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. 

 

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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

Comments

Great post! I'm just starting

Great post! I'm just starting out in community management/marketing media and trying to learn how to do it well

Wildlife

“Until we have the courage to recognize cruelty for what it is--whether its victim is human or animal--we cannot expect things to be much better in this world... We cannot have peace among men whose hearts delight in killing any living creature. By every act that glorifies or even tolerates such moronic delight in killing we set back the progress of humanity.”
- Rachel Carson (1907-1964), author of Silent Spring

Pleasure from eloquent descriptions

While I will never be able to experience Yellowstone in winter myself because I am in a wheelchair due to multiple sclerosis, I love wolves and I got a lot of pleasure from reading Jeff's beautifully written article. I practically saw the wolves and other animals, as well as the scenery, in my mind's eye because they were described so well. I just want to say, "Thank you."

Wolves

It just makes me sick that thewolves are being killed by Trophy hunters. Wolves ARE a very important part of our ecosystem and they deserve their lives. Wolves should NEVER has been delisted from being on the Endangered Species List. They are part of our Nation's Heritage and our nation should be ASHAMED!

Wolves belong

In New Mexico, we are trying to re-introduce the Lobo, Mexican Grey Wolf, into the Gila Wilderness in the southwestern part of our state. It has been a slow process. Have always been fascinated by wolves. Thanks for an interesting article on the Yellowstone wolves. Was not aware of the demise of the Druid pack.

Unfortunate

Of course, now the 06 female is gone. Killed by a hunter outside the park. Wolf watching is getting harder as fewer wolves survive. There are only about thirty left in the northern range, where once there were 70 some. Now that is about how many remain in the entire park. Five of the nine packs that live most of the time inside Yellowstone have lost members to hunting and trapping just over the imaginary, invisible line that is the park border. Now Montana has made it illegal for the Fish and Game Dept. to even consider a small buffer zone around the park, and legal for land owners to kill any wolf on their property, at any time of the year. Also, it is now legal for hunters to use silencers while hunting wolves. Trappers have set traps inches from the park boundary. Many domestic dogs have been caught and injured. Meantime, hundreds of bison are being slaughtered by hunters lined up on the park border, shooting them as they cross. If they stagger back into the Park, they lie and die without even the mercy of a kill shot. Gut pile after gut pile litter the sides of the road leading to the park. The sage covered in blood. This is not a happy time for the world's oldest National Park. Write to Yellowstone, write to President Obama, write to your Congress people, write to Interior Secretary Salazar, write to Governor Steve Bullock in Montana.

Susien suojelu !

Luonnoneläimillä on samat oikeudet kuin ihmisillä elämiseen !

Susien suojelu !

Luonnoneläimillä on samat oikeudet kuin ihmisillä elämiseen !

Wolves

I come from ranching, pioneer families to this area. I have watched and learned much from the wolf. I have had them walk close and just look at me. I have seen the positive effects the reintroduction has had upon the entire area. The Park is no longer over-grazed, and we have healthier elk. We have increased vegetation, since the elk aren't over browsing any given area, so now there's vegetation for all species to benefit from. Beavers are increasing in numbers, since there are more willows now. The Riparian Areas are greatly improved, helping all forms of aquatic life. And the Trophic Cascade goes on and on. Wolves bring great joy to the millions of visitors. The wolf belongs here and deserves our respect and attention. WE are now facing a problem with the delisting of the wolf. It was done last year in a back-room deal, not in consultation with any scientist, in attempt to balance the Federal Budget. We have now lost 8 collared research wolves to the hunting seasons surrounding the Park. And the anti-wolf hunters are targeting the Yellowstone Wolves, specifically. It is vitally important for anyone who is concerned about the future of the wolf, to become vocal and advocate for them. You can do so by going to : National Wolfwatcher Coalition on Facebook-we have links to who to write/call and ideas on what you can do to help. Thank you. Kat Brekken, Eco-Education and Tourism Director for the NAtional Wolfwatcher Coalition.

Why is it wolves wound elk

Why is it wolves wound elk and let them suffer to come back and kill them later, fight until half a pack is wiped out (natures cure to overpopulation).TThan for the state to raise money on hunters with a less than 1% success rate? Is it better to be attacked by a fellow wolf or an instant painless death from a bullet?

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