Kathie Lynch on Yellowstone wolvesMay 12, 2011 — Ralph Maughan
Kathie Lynch has written her latest Yellowstone wolf report. It is always a cheer when Kathie writes about this place where wolves can live, wild and free. Wolf watching in April this year sounds very cold, but the wolves love it!
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April 2011 wolf notes by © Kathie Lynch-
In Yellowstone, “spring” break in April is not necessarily synonymous with springtime! Days of granular corn snow flurries (or worse), biting wind and morning temperatures in the teens often ended with the drip, drip, drip of water melting off the edge of receding snow banks. Even though it seemed like winter would never end, the Wicked Witch of the West was doomed.
Of course, as soil and sage replaced the diminishing blanket of snow, the wolves became even harder to spot. Considering that only three packs (Blacktail Plateau, Lamar Canyon, and Agate Creek) are likely possibilities for watching in the Northern Range these days, I felt lucky to see a wolf most days–although my first day was a “one dog day,” and that “dog” was a coyote!
The Blacktail pack provided some excellent viewing for a couple of days as they fed on a bison carcass at Blacktail Lakes. The wolves had to share the treasure with a big, dark grizzly boar who had awakened to a mother lode of winter-killed carcasses. Thanks to the extremely severe winter, the bears will have plenty to eat for a while and won’t have to usurp the wolves’ kills, as they often do.
After several probable dispersals, the Blacktail Pack now usually has 12 wolves, including alphas 778M (formerly “Big Brown,” originally a Druid) and 693F, former Druid males “Medium Gray” and “Big Blaze,” two 2-year-old uncollared females (one black, and one gray with a stunted tail, nicknamed “Cut Tail”; both are the offspring of illustrious alpha 302M), and six yearlings (two black and four gray, including newly collared 777M). The yearlings’ parents are 778M and any of three Blacktail females who may have had pups last year: 693F, 642F, and 692F.
Made unwelcome by alpha 693F, 642F has since dispersed and 692F is often alone and away from the pack. A 2-year-old female, 752F, was also on the short end of the dominance hierarchy and may have also dispersed.
Watching the pack’s activities around the bison carcass at Blacktail Lakes offered a peek into the daily life of a wolf pack in waiting. Very pregnant alpha 693F spent a lot of time flat out on her side, resting up for the blessed event, while a golden eagle sat on the ground nearby, keeping, naturally, an eagle eye on everything. The also pregnant black 2-year-old (daughter of 302!) bedded uphill from the bison carcass with her hero, “Big Blaze,” who may be the father of her pups.
The whole pack was full of good will and high spirits, probably thanks to the hormone prolactin running high in preparation for the imminent arrival of new pups. This hormone, in females and males alike, explains why wolves of all ages love puppies and are actively involved in their care.
At one point, brothers 778M and “Big Blaze” fed together on the bison carcass. Meanwhile, their brother, “Medium Gray,” kept busy digging a hole, chasing ravens away from the carcass and playing tag with yearling 777M, while an industrious black yearling attempted to carry off an entire neck vertebrae assembly.
Most endearing of all was the sight of alpha 778M and one of his sons romping, shoulder to shoulder, alongside each other. This particular yearling seems to be recovering from a bad case of mange, but he hasn’t let the mange get him down. He is quite a character, full of vim and vigor, and you could almost feel his joy and pride as he bounced along beside his dad.
On the opposite end of the Northern Range, the Lamar Canyon pack surprised everyone when alpha “The ’06 Female” decided not to den at Slough Creek (where she denned last year). Possibly her trouble with bears at that site, the heavy snow pack around the den holes, or the noise from the nearby Lamar bridge construction project discouraged her.
Instead she chose a spot farther to the east, in the general area of the old Druid pack’s traditional den site. Her pups were due on April 14, and she was seen still pregnant on April 15 (at least that’s what we think the “rock” that looked like a beached whale with tawny colored hair was!). She was then not seen for some days afterwards, so the best guess is that her pups may have been born on or about April 16.
