Kathie Lynch sent this story to me on July 21. I was in Yellowstone at the time. The scene for watching the wolves was perfect — sit in the shade at the Otter Creek picnic area and wait for them to appear on the other side of the Yellowstone River about 175 yards away.
Kathie’s report below is mostly about the Hayden wolves, but she does discuss some of the other packs. Kathie told me today that the Hayden Pack appears to have finally moved — to the Alum Creek vicinity (not far), and they can still be seen.
I hiked across the valley and up the canyon to Cache Creek and then up the Cache Creek canyon a way today. I was looking for signs of the Druids. I thought perhaps I heard a distant howl, but I saw nothing but a few old scats. Given the temperature, I’d bet they are with the elk high up on the Absaroka crest somewhere.
Here is Kathie report.
Awesome! That’s the only word to describe the amazing viewing over the past two weeks of the Hayden Valley wolf pack across the Yellowstone River from the Otter Creek picnic area. Since July 7, the entire pack of four adults and five pups has put on an incredible show for the awestruck visitors lining the river bank. Seasoned wolf watchers and photographers alike agree that this has been their best pup viewing ever!
My best day, July 18, began at 5:30 a.m. with a blanket of fog over the river and no sign of wolves. By 9:30 a.m., the crowd of hopefuls had started to thin, and I debated about leaving for awhile. But, at 9:45 a.m., the cry of “There they are!” went up, and the entire group of four gray and one black pup burst into view on the river’s edge.
We watched with delight as the pups, strung out in a perfect line, gamboled along the shore. They played chasing games, pulled tails, practiced pouncing, explored rocky caves, leap-frogged over backs, straddled logs, and made life miserable for a pair of spotted sandpipers who kept trying to lure them away from a nearby nest. The most fun of all was watching them take turns slipping and sliding down a steep, sandy hillside with front legs straight out and toes splayed wide. Some even went down on their bellies with legs forward and back like a frog!
The one black pup is everyone’s favorite. Big and bold, he has a white spot on his chest and a white ring around his tail. He is often the leader on expeditions and is the first to try everything. He is especially fond of water and will wade in to snap at his own reflection or lay right down in the river to lap up a drink and cool off at the same time. He already shows signs of being a great hunter as he stalks ravens and seems to instinctively know exactly how to position himself and how to communicate with his littermates for a coordinated attack.
The presence of the black pup confirms an important fact—his parents are not the alpha pair, so there must be two litters in the pack. Since black coat color in wolves is caused by a dominant gene, he could not be the offspring of the white alpha female, 540F, and the gray alpha male, 541M. Of the four gray pups, only one is actually thought to be out of the alpha female (who is known for having small litters), and the other three grays and one black are thought to be out of a second mother.
Besides the alpha female, there are only two other adult females in the pack, an uncollared gray two-year-old and a gray yearling. The breeding age two-year-old must have left the Hayden pack for a time last February and bred with an unknown black (those of you who know him are probably thinking 302M!). She then returned to her natal pack to have her pups and showed signs (missing hair on her belly and obvious nipples) of lactation.
It makes sense for her to seek a mate outside of her natal pack since the only male in the Hayden pack is her own father, with whom she probably would not breed. DNA studies have shown a very high degree of heterozygosity (genetic diversity) among the Yellowstone wolves, indicating little inbreeding.
At various times during the day, the adults venture into view, often returning from a hunt to be mobbed by the pups, who lick the adult’s muzzle and beg for a regurgitation of a meaty stew. One time, the black pup carried away his prize, a shoestring of sinew, and carefully buried it to cache for later. The adults are often so full when they return from feeding on a carcass that they can barely waddle. The alpha male especially often looks stuffed. Once he regurgitates and beds down, he looks like a flat pancake lying in the green grass at the water’s edge and doesn’t move for hours.
Despite the crowd of people watching from the picnic area, the pack has seemed almost oblivious to human presence 173 yards across the river. The only times I’ve seen them react were when a siren went by and they responded with a great group howl (including high-pitched puppy voices!) and when someone in the crowd unwisely whistled; the alpha male raised his head and peered intently in that direction for about a minute, but he didn’t rise.
