Kathie Lynch reveals fascinating new landscape of the wolves of northern Yellowstone-
Kathie Lynch is now perhaps the only person writing publicly the details of the Yellowstone Park wolves. With more change than continuity in the last year, her most recent report takes us into the wolf world of the Blacktails, Lamars, Agates, Canyon, and even a bit of Mollies and the Quadrant packs. Ralph Maughan
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© Yellowstone wolf update. Jan. 7, 2011. By Kathie Lynch, Copyright
Winter holiday time in Yellowstone glowed with magnificent mauve, apricot and pink sunrises. Hoar frost glittered on bare trees and bushes like bright, twinkling stars, while bitterly cold temperatures of -22F and mountains of sparkling snow guaranteed a white Christmas.
While finding wolves was sometimes challenging, fox watching was incredible. In the past, the hardest part of achieving a “Three Dog Day” (seeing a wolf, coyote and fox) was finding a fox. This time, foxes were everywhere.
The star of the show was a rare dark phase red fox, which looked almost black and is sometimes called a cross fox. It delighted everyone in the Lamar Valley with its careful listening for voles under the snow and head-first dives.
With only three wolf packs (Blacktail, Lamar, and Agate) as likely wolf watching possibilities in the Northern Range, I felt lucky to see wolves almost every day of my two week stay. One day I saw no wolves and one day we could only find one–a sleeping one, at that! Another day, dawn to dusk effort on the part of devoted wolf watchers only produced two black ears behind a bush.
The large Blacktail Plateau pack offered our best bet each day as they roamed their huge territory. They evidently consider everywhere from Mammoth to Little America and even Specimen Ridge to be their own, so you never know where they will turn up.
Alphas “Big Brown” and 693F lead the Blacktails, with support from betas “Medium Gray” and 642F. With the return of “Big Blaze” and with four coming-two-year-olds and six pups, they are most certainly the dominant pack in the Northern Range.
We had some great opportunities to watch the Blacktails as they spent several days high on the open slope of Specimen Ridge, south of Slough Creek. The six pups (two black, four gray) had a grand time jumping off snow cornices and chasing rolling snowballs downhill at warp speed. Another day, we had a wonderful look at the whole pack as they paraded in single file across the open, snowy slopes of Hellroaring Mountain.
The Blacktail pack could number as many as 16 (eight black, eight gray), although only 14 were present during my visit. Two blacks, 692F and probably a male yearling, were missing (although one may have since returned).
“The Old Lady,” (692F) has not been well accepted by Blacktail alpha 693F and spends a lot of time away from the pack, sometimes traveling with an unidentified gray. And, the nearly two-year-old male yearling is at the right age for dispersing, no doubt to follow in his famous father 302M’s romantic footsteps.
One really interesting bit of news is that the new black male who joined the Blacktails last summer is now thought to be “Big Blaze,” the former Agate alpha. Originally in the group of Druids (302M and his five yearling male nephews) who founded the Blacktails in late 2008 (along with four Agate females), “Big Blaze” later dispersed again to become the Agate alpha to 472F.
“Big Blaze” was deposed as Agate alpha in a fight with a huge and mighty foe, Mollies 641M, on Valentine’s Day 2010. Not seen since and feared dead from his injuries, we were hopeful when a new black male turned up again with the Blacktails in late July. I happened to see the joyful family reunion as the whole pack swirled around the newcomer while he leaped over and straddled the back of alpha 693F. That the new black turned out to be “Big Blaze” makes the memory all the sweeter.
The Agate Creek pack has followed their usual winter pattern of resurfacing on Specimen Ridge after a summer away farther to the south. The pack of eight (two black, six gray) now includes two former Mollies (alpha 641M and beta 586M), newly ascended alpha 715F, a new gray adult male who joined the pack last summer (perhaps another Mollies disperser), and four pups.
Sadly, venerable alpha 472F was killed by other wolves in Little America in December. Wolf 472F was a very classy lady with her blue-blood pedigree and her beautiful pewter coat (grayed from her original black). Born a Druid to legendary alphas 21M and 42F in 2000 or 2001, she dispersed to become the long-time Agate alpha to also legendary alpha 113M, and then to 383M, “Big Blaze,” and 641M. She served as the Agate alpha female for over six years!
Four seventy-two leaves an amazing genetic legacy as her daughters are alphas of at least four packs (Agate 715F, Blacktail 693F, and Lamar “’06 Female” in Yellowstone and Hoodoo Creek 525F in Wyoming). Another daughter, 471F, was alpha of the now defunct Lava Creek pack. At least three of her sons have also served as alphas (an uncollared gray Slough, Slough Creek 590M, and Agate 383M). Her genes and grace will finally be carried on by the current Agate pups, which are either her own or her grandchildren.
