Kathie Lynch’s Yellowstone wolf report
Slow wolf watching in the smoky air is giving way to excitement as crisp and clean autumn arrives-By Kathie Lynch, Copyright 2013
Yellowstone National Park. Crisp mornings, afternoon thunderstorms, smoky skies, and scarce wolf sightings all tell you that fall is right around the corner in Yellowstone National Park. As the first yellow leaves appeared on willows along Soda Butte Creek, we wondered each morning whether we would find any wolves to watch.
All summer we had had only a few sporadic sightings of the Junction Butte pack’s seven adults. So, we were thrilled when, on August 1, the pack showed up at Slough Creek with four handsome, darkly marked gray pups!
In wolf packs, yearlings traditionally tend the pups. The Junction Butte’s baby-sitting job fell to two enthusiastic young males, a dark black with a distinguished gray chin and a special little gray, 869M.
It is especially heart-warming to see gallant 869M playing with and excitedly chasing his brother and the four pups. For 869M, who somehow survived most of his first year of life with a bad limp, ravaged by mange and often alone, I am sure that these are the happiest days of his life.
The Junction Butte adult black female also takes a lot of interest in the pups and may even be the mother of some of them. When she wants the pups to follow, she employs a favorite trick we have seen many wolves use. With a long stick (or sometimes an antler) in her mouth, she marches off, and the pups fall right in line behind her like they’re in a parade!
The other possible mother of this year’s Junction Butte pups is the alpha female, “Ragged Tail.” She displaced former alpha 870F during the breeding season last February after 870F injured her neck and could not keep up with the pack. Although she has since recovered and rejoined the pack, 870F did not regain her alpha position.
The Junction Butte pack formed a year ago by combining dispersers from two different packs. While all three adult females likely hail from the Mollies pack, both of the big males, alpha “Puff” and beta “New Male,” are probably former Blacktails.
Technically, two other wolves, 889F and 890M, count in the Junction Butte pack, but they dispersed last spring and are making their own life together away from the main pack. They are occasionally seen in the Antelope Valley area.
The old Blacktail pack now includes only the two alphas, former Druid 778M/”Big Brown” (the last true Druid) and former Agate 693F (littermate of the late, famous Lamar Canyon alpha, the “’06 Female”/832F). Unfortunately, the Blacktail alphas had no pups again this year and are only rarely seen.
For much of the summer, the four adults of the Lamar Canyon pack provided most of the wolf watching opportunities in the Northern Range. The adults include alpha male “Big Gray” (probably originally a Wyoming wolf), 3-year-old alpha female “Middle Gray,” her 2-year-old black female sister, and their yearling black brother 859M. These last three represent each of the three litters of illustrious former Lamar Canyon alphas “’06” and 755M.
To our delight, in early July, two fat, black Lamar Canyon pups started making appearances! It was great fun to watch the pups playing around the edges of the den forest and digging in the badger hole under the watchful eye of their own devoted babysitter, yearling 859M.
Throngs of hopeful wolf watchers gathered daily in Lamar Valley’s early morning chill and late evening dusk (often rewarded with spectacular sunsets), hoping to catch even a momentary glimpse of the two pups as they passed through openings between trees.
One favorite image I have etched in my own mind’s eye is of the 2-year-old black female tenderly grooming the black female pup. She licked and licked and gently nibbled over every inch of that contented little one.
Unfortunately, the fate of the two pups is not known. The biggest, fattest, darkest pup was last seen August 4, and the smaller, lighter black female pup was last seen scampering along behind two of the adults on August 15. Since adult wolves usually move pups to a rendezvous area in July or August, we still hold out hope that the pups are out there somewhere.
The whole situation is currently a mystery, however, because the Lamar Canyon adults have apparently now moved away from the den forest to an unknown location. Only time will tell if they come back for the winter and if one or both pups will be with them.
Some of the Lamar Canyon adults have returned a few times to howl and guard their home territory against intrusion by neighboring packs. The Junction Butte pack, which usually stays west of Slough Creek, has made some forays far into Lamar Valley, even reaching as far to the east as the old Druid rendezvous, which is not that far from the Lamar Canyon’s den forest.
If the Lamar Canyons do return, it will be interesting to see if the 3-year-old “Middle Gray” has been able to maintain her alpha position. Although she is the older sister, “Middle Gray” at times has been extremely submissive to the 2-year-old black female.
One day, “Middle Gray” crawled up to her younger sister on her belly, licking the black female’s muzzle and groveling on the ground with all four feet in the air. Meanwhile, the 2-year-old black female stood over her older sister in a dominant position with hackles raised.
The black female has also been cozying up to alpha male “Big Gray” whenever she can. Since she seems to have designs on the alpha position, even more changes in leadership may lie ahead for the Lamar Canyon pack.
Several times in late summer we were treated to the unexpected appearance in Lamar Valley of an old favorite who has also been a victim of leadership change. Although he has been through a lot, former Lamar Canyon alpha male 755M looks absolutely beautiful, sporting a sleek silvery-gray coat with black trim, topped off with his distinctive big ears.
However, 755M is apparently alone again after his Lamar Canyon alpha female (“’06”/832F) was killed in the Wyoming hunt last December. Unfortunately, the gray female who joined 755M last winter is no longer being seen with him, and her whereabouts is unknown.
With the Lamar Canyons gone and Junction Butte sightings sporadic, some Northern Range wolf watchers have been making the long journey south over Dunraven Pass to try to see the Canyon wolf pack.
Even in Hayden Valley, things have been challenging, what with heavy smoke from fires in Yellowstone and the fact that, for the first time, the Canyons have moved their rendezvous site to the west of the road.
Still, sharp-eyed and patient watchers can usually spot some of the 10 Canyon wolves, including the white alpha female, black alpha 712M, some of the five gray adults (the distance and smoke make it hard to tell which) and the three pups (two blacks and one gray).
As the aspen and cottonwood leaves glow brilliant gold in the autumn light, September’s early snows will start to move the elk down from the high country and more wolves should return to the Northern Range.
Sadly, with the long wolf hunting and trapping seasons underway in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho (outside of Yellowstone National Park), many wolves will be killed, including Yellowstone wolves that venture out across invisible park boundaries. But, hopefully, many, many more will stay safe and survive to help keep the ecosystem complete, healthy, and wild.