Wolfish romance on the Northern Range of Yellowstone Park-
Kathie Lynch has a detailed report on amorous adventures of Yellowstone wolves observed during her recent trip to the Park.
By Kathie Lynch. Copyright 2011
Yellowstone’s February wolf breeding season gave us have high hopes for the arrival of new pups this April. Although only six ties (matings) were actually observed this year, they included the alphas of all three packs which are most often seen in the Northern Range (Lamar Canyon, Blacktail, and Agate)–a very good sign for wolf watching this spring and summer!
February weather ran the gamut from unusually warm, sunny afternoons of 45F temperatures and snow-free roads to biting winds and bitterly cold days when the thermometer never got above 7 degrees. Low visibility and ground blizzards sometimes made driving a white knuckle experience, with unplowed turnouts and deep, drifted snow across roads in the Lamar Valley and on the Blacktail
Despite the wintry weather and fewer than 100 wolves in Yellowstone, we still managed to see wolves, or at least one wolf, almost every day. The Lamar wolves proved to be the most reliable, although even they frequently disappeared from view for several days at a time, no doubt hunting or doing boundary checks throughout their large territory.
One wickedly cold, blowing, no visibility day, it took until 5:52 p.m to find a wolf. Finally Lamar 776F bolted across an opening above the Confluence and was visible for about two seconds. The only redeeming factor was the incredible chorus of howling from the rest of the pack, hidden in the trees, that immediately followed. Believe it or not, that did make the 11 hours of searching worth the wait!
For the wolves, February is all about breeding. The adults only had one thing on their minds, even to the extent of foregoing hunting and virtually ignoring last year’s pups.
The Lamar pack’s three adults were almost comical in their commitment to making puppies. With only illustrious alpha “The ’06 Female” and two adult males (alpha 755M and his brother, beta 754M), the threesome continually tried to find an opportune moment.
“The ’06 Female” led the parade, with 755M close behind and 754M right behind him. Wherever the female went, the males stayed glued to her tail. Her only hope was to snap them away and sit down when she just couldn’t take it anymore. If alpha 755M let his guard down for a moment, his brother made a play for her, only to be quickly repelled and sharply reminded of his beta status.
One really memorable image I have is of the three of them lying in Lamar just below tree line on the big fan early one morning. They formed a perfect T formation, with “The ’06 Female” as the stem of the T and one male lying on each side of her with his nose pointed at her tail, intently staring at her rear end!
That particular day, February 15, evolved into the best wolf watching day of my trip. Unperturbed by the two males glued to her behind, “The ’06 Female” gazed to the east, and then all three threw back their heads in unison and began howling. The distant answering howls materialized into three of the four Lamar pups returning from parts unknown for a joyous family reunion.
Later that day, the wolves kept a cow elk at bay in the Lamar River all afternoon. While the pups kept an eye on the elk, “The ’06 Female” must have stopped snapping at 755M for a moment, because before we knew it, they were in a tie! Poor 754M was beside himself the whole time (19 minutes!), leaping about alongside and trying his best to interfere, all to no avail.
Meanwhile, the cow elk, who we had thought was surely doomed, picked her way cautiously eastward in the river and was last seen hightailing it toward the Confluence. The highlight of the day for me was just before dark when I spotted the pack traveling in the river corridor and then the adults and one pup, the light gray male, crossed the road to the north near me.
The Lamar’s light gray female pup was missing for several weeks. She is very shy and does not want to cross the road when the others do. Instead, she hangs back and howls and howls and often gets left behind when the pack moves on without her. To the joy of all who have watched these pups since they first tumbled out of the den at Slough Creek last May, she has finally returned, safe and sound.
The Lamar’s other gray female pup (recently collared as 776F) and the distinctive dark gray male pup delight in chasing each other in circles and playing king of the rock. They leap at ravens and tree branches, chase coyotes and foxes, dig up cached prizes (a rack of ribs!) and just generally enjoy life while the adults concentrate on more important things.
On that same excellent wolf watching day, six adults from the Blacktail pack put on a show in Little America with a kill and two ties between the alphas, 778M (formerly “Big Brown”) and 693F.
That pack has been strangely fragmented this breeding season. The group in Little America also included beta male “Medium Gray,” returnee “Big Blaze” (male), the “Black Female Yearling” (who will need a new nickname in April) and the gray female yearling “Cut Tail” (who has a stunted tail).
The six Blacktail pups were not with that group, but they turned up the next day at Hellroaring with Blacktail 692F, who may be the mother of some of them. Made unwelcome by her sister, alpha female 693F, 692F is usually away from the pack and is not often seen. We were glad that she had the chance to visit with the pups while the alphas were otherwise occupied.
A couple of other Blacktail breeding age females, three-year-old 642F (a former Agate) and yearling 752F (302M’s daughter!), have also been away from the pack recently, as has the black male yearling. Perhaps they have all been out looking for mates and will return now that the breeding season has ended.
The Agate Creek pack has been conspicuously absent from Little America this year after treating us to many close views, especially during breeding season, in the past. Nowadays they typically only show up briefly high on Specimen Ridge’s snow cornices very early in the morning and then disappear over the ridge to the south.
Their hesitancy to venture down probably has to do with the fact that their long time alpha female, 472F, was killed in Little America in December, probably by the Blacktails. They also need to avoid conflict with the Lamar wolves, who control the Slough Creek area.
The Agates currently include alpha 641M (a former Mollies pack wolf), alpha 715F, elderly 586M (another Mollies), and four pups (two black, two gray). An extra gray male, who had been with the Agates since last summer, has perhaps dispersed again to seek his fortune elsewhere.
The Quadrant pack has pretty much displaced the Canyons from their former winter territory around Mammoth. I was worried about what the Canyons could be finding to eat in Yellowstone’s incredibly harsh, snowy interior, but I have heard that there are a lot of elk along the Madison River. The Canyons are probably better off there than trying to compete with the Quadrants around Mammoth.
The four Quadrant adults provided good viewing one day west of the 45th Parallel in the Gardner River Canyon. With breeding season in full swing, the sleek black alpha female led the way, with alpha 695M (a former Geode) and the very submissive beta male (a huge gray with a beautiful dark mask and dark shading) trailing behind.
Although the Quadrants had no pups in 2010, they do have three surviving gray female yearlings from 2009. Coming of age this breeding season, the three young females spent some time away, probably to seek breeding opportunities in another pack. They may have dispersed for good or they may return to their natal pack, perhaps even to have pups.
The only other Quadrant adult, almost white 469F (born a Leopold in 2003), was deposed as alpha last year but remains with the pack. She may now be the last survivor of the once mighty Leopold pack, following the recent death of another former Leopold, 470F.
A gritty and independent survivor, 470F (born in 2004), lost two toes in a coyote trap in her youth and was recognized by her right front limp ever since. As a two-year-old, she dispersed from the Leopolds to help found the Oxbow pack and have her first pups.
In 2007, 470F had one black pup which delighted many park visitors eagerly peering through the trees from Hellroaring overlook for a distant glimpse of the little fellow.
The next year, 470F dispersed again to become the founding alpha female of the Everts pack and again had pups. In 2009, she was deposed as Everts alpha and began her journey as a lone wolf, always a dangerous and difficult role. Her important and interesting life ended this February, but she had certainly made her mark.
Leopold/Oxbow/Everts 470F’s life story is a testament to wolves’ perseverance, resourcefulness and ability to prevail against the odds. Although she and all three of her packs are now gone, each breeding season brings renewed hope that pups will soon arrive to carry on their own and their species’ fight for survival.