A Walk on Yellowstone's Wild Side
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.”