Yellowstone Park: Northern range packs are all large. Winter may be interesting

As autumn begins, for the first time not only are all of the packs on the Yellowstone Park northern range large, they are all almost equal in size.

The Park pup count for the year is quite accurate and pup survival was high, but it is harder keep track of the adults, so with the possibility of being off 2 or 3, basically the situation is this: Druid Peak 20 wolves, Agate Creek 20 wolves, Oxbow Creek 20 wolves, Leopold 20 wolves, Slough Creek 20 wolves.

The Slough adults are all females except for one male born to the pack some time ago, and a brand new alpha male who came from the Agates. The previous Slough alpha, now decreased, had seized the opportunity to became the pack’s leading male while he was just a yearling because of the sex ratio imbalance. He killed about a month ago by a vehicle in the Park. He was quickly replaced by another yearling male from the nearby Agates. He is also uncollared and unnumbered. The older male in the Slough Creek pack is likely the son of the alpha female so that is why he has not advanced to alpha status. Field studies and especially genetic studies of Park wolves show they strongly avoid inbreeding. This was confirmed in the findings of the recently released ‘The genealogy and genetic viability of reintroduced Yellowstone grey wolves.” VonHoldt, et al. Molecular Ecology (2007).

To the south a bit, the Hayden Valley Pack remained visible to people all year with its 5 adults and 4 pups. Nine wolves is a substantial pack, but they have an overlapping territory with the larger Gibbon Park of 10-12 adults and 2-4 pups (good pup sightings were never made for this hard-to-see-pack). The Haydens are also in contention with the brawny bison-killing Mollies Pack (8-9 adults and 5 pups).

The Hayden Pack alpha pair have become about the most photographed wolves in the Park’s history. They are now both relatively old. In their territory they need to be able to kill bison to make it through the winter. In the summer there are elk plus a convenient carcass dump in the vicinity (for animals hit on the Park roads). I learned about the dump while wolf watching this summer from folks who had been following the pack.

Dr. Doug Smith told me that studies have shown that the ability for a wolf pack to kill bison is different than killing elk (where speed is an advantage, something more typical of female wolves). Successful bison-killing packs are like Mollies. They have a number of large, strong male wolves.

While I don’t have a run down on the rest of the Park’s packs, I want to mention the Bechler Pack because I had no information about them this year until today.

They continue to inhabit the SW corner of Yellowstone (Bechler Meadows), but they do sometimes leave that vicinity. Two weeks ago they were tracked near Lewis Lake. That’s interesting because an Idaho State University student trip to the backcountry in that area heard wolves howling. This is not usually a place you hear that.

The Bechler Pack has 10-12 adults and 4-5 pups.

The Park population is up for the second year in a row after the big crash, although the mid-year estimate of about 175 is probably an overestimate because the adult wolf count for mid-year was mostly based on that of late last winter.

Factoring in the Yellowstone Park wolf increase, we see that it accounts for much of the Wyoming increase at mid-year as reported by ED Bangs the other day.

Update: In one of the comments below Kathie Lynch adds detail to the 20-20-20-20-20 breakdown of the wolf packs on the northern range. She also adds detail about the Slough Creek Pack males and other Park wolves.

Nature conservancy poisons prairie dogs until county issues restraining order

For a conservation organization, the Nature Conservancy often seems not be very nature friendly, although usually have a political explanation.

Here is the story from the Hays Daily News.

It decribes how they poisoned prairie dogs in Logan County, Kansas. Prairie dogs are a species most groups are trying desperately to conserve. Phostoxin was used without a permit on properties adjacent to their 18,000 acre ranch in Logan County, KA. According to the story, TNC was poisoning prairie dogs that moved from their ranch onto to adjacent ones.

Apparently TNC was responding to pressure from Logan County commissioners who don’t like prairie dogs, which had made a comback on the TNC ranch.

Phostoxin is a non-selective poison. Now TNC is putting pellets of zinc phosphide down the burrows.

I think this is the kind of problem you run into with their method of trying to appease backward local interests when they buy land.

Northern Rockies fire season just about over

The first day of autumn brought cold and often heavy rains to much of Idaho and Montana which have been on fire since mid-July.

Many fires will smolder on. It’s amazing how once a fire gets started in “heavy fuels,” meaning very dry (inside) logs, it can continue to slowly burn despite exterior conditions adverse to fire.

I took this photo of a very old smoldering log at the Bridge Fire (near Elk Summit in the Bitterroot Mountains) this September. It was early in the morning, the forest floor was damp from dew and the temperature was about about 1 degree C. above freezing (34 F.). Many logs lying in still green grass had been completely consumed without burning the grass upon which they laid. Photo by Ralph Maughan.

If the temperature gets up into the 70s F., and a strong wind blows for a few hours, some of these fires could return to torching trees and even making runs, but days are short now.

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Group not surprised by Yellowstone gate decision

Group not surprised by Yellowstone gate decision. AP. Idaho Statesman.

But I am. Cody businesspeople almost always get their way with the Park, and despite the astronomic cost of keeping the East Entrance at Sylvan Pass open for a handful of snowmobilers, I thought the Park would be ordered to cave. So this is good news if you think the Park’s limited funds should be used for its more important functions.

It has been hard to keep track of the many Yellowstone snowmobile plans, but a new, final plan comes out today, and it involves closing Sylvan Pass.

Final plan: Close Sylvan in winter. By Whitney Royster. Casper Star-Tribune environmental reporter.

Update. The new final plan reduces the total number of snowmobiles into the Park to 540 per day from the previous high allowance of 720, but in recent years the number of snowmobiles hasn’t come close to even the new lower limit.

To my view some good news is the discontinuance of the Continental Divide Snowmobile Trail between Moran Junction and Flagg Ranch.

Story in New West. Final Winter Plan Reduces Snowmobiles in Yellowstone Park. By Lucia Stewart.