Kathie Lynch has another of her great northern range wolf reports. This one focuses on the fast approaching mating season, a time of year when new bonds are temporarily, and sometimes permanently formed, and as it has been discovered in recent genetic research on the Yellowstone wolves, there is much outbreeding from many packs (and no inbreeding). Ralph Maughan
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YNP WOLF Notes, December 22-29, 2007. By Kathie Lynch. Copyright.
The 16 wolves of the Druid Peak pack put on a great show over the holidays. The cast of characters includes the alpha pair (480M and 569F), plus everyone’s favorite beta male (302M). There are six yearling females (three grays: 571F, “High Sides,” and “Low Sides”—nicknamed for the depth of the dark saddle markings on their backs, and three blacks: “Bright Bar,” “Dull Bar,” and “Vertical Line”—nicknamed for their white chest markings). There are also four gray and three black pups.
Even though it is still a month before the breeding season, there is already a lot of jockeying for dominance position in the packs and interest in checking out the opposite sex. With six female yearlings who will be ready to breed for the first time in February, the Druids are already attracting a lot of attention.
Two very interested would be suitors are “The Light Gray Male” and “The Dark Gray Male.” We have no idea where they came from or who they are, but “The Dark Gray Male” is the same one who has been trying to join the Druids since late November. The Druid pups and yearlings think that the two interlopers are great, and they love to play or flirt with them. Even the alphas don’t seem to mind them. However, 302M will absolutely not allow the two interlopers to join.
302M is constantly on the lookout and takes every opportunity to chase them away with a vengeance. Since the two interlopers are independent of each other, as soon as 302M takes off chasing one, the other seizes the chance to sneak in. Even with his massive bulk and advanced age (7 ½ years), 302M pours his heart and soul into protecting his family from these outsiders. It is especially amusing to the wolf watchers who witnessed the exact same scenario several years ago, as the late, great Druid alpha 21M chased away would be suitor 302M!
The upshot is that various Druid yearling females go off for several hours (or even perhaps overnight!) with one or the other of the interloping gray males. In fact, one day I saw “High Sides” feeding on a bison carcass (believed to be winter killed) with “The Dark Gray Male.” After they disappeared into the trees, she returned five minutes later with “The Light Gray Male”! We have even seen the alpha female, 569F, consorting with “The Light Gray Male”—surely all too much for 302M to take!
The Druids have plenty of time for fun and games too. Whether tumbling and sliding down a snowy bank or chasing a quick red fox over hill and dale, the pups just want to have fun. I even saw what I thought was an amazing example of inter-species play between a pup and a magpie! The black pup wagged its tail and watched the bird as it hopped on the ground, just out of reach. The pup would take several steps toward the magpie, and the bird would jump out of reach on the ground or up onto a low branch. The bird led the pup around and around a tree trunk, yet the pup never made a lunge to try to catch the bird. I am absolutely convinced that the two were actually playing together.
While the Druids were the main attraction, the Slough Creek pack made a couple of appearances. The Sloughs currently have 15 wolves, including six adults and nine pups. This is a far cry from their high count of 22 earlier this fall—before the apparent dispersal of the females 527F and “Sharp Right”, plus the deaths of the two-year-old female “Slant” and a black pup (both killed by the Druids), the death of another black pup (found in Slough Creek), and the unexplained disappearance of two more pups.
We watched one day at Slough Creek where the Sloughs had been feeding on a carcass. I was especially struck by the memorable sight of 12 of the Slough’s 13 blacks etched against the bright, white snow as they made their way single file up a steep hillside behind the campground.
We soon discovered that the missing black was “The Dark Female.” She arrived at the carcass to eat only after the others had gone up the hill to bed, leading us to suspect that her current position in the pack hierarchy is low. As the only Slough female who apparently did not get pregnant last spring, she and the (now deceased) former alpha male were the only providers for possibly six mothers and their litters.
Her low rank was apparent on another day when we watched the Sloughs high on a ridge behind the Buffalo Ranch. The Slough alpha female, 380F, seemed determined to punish and dominate “The Dark Female.” She was forced to slink in with a tucked tail and a groveling approach, begging favor from 380F.
In fact, it looks like 380F wants to get rid of almost all of her competition for the upcoming breeding season. Only beta 526F and “Hook” have escaped her wrath. Over the last month or so, 380F has persecuted both 527F and “Sharp Right,” to the extent that they have apparently dispersed from the pack.
While 527F has sometimes been seen with the Idaho Wolf B271M, that match is not set in stone. Just today, 527F’s little group included “Sharp Right” and yet another unidentified gray male, all snoozing away together on a snow-covered rock south of the Slough Creek parking lot. Meanwhile, B271M traveled alone over near Tower Junction. I wish that “The Dark Female” could escape 380F’s persecution and perhaps hook up with 527F’s group or B271M.
Even though I’ve watched a lot of wolves, I have never witnessed such a dramatic predation sequence as occurred on December 27 in Soda Butte Valley. Just after daybreak, the Druids chased a six point bull elk right towards the amazed watchers.
All 16 Druids had been bedded on a little hill just west of us when they suddenly jumped up and ran at a group of four big bulls in a gully at the bottom of the hill. I’ll never forget the sight of those eight antlers waving around in a mass of confusion just over the rise as the wolves attacked.
One bull broke out of the group and ran, a costly mistake. The wolves swarmed all over him as he kicked out, running somewhat slowly. It all appeared to happen in slow motion, and it seemed to take a long time to bring him down. Even then, he did not go quickly. He kept struggling to rise and put on a valiant defense, but 16 wolves and the deep snow were just too much for him. The whole scene had a surreal quality–almost like it wasn’t really happening.
As a keystone species, wolves give us the opportunity to experience both the beauty and brutality of wild nature. They can teach us much about the circle of life. We had been privileged to witness nature’s desperate struggle of life and death and could only feel great respect for the hunters and the hunted alike.