April wolf watching in Yellowstone provided more drama than anyone could ever have imagined. Normally a quiet and peaceful time of denning, April 2006 instead turned into a scene of worry, stress and fear for the Slough Creek wolves and the wolf watchers alike.
The first hint of trouble came on April 3. The Slough Creek pack had localized for denning at the site they used last year near the Slough Creek campground, and everyone hoped that they would again have their pups in this highly visible location. According to estimates (based on observed breedings), the pack's two pregnant females, alpha 380F and beta 527F, were due to den and have their pups any day.
However, on April 3, the pack seemed upset about something, and the next day the reason became very clear. Coyote researchers discovered an unknown group of 12 (yes,12!) wolves nearby. No one knew who they were or where they came from, but there they were dining on a carcass north of the road from Lamar Canyon and just east of and very close to the Slough Creek den site.
Of course, everyone was shocked! Who were they? Where had they come from? Who was that gray collared male? What about those two very light colored gray (almost white) yearlings? And, how could they have six surviving "pups" (technically now yearlings)? They certainly hadn't suffered the devastating pup loss of 2005 that hit the Northern Range packs so hard.
The new group had six adults and six yearlings, with a total of nine blacks and three grays. The adults included the collared gray alpha male and five blacks (possibly four females and one male.) The six yearlings included the two almost white grays and four chocolate colored blacks.
Everyone was asking, "Who are those guys???" (It reminded me of the famous line in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"!) It was a question we would ask again and again over the next weeks. While no one knows the answer, some possibilities include a reincarnation of the Rose Creek pack (which hasn't been seen in the Park in two years) or the Round Prairie pack (whose alpha female was almost white) or maybe the old Buffalo Fork pack or even the Yellowstone Delta pack (which lives in a remote southern part of the Park and is not often observed.)
Anyway, we figured they were just passing through and would be lucky to escape detection and the wrath of the very aggressive, territorial Sloughs (who, of course, had run amok through the Lamar Valley in 2005 and pushed our beloved Druid Peak pack out.) But, lo and behold, on April 7 the "Unknown Group" appeared again, happily lazing the afternoon away east of Amethyst Creek, south of the road and the river in the Lamar Valley. At this point we started fervently hoping that these guys would go back to wherever they came from so that their presence would not cause the Sloughs to den somewhere else out of sight.
Little did we know that disaster had already befallen one of the Sloughs. On April 8, the third ranking male, 489M, was found dead several miles north of the Slough Creek den site. Although it can't be confirmed that he was killed by the Unknown Group, that is a possibility. He may have been surprised and caught alone since he had not been seen for several days and the timing seems to fit. He was often away from the main pack and in the company of "The Gray Female," who was pregnant. There has been no sign of her since then, so it is not known if she and her pups are dead or alive. It seems that the Sloughs did discover the fate of 489M as they took a trip north on April 8, but returned without the gray female. She was a favorite of mine since last year when she proved to be such a careful and observant mother, and I hope that somehow she survived.
By April 12, there were still no Slough pups, but the pack had localized at the Slough Creek den site. The two pregnant females, 380F and 527F, seemed to be about ready to pup, as they appeared uncomfortable and made several trips into and out of the natal den (the left-hand hole where last year's pups were born.) Meanwhile, the Unknown Group showed up again, this time north of the road from Lamar Canyon--back where they had first been seen eight days earlier. By now we were really hoping that they would just disappear!
Disaster may have struck sometime during the night of April 12, because when we arrived on the morning of April 13, we discovered nine wolves bedded near the Slough dens--but they weren't the Sloughs! It was the Unknown Group. They made themselves quite at home, inspecting the den holes and even sticking their heads inside, but they did not try to dig their way into the den. They were most interested in the natal den, and we soon discovered why--the three collared Slough females, 380F, 527F, and 526F were all in there--and possibly with newborn pups too! It was almost too much to bear as we had thoughts of them all being killed by the invaders if they dared emerge or succumbing to starvation and thirst if they were forced to stay inside the den for long. It was a very sad and rainy day, and the only ray of sunshine produced a rainbow which appeared to end right over the Slough den. All we could hope was that it would bring good luck to the Sloughs.
