Into the Valley of Wolves.
Yellowstone, in the early morning gloom just before the sun breaks over the skyline. The air is cold, crisp, and very still. Sound travels under these conditions. The sound that reached me on that cold, murky morning has trilled or chilled mankind for centuries. It was the spine tingling call of the wild, the howl of a wolf.
Judging form the multitude of voices in this wild chorus, there was a lot out there in the dark, and so it proved.It was the nineteen strong Mollies Pack, currently the largest and most powerful in Yellowstone.
I first visited Yellowstone in 2009, and my how things have changed, wolf wise. The famed and much loved Druid Peak Pack was long gone. It disintegrated at the beginning of 2010 due to disease and the death of the alpha female. All its members are now dead with the possible exception of “Dull Bar” who may be still alive but outside the park as the alpha female of the Cottonwood Creek Pack.
What would I find on the Northern Range without the Druids? Would there be any wolves? Would they be as tolerant and visible as the Druids? I needn’t have worried, I was in for eight days of almost non stop photo opportunities, incident, action and behaviour. A wildlife photographers paradise.
The pack territories from the northern park entrance along the Gardner to Cooke City Road (the only road in the park thats open in the winter, does not sound like much but its sixty five miles long) ran like this in 2009, Lava Creek, Quadrant Mountain, Everts, Blacktail, Agate, and Druid Peak. with two groups not yet designated as packs.They need to have pups survive to their first winter to be called a pack. In 2012 it ran Quadrant Mountain, Eight-mile (whose territory is mostly outside the park) Canyon, Blacktail, Agate and Lamar Canyon. However there were strangers on the northern Range.
When I set out one of my hoped for objectives was to get a glimpse of and photograph the members of Mollies Pack. The ancestors of this pack were the first to be reintroduced into Yellowstone in 1995 as the Crystal Creek Pack. They were renamed Mollies Pack in 2000, (after Mollie Beattie, the late director of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, who helped carry the first wolves into their release pens), as they no longer had any connection to the Crystal Creek area after being evicted by the Druids. They had moved twenty-five miles south to Pelican Valley in the heart of Yellowstone’s remote interior. The wolves for the reintroduction project where chosen from certain areas of Canada for their Elk hunting prowess, but because there are no Elk in the valley during the winter months, Mollies Pack have learnt how to hunt Bison. They run the herd into deep snow making the weaker individuals easier to spot and kill. However a Bison even a sick one, in deep snow is a formidable adversary and to cope, the Mollies wolves got bigger. The pack now contains some of the biggest wolves in Yellowstone. Big, brawny Bison killers.
I was in luck. The Mollies had come north following their new leader 686F. They may have left home to find an easier living than their usual winter prey in Yellowstone’s harsh snow bound interior, or they may have just followed the alpha female, who may be on look out for a new mate.
The pack underwent a leadership change in the autumn after the death of both former alphas. 495M the alpha male, a real heavyweight at 143lbs (65 kg) was killed by his prey, probably a Bison or an Elk and as so often happens, his mate 486F, then disappeared.
The new alpha had led them to the area around the Crystal Creek release pen. Uncanny coincidence? Possibly, I could not answer that one, neither could the “wolfers” or park biologist, Rick McIntyre.They had been in the area for a while, so could they be about to set up a new territory on their ancestors old stomping ground? No one knew. Their presence soon caused the wolf watchers to wish these big Bison hunters would go home, as the were seen chasing and fighting with the resident packs.
I, however, was delighted, as Mollies Pack contains some big beautiful wolves. They provided me with some excellent views and behaviour and enabled me to fore fill another trip ambition, to photograph a hunt. Although it was at long range, about a mile, and not pushed to its ultimate conclusion. The wolves backed off, perhaps deciding that the Bison were too strong and dangerous. I did managed to photograph the behaviour,both from the wolves and Bison, that I had hoped for. The Mollies did knock over a Bison that night. The “wolfers” told me that an injured animal had been seen in the area and the wolves obviously targeted it. The kill was about three quarters of a mile from the road on a ridge top and clearly visible. So I was able to capture the activity round the kill, including Coyotes, risking their lives, scavenging a wolf kill for an easy meal whilst the wolves were not about.
Then it was the turn of the Lamar Canyon Pack. An eleven strong pack and the new lords of the Lamar Valley to provide the photo opportunities. On the first day of the trip, there was a collaring operation in the Lamar Valley. I just caught the last part of it, the park biologists standing off an inquisitive herd of Bison with sticks and shouts while they waited for the wolves to come round. During the collaring operation, the alpha female, known as the “06 Female” was targeted. By accident it later transpired, the collaring crew were after the yearlings and mistook the alpha female because of her energy and always being on the go. She now rejoices under the name 832F.
I spent an entire day with the Lamar's. Even wading through the snow and climbing up to a saddle half way up Druid Peak to get a closer view.In doing this you have to keep in mind the park regulations, stay at least twenty-five yards away from Bison and Elk and one hundred yards from wolves bears and mountain lions. There is another rule that states you must not engage in any activity that causes an animal to change its behaviour. For example, if a Bison is lying down and you approach it and it stands up, that is against the rules. If you were to prevent a wolf from crossing the road by standing to close, that to, is against the rules and the law enforcement Rangers are not shy in telling transgressors off.
