A Walk on Yellowstone's Wild Side
Wolves battle for territory. Coyotes endure love triangles. Wolverine fathers show their kits the ropes. Few places offer more intimate wildlife viewing than Yellowstone in winter.
This story is running in the January-February 2012 issue as "On the Wild Side." The online version has been changed to reflect that on December 8th or 9th, the wolf known as the '06 Female was shot and killed by a licenced hunter in Wyoming. One of her mates was also shot dead by a hunter in Wyoming earlier this season.
The first wolves we see are members of the Agate Creek pack, lying in a snow-drifted cluster of rocks. It’s late winter in Yellowstone National Park, cold and crisp, with an inch of new snow brightening the landscape. The alpha female started life as a black wolf; now, at eight years old, she’s so gray she shimmers a shade only slightly more silver than the snow around her.She lies far in the distance, visible only through spotting scopes,the chill wind ruffling her fur—a grand dame in repose. A dark male, named Big Blaze by longtime wolf watchers for the light streak on his black chest,steps to her, sniffs her snout, and she lifts her head to him. Then the howling begins.
A startling swirl of sound pours down Specimen Ridge toward us. “That’s the Mollie’s,” says wildlife biologist Shauna Baron,referring to another of the park’s packs. She began observing Yellowstone’s wolves in 1996, monitoring individuals reintroduced the year before in a much-heralded conservation effort. Today 100 of the magnificent canines live in Yellowstone’s 10 different packs. We, the 18 people on a three-day Yellowstone Association wolf-watching tour, all take note, a little intimidated by what Baron has told us of the Mollie’s.
In late 2011 the gang of 19 big, bruising animals suddenly appeared on the park’s northern range, as they do nearly every winter.For 17 years the elk-studded open slopes of the northern range have been a battleground as packs struggle to secure access to food. The fights can quickly turn deadly—the primary cause of death for adult wolves in Yellowstone is wolves from other packs—and are a grim testament to the mortal force of wolves’ territorial imperative. Outside of the park, humans cause a great deal of mortality—this winter licensed hunters killed several wolves that crossed the boundary line—but within the confines of Yellowstone, wolf life is truly survival of the fittest. The Mollie’s have traditionally inhabited Yellowstone’s high, cold interior andadjusted to winter elk shortages there by learning to hunt bison—the first park pack to subsist primarily on the dangerous, surly beasts, which can weigh up to 2,000 pounds. But now it seems they’re out to claim new turf. As we stand watching, we are keenly aware that at any moment the Mollie’s might charge down Specimen Ridge to lay waste to the Agates.
It wouldn’t be the first time. Last year Mollie’s killed the alpha male and several pack members.Then other packs picked off more of the weakened Agates—10 either died or disappeared between autumn of 2011 and late winter of 2012. Now, in mid-March, they’re staggering along with only five remaining members.
Watching the Agates through scopes, it’s apparent they know versions of the same stories Baron has told us.They snap to attention, rise and cluster, tilt their faces skyward, stretch their necks, cup their mouths, and howl with all their might. It’s a sweet, quavering dirge compared to the insistent river of sound unleashed by the Mollie’s. And then other voices float in from the west, the Blacktails, barely visible on a distant ridge, joining the antiphony. The packs take turns. The haunting howls rise and fall, a mortal call-and-response touching nerves in all of us. Our complete silence speaks to their power.
As remarkable as it is, what we’re seeing and hearing is not unusual; it’s a common occurrence in Yellowstone in winter, one that wolf-watching tours like the Yellowstone Association, the park’s educational arm, have revealed to thousands of visitors in recent years. When wolves were reintroduced to the park in 1995, it was assumed that most visitors would never see one. Their howls, it was thought, would be how most people would experience them.Nothing could be further from the truth.
Very few places in the world offer more intimate wildlife viewing than Yellowstone in winter. Harsh weather drives most animals off the high ridges and toward shelter in the valleys and river bottoms. The crowds of tourists that lend a circus atmosphere to so many of the park’s summer wildlife encounters are absent. Except for the lack of bears, tucked away in their dens, winter in Yellowstone is a unique opportunity to witness the park’s megafauna as it struggles for survival. Learning the creatures’ individual narratives adds layers of meaning that we crave when we watch coyotes bound across the snow or elk standing in a river bottom. No animals in Yellowstone have such well-known stories as the wolves—each unique, beautiful, powerful animal obeying intricate social signals and complex family dynamics. We want them to have stories so that we can understand them. The wolves don’t really care about us at all.