Wildlife: Seeing wolves is believing

P1050427-350x234Minus-31 degrees at Cooke City and minus-24 at the Lamar Valley? Yes, we told the incoming group of 17 for GYC’s annual winter wildlife-watching trip that began Monday, but it’s a dryminus-31.

Thankfully, the group — which included the entire Democratic Party from the State of Texas: Brakebill and Watson, party of three — was prepared. Two guests from Tucson, Ariz., could’ve been mistaken for two-legged bison as they trudged in the late-morning darkness down the snow-covered path at the Buffalo Ranch. Each wore enough layers to clothe an Inuit village. One had a fur cap the size of Rhode Island.

Wildlife watching in January in Yellowstone National Park is at once exhilarating and challenging, rewarding and a test of intestinal fortitude. There’s a reason the lone open road is so empty, save for the periodic whoosh of a half-ton hauling snowmobiles and crawl of an SUV bearing the telltale antennae of wolf watchers.

Scanning the snow-crusted hillsides and sage for wolves means standing in an icy place for long periods, shifting from foot to foot on heat-retaining blue mats. Fingers and toes inevitably go cold, even with warmers tucked inside mittens and boots.

So why all the fuss? This: A woman from Virginia named Melissa raises her voice from the back of the Yellowstone Association bus. She is slightly apprehensive. After all, she has seen wolves become boulders — Canis minerales — amid excitement before, and didn’t want to feel silly.

And yet … more than a dozen ravens were circling, skipping and hopping in a familiar dance. To the trained park eye, this is a sure sign they are on a carcass. And a carcass means wolves.

“I see movement!” she finally exclaims. “I see ravens. I see eagles. I think I see … three wolves!”

The bus pulls into the parking lot at the Slough Creek turnoff. We have the place to ourselves. The group scans the distant hillside near an old wolf den. Our Yellowstone Association driver chases a coyote from the parking area.

Sure enough, far in the distance, too far for the naked eye, three black wolves are on an elk carcass. Less than a half-hour earlier, another group had witnessed the kill. Now ravens flitted. Bald and golden eagles waited in nearby conifers. The dozen or so remaining cow elk and calves, the weakest among them culled and the danger over, lay bedded on a snowy hill just above the kill, watching the scene warily.

One by one, scopes on tripods are anchored in the snow, and the reason we’re all here unfolds in front of our eyes: Eight members of the new Junction Butte pack, some waiting their turns and others tearing at the carcass, are in full display.

The emotional uplift is palpable. Energy soars. Chatter quickens.

Until now, questions about the status of Yellowstone’s wolves dominated the conversation. Concerns over the recent widely publicized deaths of park wolves were raised repeatedly.

Yellowstone Association staff had to concede that it’s been the toughest year to see wolves since their restoration to the park in 1995. Though numbers are holding steady at just below 80 in the park, the loss of collared wolves, killed legally by hunters outside the park in November and December, has thrown the species into disarray.

Three frequently visible Lamar Canyon wolves are off in the backcountry, trying to find order after the death of their alpha female, the famous 832F, in Wyoming. The new Junction Butte Pack, formed by a liaison between the Mollie’s and the Blacktails in 2012, is a virtual ghost pack, its whereabouts always uncertain because its only collared wolf was shot by hunters in Montana.

The Blacktails are down to a small handful. The Agates are gone altogether, the victims of one-by-one takings by the more-powerful Mollie’s, which had migrated from their usual home in the Pelican Valley in search of easier culinary pickings in the Lamar.

The Yellowstone Wolf Project’s annual winter count was a struggle due to poor weather and lack of collars.

Would we see wolves on this trip? For the first time, nobody could say with any real certainty.

Now here they were, the pack without collars, in plain view. It is an extraordinary moment, a pure stroke of good fortune.

And they weren’t the only pack to be seen Tuesday. The Canyon Pack near Mammoth also made an appearance, though it wasn’t seen by our group.

For an hour we watched, until the wolves themselves bedded down as the morning became oppressively warm, all the way up to 10 degrees. Then we departed, our hopes fulfilled.

Seeing them was an important reminder that wolves are a marvelous conservation success story. The concern that we realistically might not have seen them is also a reminder of the need for the states adjoining Yellowstone to adjust hunting and trapping rules to acknowledge that park wolves merit higher protections.

Yellowstone wolves are so accustomed to people that they are unusually vulnerable when they leave the park. It’s quite likely that even if 832F had seen her predator, she wouldn’t have exhibited any signs of fear; she was accustomed to walking within 100 yards of humans on the road.

Yellowstone’s wolves are an important research tool. They also give tens of thousands of visitors a reason to come to Yellowstone — even when it’s minus-31 degrees and it takes dressing like two-legged bison to endure the cold.

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