Kathie Lynch’s latest report on observations of Yellowstone Park wolves
A silver fox slips into the forest by the light of the supermoon; river otter pups slide off a grassy log and chirp to their mother for a fish; a bighorn sheep lamb strikes a pose on a rocky outcrop; tenacious trout battle their way up Trout Lake’s inlet stream to spawn; coyote pups romp; pronghorn fawns prance; baby bison bounce; osprey and bald eagle chicks flap and fledge; black bear cubs tumble along behind their mom; awesome 24-year-old grizzly “Scarface” wows a crowd—these are the sights that Yellowstone wildlife watchers find to thrill to these days when wolf watching sometimes isn’t what it used to be.
With only about 70 adult wolves in Yellowstone National Park, watchers hoping to see a wolf in the wild must be very patient and also very lucky. In the Northern Range, the wolf watching possibilities include four Lamar Canyon wolves in Lamar Valley, nine (if they were all together, which they usually are not) Junction Butte wolves in the Slough Creek/Little America/Mom’s Ridge areas, and the elusive Blacktail pack of just two anywhere from Tower Junction west toward Mammoth.
Chances are often better in the Park’s interior to the south. The Canyon wolves come and go near their traditional rendezvous, visible from the Grizzly Overlook in Hayden Valley. They have three pups (2 blacks and 1 gray), which can sometimes be seen hopping about or running out to solicit a feeding from incoming adults.
The Canyon pack’s long-time alphas are graying black 712M (originally from the Mollie’s pack) and the striking white female (originally from the Hayden Valley pack). Together this pair has had as many as seven litters, going all the way back to 2007 when they produced the well known Hayden “Black Pup,” (later collared as 638M).
Other Canyon wolves, all gray, include two 3-year-olds (one male and one female), one 2-year-old female, and two yearling males. Sadly, Canyon 2-year-old black 831F was legally shot in May after being accused of sheep depredation in Gardiner, Montana.
The Lamar Canyon pack has also suffered mightily at the hands of people with guns. The pack underwent a complete reorganization after two key members (alpha “The ’06 Female”/832F and beta 754M) were legally shot during the wolf-hunting season last fall in Wyoming.
With no breeding opportunities in his own pack (because all of the remaining females were his daughters), Lamar Canyon alpha 755M dispersed in search of a new mate. Eventually, he ended up with an uncollared gray female (possibly a Junction Butte pack disperser).
By then it was after the February breeding season and too late for them to produce pups this year. The two have stayed together and even visited Lamar Valley and Little America recently, however, they are not often seen and spend most of their time to the west.
Some of the original Lamar Canyon wolves have joined forces with two males from the Hoodoo pack in Wyoming and have found a new home there. They are now considered Wyoming wolves.
Former Hoodoo “Tall Gray” and former Lamar Canyon gray 3-year-old 776F (born in “The ’06 Female” and 755M’s first litter) lead this reconstituted pack. Other pack members may include two 2-year-old females (one black and one gray) and a black female yearling (all former Lamar Canyons). Beta WY856M is the other former Hoodoo.
We had a wonderful surprise recently when Lamar Canyon black yearling WY859M returned to Lamar Valley. He had been living with the former Lamar Canyon wolves in Wyoming and then suddenly showed up again in Lamar. With little fanfare, his big sisters (“Middle Gray” and a black female), and even the unrelated alpha male, accepted him.
So, the “new” Lamar Canyon pack in Lamar Valley now has three former Lamar Canyon wolves: 3-year-old “Middle Gray,” a 2-year-old black female, and WY859M. A Wyoming wolf, “Big Gray” has joined them as the new alpha male.
We are absolutely delighted with the return of WY859M. He is radio collared (so biologists can track him); he is black (so he shows up against the summer sage much better than do the grays); and, being a yearling, he is a character, always on the go and up to something fun—like plopping down in the sage to chew on a wayward orange traffic cone!
Both “Middle Gray” and the black female do flexed leg urinations (similar to a male’s raised leg urination, a symbol of dominance) and each seems to think that she is the alpha female. The black female tries her best to impress the “Big Gray” male and continually gets in between him and the “Middle Gray” female.
However, “Middle Gray,” was the one who was lactating, so she is the likely mother of whatever pups the fledgling pack has and thus may have more claim to be alpha. No one has seen those pups yet, but the adults work hard ferrying food to the den area, so we are hoping to catch a glimpse of some pups soon.
The Lamar Canyon’s neighbors to the west, the Junction Butte pack, presents a challenge to watchers. The pack seems to have a main group of five, plus two sometimes loners (who may or may not be with the main pack), and one splinter group of two. All members come and go freely.
The alphas are former Blacktail male “Puff” (nicknamed due to puffs of hair when he had mange as a pup) and probable former Mollie’s “Ragged Tail.” The main pack also includes a black adult female, a black yearling male, and the gray “New Male” (also a former Blacktail). It is unknown as to whether the main pack has pups this year, although both females were observed to breed last February, so there is hope.
The two sometimes loners include two grays, former alpha 870F (who lost her status after injuring her neck) and yearling 869M (who somehow survived the winter, despite being ravaged by mange). They are sometimes alone, sometimes near each other and/or sometimes near or with the main pack.
The Junction Butte splinter group of two blacks includes 890M (formerly known as “Patch,” due to mange) and 889F. They tend to stick to themselves and range farther south. Unfortunately, they do not have pups.
Both big males in the Junction Butte pack originally came from the Blacktail pack to the west. The Blacktails lost many members during the last year and are now down to just two, but what illustrious individuals they are. Alpha 778M/“Big Brown” is the last true Druid Peak pack wolf, and alpha 693F is the last true Agate Creek pack wolf. They are indeed living monuments to history.
Unfortunately, this pair also does not have any pups. Not tied down to a den, they roam far and wide over their vast Blacktail Plateau territory and are rarely seen. We were, therefore, incredibly lucky to find both flaked out on their sides on the Blacktail Plateau one day, soaking up the summer sun and apparently enjoying life free of the responsibility of raising pups.
The pup situation is unknown for the Mollie’s pack, which is now back in their traditional Pelican Valley territory. Once a mighty force of 19 wolves when they invaded the Northern Range in December 2011, the pack is now down to just two Mollie’s females (gray alpha 686F and black 3-year-old 779F) and a gray male of unknown origin who is their new alpha.
The upshot of all of this is that now, 18 years after wolves were reintroduced, Yellowstone is still the best place in the world to see wolves in the wild. However, wildlife enthusiasts also need to find joy in the many other wonders that Yellowstone offers and be prepared to work hard to find wolves to watch–all the while hoping that good fortune shines on them, like the supermoon on the silver fox!