And, April 14 did bring some good news. We actually saw a Slough yearling emerge from the natal den and disappear uphill! Through a shaking scope in a howling wind and rain storm on Dave's hill, I also thought I saw 380F and possibly a light gray (who could have been the female Sharp Right) emerge and stand at the natal den entrance briefly. Although the Slough males (alpha 490M, beta 377M, and Slight Right) were in the area off and on, they couldn't get close to the dens because nine of the Unknown Group were still there and on guard.
On April 15, three members of the Unknown Group (who had not been with the other nine at the Slough's den site) all of a sudden reappeared, and a big rally ensued. The new arrivals included two black adults (one of which is probably pregnant but doesn't appear to be the alpha female) and one white yearling. The pregnant white muzzled black has shown great interest in having her pups in a Slough den.
The siege of the Slough den site has continued for at least another four days (as I write this on April 19.) Some of the Sloughs (380F, 527F, 526F, one black yearling, possibly Sharp Right and perhaps two litters of pups) remain under siege, trapped in the natal den with only occasional opportunities to emerge. The rest of the Sloughs (alpha 490M, beta 377M, Slight Right, and two yearlings) lurk on the outskirts, unable to come to the rescue.
And, to confuse matters even more, on April 19, 490M and 377M were observed in the company of yet another unknown wolf, this one a gray female who had visited the Slough den area several days ago, fed on a carcass briefly, and wisely disappeared before being noticed by the Unknown Group. We're hoping the Slough males have not forgotten their family under siege back at the den!
As riveting and momentous as this saga has been, early spring life in Yellowstone continues to unfold. The heavy snow that was so hard on the ungulates has all but disappeared, revealing a quickly greening up landscape. I saw a herd of 21 beautiful pronghorn migrating back into Little America. Five majestic bighorn rams hang out next to the road at Wreckers. The great horned owl is back on her nest in Lamar Canyon.
Little America is full of bison, and calves are starting to hit the ground. One morning we held our breaths anxiously as a few hours old calf stood nursing right under its mother's belly while two wolves circled about four feet away from the pair. The wolves were the gray Agate Creek yearling 524F and the black Agate two-year old 525F. Our prayers were answered when the rest of the bison herd wandered over and threatened the wolves. That lucky little calf survived and will have quite a story to tell!
Grizzly bears popped up everywhere, enjoying the many winter killed carcasses. We probably saw three to five grizzlies each day, some quite near and some from afar. We were also treated to a most amazing sight when a griz approached the Slough den and nine of the Unknown Group wolves chased it. The bear took off running up the hill behind the den, and, to our utter amazement, climbed right up a big conifer tree! So much for the punch line of that joke about how to tell the difference between a black bear and a grizzly! The tree branches swayed, and we could see the big brown lump about half way up the tree with the nine wolves leaping around the trunk like dogs after a squirrel. The wolves departed when a second (huge!) grizzly showed up and the first came down the tree. We thought it was perhaps a sow and two year old cub, but it turned out to be a courting pair who put on quite a show as they stood up on their hind legs and pawed at each other.
I did see one black bear sitting on a hillside near Tower Junction. I think maybe he had just emerged from his nice cozy hibernation den because he just sat there hunched over, staring down at his feet! He looked exactly like someone sitting on the edge of the bed in the morning in a daze, wondering why that alarm clock had gone off so darn early!
Finally, lest you think I've forgotten our dear old Druids, although I didn't see them, 480M, 302M, and 529F (and, hopefully, the uncollared gray female) have all been in the Round Prairie/Soda Butte Valley area. Their den site is not yet known, but I sure hope it's far, far away--somewhere where the Unknown Group and the Sloughs can't find them.
Time will only tell how the Sloughs survive the siege, but we should not forget how, not so long ago, they marauded through the Lamar Valley, 15 abreast with tails held high, killed our darling little Druid 375F, and vanquished the Druids to the hinterlands. Surely Yellowstone and the wolves still have a lot to teach us about the harsh realities of life in the wild.