The day may come soon when the pack moves to their rendezvous, perhaps much farther away and harder to see in Hayden Valley. Although these pups were probably born near the end of April (about two weeks later than those in the Northern Range), they must now be about 11-12 weeks old and are way past due for the move. In fact, July 20 produced only two possible sightings in the vicinity of Otter Creek, so the show may already be over.
When the Haydens do move on, wolf watchers could face a difficult challenge. The Druid Peak, Slough Creek, Agate Creek, Oxbow Creek, and Leopold packs have all chosen rendezvous sites in far away, out of sight locations. The Druids have not been seen since June 30, and we have heard little about them. We can only hope that their pack of 11 adults and six pups (three black and three gray) will be big enough to contend with the resurrected Sloughs, who now have nine to ten adults and as many as 13 (!) pups (10 black and three gray).
Five Agates materialized one morning traveling east on top of Specimen Ridge above Little America, and I was thrilled to recognize my favorite, former alpha 113M, trotting proudly along in the procession. He appears to be fully recovered from his terrible injuries of last winter and is now officially the oldest wolf in the park, having turned 10 in April. He will break the previous record for a park wolf if he survives to this fall.
Although the Agates denned in their traditional area up Antelope Creek above Tower, they did not move progressively closer this year as they did last year. Instead, they disappointed those who had watched their pups last summer and instead moved in the opposite direction. Only lone individuals are only occasionally sighted.
Hypotheses abound as to why they moved farther away. One is that there have been too many bears in their former rendezvous site (this gets my vote—bears, especially grizzlies, have been everywhere there!). Other possibilities include that the new alpha male (former beta 383M) had different ideas, the very dry summer forced the elk up and away early this year, or perhaps the throng of people and traffic on Dunraven Pass road bothered them (although it didn’t seem to last year.)
Only a few Sloughs have been seen occasionally, often just passing through on their way to find food for their 13 hungry pups. As many as five Sloughs were observed feeding on bison carcasses in Lamar Valley and Little America for several days in early July. Although the Sloughs are one of the few park packs which knows how to kill bison, these two carcasses were not thought to be wolf kills.
Gray Agate Creek wolf 524F lost her life on July 4 near the bison carcass in Little America. Telemetry picked up her collar’s mortality signal, and researchers determined that she appeared to have been killed by other wolves, most likely Sloughs. She had ventured alone into Slough territory, and, perhaps driven by hunger, she took a fatal risk by going to another pack’s kill.
You may remember that 524F was one of the few survivors of the disease epidemic which killed so many pups in 2005. When she was collared at the age of eight months, her blood sample showed that she had antibodies to canine distemper. Her teeth were in terrible condition and looked like the worst old dog teeth that had never been cleaned. They were dark brownish black, and some were crossed or missing.
Nevertheless, 524F grew up to be an interesting and useful Agate pack member. She was once observed leaping at the throat to bring down a cow elk. I have a special memory of watching her and black Agate 525F circle around a newborn bison calf for two hours as it stood facing backwards under its mother’s belly for protection. The wolves lunged in and the cow kicked out until other bison finally came over to chase the wolves away. Every time I drive by that spot in Little America, I think about that calf (which we think survived) and what a story it could tell!
Agate 524F will be remembered as a wolf who beat the odds to survive and had to deal with great hardship in her two years of life. Perhaps it is a blessing that the end came swiftly rather than a lingering death due to starvation. When she died, she weighed less than 70 pounds and was missing many teeth. It does make you wonder about the condition of the other wolves who survived the epidemic, including her littermate, the former Agate who is now the new Slough alpha male.
Whether experiencing the joy of watching healthy, happy Hayden pups frolicking on the edge of the Yellowstone River or feeling the loss of a wolf who endured so much in her short life, the Yellowstone wolves have given us all the chance to feel connected to wild nature.
In return, the greatest gift we can give them is to help them survive and thrive outside the protection of the national park as they face possible delisting from the Endangered Species Act. Every one of us whose life they have touched has a great responsibility to help them coexist as they venture out into our world. We are their only chance.