Four seventy-two was the tie who bound the Agates together and the reason the pack still exists today. She will be sorely missed, especially by those who saw the image of her illustrious Druid parents, 21M and 42F, every time they looked at her dark striped face.
The Lamar Canyon pack (now usually just called the Lamar pack to avoid confusion with the Canyon pack in Hayden Valley) continued to offer some good viewing opportunities. They are a well traveled bunch often on their way to somewhere else, which could be anywhere from Little America to Slough to Lamar to Cache Creek to Mt. Norris to Soda Butte or Pebble Creek.
The Lamar wolves have been very successful under the leadership of alpha “The ‘06 Female” and her two assistants, alpha 755M and beta 754M. While this alpha female is usually the one who brings home the bacon, the two males do a great job of tending the four gray pups.
The interaction between the two males is fascinating. Although they are brothers, beta 754M lowers his head and grovels so low on the ground when he approaches alpha 755M. Lying on his back with four paws in the air and licking 755M’s face, 754M couldn’t be any more submissive if he tried. And yet, my most enduring image of the brothers is of the two blacks standing shoulder to shoulder, serenely surveying the family they came to Yellowstone to create.
The Canyon pack of three adults (one black, two gray) and three pups (one black, two gray) has mostly been a no-show around Mammoth this winter. When they did visit briefly, they had a howl fest with the Quadrant pack and then were chased away by the ubiquitous Blacktails. At one point, the Canyons’ two gray pups were not seen for some time and were feared dead. Thankfully, they have all since been accounted for.
Probably one reason the Canyons haven’t frequented Mammoth much lately is the nearby proximity of the Quadrant Mountain pack, whose home territory is south of Mammoth. This pack of seven adults (two black, five gray) does not have any pups.
Former Geode pack member 695M leads the Quadrants. Founder and former alpha female 469F was born a Leopold. She has been allowed to stay with the Quadrants despite being deposed as alpha by the former beta female.
I had never seen a Quadrant wolf before, but one saved my wolf watching day this time. After scoping and scoping the hills west of the Gardner River Canyon, we finally found one lone brown and tan suspicious lump in the snow. Despite being considered a possible rock or stump, the lump finally removed all doubt by lifting its head!
Sadly, the Silver pack met with double misfortune and may no longer exist. This pack delighted wolf watchers when they moved into YNP last winter and then chose to den and raise their four gray pups in Lamar Valley, in the very rendezvous site formerly used by the famous Druid Peak pack.
When the Silvers left in July to head to their own rendezvous on Specimen Ridge, we hoped that they would return in the fall and that we would see them again. Unfortunately, that was not to be.
The peppy gray yearling, 753F, who was such a great baby-sitter and playmate to the pups, was found dead in August. Her body lay near a bison carcass. She may have been killed as her family tried to bring down that difficult and dangerous prey.
And then, in October, the body of alpha 147M was found near Lamar Valley, lying peacefully beneath a tree on a bed of pine needles. Bite wounds indicated that he had been killed by other wolves, perhaps while defending his adopted family.
Although we only knew him for a couple of years, 147M was a class act and will long be remembered for his benevolent, tolerant, and playful ways. Originally collared as a Montana wolf outside of Yellowstone, he made his way into YNP in early 2009 to become the alpha male of the Lava Creek pack. (Now disbanded, Lava Creek’s only two other members were former Agate 471F and current Lamar alpha “The ’06 Female.”)
In the 2010 breeding season, 147M moved on to depose the Silver pack’s elderly gray alpha male. In an incredible demonstration of benevolence, he let “The Old Guy” stay on with the pack, even letting him lead on occasion. And then, 147M cheerfully adopted his two new step-daughters. They absolutely adored him, and he patiently put up with them jumping all over him and showering him with kisses.
When his own new pups arrived, 147M was the perfect father, ever dedicated to their well-being. He fended off constant grizzly and black bear intruders in the den area and made endless trips the length of Lamar Valley and beyond to ferry food to his family.
Although the Silver alpha female was seen alone at Hellroaring about the time of 147M’s death, her fate and the fate of the rest of the pack (“The Old Guy,” the gray 2-year-old other mother, and the four pups) is unknown.
With the February breeding season approaching, hopefully new stars and their offspring will rise to shine their light like the great ones who have gone before.