Yellowstone Winter, Wolves and Wildlife
Northern Yellowstone Wolf Range
What is about wolves that creates fascination and awe for some, while others view them, not as a symbol of the wild, but rather as a threat to be exterminated? This trip is about the awe and fascination that comes from within after you spend 5 days with two eminent wolf biologists who are the proprietors of Yellowstone Wolf Guides
(The Wild Side). This was my second trip with Nathan and Linda (Yellowstone 2007) and is one of my most memorable outdoor experiences. Yellowstone was at her grandest under a thick blanket of snow and the wildlife was in play, as you will see from the coming pages.
Within the area above, three wolf packs lay claim to a vast spread of pristine wilderness. The largest of these three is the Blacktail pack containing 14 individuals (3 adult females, 3 adult males, 4 yearlings and 4 pups), followed by the Agate Creek pack with 8 (2 adult females, 2 adult males, 2 gray pups and 2 black pups) and Lamar Canyon lead by the infamous 06 Gray female with 7 members (1 adult female, 2 adult males, 4 gray pups) We were treated to numerous sightings of the packs during our 5 days, as well as witnessing some remarkable behaviour and dramatic scenes that unfolded in the raw of nature.
Three Dog Day
The trip itinerary starts at Bozeman airport where you are picked up by the adventure bus! I would come to call it the magic bus as the days unfolded. Off to Gardiner where you settle into the Absaorka Lodge, your center of operations for the week. All of the rooms face a dramatic backdrop of rugged mountains peaks and mud flows that have been deposited on the edge of Yellowstone after numerous geological events. Dinner each night was catered at the Track Education Center just a short half block walk away, with an even better view. What makes this trip a cut above the rest, are the nightly discussions and presentations by leading experts and advocates for the Yellowstone experience.
One of the local sayings is 'three dog day'. This refers to the three canid species that occupy the Northern tier. Wolf, coyote and fox. It would be a stroke of luck to see all three on the first day, however, it started off promisingly when we got to Lamar Valley as a red fox was crossing the valley a fair distance away as we watched and snapped some pictures. And then just a short hop up the road to the Lamar Valley Buffalo Ranch, up on the ridge crest was three of the Lamar Valley pack wolves having a morning siesta. Looking thru the scopes, it reminded me of our malamute's at home sprawled all over the living room floor! Would we hit the canid jackpot? We set up and intently observed the wolves while having breakfast, watching their lethargic behavior and enjoying every minute of it. Next stop was Silver Gate and the home of Dan Hartman owner and wildlife photographer of Wildlife Along the Rockies. As we traveled thru Soda Butte Canyon, Nathan pulled over to see if there was any scavenging on a bison that had dropped dead a few days ago. To our surprise, the three dog day was upon us. There settled on the carcass was a wile coyote! We were treated to the Lamar Valley pack at play upon our return to Gardiner for dinner and the night.
Dan's gallery is tucked in right off route 212 as you exit the Northeast entrance of the park. You can't miss the sign and he has a fantastic selection of unique wildlife pictures that only local knowledge combined with photographic skill can capture. Dan is the go-to wildlife locator for many of the wolf and Yellowstone specials you see on TV and in the DVD catalogs. His gallery and house are situated so you can browse his selections and shoot photos of an explosion of wild birds right out the window. There is also a Pine Marten family close by that peeks in every once in a while. If you go, do not miss it.
One of the features of trips with Nathan and Linda is that they have a circle of connections with some of the premier wolf biologists and knowledgeable Yellowstone guides that are invited to have dinner and speak to you every night. For our first night, Daniel Stahler, a National Park Service Biologist with the Yellowstone Wolf Project and a PhD candidate at UCLA studying genetics and ecology lectured on recent genetic findings about the wolves of Yellowstone, which he will be publishing shortly. We were sworn to an oath of silence. Daniel is also reported to be one of the notorious Yellowstone Sage Smudgers, but we will leave that for another time.
