Monday, September 26, 2017
It might as well be winter -Yellowstone seems to have skipped autumn and moved on. It often snows during fall trips, but this snow is a little different. It lingers, refusing to melt and though not that deep, layers itself over meadows and trails, and hides turnouts and entrances. We stand in someone else’s footprints in the snow, crunch out our own paths and try to avoid slipping on packed down snow that has turned to ice. A sky covered with gray clouds prevents thawing.
A group of seven Wapitis disappear behind a snow-covered ridge on the west side of the road just as we arrive. Rick McIntyre shows up which tells us there is nothing going on in Lamar Valley and the northern range.
On the other side of the road another part of the Wapiti Pack roams the rendezvous site. Both “mothers” are there, 1091F and the white alpha female. We see them only briefly, wagging their tails, before they disappear into the trees. A photographer tells me about a grizzly on a carcass east of Lake Butte Overlook and that’s where she is headed along with a string of other photographers.
The elk carcass, a dark brown mound guarded by several impatient ravens, lies at the bottom of a deep meadow surrounded by burnout and deadfall. Splashes of blood stain the snow. From the small group of photographers stalking the site and a guide we hear theories of how the carcass got where it is. Rangers dragged the dead elk off the road and into the meadow where, perhaps, the bear dragged it into the trees. One guide says it was a wolf kill, probably the Mollies, whose territory is nearby in Pelican Valley. Someone else adds to this saying wolf tracks were visible one or two days ago.
We wait, hoping to see the bear who hid himself in the trees. A light gray coyote approaches the carcass, but quickly trots off. Pushed in by a snow plow, the snow banks steeply around the turnout and sections of pavement are icy. Standing in the snow chills our feet. The bear is probably asleep, and we are getting cold, so we take off to get coffee and warm up.
A little later the Wapitis are in view again from Grizzly Overlook. They play in the snow and follow each other in broken lines. The wolves remain visible for a while, then can just as easily disappear. We watch the Wapitis begin to chase a cow elk across the snowy slopes. – three, four, five wolves join the chase. The cow stumbles and they all suddenly slip behind a ridge. The landscape is suddenly quiet until the elk bursts out into the snow, the wolves lagging behind. Just as unexpectedly the chase is over. The wolves lose interest. And the elk? She breathes a sigh of relief.
We return to the carcass site where nothing much has changed. The photographers are still there and the bear is still out of sight. A silvery gray coyote tries to sneak up on the carcass, but hesitates. We wait again about 30 minutes before giving up and head north. Traveling alongside the Yellowstone River we notice another gray coyote mousing in the meadows south of the Mud Pots. A beautiful golden light tan with no saddle, his fur is thick and his tail bushy. He trots back and forth, cocking his head to listen and dive into the snow.
A little farther up the road cars are pulled over watching a huge black bear on the other side of the river. A closer look reveals a very dark grizzly and not a black bear. He ambles through tall grass along the river, lifting his nose to sniff the air, opening his jaws to taste it. We follow him along the river, driving up the road and into a day use area. The bear follows the river and crosses, ending up on our side. Branches snap loudly as he steps through the woods; then seeing the cars, he backs up and circles before loping across the road.
The Wapitis are still at the rendezvous testing a pair of spike bulls sending them prancing off in different directions, lifting their legs high. After the wolf danger as gone, the two young elk continue to spar with each other as if nothing happened.