Paradise Valley wildlife photographer Alan Sachanowski has written a very interesting and timely story about a recent experience he and another photographer had in Hayden Valley close up with the Gibbon wolf pack . . . Ralph Maughan
By Alan Sachanowski.
I have read with interest stories recently about individuals who have felt threatened by wolves in the back country. Forest Service employees being evacuated from a wilderness area because of a perceived threat, an armed bow hunter claiming to have been trapped in his tent for hours, and of course the hunter who inadvertently shot his guide a couple years ago in Paradise Valley Montana, because he mistook him for wolves that were “coming to get him”. The list of stories goes on. I thought that, perhaps, your readers might be interested in reading another “close encounter” type story. The primary difference between this story and many others is perception–the realization that wolves are not the nearly supernatural devils of our childhood fables; nor are they angels. They are merely highly intelligent, extremely curious, members of the wildlife community.
A few days before the interior roads in Yellowstone National Park were to close for the season, a friend and I decided to take a hike in the southern part of Hayden Valley. We climbed to the top of a hill about a quarter of a mile from the road and scanned the distant meadows, sage and timber. Way off in the distance we saw a herd of about twenty or thirty bison and decided to walk in that general direction. It wasn’t especially cold, perhaps 25 or thirty degrees; and it was alternately snowing lightly and sleeting.
We got out about two miles when we stopped while my friend scanned the tree line, which was still 3/4 mile away, with binoculars. He handed them to me with one word: “Wolves”. I took the binoculars and looked where he indicated. There, on a low hill about three hundred yards away, were three or four wolves sniffing around. My friend, who has photographed wolves extensively both here and in Alaska, suggested that we sit down in the sage. Perhaps, he thought, it might be possible to get a long distance photograph. I continued to watch them through the binoculars as more wolves appeared from the other side of the hill.
Now there were nine, then eleven. They lined up on the hill and were all looking in our direction.
A few weeks earlier, while hiking with another friend in the Pelican Valley, we had come upon five members of the Mollie’s Pack. These wolves had bolted into the timber the moment that we topped the rise, and inadvertently sky-lined ourselves. The current wolves, however, were not running away. In fact, they had begun walking in our direction.
As I understand it, wolves have pretty good eyesight for distinguishing movement; but they rely much more heavily on their sense of smell for identification purposes. We were down-wind and had dropped out of sight into the sage. All that they had seen was something move and then drop to the ground. Could have been an animal bedding down, could have been an injured or dying animal.
Led by a large black and a gray (the alphas?) they began running toward us. I was amazed at how quickly they closed the distance. They split and surrounded us, circling, checking us out. Wewatched at eye level, the muscles rolling beneath their fur as they ran by. Nothing I have ever experienced comes close to how wild and beautiful these wolves were as they ran past so close that I felt that I could reach out and touch them. I might add that while we were both carrying bear spray, neither one of us felt compelled to even so much as loosen our holsters….Because Neither One of Us Ever Felt Threatened.
The wolves stopped and gathered about a hundred or a hundred and fifty feet beyond us. They were now down-wind, and noses went to the air. They were checking our ID. Now that they knew for sure that we were people, they started moving away immediately…..down the valley.
A few of them stopped once or twice to look back, as if to see if we were trying to follow. My friend commented as we were leaving that people who think that truly wild, non habituated wolves are a danger to people simply do not understand wolves. Wolves have a natural aversion to people. We have never been food, we have never represented food.
The real danger, he said, is the same as with any wildlife. Any animal, from a pika to a bison, can be dangerous if habituated to people; approached too closely, fed etc. All wolves need is the freedom to be free.
As we hiked out, we could hear the wolves howling from the trees down the valley….they possibly had gotten separated and the alphas were calling them together. From the top of a hill more than a mile away, we could see them in a long line returning to the valley…..maybe to continue their bison hunt?
My advice to anyone who ever finds themselves in a situation where they feel, for whatever reason, a perceived threat from wolves, would be to leave no doubt as to your identity. Don’t sit in a tent dressed in “no-scent” or “deer-scent” clothing banging on the walls like an elk in death throes. Get out, stand up tall and scream, “I’m a human being!!” My guess is that any wolves in the area will beat a hasty retreat!
Copyright Alan Sacharnowski