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Yellowstone and the Lamar at its finest–wolves, bears, and high drama

Yellowstone is at it’s finest in May, especially in the Lamar Valley.  Just less than an hour away from my home, I’ve been three times this week.  May is my favorite month.  First off, because I’m south of the NE entrance, the road into the Park is not plowed on the Montana side during the winter, making travel to the Park in the winter extremely difficult.  Once the Beartooth Highway is plowed (Memorial Day), traffic into the NE entrance is heavy.  But in May, the roads are almost completely free of cars.

But more importantly, its the time of the year for calving.  Bison, elk and pronghorn are all calving during this month and predator interactions abound.  Bears, wolves and coyotes move into the Lamar looking for young and afterbirth.  Plus you’re likely to see boars looking for sow bears to mate with.

Newborn with mom

Black grizzly

Grizzly in Lamar

Any day in Yellowstone is a great day but today hit the jackpot.  As soon as I arrived, I spotted two wolves on a rise.  A group of veteran wolf watchers had set up on what I used to know as Hill 44, but now they tell me its called Geriatric Hill!

This wasn’t just any old two wolves, but the Alpha female and her yearling of what is now called The Lamar Pack.

Lamar pack alpha female collared

A large grizzly lay on top of a bison that had died giving birth, its calf already consumed. Two wolves from Mollie’s Pack were also hanging around the bear.

Grizzly sits on carcass guarding it

What’s wonderful about these avid wolf watchers is that they know all the latest and past gossip about the Park packs.  Literally its gossip because wolves are extremely social animals, and very territorial.  These wolfers can recognize each wolf by sight, know their assigned numbers, as well as the history of each wolf and each pack.  Hanging around with them, I asked questions and picked up the back story.

Mollie’s Pack has been around a long time in the interior of the Park.  They’re well known because they were the only pack regularly preying on bison, which is quite a feat.  Now, 17 strong, they have returned to the Northern Range and, without any pups to take care of and keep them near a den, they are roaming and killing off other wolves.  I asked one of the wolfers why they aren’t denning.

“Their Alpha female disappeared.  No one knows what happened to her.  She was old though.  The Mollie’s paid a visit to the Lamar Pack’s den the other night.  Things seem to be okay as of now, but see those two Mollie’s are moving in on these Lamar wolves.”

The two Lamar’s were grey and smaller.  They sat on a rise with their eyes glued to the two larger black Mollie’s on the south side of the sagebrush plateau.  Between them the grizzly laid happily on the carcass.  For over an hour I watched the Lamar wolves glued to one area, while the Mollies moved closer then farther from the bear. The Mollies seemed restless.  One of them kept howling for reinforcements, which never came.  Obviously, their agenda was two-fold:  move the bear off the carcass and get rid of those Lamar wolves.

Then something dramatic happened:  all of a sudden the Lamar Alpha female started running towards her den.  Through the sagebrush, she was coming directly towards us. With the wolfer crowd cheering her on (“run girl, run…”) she swam the river and ran across the road, presumably back to her den.  With some hesitation, her yearling pup followed, swimming the river for safety from the Mollie’s.

Alpha female hightails it away from Molly Pack

Lamar alpha swims river back to den

She emerges right below us by the road

“We might have to just cut off those Mollie’s if they try to follow.  It’s not kosher, but those Mollie’s have already decimated several of the packs here and we don’t want them killing off these Lamar wolves”, my new wolfer friends from Kansas told me.  “We come here four times a year–spring, fall, winter.  We’re going home next week.”

She got out her walkie-talkie.  “The pup’s coming across the river.  Stay in your places.  Don’t move.”  I asked who she was talking to.  “Anyone with a radio.  I’m just telling them not to crowd the pup or get in her way while she’s running back to the den.”

