Wolf watching or wolf wishing? Gone (hopefully temporarily) are the good old days of easy, almost guaranteed wolf watching in Yellowstone. While it's still probably much easier than trying to find wolves in the dense forests of Idaho, Minnesota, Michigan or Wisconsin, it is certainly more of a challenge than it used to be. I had to look long and hard to find wolves on most days of my recent trip. Over the course of nine days, 2/18-26/06, I saw a total of 50 wolves (often the same individuals). Compare that to a friend's record of seeing 55 different wolves in one day a year ago!
I never did see the Druid Peak or the Agate Creek packs, but I did see most (12 of 15) of the Slough Creek pack, all seven of the Hellroaring Group, various Leopold wolves, and several of the possible Swan Lake remnant group of mystery males (of those see Maughan's story of Feb. 16)
Upon arrival I heard fantastic tales of all of the wonderful wolf watching in the Blacktail Plateau area during the previous week as Leopold females consorted with a group of unidentified and uncollared males, plus the former Agate/former Swan Lake male, 295M. Unfortunately, the breeding season ended abruptly (although I did see a tie on 2/19), and the visiting suitors vaporized. It was notable that some of the thrown together groups and pairs stayed together for several days, however.
On my first day I braved the -15 degree F temperature (up from -38 F the previous day!!!) as I watched 12 Sloughs-a-sleeping from Wrecker's pullout. I was surprised to discover an unknown black wolf wandering nearby, carefully sniffing every spot where the Sloughs had recently been. The interloper had a distinctive look with a light colored body and dark legs and tail; he may have been a Round Prairie pack loner who has often been seen near the Sloughs in the past.
One day at Slough Creek I watched nine Slough wolves, including alphas 490M and 380F, beta 377M, newly collared black yearling females 526F and 527F (previously known as "Bolt" and "Babysitter," but who knows which is which!), plus the yearling female "Sharp Right" and the three surviving black pups (now looking like adults), as they moved northeast uphill from the horizontal forest toward what used to be called "the yellow grass meadow" (but is now the thick white blanket of snow meadow!).
As so often happens, the excitement occurred just out of our viewpoint on Dave's Hill when the wolves attacked and twice brought down a bull elk, but were unable to finish him off. Shortly thereafter, the three pups harassed a group of four bull elk, to no avail. The whole group then moved out of sight to the north and stayed away for the next three or four days, as they often do.
Temporarily missing were Sloughs 489M and "Straight Tail" (also known as "The Gray Female" or "The Gray Mother"), who is routinely beaten up by the alpha and other females in the pack (lucky for her that 489M has taken her under his protection). I'm hoping that she will have pups again this year as she was the one of the four Slough mothers who particularly impressed me last year with her constant vigilance and careful assessment of every situation.
The gray yearling male "Slight Right" was also not present that day, although he did rejoin the pack later. The rest of the yearling male Sloughs (491M, "Left Tail" and "Blaze") have been gone for a long time now, perhaps a month or more. They may have dispersed or they may return now that breeding season has ended.
I had good luck on this trip spotting wolves from the Hellroaring overlook. They're usually just tiny, distant specks from there, but this time the wolves were bedded directly below on the near side of the river. One day I got a good look at all seven Hellroaring Group wolves there, and on another day I saw five Leopolds. On yet another occasion, I had an excellent view of gray Leopold 469F snoozing away cozily with an unknown black wolf using her hip as a pillow.
The weather finally warmed up to + 38 degrees F, and I took a 4-5 mile hike up the snow covered old road from Gardiner to Mammoth. It was great to get out on the trail again! I kept a sharp eye out for those wandering Swan Lake wolves, but instead I found an incredible wealth of other wildlife, including 18 pronghorn (six of which gave me a thrill as they streaked away), two coyotes feeding on an elk carcass on a frozen pond, three bighorn sheep watching me warily, and 31 cow elk and calves etched against a beautiful mountain and cloud backdrop, glowing golden in the rays of the setting sun.
I also saw many bison down in the flats near Gardiner between the north entrance station and the Roosevelt Arch. Tragically, those that wander past the Arch may soon join the almost 1000 of their kind who have been killed this winter to appease the Montana cattle industry. The same fate awaits many of the wolves who venture out of Yellowstone. While we celebrate and enjoy all of the wonderful things that the return of the wolves has brought to Yellowstone and to our lives, we must work diligently to make the world outside a safe and welcoming place for wolves and other wildlife.
March 3, 2006. Kathy Lynch explains how these wolves get informal names like "Sharp Right."
For those Slough Creek grays, "Slight Right," "Sharp Right," "Left Tail," (all three are yearlings/almost 2 years old now) and "Straight Tail"--their names describe the way the end of the tail bends. The bends are distinct and easy to see. Some of us wonder if perhaps they're all offspring of the beta male, 377M, who is also gray and has a distinctly bent tail. By the way, the other Slough names are "Bolt" (lightening bolt on hip), "Blaze" (white blaze on chest), and "Babysitter" (behavior). We only use these names unofficially for ID since the pack is large, and it gets very confusing trying to tell Rick which wolf is doing what. Last April we had quite a time trying to differentiate the four mother wolves, which included the old alpha female, "the Gray Female," the new alpha 380F, and the one who looked just like her--"Not 380"! I don't think that was scientific enough for Rick, and he eventually changed her name to "Stripe" for the wide white stripe down the length of her back--which, unfortunately, we could only see when she traveled downhill!