A Walk on Yellowstone's Wild Side

Photograph by Donald M Jones
Photograph by Christopher LaMarca
Photograph by Christopher LaMarca
Photograph by Daniel J Cox/Getty Images

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.

By Jeff Hull
Published: January-February 2013

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. 

 

wake up in a warm, rustic log cabin in the middle of Yellowstone's Lamar Valley.Stepping outside and inhaling winter air amid the vast stretch of river bottom and forested hillsides--except for the other cabins, a pure wilderness with no built structure in sight--allows me to feel a hint of what it must have been like to live in the West before wolves were extirpated, when wild was a part of everyday life. While several outfitters offer winter wildlife tours, a main advantage of a Yellowstone Association trip is geographical--you stay in cabins at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch, so out-in-it that you're well advised to scout the scene before walking from your cabin to the nearby bathroom lest a bison or elk be blocking your way. The cabins are not luxurious--twin beds with pillows, pegs to hang your coats, a heater, and a sleeping bag--but their cozy comfort, surrounded by such wilderness, is everything you could want.  

Days start with an early, hearty breakfast--eggs, bacon, pancakes, cereals, rib-sticking food to fuel hours in the cold. You spend the morning in the field, and during a picnic lunch guides give lectures about wolves and other wildlife.  

There's downtime in the afternoon. You can nap in your toasty cabin or strap on cross-country skis and explorethe Blacktail Plateau, where a groomed trail climbs through prime wolf--and elk and bison--territory and unveils panoramic vistas of the wintry Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains. Or you can drive 30 miles west, across the park, to the Wyoming-Montana border and walk the quarter-mile trail to the Boiling River. Here a stream of scalding water leaking from beneath the Mammoth Geyser basin pours from a hole in the hillside. Where the hot water mixes with the icy Gardner River, stacked rocks corral it into bathing pools. Soaking in the water, peering through the billows of steam pouring into the frigid air, you watch the sunset suffuse in deep yellows the high ridge of cliff--a remnant of the volcanic tuff from the supervolcano that formed Yellowstone's geology more than half a million years ago. 

Back at the ranch, after a dinner of curried tilapia or pasta with chicken and a fruity merlot,whiteboard and projectors transform the dining room to classroom. Yellowstone Wolf Project leaders like Doug Smith and project biologist Dan Stahler--some of the most knowledgeable wolf biologists on the planet--tell you about the interactions between park wolves and other animals. One night we're treated to a presentation by artist and naturalist George Bumann, whose facility with facts about the natural world is dizzying. He faithfully replicates the belching roar of a bison bull, a squealing elk bugle, and various complex coyote yodels. About the latter, he says, "For 70 years coyotes didn't know what wolves were. But as soon as the first wolf hit the ground in Yellowstone in 1995, this howl became the coyote word for wolf. It's a life-and-death sound. It gives me the willies just doing it."

Bumann encourages us to take cues from the world around us, to wonder what deer are looking at and why magpies suddenly start chattering. "If you watch what they're watching, they're going to open up their world to you."

 

Anybody driving through the park might notice three coyotes wandering over the snow across the Lamar River. But Baron tells you about the love triangle consuming them. "It's a boy with a girl and a straggler boy," she explains. "The straggler coyote comes over and howls and howls at the female, and she just sits there all pretty and wriggles, and her big male companion looks at her and says 'No!' It's been going on for weeks." 

Any visitor might spot bighorn sheep rams perched on a cliff above the confluence of the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek. One might even notice that, on the rams whose horns have grown into a full curl, one side seems shorter. Baron explains why: "It takes those guys about five years to grow their horns all the way around in a curl, and when they do you see them start to knock them against the rocks, trying to break the tips off. The tips grow into their peripheral vision, and they don't like having their sight blocked." 

These are things you learn riding the bus between wolf sightings. Before we see any wolves--before the Agate alpha female howls at the Mollie's that have devastated her pack--we see mergansers and geese, a shape-shifting flock of gray-crowned rosy-finches in flight. A hundred or so elk gather on a hillside across from where Slough Creek meets the Yellowstone River, a couple of young bulls pushing each other around even though breeding season is over. Baron and her co-leader, Brad Bulin, tell us about pronghorn antelope, how if it can survive for its first 33 days, a pronghorn fawn, at 30 miles per hour, is faster than any animal capable of chasing it (adults can run up to 60 miles per hour). We learn how mountain lions hunt from above, poised on cliffs and boulders, leaping onto their prey's back, biting into the back of the neck. 

As our bus rattles over the Lamar River headed west, we see an otter slithering along the ice below. Baron sparks up with information. "Otters are the flower children of the weasel world," she says. "Most weasels are very territorial. Otters' habitat is so limited, just river corridors. They might travel 25 miles a day, and they're all traveling along the same places. So they share daybeds with other otters. They'll curl up beside some otter they don't even know." 

