[First, a caveat. My wildlife photos are shameful, varying from mediocre to awful to unusable. Still, I hope they illustrate the story.]
Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolves (Canis lupus) were native to Yellowstone but had been eradicated by a government predator control program. The last packs were reported killed by 1926, not even stragglers were seen by the 1940s, and there was no sign of wolves at all by the 1970s. They were brought back under a highly controlled program beginning in 1995. There are now thought to be about 100 wolves in the Park, in ten packs.
This was my sixth visit to Yellowstone since the wolves were reintroduced. I hadn’t seen them the first five times; it was my primary objective this trip.
The Lamar Valley is in the northeastern part of the Park. I camped at Tower Fall Friday to be near. The camp host told me that the evening before people had seen wolves (and a grizzly) at a bison carcass not far from the road into the Lamar Valley.
That evening around six I found dozens, soon to be scores, of people lining the shoulder. An Australian archaeologist working for the summer in the Park told me she had seen seven wolves harass a grizzly away from the carcass that morning. The remains were just several hundred yards away.
We waited. And waited. The wind blew over my tripod, crashing my camera to the gravel on the shoulder of the road. It seemed OK. We waited. More people arrived and some left. (I heard later that at one time there had been 80 cars lined up.) After about 90 minutes I left. I have my rules: full professors get 10 minutes; wolves and bears 90. (None showed after I left.)
Further up the road in the Lamar Valley I was shown little moving spots a mile or more away on a hill and told they were wolves. Even through a spotting-scope they were pretty vague to me. About a bazillion bison wandering around though (photos will follow in days-to-come). I wasn’t satisfied that I could add wolves to my life-list based on such an inadequate sighting.
And so, I was the first one back near the carcass the next morning — I think I was actually there before 6; what was I thinking? — the temperature was in the 30s. After about an hour of no shows, I moved back up into the Lamar.
And there they were, across the river visible when in the open to the human eye.
We begin with this scene in the Lamar Valley (the Lamar River in the foreground). There are two bison and three wolves (that I can find) in this photo. Click the image for the larger version and see how many of the five critters you can find.
These wolves I learned were part of the Mollie Pack (named for the late Mollie Beattie, first woman to head the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). There were some said six on the slope stalking the bison. I saw five, though not all at one time. They eventually wandered away, deciding I guess that particular bison wasn’t vulnerable.
The Mollie’s are one of the few Yellowstone packs that know how to kill bison, a very difficult proposition. The same Mollie’s black male yearling who cavorted with Lamar Canyon 820F has been making a shopping trip through Lamar Valley’s bison herds every few days.
One morning, as he passed by a bison cow and calf, he suddenly grabbed the calf by the neck, and the race was on. Together they galloped, side by side, with the wolf clamped on the calf’s neck, for about 45 seconds.
Just as the wolf brought the calf down and it appeared to be all over (and I was wondering where the heck the calf’s mother was), a thundering herd of bison bulls rushed in to save the day! Unbelievably, the cow had actually run off to get help!
The bulls chased off that wolf and swarmed around the calf, literally scooping it back into the vortex of the roiling group of bulls. The calf, apparently unharmed (thanks to incredibly thick neck skin, a quick-witted mom and her pals), helped lead the group back to the main herd, with quite a story to tell. The whole thing was simply amazing.
Back to the photo with two enlargements:
And five minutes later, still close.
Like the wolves, I too wandered away, ultimately back down the road to the carcass. There I saw — and heard! — three wolves, also from the Mollie Pack, but my photos (the camera was acting weird — I will say that) are worthless. Well, not to me.