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Norris Geyser Basin and a Wolf Serenade

October 11, 2006
Pine Edge Cabins
Silver Gate, Montana

We were in the park early again this morning. The ride down was more like the one we’re used to – minus the ghostly look of the snow, which has melted for the most part from yesterday.

The Lamar was silent, buffalo the only herd animals in sight. We stopped at Slough Creek and drove north down the road toward the campgrounds near where we left last night. There are a host of Wolf Watchers set up here. Rick McIntyre’s telemetry says the Slough wolves are out there. They are howling up a storm. But like last night at sunset, nobody can find them.

I feel a bit like those ivory-billed woodpecker folks who spend hours and hours in swampy, water-moccasin-infested water looking for something, anything. Everything I spot in my scope, upon closer inspection, turns into a rock or a bison.

This goes on for about a half hour. Nobody else can find them, either. Finally, Deirdre motions us over to the scope, and there they are under a stand of dead aspen. At first I see three, then three blacks and the grey, but after awhile all eight are in various states of lounging. Seven females and the alpha male Number 490. The Slough Creek pack that we watched yesterday. We get a half hour of wolf stuff. Lying down and raising their heads to look at each other. Urinating. Stretching.

Someone says there is a kill about a half mile away down by Slough Creek. Perhaps they are resting and howling after last night’s gorging.

A bunch of coyotes shriek back, but the wolves’ long, more mournful howls and harmonies dominate the airspace. The grey gets up and walks down a swale, sitting down maybe 30 yards away before walking back up and joining the rest again for another round of howling.

When they got up and started moving uphill, you could see the individual wolves, especially after a friendly older fellow brought out a Questar telescope. In the telescope, you could see expression and color in the wolves’ faces more than a half mile away. Soon they out of sight heading north over the hill.

Our reverie is disturbed by a shout from the woman with the beatific smile who we met yesterday. She has scoped a grizzly bear walking along a high ridge far above us south of the road. It’s the same ridge where we saw the Slough wolves running as we left yesterday. This one looks pretty large, especially the hump, but it’s hard to tell much from this distance. He finally disappears into the timber stage left.

About ten minutes later, following exactly the same trail, moving a little more quickly, is another grizzly. A little later, someone picks them up on an even higher ridge following each other over the pass into the Lamar Valley.

We are moving on to the Norris Geyser Basin today, which one website describes as perhaps “the hottest geyser area in Yellowstone.” In 1929, it says, an oil rig sustained damage trying to determine subsurface temperatures that rose to 401 degrees.

The barren, sulphrous environment at Norris is a result of the extreme acidity that makes it difficult for vegetation to grow and easy for algae and bacteria to thrive. We read that the sulphur, which has a smell that most people find unpleasant but that I have grown to like as a part of the hot-water experience, is pretty toxic stuff.

Steamboat Geyser, though less-known and less-active than Old Faithful, is actually the world’s largest geyser. Today, like all days we have been here, it is gurgling and spitting erratically out of the rock, almost ominously. The eruptions measure from two to perhaps ten feet, like a cauldron waiting for its chance to blow. When it really explodes, water cascades up to 300 feet. Steamboat exploded in 2000, in 2002, and twice in 2003, on March 26 and April 27. Below, about thirty feet from the hole, a steam vent loudly exhales like a locomotive in an old cartoon.

The Norris landscape is ever in turmoil and change. Leo Whittlesey notes in Death in Yellowstone: “An 1883 park employee, George Thomas, cautioned travelers that walking at Norris had to be ‘slow and careful’ because of the danger of ‘dropping into a hole and being scalded to death.’ Five years later, a warning sign was posted: ‘Visitors ought not to cross this basin without a competent guide, and then it is at the risk of their lives.’

Photos show that by 1905 wooden planks were being built (and rebuilt) to allow people safer access. Whittlesey can find no actual deaths at Norris, although that doesn’t mean early travelers might not have met their end by falling through into some remote hot pool.

The chaos continues. In March 2003, about the same time Steamboat Geyser blew twice in a month, a new thermal feature appeared west of Nymph Lake. Porkchop Geyser, a familiar landmark since its appearance in 1971, erupted and left the temperature of the water in the pool significantly hotter, which closed the area for awhile and necessitated the moving of the trail away from it. Porkchop is more active than the last time I was here.

By the time we got back to Silver Gate, the clouds overhead are moving west and south, and at ground level, the wind is keeping the Montana flag down at the general store almost prone in the opposite direction. Such is climate in Silver Gate. We’ll be home tomorrow.

October 12, 2007   No Comments

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.

October 11, 2007   No Comments

Charismatic Megafauna

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.

September 20, 2007   No Comments