Below is Kathie Lynch’s detailed wolf report for the end of the summer. It sounds like the return of the Druids must have been one of the most amazing wildlife sights wolf watchers in Yellowstone have ever witnessed.
Yellowstone wolf report. July 11-Aug. 20. By © Kathie Lynch
Summer in Yellowstone meant hot, windy days, smoky skies, and early rising for wolf watchers, as the best viewing often occurred from 5-9 a.m. After the Druid Peak pack’s move to their rendezvous on July 8-10, we wondered if we would have any wolves to watch, but the Slough Creek pack saved the day.
The Sloughs put on an especially great show for about a week in early August as they fed on not one, but two, bison carcasses in Little America. The first bull died after getting gored in the side by another bull during the rut. He fell less than 200 yards north of the road and in plain view from the Pond pullout. For over a week, thrilled visitors thronged to the area to watch wolves and bears alternate feeding on the carcass, illuminated by the early morning light of the full moon.
At about the same time, another bison turned up dead nearby in the Lamar River, north of the Aspen turnouts. Although this carcass was more than 600 yards from the road, it provided especially picturesque viewing as a succession of wolves, grizzlies, black bears, coyotes, and bald and golden eagles fed on it, all framed against iridescent blue water in the gorgeous morning light.
Sadly, the Sloughs have lost their last remaining pup. The little black, which charmed watchers in May, was last seen in mid-July. Without a pup to provide for and to hold the pack together, the Sloughs lacked focus and seemed scattered. They sometimes appeared in the Slough Creek flats around their traditional den area, but they also ranged as far west as Junction Butte in Little America and east to mid-Lamar Valley. We often spotted them on Jasper Bench, a rendezvous site they had used in the past at the southwest end of Lamar Valley.
Yet more misfortune plagued the Sloughs with the death of their beta male, 629M. Born to the Druid Peak pack in 2006, he was either the son of Druid alpha 480M and then alpha 529F or the son of Druid beta 302M and then beta 569F (who has since become the Druid alpha female). In October 2007, as a one-and-a-half year old, 629M accomplished the unprecedented feat of dispersing from the Druids to be accepted into their archrival pack, the Sloughs.
Six twenty-nine had been away from the main Slough pack for about two weeks before his death, remaining localized in the area around the Amethyst Creek drainage in Lamar Valley. Oddly, this is almost exactly the dividing line between the territories of his natal and adoptive packs. The first clue that something was wrong came when his radio collar signal indicated that he had remained in the same area, hidden in the trees, for six days.
He finally made a couple of appearances, during which he swam the Lamar River and caught and ate a ground squirrel, but he didn’t seem quite right. Then, on July 28, Wolf Project staff heard the mortality signal from his radio collar (rapid beeping after no movement for four hours). They later determined that other wolves or predators had not killed him, and samples taken from his body were too degraded to yield clues. So, his cause of death will probably remain a mystery.
Unbelievably, a previously unknown wolf materialized to fill the Slough beta male position almost as soon as 629M left the pack. The new male, a beautiful, long-legged gray, quickly assimilated into the pack, despite being pinned and roughed up by his new family initially. Nevertheless, he was soon doing “RLU’s” (raised leg urinations, a sign of dominance) and supporting alpha 590M by helping to chase off intruders.
The new gray male’s presence (and 629M’s death) changed the Slough pack count from 13 blacks and two grays to 12 blacks and three grays. Their total of 15 wolves also varies, depending on whether “The Dark Female” is present or not. Constantly persecuted by alpha 380F, “The Dark Female” must grovel and slink around with a tucked tail whenever 380F is near.
“The Dark Female” often leaves the pack to spend time with various interlopers, including a cocky, dark black male, who made his presence known in a big way. The drama played out on Jasper Bench, as the big black male temporarily absconded with four Slough females, including beta 526F, “Hook,” “The Dark Female,” and a black yearling. All soon returned to their pack as the rangy new gray beta male (himself an interloper not too long before) asserted his new power and position by chasing the big black Romeo away.
The Druids also provided a big surprise. Although they moved most of their pups from the den area to their rendezvous on July 8-10, it turned out that they had left at least two pups behind. For a couple of days after the move, we had heard pup howls from the den and observed adults returning to the area. Nevertheless, we were shocked when, 18 days after the big move, the Druids appeared to move at least two more pups. On the evening of July 28, we saw one black and one gray pup near the den and adults leading them down to the road. We now assume that they crossed after dark to complete the move.
Except for a few boundary check forays (which always involve a lot of territory marking) into the Lamar Valley, the Druids stayed mostly out of sight…until (drum roll!!!) the morning of Tuesday, August 19, when the entire pack made a triumphant return!
For several days, we had been watching a few Druids feast on a yet another bison carcass, just east of their traditional rendezvous site in Lamar Valley. On that morning, three adults stood up and began howling to the east. As we swung our scopes around to peer in the direction of Cache Creek, we could hardly believe our eyes as 25 (!) rollicking, bounding, galloping, gleeful wolves loomed into view. With Grand Marshal alpha female 569F proudly prancing and playing at the head of the parade, the Druids were bringing their pups back! It was the most spectacular wolf watching sight I have ever seen!
Four years after the death of the great alphas 21M and 42F, 21M’s last daughter had brought her family home at last. Along with her late sister, 529F, and former Leopolds 480M and 302M, 569F had resurrected the Druids from a low of only four adults in 2006 to once again mighty status.
If that surging mass of 28 wolves included all 16 adults, then at least 12 pups must have survived. But, the huge black pups are almost impossible to tell apart from the black yearlings, so the pup count could be even higher. Some counts have put it at as many as 17 surviving pups. If that is true, then with the 16 adults, the Druid pack could number 33 wolves! It is bound to be an incredible sight this fall and winter.
As autumn approaches and the scent of drying grass replaces wildflower perfume, Canada geese fly in formation overhead and pink fireweed blooms up to the top of each stem. When the bugles of the bull elk once again ring out in Lamar Valley, will the Slough Creek pack be able to hold back the tide of the Druids’ great numbers? Only time and the turning leaves of autumn will tell.