I was about two hundred yards away when the alpha female, complete with shinny new GPs collar, stared straight at me. A rather unnerving experience to put it mildly. It then occurred to me that the pack could run me down in a matter of seconds if they wanted to. However that thought passed quickly. Was I in any danger? Of course not!
The following day another incident occurred that was on my list to photograph. This time I missed the action and only caught the aftermath and that was a pack fight.The “06 female, the new 832F, lead her family into battle against the Mollies close to the Crystal Creek release pen sight. The Lamar's lost and had to run for their lives. Hardly surprising as the Mollies had numbers and size on their side. During the melee it was thought on of the Lamar pups had been killed, as it was witnessed being attack by five Mollies wolves. He appeared a few minutes later fifty yards away from Slough Creek car park and the assembled “wolfers”. One of the people with a telescope reported that he had wounds on his left elbow and side. He headed off, down the road to the safety of his own territory and reunite with his own pack. The Lamar's reunited on a hilltop to the north of the Lamar Canyon, howling until they were all back together. They could see the Mollies on a hilltop to the south of the canyon, howling in triumph. The injured pup was seen the following day lying under a tree in the Lamar Valley close to Fisherman's pullout. He spent the whole day there and the fear was he would succumb to his wounds. I’m please to report that he survived and is on the mend. Now you can understand why the “wolfers” wish the Mollies would go home.
The wolfs smaller cousin, the Coyote also provided some memorable shots. Taking a terrible chance scavenging a Mollies kill was one. However the better behaviour shots came when a pack was scavenging a Canyon Pack Elk kill near to Chinese Gardens, close to the park entrance and only twenty-five yards from the road. One dominant Coyote was keeping all comers, other Coyotes,Ravens,Magpies, both Bald and Golden Eagles, at bay.
One incident that I heard, rather than saw, was a pack of Coyotes killing a Mule Deer. They had already attacked and injured the deer once. It was standing at the edge of the Lamar River when I got a photograph of it. Two hours later the Coyotes attacked again and finished the job, between the river banks and out of sight. The noise was incredible and quite disturbing.
Although the wolves were the stars of the show, there was plenty of other things happening and things to see. Bison, Elk, White tailed and Mule Deer, both types of Eagle, Dippers, Golden Eye Ducks, the diminutive Red Fox (tiny, compared with the other dogs), the American Badger. Otters, I knew they were about by their tracks along the banks of the Lamar River, but never saw them, others did.
The best time to see the wolves is in the winter. Their prey has come lower down in the valleys and the tree cover is minimal. February is a particularly good month as the breeding season is at its height and the wolves are very active. However, be warned that winter in Yellowstone is not for the faint hearted and it can catch the out the unwary, as I found out when I put my foot on what I thought was a Bison trail but turned out to be a frozen waterfall and bounced 25 feet down Druid peak. The conditions are tough, very cold with deep snow. The weather can change from bright sunny days to snow and freezing blizzards sometimes in a matter of hours. A warm day in Yellowstone is around minus 6C. On one day the temperature dropped to minus 31C. It was so cold my breath froze on the back of the camera and it began to affect the cameras operation.
Finding a wolf In Yellowstone its fairly simple. You can use the natural history method. Pull into a likely pullout and scan the surrounding hills and woods with binoculars and telescope, looking for any sign of movement or Ravens, and maybe you’ll get lucky. Why Ravens? The wolf and Raven have an interesting relationship and where there are Ravens you usually find wolves. Or the Yellowstone method. You can cruise up and down the Gardiner to Cooke City Road keeping an eye open for park biologist Rick Mcintyres car, its easy to spot, a bright yellow Nissan Xanterra with the roof covered in aerials. Rick has radio tracking equipment and can pinpoint the wolves very quickly even if you cannot see them. He has been called the pied piper of the Lamar Valley, leading convoys of wolfers searching for wolves. Another legal note, do not try to bring your own radio tracking gear, it is against the law to have radio tracking equipment tuned to wolves frequencies.
Yellowstone also has a dedicated corps of wolf watchers who are in radio contact with each other and Rick. They are a very generous and welcoming bunch, always willing and eager to help you find a wolf, tell you whats happening or let you have a peek through their telescopes. I have made a number of friends amongst them.
You are also going to need some powerful optics, binoculars are a necessity for any wildlife photographer, but in Yellowstone you will also need a spotting scope because of the distances involved. Don’y worry if you don’t have them, there are numerous places around the park that will hire them to you, or if you go on an organized tour, and there are plenty to chose from, they will have scopes for you to use.
This really is the realm of the long telephoto lens and SLR camera, I was primarily using a 500 mm prime lens. You cannot take wildlife photos here with your point and shoot compact unless you have a digi-scoping set up. One of the wolfers I met, an American called Bill Price had an interesting set up. He had a jig set up on his spotting scope to take pictures with his iphone. Photographs taken using these methods are generally for your own enjoyment and memories.
Yellowstone in the winter will challenge the visitor, stay close to, or sit back in a warm SUV and you will not be disappointed, work a bit harder and you will be amazed.