Kathie Lynch’s latest trip to Yellowstone found early spring wolf denning triumph mixed with tragedy-
Yellowstone Wolf News. April 4-12, 2009. By © Kathie Lynch.
“Spring” in Yellowstone means a few days of warm weather, followed by a return to snowy winter and then springtime again. As the snow melts, it gets harder and harder to find the gray wolves against the sage, dirt and rock backdrop, but, thankfully, the blacks still stand out.
My nine day spring break (April 4-12, 2009) started without a wolf sighting on the first day–unless the canid that materialized down the road in front of my car, just east of the high bridge near Mammoth, really was the light gray former Agate 471F and not a coyote!
Considering that 471F, her alpha male (Montana 147M), and her younger sister (the “’06 Agate Female”) had often been sighted in the area, maybe I didn’t get shut out after all!
In fact, the very next day, there they were right next to the road near an elk carcass, which was almost under the bridge at the Lava Creek picnic area. Unfortunately, it was so close to the road, the rangers had to move it away, so the wolves didn’t even get to eat their fill.
The jury was out on whether 471F, age nine, was still pregnant or not. She looked like she may have given birth, but she has since been seen consorting with the Blacktail pack. So, if she had pups, perhaps they did not survive.
Her alpha male is actually a Montana wolf, 147M, from the Eight Mile pack, near Livingston, north of YNP. He has a pretty bad case of mange and is missing most of the hair on his rear end and tail.
The “’06 Agate Female” looked pregnant, as well she should. In February, we had seen her breed with an uncollared mystery male and three or four of the five former Druid yearlings who had helped 302M start the Blacktail pack! However, she may not have stayed with 471F and/or 147M. In that case, her chances of raising pups alone would not be good.
The four or five wolves who currently make up the Agate Creek pack include the venerable, nine-year-old alpha female, 472F, who had been so pregnant, she looked like she would pop! However, she no longer looks like she is nursing and is not localized around a den, so she may also have lost her pups.
472F’s new alpha male is the black “Big Blaze,” who was born a Druid, turned Blacktail and is now an Agate! The gray beta male, “High Side,” (not the same as 694F, the original “High Sides”) is another Druid/Blacktail/Agate. The little two-year-old gray Agate 715F completes the usual quartet that passes for the once mighty Agate Creek pack.
The graying-black, three-year-old, 692F (“The Old Lady,” one of famous former Agate alpha 113M’s last offspring), divides her time between the Agate and Blacktail packs. We were very excited to see that she looked like she had had pups, because their father was everyone’s favorite fellow, 302M. However, after a few days of seeing her, with no indication that she was going to a den, we started to wonder.
Because 692F wears a GPS collar, Wolf Project personnel were able to determine that she had localized at a den for several days, but had then left it, presumably after somehow losing her pups. She has since left the Agates and returned to her “true love,” 302M, and the Blacktail pack, but she also continues to spend time with the Agates.
But, not to worry! There is still a good chance that nine-year-old 302M has sired surviving pups this year. As founder and alpha of the new Blacktail pack, he is busy attending to two dens! Besides his alpha female (former Agate 693F), beta female 642F (another former Agate) has also denned. Both are in 302M’s homeland, the former Leopold pack territory in the Blacktail plateau area.
The Canyon pack’s four wolves continue to frequent the Mammoth Hot Springs area, where they have found a plentiful supply of elk. We have all been wondering when, and if, they will return to the Canyon/Hayden Valley area to den. The gray alpha female was born and raised there by the famous white wolf, 540F, and her mate, 541M. The Canyon alpha female denned in that area last year, so chances are she will again.
The big challenge of the week was trying to find former Druid 694F (the original “High Sides”) and figure out where she would den. She and her mate, the beautiful black former Slough male, had localized around the rocky cliffs of Mom’s Ridge, north of the Yellowstone River at the west end of Little America.
The black male was easy to find, but we spent hours combing the rocky crags, looking for the lovely gray, 694F. When we finally found her, we were happy to see that we might soon be able to watch, from afar, pups playing around the new family’s den.
But, our hopes–and the fledgling family– were shattered, in the most terrible way. The neighboring Cottonwood pack, led by alpha female 527F (herself a former Druid) and 716F (former Slough “The Dark Female”) attacked and killed 694F and her pups.
The Cottonwoods spend most of their time high on the slopes of Hellroaring mountain, but they have ranged as far east as Mom’s Ridge. Sadly, 694F chose to den too close to the Cottonwoods’ territory, and she paid with her life. Even if she had denned at the now vacant Slough Creek pack’s den site, she would have been too close to the Druid Peak pack. In the crowded Northern Range, only the lucky survive.
At least the former Druid female, “Dull Bar,” did have luck on her side. She had been with 694F and the Slough male all winter. For some reason, she had recently left them, even though she was pregnant. It is possible that she had been driven away by the alpha female, whose instinct is to ensure that her own pups survive.
Anyway, it was good fortune for “Dull Bar” to have struck out alone, because she missed the Cottonwoods’ raid. On my last morning, we watched a very curious scene as “Dull Bar” wandered east through Little America, heading slowly, but with purpose, toward Crystal Creek.
Amazingly, at the same time-and almost as if they had an appointment to meet-most of the Druids were heading west. They bedded just east of Crystal Creek. When they discovered “Dull Bar,” the chase was on!
It’s rather amusing, but, when surprised or unsure as to another’s identity, wolves will often chase first and ask questions later. Born and raised a Druid, “Dull Bar” had been part of the pack as recently as December!
When “Dull Bar” stopped running, a couple of youngsters caught up with her, and a happy reunion ensued. Perhaps these just-turned-yearlings remembered their puppy days last July when the brave and noble “Dull Bar” single-handedly shepherded a flock of Druid pups across the raging Soda Butte Creek en route to the rendezvous.
After the Druids satisfied themselves that it was just “Dull Bar,” they turned around and headed back east, with “Dull Bar” trailing at a distance. We lost them in the trees, so we don’t know if “Dull Bar” eventually rejoined the pack, or if she is still on her own.
“Dull Bar” probably would not have been greeted as warmly if the Druid alpha female, 569F, had been with the pack. But, 569F was busy at the traditional Druid den in Lamar, hopefully producing the next generation of Druids.
One early morning, we heard the most incredible, excited howling surrounding the Druid den. The joyful chorus sounded like a “21 Pup Salute” to herald the arrival of new pups! Here’s hoping that these tiny ambassadors for wolves everywhere will survive to carry on the legacy of the great ones who have gone before.