to look around and that it “looked just like a man.”

Which once again reminds us of the similarities between bears and humans. If you look at a skinned bear, it is said that it looks exactly like a human. Our diets are similar; bear researcher Chuck Jonkel says, “If you like it, chances are a bear will probably like it, too.” And, until humans created the repeating rifle and nearly wiped them from the face of the lower Forty Eight, we were equals, vying for our parts of the food chain.

This grizzly is heading up to the high country for a long winter’s nap, and I still don’t discount the theory that we are jealous of these magnificent distant cousins, for their strength, their built-in reproductive constraints and the chance to sleep half the year away. If only they had web access up there in the den …

Watching this grizzly here in Yellowstone reminds us that, like wolves, they are here only because we humans allow them to be. Their respective fates are entirely up to us. If we decide we can’t live with bears, they would become extinct. And they could still wind up that way, from drought, loss of habitat or one or more vital food sources or poor human decision-making — like the current U.S. Fish and Wildlife plans to delist the grizzly from the protections of the Endangered Species Act. It might be time to talk about delisting wolves, but the fate of the grizzly is much more perilous.

The couple who are watching alongside us are providing comic relief. They keep pointing at a few elk and are chattering amongst themselves that the bear is somehow going to “give the elk a run for their money” or sneak up behind them, even though the bear is moving in the opposite direction.

The bear soon ambles into the timber and out of sight. We follow McIntyre’s Xterra over to Slough Creek, where his telemetry indicates that there are wolves. We spend the next 45 minutes until dark looking in vain along the north ridge.

Oh, but they are there. We can hear them well enough, along with a group of coyotes screaming and yipping somewhere in the same general direction. Some of the Watchers apparently can see them from another location behind us. Hearing them is just as good, however, and they keep up a steady howl pretty much the whole time.

Besides, the sunset is absolutely gorgeous, red stripes in the clouds all along the broad western horizon. We have already seen a grizzly, more than 15 wolves, several coyotes (we saw none last year), raven, elk, deer. And a chorus of grey wolves serenades us into the dusk.

Today was as productive as any day we have ever had up here. You just keep giving yourself chances and see what happens.

On the way back, Anne pointed out a beaver dam starting to take shape across Soda Butte Creek just above its junction with the Lamar. Willow bushes, almost non-existent when we first started coming six years ago, are turning red and are again becoming the dominant flora in the wetlands around the stream.


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