Wolf Watching 527

Looking for 527

She is a four year old black female with the Slough Creek Pack.  In the picture, she lies in the snow in a drugged stupor, her huge head half-supported by an unseen Wolf Project biologist.  Her amber eyes are glazed over and half closed; her pink tongue hangs out the side of her mouth.  She has just been re-collared, but will keep her number – 527F.  Wolf watchers call her “Bolt” for a Z-like marking on her hindquarters.  If anything happens to 527, her collar will be sent to me. 

We pass through the Arch on a cold and cloudy May afternoon. Thirteen bighorn ewes graze high above the Boiling River, so many white dots on a blanket of green.  At Swan Lake Flats a pair of sand hill cranes feed along its shore while geese glide across the quiet surface and elk watch from the hillsides.

Mammoth Hot Springs and Blacktail Deer Plateau lie quiet under the gray of a late afternoon sky.  We stop at Hellroaring to look for the Oxbow pups.  The Oxbow pack, a spin-off of the Leopold Pack, has made its den next to a pond which is visible only through a small window in the trees.  They have twelve puppies this first year and the turnout is crowded with people and spotting scopes.  Every so often someone spots a tiny black or gray ball of fur, wobbling out of the den and crawling over a log or following one of their adult babysitters.

In the Lamar Valley, a black wolf, maybe a yearling from the Slough Creek Pack, sits under a tree east of the Institute looking from side to side.  On April 12, 2006, 527F and the Slough Creek alpha female, 380F, denned on a hillside, but were trapped inside by an unknown pack of twelve wolves from north of the Park, unable to access enough food or water for their pups to survive.  Both females have pups again this year, along with possibly two other pack females.  We hear that 527 looks good, better than the other Sloughs who are thin, maybe not getting enough to eat.  The black wolf gets up, walking into the trees and we lose it.

A pair of coyotes pass Soda Butte Cone and travel toward their den, disappearing in the tall grass.  Two years ago we watched coyote pups here as they played in the sage in front of their den and waited for their parents to bring their dinner.  This pair has eight puppies in a different den, but the pups will not emerge until after we’re gone.  Farther down the road a big black bear forages in the meadows at Warm Springs.  He ambles along, close to the road and takes no notice of us.  As the sun goes down, the temperature drops.  We are back in Yellowstone.

The days drift into a week of cold, clear mornings and warm, sunny afternoons.  Bison and elk are everywhere.  Each morning more bison calves mysteriously appear clinging to their mothers’ sides with bewildered expressions on their red brown faces.  The elk are losing their winter coats and growing new velvet covered antlers.  Some are scruffy looking while others are so pale they appear almost white.  The bison are also shedding, their coats hanging from their backs in pieces of woolly pelts.  Soon the elk will have their sleek, brown coats with fluffy white collars and the bison their shiny chocolate colored hides.

As we pass through Lamar Canyon we look for the owl on the south side.  The nest is still there, but the owl is gone and in her place sits a red tailed hawk, its head bobbing up and down from the twigs and leaves.  Down the road a little further, a fox sits on a large boulder on the north side of the road.  He is red-brown with dark slender legs.  Someone tells us it’s a mountain red fox, a new subspecies of red fox.  The fox yawns and scratches himself, then disappears behind the rocks and trees.

We stop at Hellroaring – again – to check on the Oxbow puppies.  Two gray wolves are stretched out, sleeping, and another darker wolf walks around nearby, but no puppies.  We hike the nearby road that borders the Blacktail Deer Plateau, which is closed to vehicles.  Surrounded by snow-capped mountains and only the sound of birds, we spot northern flickers, Clark’s nutcrackers, a black and white ladder back, and a warbler with a yellow breast and black markings who flies away too quickly to be identified.  The road is dry, imprinted with old coyote, wolf and bear tracks.  For all the wolf and bear sign, we have never seen a wolf or a grizzly here.

We sit down to rest on some rocks overlooking a densely wooded area.  Below us in a small clearing in the pines a black bear sow plays with her two cubs.  The cubs are at least one year old.  They roll around in the grass wrestling with each other and pawing their mother.  The sow tenderly grabs one and licks its ears.  They crawl over the deadfall and climb the slope, disappearing in the pine trees.

Monday morning there are three moose in “Moose Meadow,” a cow with her two offspring, one from last year and another from the year before.  We see more moose this year, mostly cows with yearlings and young bulls, their budding antlers covered in velvet.  Frost covers the swampy meadow, puddles everywhere.  Even the smallest moose is big.

Six wolves from the Agate Pack are bedded down in Little America, four gray and two blacks.  Every now and then, they get up and walk around, licking each others faces and wagging their tails.  Two coyotes sit in front of a boulder not far from the Agates, singing and yipping away.  We hear them long before we see them.  The coyote den is probably nearby and they don’t want the Agates around.  All the wolves are losing their winter coats, so they appear lighter.  The alpha female, 472, is very light with more gray around her face.  She is the daughter of 21M and 103F, so she is a Druid, and looks so much like her father, 21M.

The Agate wolves are very mobile and not afraid to cross the road from the South to the North side and back.  They go up to Specimen Ridge to return to their Antelope Creek territory, where their pups are waiting for them.  This morning we see a wolf cross the road, weave through the sage and disappear.  Everyone watches the road, confusing people driving by, but few are lucky enough to see any of the wolves cross.