Unfortunately, the Lamar den is completely out of sight (as opposed to last year’s excellent viewing at Slough Creek), so chances of seeing this year’s pups or watching them grow up are dim. With the expected high water when the snow pack at high elevations really begins to melt, we are already worried about how she will get those pups across the swollen creeks and rivers when it is time to move them to the rendezvous in early July.
The other six Lamar pack members hunt throughout the Lamar and Soda Butte valleys and then ferry food back to “The ‘06 Female” at the den. Alpha 755M and his brother, 754M, are both now three years old and much better prepared to raise a family than they were last year as somewhat inept teenage fathers.
This year, the two adult males have a lot of help from the four yearlings, including gray 776F (who had a collar, but lost it), the “Dark Gray” male (so dark we thought last year that he was a black pup), the “Light Gray” male (originally thought to be a female), and the “Middle Gray” female (originally thought to be a male!). Gender confusion sometimes results when male pups’ lean forward urinations are mistaken for female pups’ squat urinations and vice versa. It took almost a year to figure these pups out!
Now that the Lamars have temporarily vacated Slough, the Agates have felt a little safer about appearing on the slopes of Specimen Ridge in Little America. One day, long-time wolf watchers were in for a treat when good old 471F turned up with the pack once again. Born to legendary Agate alphas 113M and 472F in 2003, she eventually dispersed to help found the short-lived Lava Creek pack with her younger sister, the “’06 Female” (now Lamar Canyon alpha) and 147M (who would later become the Silver pack alpha). After the Lava Creek pack disbanded, 471F spent most of her time as a lone wolf and was only seen occasionally.
So, it was a thrill when the now almost white 8-year-old showed up and seemed to be fairly well accepted by her natal pack once again. Because her mother, former alpha 472F, died last fall, 471F’s only close relative in the pack is her younger half-sister, 715F, the new alpha. Obviously an independent sort, it will be interesting to see if 471F stays on with her natal pack or strikes out on her own as a lone wolf once more.
The other current Agate pack members include the two former Mollies males (huge alpha 641M and elderly 10- to 12-year-old beta 586M) and four yearlings (black male, black female, gray female and gray 775M).
We always wish that the Agates will make their summer rendezvous in the Antelope Creek area off Dunraven Pass road so we can watch them raise their pups. However, to the disappointment of devoted Agate watchers, the last few years they have been a no show there.
The Canyon pack will hopefully provide summer wolf watching opportunities once again in the Hayden Valley. The alphas, former Mollies 712M and the very light gray alpha female (daughter of 541M and the famous white wolf, 540F) finally successfully raised three pups (one black, two gray) last year.
The Quadrants are another pack watchers may spot in the Swan Lake flats/Mammoth Hot Springs/Gardner River areas. After the dispersal of their three gray female yearlings during the breeding season, only the four adults remain, including alpha 695M (a former Geode) and the black female alpha who replaced former alpha and Quadrant founder 469F (who may now be the last living Leopold pack wolf). The fourth Quadrant adult is a huge, beautiful, brownish-gray male with a dark mask and back.
As for non-Northern Range packs, one to watch out for in Yellowstone’s interior is the new Mary Mountain pack, which formed in 2010 and successfully raised two pups last year. It is led by alpha 636M (who was originally collared in 2008 as a Cougar Creek pup) and a black female, 794F, origin unknown. The pack also includes one other adult. They have taken over part of the old Gibbon pack territory and some of the old Hayden pack territory.
Lucky wildlife watchers may also catch a glimpse of the Mollies pack (seven surviving 2010 pups) and the Madison pack. The Bechler and Yellowstone Delta packs both had pups last year, but their territories are so remote, they are almost never seen. The Cougar and Grayling packs had no surviving pups in 2010, and I’m not sure if those two packs still exist.
With the recent Federal budget rider which removed wolves in the Northern Rockies from the Endangered Species list, it is more important than ever to stay informed and to work tirelessly and enthusiastically to protect gray wolves in the wild. Education about the vital role predators play in maintaining a healthy ecosystem and the importance of valuing all living things are the keys to the wolves’ survival in the wild and to their ultimate acceptance.