Thursday, February 21, 2013

Seeing wolves in Yellowstone restores visitors' faith

Minus-31 degrees at Cooke City and minus-24 at the Lamar Valley? Yes, we told the incoming group of 17 for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s annual winter wildlife-watching trip, but it’s a dry minus-31.

Thankfully, the group was prepared. Two guests from Tucson, Ariz., could’ve been mistaken for two-legged bison as they trudged in the early morning darkness down a snow-covered path at the Buffalo Ranch. Each wore enough layers to clothe an Inuit village. One had a fur cap the size of Delaware.

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 for wolves means standing in an icy place for long periods, shifting from foot to foot on heat-retaining blue mats. Fingers and toes 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 bus. She is slightly apprehensive. After all, she has seen wolves become boulders – Canis minerales – amid such excitement before.

And yet ... more than a dozen ravens were circling, flitting 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.

Sure enough, far in the distance, too far for the naked eye, three black wolves are on an elk carcass. Bald eagles waited in nearby conifers. A dozen or so remaining cow elk and calves, the danger over, lay bedded on a snowy hill just above the kill, all eyes trained on the scene.

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 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. Though numbers are holding steady at between 70-80 in the park, the loss of collared wolves, killed legally by hunters outside the park, has thrown the species into disarray.

Three frequently visible Lamar Canyon wolves were off in the backcountry, trying to find order after the death of their alpha female, the famous 832F, in Wyoming. The whereabouts of the new Junction Butte Pack, formed by a liaison between the Mollie’s and the Blacktails in 2012, has been uncertain because a hunter in Montana shot the only collared wolf.

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 northwest to the Lamar Valley from their usual home in the Pelican Valley.

Would we see wolves? For the first time on one of our wildlife trips, nobody could say with any real certainty.

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

Seeing them was an important reminder that wolves are a marvelous conservation success story. Concerns that we might not is also a reminder of the need for the states adjoining Yellowstone to adjust hunting and trapping rules next year to give park wolves higher protections.

Yellowstone’s wolves are critical to a healthy ecology. They 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 enduring the dry cold requires dressing like a two-legged bison.

Jeff Welsch is communications director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He can be reached at