Den, Chase and a Two Dog Day
After an action packed first day, we all arose with a great sense of anticipation and were eager to get back in the park and surround ourselves with Hellsroaring Overlook Mar 2011the call of the wild. Breakfast break was at a lookout over Hellsroaring Canyon trying to spot the Blacktail pack and catch a bit of sunrise. No sightings, so off we went to Lamar Valley as the intelligence was coming in that the Lamar Valley pack had been spotted. Fisherman turnout was already bustling with wolf watchers and scopes trained on the eastern side of Specimen Ridge as we approached.
The pack started to move towards Slough Creek and we turned around to find a vantage point back down the road. What was interesting is they were moving along the border of their territory that backed up/crossed into the Agate pack range. A lot of sniffing and marking was going on once over the ridge and the speculation was rising that with the Agate pack close by we just might see some pack to pack interaction. After a short while the Lamar Valley pack looked to have completed their wolf business and swiftly went back over the ridge into Lamar territory. I was impressed at the speed at which they could move, given the heavy snow conditions.
Our treat for the day was to snowshoe to an abandoned wolf den to get a glimpse of one of the first wolf homes following the reintroduction. Linda had spent many days and nights watching over this den as part of her thesis work from a knoll on the other side of the road, with a commanding view of the valley. She told us the story of an early wolf mother who quickly realized that the den location close to the road was not ideal, as word had spread and by six in the morning the road was lined with over a 100 people trying to get a glimpse. She moved the den up the side of the ridge but was still not comfortable. At one point it was thought she had gone up to the top of the ridge and out of range of the road and humans. However, it became apparent that she was going to move the pups (6) across Slough Creek to the pack's original den on the opposite side of the valley. The river was running hard that spring and the pups could not make it across, but her bond to the pack was so great that she left them on river bank, returning frequently to care for them. Unfortunately, nature does not have a soft spot for helpless wolf pups and they never made it to be united with their pack. It brings a tear to your eye, but it is how these powerful beings survive in a land that is unforgiving and pass on their genes for the next generation to survive and avoid the mistakes of the past.
As we were coming back from the den, one of our party members was watching the ridge above us and all of a sudden three members of the Agate pack were chasing an elk down off the ridge into a wooded area. As we were close to the base of the ridge, we could see the action unfold as the elk was grabbed by the hind legs, struggled loose only to be caught again as the scene moved under forest cover. At that point we did not see much more and hustled back to our roadside stop to set up scopes and catch what other action was happening. Our first glimpse of the Agate pack! As the afternoon wore on we started to see pack members laying up on the ridge with presumably full bellies from that day's hard work, returning downhill for seconds.
Another good day and we did spot coyotes in Lamar Valley up from where we spotted the first pack in the morning, so two dog day.Our guest lectured for tonight was none other than Nathan Varley talking to us about the Northern Yellowstone Wolf Packs. You can find a lot more detail at Yellowstone Reports and keep up with daily dispatches from the field. A small subscription fee can open a whole new world to you!
Our third full day started with snowing conditions and gray skies as the sun tried to rise early in the morning. Today our adventure bus has been commandeered by Jim Halfpenny, Ph.d., and we were about to be immersed in the world of forensic tracking.
The intelligence for the day indicated that Blacktail Deer Plateau was the place to be and ended up as the only stop of the day. Some days you roam the park and some days the park comes to you. This was one that came to us. The Blacktail pack was bedded down on a ridge to the north of us, feasting on a take down from the night before. Some were still actively getting their share and others had become " couch potatoes" sleeping off the gorge. Not a lot of activity, but our first sighting of this pack, the largest in the Northern range. Nathan told us that the packs tend to be smaller in this area vs. the interior of the park, as the food sources vary. The largest pack in the park is Mollies and they actively hunt bison, which requires strength in numbers and multiple wolves on the top of their game to bring down these two thousand pound giants. Of interest to the Northern range, two of the large black males from Mollies have moved into the Agate Creek pack (586 & 641) and the biologists are watching to see if they will bring their hunting skills up north. This could help thin the bison herd that eventually moves down towards Gardiner and Paradise Valley to be captured and slaughtered in a politically motivated effort to stop the spread of brucellosis. A potent disease for sure, but one that has no documented cases of ever jumping from bison to domestic cattle. A little knowledge and science could help here.