Lamar wolf pup swims away from Molly’s Pack

With the resident wolves gone, the Mollie’s began moving closer to the grizzly.  A feeling deep, beyond words, overcame me.  I was witnessing a drama so ancient that the genetic blueprints are hidden in the dusts of bear/wolf evolutionary history.   The Mollie’s harassed the grizzly for a time while the bear growled and swatted and the wolves growled back, then laid down nearby in the grass to wait their turn.  I had the feeling wolves have mastered the art of being patient for their chance at a meal from a bear.

With the high drama passed for the moment, I made my way down the valley to see what else was happening. Just as I was thinking that I probably wouldn’t see any coyotes with all the wolf activity going on, a coyote came trotting up the roadside.  I pulled over and watched.

Coyote searching sagebrush for prey

The other day I’d seen a coyote sneak up to a small herd of bison with calves.  The bison made a surround around their calves, and when the coyote got within 10 feet, the two bison moms put their calves inbetween them and made a tight fence with their bodies.  I thought this coyote might be up to something.  He was definitely hunting.

Coyote made a laser for a group of Pronghorn. I’d read that coyotes are the main predator of antelope calves.  It seemed to me there have been more Pronghorn this year than I’d ever seen in the Lamar.  With the introduction of wolves and the subsequent reduction of coyotes, I’d heard that the pronghorn were rebounding.

Coyote was definitely hunting for pronghorn babies.  The group of pronghorn got skittish and started following the coyote, trying on the one hand to keep their distance and on the other to push him away.

Coyote searches sagebrush for pronghorn calves with pronghorns on his heels

It was an interesting dance.  A lone male antelope oddly enough kept his distance, while the females were grouped around the coyote.  Coyote was unperturbed by all the pronghorn attention.  This time, it seemed, the coyote left without his meal.

Meanwhile, up the valley, a large herd of bison lazed with their newborn calves.  I stopped for a while to observe and heard a lone wolf howling over and over from the west side of the Lamar.

Sitting here listening to wolf howls from male of the extinct Agate pack

I turned around and drove back to the east end.  The wolfer crowd had moved west to observe the two Mollie’s, who had just run off an elk.  I got out and spoke with a wolfer from England.

“We’re from the U.K. but we come here all the time.  Last year we bought a place in Paradise Valley.  That wolf you heard over there wasn’t from the Mollie Pack, but the male from the old Agate.  He came through the secret passageway. (Note:  I have no idea where that is but it sounded interesting) The Mollie Pack killed all the Agate females and since the bloodline goes with the females, the Agates are now gone.  He’s been coming back and forth with a Mollie female.”

One can’t ask for a better day in the Park.  On my way home, I just couldn’t help but think about the intensity and fascination people have with wolves, and how many people now come to Yellowstone Park just to watch wolves.  Those people from Kansas would never have come four times a year every year before wolves were here.  And why would people fly all the way from England many times a year, and even buy a house here, if wolves weren’t visible in the Park.

Besides the obvious ecological benefits wolves provide (think Trophic Cascade), there are new human economic benefits.  I just can’t understand why the East side of the Park can’t get with the 21st century on this.    Instead of plowing the 9 miles to the Park in the winter which would bring in throngs of wolf watchers (think Kansas people and U.K. people), the snowmobile lobby keeps it closed.  Instead of advertising wolf watching, the wolf hating crowd is playing a wolf hating movie in Cody during tourist season.  And soon there will be a hunting season here and my valley, which has premiere wolf watching in the winter, is slated for one of the highest quotas on wolves, more than there even are presently in the existing pack.

“The last wolf in England was killed in 1756”, the U.K. woman told me. “The reason some people hate wolves goes back to the Europeans who came here”, she said. “You know the ‘Little Red Riding Hood’  story?  Europeans told that to their children so they wouldn’t go off with strange men.  That’s not a story about wolves, but a story to scare little children into not trusting male strangers.”

Just a final note:  I arrived in the Park a little after 11 am.  I spent the morning watering my newly planted Limber Pines, then left after 10 am for a leisurely visit.  All this excitement in the Lamar occurred in just 3 hours.  I left the Park at 2pm and got home after 3.  Wow, what a treasure our National Park is!

Bison with newborn calves