Baron segues to another Yellowstone weasel, the wolverine,and recent findings that female wolverines kick their kits out after a year or so, but that males take over and escort the kits around the territory, showing them the ropes.

Even when you're not seeing wolves, there are signs of them.One morning we spot a cow elk, all by herself, lurching out of the Lamar River and trotting along the bank, nose up, knees striding high. Baron quickly points out what's wrong with this picture: 1) The cow is not actually a cow, she says, directing our attention under its torso--it's a bull that's just dumped his antlers; 2) elk don't normally stand in the river unless they're eating exposed grasses; and 3) "He's a little stiff," Baron says, when the elk starts trotting. "He's overdoing his 'I'm heathy, I'm fine' routine." 

The bull, we find out later from other wolf watchers, had been attacked earlier that morning by the Lamar Canyon pack. It had run to the river to make a stand--wolves don't like to follow elk into deep water. Although no open wounds were discernible from our distance, the wolves had injured him internally. They would return to finish him off before the next day, led by the '06 Female, perhaps the most famous individual animal that lived in Yellowstone Park until she was shot and killed by hunters when she wandered out of the park in early December. 

 

Park officials estimate that more than 300,000 people saw the Druids during the pack's 15-year run as the top dogs in the Lamar Valley, making them perhaps the most watched group of animals in the world.And then in 2010 the Druids were gone--victims primarily of sarcoptic mange, which was introduced in the early 1900s to wipe out wolves, then survived in coyote and fox populations.

Into that void padded the '06 Female and her clownish mates, which formed the Lamar Canyon pack.The '06 Female, Baron tells us as we wait on the roadside for an early morning fog to clear, was born into the Agate pack in 2006. She comes from strong stock--in 2011 she and her sisters were alphas of four packs in and around the park. 

"Before the Lamar Canyon pack formed, the '06 Female was wandering around," Baron says, "and she ran into these two black wolves, brothers, who turned out to be the laziest males in the park."

Charmed, the '06 Female bred with both of them. The two brothers were young,more interested in play-wrestling and napping than providing larder for the fledgling family.When she ducked into her den to give birth to her first litter, her mates did such little hunting and were so rarely successful that wolf watchers wondered if she and the pups would survive. In the end the boys brought in just enough food to keep them fed. 

She eventually emerged from the den, left the two males to babysit, and took matters into her own claws. Typically it takes four wolves to bring down an elk. The '06 Female learned to do it by herself. "It's very dangerous," Baron says. "She runs an elk really hard for a while. Then she runs quickly enough to get past it, then turns and stops in front of it, leaps up, and grabs its neck.Mostly wolves come in from behind. Coming in from the front is very dangerous, because hooves can crash down on her."

When we see the '06 Female later that afternoon, she's lounging like a fat seal on a ridge near the Lamar Buffalo Ranch with her two ne'er-do-well mates and some sub-adult offspring. A classic gray wolf, grizzled streaking on her back, red highlights and ear tips, she's a powerful animal, barrel-shaped behind muscular shoulders. She's likely gorged with meat from the injured bull elk we saw two days before, and almost certainly pregnant with another litter of pups, one or two of which may someday rise, as she has, in the popular imagination. 

The sighting makes the trip forNatalie Bergholz,a tiny, lovely woman from Idaho Falls, Idaho, who wears a peach-pink parka and a brown wool cap with grizzly tracks on it. She and her husband, Warren,are on their eighth Yellowstone Association trip; later in the year they'll travel to Europe to visit friends they've made on previous Yellowstone excursions. But right now she's wholly content to see this particular wolf, something you start to understand once you've been introduced to this brand of wildlife watching that places so much emphasis on individual animals. 

"We've known the Lamar pack since before they were the Lamars, when it was just the '06 Female and those two males," she says. "We watched her fight a black bear off the den one day." 

Only Bergholz knows why this particular wolf so firmly occupies her imagination, but she'll let you know just how powerful that presence is. Gazing through binoculars at the oblivious wolf lying atop the ridge a few hundred yards away, she says, "I'm going to curl up in a fetal position the day that wolf dies." 

I remember Bergholz's feelings toward that wolf on my last evening in Yellowstone. I stand under the dome of a winter's night completely dedicated to the sparkling of stars, the toasty warmth of my cabin just a few crunch-cold steps away. The night bends beneath a broad silence, reminding me that silence once suffused this valley. From 1926--when the last Yellowstone wolf pack was taken out at Soda Butte, not far from where I stand--until 1995 it would have been folly to expect to hear anything at all.  

But on this night the silence is different, loaded and expectant. And then I hear it: The howl of a wolf floating from across the valley, piercing the great darkness. The lone, dolorous notes seemed not lonely, but insistent with hope. It seemed a song of knowing--knowing that if it kept being sung, it would be answered. And then it was--another howl drifted beneath the stars.

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Jeff Hull

Jeff Hull, a freelance writer in Huson, Montana, is the author of Streams of Consciousness, a collection of outdoor essays.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine