White Wolf!

I am craning my neck to catch every angle as the time in Wonderland is coming to a close. Time feels precious, even though I’ll be in Montana again and Bob has extended a generous invitation.

Then a white wolf (not the same but an example) crests near the top of the ridge near/past Blacktail, maybe before the Gardiner River?  Beautiful!!  She sits.  I bark out “White Wolf!  White Wolf!  Stop the car!”  We back up the car and she trots roughly 50’ east at the base of a rock formation at the top of the ridge, then she rounds up and away.

THAT WAS SO STINKING COOL!!!

So!  About all these wonderfully colored wolves.  The Eastern Gray Wolf is only gray – that would be Minnesota and further east.  But about 10,000 years ago, the Western gray wolf had a back-breeding with wild dogs strayed from the Tribes, and black and white fur was reintroduced.  So Yellowstone has had three introductions — two Canadian in the mid-90s (with one white one, 39F, from British Columbia) and the third of some Northwestern Montana one year after.  Now about 5% of the YNP wolf population is white.  A few of the females are really big white wolves; they are born a light grey and then fade to near white as they age. (You can also see how famous Wolf 21, jet-black, aged to gray as he entered his senior years.)  There are about 100 wolves in YNP so about 5 have the possibility of aging to mostly white.

(Another white alpha-female suffered severe wounds in a poaching crime committed inside the park in 2017.  She and her in utero five pups had to be euthanized.  She was 12 years old and had had 20 offspring.)

So a white wolf is a rare occurrence, and rarer to see one.  One site indicates there is only one white wolf in Yellowstone at the moment, the alpha-female of the Wapiti Lake pack – now venturing further north, as Bob mentioned. 

A poem is coming out of this white wolf experience because narrative will never capture what it felt like to see her!

An Exhausted Mom

Back to Slough Creek from the moose and osprey

… nada from the restroom/dumpster area either out to the carcass or out to the den.  But then we walk up to pre-Bob’s Nob, a gravelly uneven but roaded hike for “only” one-quarter mile or so.  Bob carries his 50 lbs of camera equipment & tripod, I carry the scope and tripod.  Pretty amazing because Bob is 80-ish with two hip surgeries, one knee surgery, and one ankle surgery.  … Viewing and conversation with others pretty much confirms wolf activity at the kill / carcass on the south side of road is done. (Even the crows and ravens are not picking at it, and so wolves are even more unlikely to be there.) 

Then we focus on the den … bison & elk are milling around it! … we wait ½ hour so in the cold, and the female comes out.  We can only see her with the scope … when she’s in movement.  A grey-ish black female with reddish accents.  Beautiful.  She looks as tired as you would expect a mom to be who is basically spending 24/7 with her 5 to 8 kids!!

She walks about a bit, and then she flops all the way down to rest and becomes barely visible.  Nobody is quite sure, but the elk and bison probably feel safe around an active den site since the wolves would not want a large carcass near the den, which might attract another predator that could kill their pups. 

Someone hiking up Slough Creek Trail the day before came across a Grizzly on a carcass at the first meadow lake.  It was running away from him at 25 yards.  He would not have been ready for it, if it had charged him.  NPS closed off the trail. But the news of a carcass inland from the road and den, made folks think the best theory for the absence of wolves visible from the road (save the den wolf) was that the wolves would have gone further up and in to feast on the fresher carcass.

While we’re driving back, bison … mule deer and white tail.  This is when Bob rattles off the names of a lot of the birds at the Blacktail ponds/lakes.  I can’t keep up with the names!  🙂  We drive on out … finishing up for the morning and my time in Yellowstone …

Moose and Birds

So we drive on down the Northeast Entrance Road further into the Lamar Valley, as someone (John) says they’ve seen Moose past Conjunction Flow, I think along Soda Butte Creek.  We see four, though the others say there are 8 moose out there.  Get them in the field glasses … and immediately think of Ruk & Tuk  from BROTHER BEAR.  Ach.  I’ve reduced Wonderland to Disneyland.

On the way back redeyed grebe in a tiny roadside pool and goldeneyed and/or mergansers in the river below.  The redeyed grebes dive for food, but when we pull up in the car they almost simultaneously submerge.  They are so tiny, it seems – but they’re not.  Love their post-submerge head shake of the very cute crest of feathers on their heads.

Then an osprey nest – I think still on the Soda Butte Creek portion because the creek’s canyon is very steep on both sides … road goes to the steep north bank of the creek and then south bank of the creek back up a steep incline.  On the south incline is a dying tree, trunk still with some growth but a blown out crown on which the osprey are nesting.  We see both male and female osprey leave the nest for sticks to keep building.  Bob thinks they kinda look like they’re presenting to each other for mating.

The Wolf Clan

Friday, April 23, 2021

At breakfast, I talk with Scott a bit more.  His wife, the healthiest eater he knows, makes some awesome protein bars, which we all devour.  Scott leaves by 5:45AM … Bob and I are out the door around 6:15AM.

Snow!  Cloud fog …  Really grateful Bob is driving.  He drives these 25 miles almost every single day.  A very different 25 mile commute than A2 to Detroit!!!  His Toyota Prius is a champ.

Bison are less visible, most are still bedded down.  They are a bit camouflaged with the light snow accumulating on their coats!  Snow misting ..  The bison we saw swimming last night must have got him/herself out of Blacktail Ponds/Lakes because there is no carcass in the water.

Bob sees Rick McIntyre (and Wendy?) and pulls over.  !! So I get to meet Rick McIntyre whose books got me started on this wonderful immersion during the pandemic.  !!  He is very much a wolf mission person.  He is really nice but very focused on the wolves.  His works reflect a lifetime of details of wolf observation and an understandable humanization of the wolves behavior. Field observation to science creates a different voice than science to field observation. I think Bob mentioned that Rick had the unofficial record of 1,000 days (?) straight of wolf sightings in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Discipline and devotion underscore the Park Service and the excellence of the resident field artists like Bob.

Rick McIntyre has a newer model mini-SUV now, but back in the day he had an orange X-Terra.  Eventually the wolf-watching tip among visitors was to “follow the guy in the orange X-Terra.”  Rick seems to be the kind of guy who didn’t mind people following him so long as the focus was learning about and loving the wolves. Bob mentions the wolf biologist Jeremy Sunder-Raj who is part of the Wolf Project now.  They met when Jeremy was ten and proclaimed then that he was going to be a wolf scientist.  Ended up going to UMontana for their wildlife biology program, a couple internships with the NPS in the park, and now with the Wolf Project.  He has faced the extra burden of “when will you be doing something that makes money?” rather than affirmation for his great character & personality, brilliance, dedication, and love of what he’s doing.  Even as a young professional, he knows the lineage of the packs and the wolves, all the history, on top of their biology and behavior! 

He had radioed to someone who Bob spoke with this morning that all his (Jeremy’s) signals this morning were weak, which is one more fact that fits the theory discussed in the coming entry that the wolves were further up the Slough Creek on a carcass.  The Wolf Project keeps the radio scans of the signals for each of the collared wolves.

We head to Slough Creek, and nobody is seeing any wolves both for visibility reasons, and there just don’t seem to be any wolves out and about visible from the road. But, it’s fun to see and hear and ride along with the Wolf Clan this morning.

Odds and Ends of a YNP Outing

Finishing up, April 22, 2021

On we go … with some obscure tips —

The Park has one-holer restrooms … and Purell dispensers.  Bob’s wisdom from decades of field work is, if you see a restroom use it.  You don’t know where the next one might be or how long you might be in an observation area looking or filming.

Lotsa bison on the way out. It is odd how quickly having these huge animals around you and visible becomes “normal.” We follow the parade of twenty or more across a bridge!  If a NPS vehicle is leading the way through the bison, which we are fortunate enough to have, follow the lead vehicle or the one in front of you closely. By creating a “bumper-to-bumper” herd of cars, everyone gets through. Otherwise, the bison fill in between the cars and/or stop.  Our short caravan has gaps, as the car in front of us has clearly not received this tip and has left a too large gap between itself and the NPS vehicle.  One bison strikes out with its hind leg at the vehicle ahead of us.  It is a half-hearted aim (phew!), but a hearty kick.  It sure feels like the car ahead would have rocked if the kick had landed.

Further down the road at Blacktail Pond one bison is furiously swimming, trying to get out of the pond.  It’s so spongy, Bob notes, they may not be able to get up on the shore because the “shore” is such a murky spongy boundary … and this is how they get stuck or exhausted and drown. But some, even an extraordinary calf, do manage to get out.

Heading out as twilight is leaving us for nighttime.  Poor Bob … kept him up past his usual 8:30 bedtime!  When we arrive at Casa de Bob, I get a chance to meet Scott, another researcher.

So … 4-ish hours in Yellowstone National Park proper and coming up on 7 in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Pretty cool.  It is hard to scale this place … you enter this realm of Wonder, and it all becomes so ordinary, but it really is extraordinary.  A really great Earth Day.  Thank you, God, for your Creation.

Slough Creek / Junction Butte Pack

We arrive near Junction Butte at the pullout with restroom … the Junction Butte pack’s den is on a slope north of the road facing south (steep hill, former coyote den, squared by four sets of evergreens) and a kill on the south side of the road where we saw two blacks and maybe one gray last night.  The south side of the road is where the pack has been feeding on a kill/carcass below Specimen Ridge about 1 ½ mile(?) away.  When ravens had fun with them, that’s when the wolves would poke their heads up either for a break or taking a snap at the ravens.  I could see them with Bob’s good glasses and could really see them with the Swarovski scope he rented / was lent.  Whoa … just checked out the tag price at $2500!  (I think these were members of the Junction Butte pack.)

Glad there are black and white wolves, grey wolves are almost impossible to see!  They are like ghosts against the landscape this time of year.  We also saw their den via Bob’s knowledge of where it was and the Swarovski scope.  The mom poked her gray head out a few times, but nobody was really coming out.

Bob was telling me about the folks who have changed their lives to include a month or more of wolves.  (Bob, for one! But Wendy, Rick McIntyre obviously, a couple from San Diego, and so many more.)  This was also the first time Bob had a scope and thus had more time to share the scope and what he knows with those around him.  Filming and the photography equipment doesn’t lend itself to the same dynamic with people.

Phantom Lake

Further down the northern road on the April 22 evening visit, lotsa bison and people on either side!  People parked and waited for a two year old bear in either Phantom Lake or the next one (the next one, I think) to come out.  It had been denning under the road somehow … can’t remember if it was using a culvert.  Apparently the bears have their clan of observers, too, like the wolf clan!

Phantom Lake fills with run off and looks like a spring fed lake, but it isn’t, so no fish.  It looks so convincingly like a natural lake that people regularly fish in it.  Sorry, Charlie!  It’s one of those ethical moments for the locals when they see folks fishing — the truth? or let the moment of enjoyment stand on its own? Usually the latter.

Somewhere along here we saw mule deer (no surprise) and then whitetail … not quite an invasive species, but it tends to out compete the mule deer.  Yellowstone National Park is considered the Serengeti of the northern hemisphere, as there is no other larger concentration of large mammals.  It has an incredible array of what otherwise can be top predators in their own right – wolves, grizzly bear, American black bears, cougars, coyotes, red fox, Canada lynx, bobcats, wolverines, and badgers, river otters, and weasels.  Someone thought they saw a young cougar in a chase/road crossing.  There are also major ungulates:  bison, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, and whitetail deer.  In ten hours in the park, we saw all but the mountain goats of the ungulates.

First Visit: Black Wolf Running

After an early dinner on April 22, we started from Gardiner/Roosevelt Arch then on to Mammoth Hot Springs and then along the northern route, which is comprised of the Grand Loop Road until Tower Junction and the Northeast Entrance Road further east. We saw lotsa elk and bison (one calf), a few bighorn sheep, and ground squirrels.

Up around the Blacktail Lakes ridge I saw a black wolf!! 

This video has nothing to do with what I saw, but you can see the range of colors of wolves, and is probably the Wapiti pack. The first video captures very unusual pack behavior (taking on a griz) and a plethora of “ya’ll”s on the audio. Grizzly Bear will kill and eat wolf pups, so the pack will defend the den and the pups. That’s a bit of behavioral background not audible in the video.

So! I saw two running elk and a lone black wolf chasing them, maybe 30 seconds or less behind.  We drove further on but never saw them emerge from the other side.  I did see a few ground squirrels and a yellow ground flower – five petal radial, puffy center … maybe a sagebrush buttercup?

Even this first encounter introduced me to the notion of how much waiting and patience and respect goes into the photography and filming of wildlife. 400 hours of wait time may yield minutes of relevant wildlife behavior captured on film (let alone if the film survives all the technical difficulties and processing).

Further down the road, the Blacktail Lakes is this swampy, pondy area attracting everyone – mammals, water fowl, and thus humans.  Last week (okay … that would have been around April 15th) the National Park Service had to pull out seven bison who got stuck because otherwise the road fills up with people watching, and if the bison die .. then carcasses attract predators and more stopped traffic! 

The bison have to swim hard to stay upright … once they lose the vertical line of balance through unbalanced swimming or sheer exhaustion they tip to one side and begin to drown.  (They can’t do the side stroke.)  There are all kinds of birds in this area – sandhill cranes and every kind of water fowl.  On Friday, Bob called out mallard, pintail (pretty rare), teal, mergansers, and more.

Math to Mountains, Functions to Film

So I managed to get in part of a zoom meeting in Wonderland Cafe and Restaurant.  Then I went out and took a photo of the Yellowstone National Park sign and Roosevelt Arch while it was daylight.

Good to see Bob … after almost 40 years.  Been a long time since either of us derived or integrated functions, an excellent calculus teacher back in the day. But now, he was having to get a bunch of trees cut, as were other neighbors because of an infestation by some kind of coating pest or fungus. It’s clear but hardens over the bark.  Over time, he now owns three adjacent houses adjacent near the Yellowstone River. The River flows out of the Park through Gardiner.  He started with a duplex which he rebuilt one summer with a nephew and nephew’s friend.  Then he and Connie bought another, then they built the one he lives in. Connie worked with the architect for a very open design, e.g., no hallways. 

His front yard displays a life-size replica to a fraction of an inch of the actual measurements of Wolf 21, the adopted son of Wolf 8. It is a cast metal very similar to this image Doug Dance used in this article. Wolf 21 was alpha-male of the Druid Pack of the Lamar Valley for around 6 ½ years and lived to be 9 years old, like his long-time mate, Wolf 42.  Most wolves live about three years, not every wolf becomes an alpha (female or male), and Wolf 21 and 42 were unique for the duration of their relationship and tenure as the alpha pair of a pack. Bob captured a LOT of film of Wolf 21 and the Druid pack.  A really big wolf when you are 5 feet away and certainly caused me a number of double takes!!  Coyotes must look dinky through the field glasses and viewing scope.

His at home “wolves” are a mixed breed and one whose species I couldn’t identify (big with wolfy long fine/outdoor white fur, both rescues – Raven (the smaller) and Agate (the larger, with her left eye missing).  They liked Organix, too.  Very sweet doggies!

Scott is another filmer/photographer/scientist and also staying at the house. 

Bob shares his housing to support Yellowstone Forever, a non-profit organization which supports all kinds of programs, particularly scientists and artists in Yellowstone ecosystem-related research and the Yellowstone Forever Institute (education and more). The Wolves Project represents a 25 year study, the only one of its kind in the world. It has documented and studied the wolves from their mid-90s reintroduction, as well as historical research prior to and inclusive of the extirpation era.

We had dinner at Wonderland Restaurant and Café (“Wonderland” is what YNP was originally called).  Bob had mac’n’cheese with elk, and I had quinoa wild rice and substituted sautéed mushrooms.

Bob ticked off the tiers of experience to try for / hope for with wolving.  

Find a wolf on your own. 

See a wolf. 

See a wolf doing something. 

See/hear a pack.

Trains and Automobiles

I headed out from Dad & Jo’s at 11:15-ish on Thursday, April 22nd, just as Jo was getting her baggage at the Billings airport. 

Handel’s Messiah by the Monteverdi Choir (1982) the Glory of the Lord from Part I was filling the Element as a 150 car, four engine train went by. Incredible, as a train that large is around 1 1/2 miles long. I futilely pumped my arm for the whistle. It was unlikely the conductor could see me and not very likely I could hear the whistle or horn, even if it was sounded.

Back in the 1960s and 70s in Montana, the two-lane highways ran closer to the train tracks than the Interstate (divided highway) does now.  As our family station wagon pulled abreast of the engine(s), the conductors could see us and us them.  The three of us kids in the back of the station wagon would pump our arms furiously, mimicking the conductor’s motion of pulling the rope for the train whistle, in hopes of hearing the whistle blow.  Of course, even for our generation, it was more often horn than whistle. But so often the conductors did blow the horn!  I wonder if the train engineers / conductors do that anymore? 

(They do!  On US87S, a fair bit after leaving Great Falls on April 28th, a wonderful cobbled together train of an engine and six unique cars drove opposite the two lane highway. I (stupidly, I confess) rolled down the window, pumped my arm furiously, with a hopeful smile the conductor couldn’t have missed. In return, I heard a double horn blast off the north bound small train. Tears of joy ensued for renewal of a cherished memory and way of life.)

Now, back to the westbound trip to Yellowstone on the 22nd! Smooth sailing down I-90.  Got gas in Livingston but didn’t stop in hopes of mostly making a Zoom meeting.  Livingston to Gardiner is a great road (two lane, mostly good shoulders, bottom of the valley, and mostly flat with good lines of sight). Light auto traffic at this time of year with elk abundant in the valley, increasing as we approached Yellowstone National Park. 

Two osprey nests were slammed atop tall poles (one wooden utility pole) with osprey pairs active in their home.  Nestled in Paradise valley with the mountains close and very loud Handel’s Messiah Allelujah chorus had a soundtrack to match the view.  The closer I came to Gardiner, the closer the Elk are to the road — here, there, and everywhere. By the time I reach the outskirts of Gardiner and the airfield, another six elk are comically nestled against the “control tower” house like cats waiting to get inside.  A 500 pound cat. The landing strip is designed for Cubs and Pipers, but … still … oops! … miss by a little, crash down 50’ into the Yellowstone River!

But … I made it … and now to find Bob’s house.