After we set up scopes and watched the Blacktail pack, Jim found a set of wolf tracks close by and called us in to demonstrate the fine art of track casting. As a world known tracker, we all listened intently and actively participated in creating two sets track casts.
Otters, Red Fox and Hot Springs
A cold dawn awaited us as we slowly snaked our way out to Blacktail Deer Plateau on day four, as the roads had not been fully plowed. The silence that comes with soft snowfall muffled our sounds and the bison, with ice faces and a covering of snow dust, conveyed the depth of winter still clenching Yellowstone. A day for warm clothes and hot liquids. All of Yellowstone was under a spell of white cold and we probed the park to reveal her secrets!
Lamar Valley was the first to open up to us as we spotted an otter family in the river and up on the banks going on as if it was the middle of summer. They played, slid down the snow bank, rested, quarreled, fished and constantly swam up and down the river indulging the photogs and delighting the watchers. They had our attention for a good hour.
Breakfast was soon calling as the magic bus collected us and was moving slowly when we spotted a red fox working his/her way down the valley floor and looked to be eyeing a possible move up the mountain side. Some of us abandoned the thought of nourishment to set up and hopefully capture this magnificent creature on the move. I was fascinated by the methodical movements and actions as 'Red' carefully contemplated and planned his trajectory. Scoping us out several times, he dashed down the river bank, swiftly swam across and regained the close bank while constantly moving towards his target. As he was angling away from us, we had to pick up and move to a best guess spot to be in the correct photo position. Slyly and cautiously he crossed the road, jumped up on the roadside snowbank and started his journey up the mountain side, pausing twice to reflect and reconnaissance. An opportunity for one of those rare occasions when all comes together for that perfect picture. I missed the first one but retained enough sense to set up for the next one. A good day in the end.
No visit to Yellowstone is complete without a walk thru the Mammoth Hot Springs. The ever changing scene can be a muted moonscape or a burst of color from the chemical soup that is being pushed upwards and mixed around in the Yellowstone caldera, or the more aptly name, Yellowstone Supervolcano. Having produced three significant super eruptions ( 2.1 million, 1.3 million and 650,000 years ago), this hotspot has been shaping the geology of North America and is responsible for the creation of the park. The last eruption created the Lava Creek Tuff, ejecting 240 cubic miles of rock and dust, yes miles. Scientist monitor the rise and fall of the Yellowstone Plateau which averages .06 inches per year. However, between 2004 and 2008 there was a recorded uplift of 8 inches at the White Lake GPS station. Good news for us all, the geologists indicate that the uplift has significantly slowed down and they do not predict another cataclysmic eruption is on the way. Our last treat for the day was a completely still Whitetail Jack Rabbit taking shelter in a warm corner of the hot springs. Totally oblivious to our approach and camera sounds, he sat in stone silence.
Bighorns, Bison Play and Last Pass
Well, our last day was upon us and the itinerary was to head into the park, make our way to Cooke City for Lunch and experience whatever Yellowstone would reveal to us. We started the day looking for the Blacktail pack at what had become a favorite pull out, Hellroaring. Coming along with us today were a reporter and photographer for the Billings Gazette. Nathan and Linda were being profiled for a feature article on how two biologists have taken their education and love of wildlife and turned it into a sustainable business that has allowed them to stay in the Yellowstone area. (Click for PDF version of the article). As the sun broke we were treated to a rare sunrise that foretold another great day in the park. We did a little hike-in at Slough Creek for a group photo and slowly moved along towards Cooke City for lunch, stopping to see Mountain Goats way up on The Thunderer! Too far for any pics.
During our prior runs through the park we had seen Big Horn Sheep up on the cliffs, however, they were mostly bedded down during the falling snow. Today we would find a small gaggle of sheep grazing and moving about on some close-in cliffs and the photogs in us took over, out of the bus and clicking away. It was amazing to see how skilled the sheep were in maneuvering on what was moderately steep cliff sides, as if they were navigating a city sidewalk. I can only wish for that kind of talent!
May our paths & errands meet
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