We check and recheck the Oxbow Pack.  Once today we see the alpha female tucked in under the aspens.  We don’t see the Druids or the Sloughs.  The wolves stay close to their den sites this time of year and can be difficult to catch.  So we head up the Tower Road to look for Rosie and her two cubs who are one year old now.  We hike past Calcite where she is almost always nearby.  Another couple is climbing the road ahead of us, a sage grouse following closely behind.  The grouchy bird nips at the man’s heels, protecting his territory.  He chases the man away and is not afraid of me as I snap photos.  We climb the slope on the north side of the road through the grass and deadfall to a large grassy meadow filled with sage and trees.  A wonderful place for bears, but no Rosie.  When we return to the road the grouse is gone.

And so the week goes on.  We drive to Hayden Valley and get there just in time to see the Hayden Pack’s white alpha female swim across the Yellowstone River and lope to the den site, turning her head, tongue hanging out, looking back towards the road.  There were rumors that the she had been killed, but she is most certainly alive, healthy looking, and appears to be nursing.  The Haydens denned late this year and during the winter were seen exploring Mammoth Hot Springs and Swan Lake.  Now they are back in their own valley, a very visible pack.

The Haydens were feeding on a carcass in Alum Creek, something we have seen them do before.  The alpha male and a subordinate, also very light gray wolves, cross the road and stop at the river.  The subordinate tests the water, looking back at the alpha male.  The yearling swims smoothly across and shakes off under the trees on the opposite shore.  The alpha male looks stuffed and reluctant to cross just yet.  He curls up in the sand and goes to sleep.  The yearling waits for the alpha male to follow, but finally beds down behind trees and rocks, out of sight.

Later Tim and I hike part of the Mary Mountain Trail, not far from where we watched the Haydens.  The path is wet and we negotiate mud and marshy terrain as it leads us back to a beautiful part of the valley, stretching into more winding creeks and rolling hills, filled with the scent of sage and pine.

Hiking back to the road we notice the Hayden subordinate at the carcass again.  By the time we race down the trail and get to the site, he is leaving the carcass.  He carries a piece to a spot along the creek where ravens harass him as he tries to eat.  He then crosses the meadows to the same trail we hiked.  The Haydens often follow this alternate route and cross at the Chittendale Bridge to return to their den when they are unable to cross the road.  That is exactly what he seems to be doing when we later spot him up the road.

The southern part of the Park near Canyon and Lake Yellowstone is colder, with snow still on the ground in large patches and steep drifts.  Both Yellowstone and Sylvan Lakes are frozen.  On Yellowstone Lake, long, thin sheets of ice float on the surface of the water.  It feels very remote and looks as if Spring has not come here yet.  We try to hike Pelican Creek Trail, but it’s closed due to bear activity.  We walk in as far as the trail signs and stop where it opens to a lovely, oval shaped meadow.  Beautiful here.  I would like to go back.

Returning to Silvergate we run into a bear jam in Swan Lake Flats.  A line of cars and people are watching a grizzly mother and cub try to cross the road.  The cub stands up in the middle of the road and looks around and then both bears climb trees trying to get away from the crowd.  Unable to avoid people with cameras pressing toward them, the bears move further into the meadow to grub and dig.  The mother bear is smart and tolerates humans so well, we believe she might be the daughter of 264, a Park favorite who raised her cubs in this area several years ago.

Hellroaring Overlook is not crowded tonight and we get a good view of the den site.  We wait for what seems like forever and are about to give up when seven puppies emerge from the den one or two at a time.  The puppies are tiny, but through the spotting scope, their shapes and colors are very clear.  Two light colored adults are babysitting the black and gray puppies as they crawl over logs and roll and fight with each other.

Entering the Lamar Valley we catch sight of three wolves on the north side of the road trotting east from Coyote toward the ridge line – two blacks and a gray.  They are probably from the Slough Creek Pack, but disappear before we can identify them.  I wonder if one was 527.

It is July now and I’m back in Austin, but each day my mind travels an unseen path back to Yellowstone.  The Haydens have five puppies, three dark gray, one very light gray, and a black!  A yearling female, who we did not see, apparently had pups along with the alpha female.  The Druids, spied from a plane over Cache Creek, have four to six, as do the Sloughs, carefully hidden in a wooded area.  The Agates are frequently seen at their rendezvous site near Mt. Washburn tending to their eight new members, six gray and two black.  There are lots of bears this year, both grizzlies and black, with cubs of the year and one year-olds.  The coyote pups at Soda Butte along with the Hayden Pack pups are the hit of the Park.  As I travel back and forth through hot summer days I wish myself there now imagining all the babies.

I think about 527, a mother again.  Probably, the daughter of 217F, a Druid Female, and 261M, a male in the Mollie pack, she has been seen frequently since we left, swimming the Lamar River, feeding on a carcass, bedded down in the trees.  She does not like the crowds this one and waits till nightfall to cross the road and run back to the den.  It’s good to know she’s safe.  Maybe some morning or evening on the next trip I’ll be standing near one of her familiar places at just the right moment and look out across the river and the black wolf I see crossing the bench will be 527.

Christine Baleshta