Of wolves, elk, and men: an interview with Yellowstone's wolf project leader

Yellowstone wolf 778M being captured during this year's research Photo: Yellowstone Wolf Project For over thirty years, Douglas Smith has been studying wolves, and has worked on the wolf restoration project in Yellowstone since it’s inception. But this year during his annual winter research, he was taken aback by the sight of a remarkable wolf his team captured for study, 760M, now the largest wolf ever recorded in Yellowstone.

“I’ve handled hundreds of wolves, so I have sort of gotten hardened to the process. He was something—not just another wolf. As a scientist you always take the viewpoint that you can find answers. And for the first time I thought that this is a wolf who truly has secrets.”

Smith points out that 760M lives in the most remote area of the Yellowstone and of the lower 48 states. “I just started thinking in my head as I looked at him that this is the kind of wolf that remoteness produces.” At 147 pounds, 760M replaces the previous record holder for the largest wolf in Yellowstone, 495M, who weighed in at 143 pounds. But as Smith observes, 495 is still a pretty remarkable wolf. “495M is a pro. He’s doing great. We think he’ll turn 7/8 in April, so he’s past his prime, but he’s still hunting bison. And that is what is interesting about wolves, there is no such thing as a generic wolf.”

Doug Smith darting wolf 780M during winter research this year in Yellowstone Photo: Yellowstone Wolf ProjectHis research this year also showed that after two consecutive years of declines, the wolf population has largely stabilized in Yellowstone. The northern range wolves suffered the most declines in prior years, but the decreases have leveled off according to the most recent counts. And with this stabilization, Smith believes the ecosystem as a whole is becoming more balanced.

“When wolves weren’t in Yellowstone the system was out of whack because there were tons of elk and tons of coyotes and other things suffered as a result. Now there’s greater balance among both plant and animal species. I imagine this is more what Yellowstone was like before it got changed because of European humans.”

Smith also commented about the blame wolves receive for reducing elk populations. “It’s incredibly painful dealing with people who don’t like wolves and say they have devastated the elk herd. And it’s difficult to talk to people who just want Yellowstone to be an elk farm. Yes, with carnivores you have fewer animals to hunt. But this is the way it was in Yellowstone before we interfered. When we start killing predators because we want more animals to hunt, it becomes agriculture. Is that what we want the forests and the landscapes of the west to be, a big farming operation? I don’t want the world to be so highly manipulated that we have no place where wild nature can just be.”

The full interview with Douglas Smith will be published in National Parks Traveler on April 7.

Tragic end for Yellowstone area wolf illegally poisoned in Colorado

Wolf 341F earned my admiration. Like early pioneers or explorers, she  (in the words of Mark Twain), “lit out for the territory ahead of the rest,” with a wanderlust to venture into the unknown. Here's her tragic story:

Wolf 314F (341F) under anesthesia after being fitted with GPS Collar (Montana Fish, Wildlife, Parks)When Doug Smith, Yellowstone’s Wolf Project leader, teaches students about wolves, he often speaks about the defining characteristics of canis lupus.  “Wolves are social,” he notes, “and they love to travel.”

And one intrepid wolf from the Yellowstone area certainly proved his characterization correct. Bounding across some of the west’s most remote wilderness, wolf 341F embarked on a meandering excursion of over 3,000 miles through five states on her seven-month journey from Yellowstone to Colorado in the winter of 2008/2009. This remarkable 18-month-old female covered an incredible distance in search of a mate and new territory. Although wolves can travel up to thirty miles a day, the animals rarely venture more than sixty miles from their base pack.

In February of 2009, signals from her radio collar indicated she remained about 120 miles west of Denver. The public avidly followed her travels as Colorado’s last native wolf had been killed in 1943. Then sadly 341F was found dead just a month later. Gary Wockner, a former member of the Colorado Wolf Working Group spoke about her death, "This adventurous wolf sparked Colorado's imagination. She made us think about what Colorado is missing without its wolves."

At the time the cause of 341F’s death was unknown. This week, however, officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the results of their investigation. Toxicology tests performed at the National Fish and Wildlife Forensic Laboratory showed the two-year-old gray wolf, which had been captured and collared as part of a Montana research project, died from ingesting a banned poison known as Compound 1080. It is suspected the wolf ingested the poison near the site where she was found.

With the investigation more than a year and a half old, investigators are now asking the public for information about the case. "When used improperly, Compound 1080 is an indiscriminate killer of wildlife, and we are asking the public to help us identify who used this banned poison in Colorado," said Steve Oberholtzer, Special Agent in Charge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mountain-Prairie Region.
Compound 1080 was commonly used in the United States prior to 1972 for controlling rodents and livestock predators such as coyotes and foxes.  It was banned in the U.S. in 1972, but the rule was modified in 1985 to allow the poison to be used in some states for predator control in a highly regulated fashion. Compound 1080 is currently illegal to use in the state of Colorado.

Anyone with information regarding this wolf’s death that would be useful to investigators is urged to contact either the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s Operation Game Thief hotline number at (877) 265-6648 and/or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at (720) 981-2777.


Scientists discuss Yellowstone’s big three: climate change, invasives, land use


The hunting patterns of wolves may be impacted by climate change in Yellowstone Photo: Beth Pratt“If you want to get proud about a butterfly species in Yellowstone, this is the one,” said Diane Debinski, a Professor at Iowa State University. She was referring to the dainty Hayden’s Ringlet, a butterfly found almost exclusively in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE).  Her research, however, did not bode well for the insect, as drier conditions in the region appear to be decreasing the butterfly’s habitat.

Debinski, along with hundreds of other scientists, researchers, and land managers, gathered inYellowstone National Park last week as part of the10th Biennial Scientific Conference. The goal of the conference, entitled “Questioning Yellowstone’s Future: Climate, Land Use, and Invasive Species,” was to foster synergies among current research and land management practices in order to find solutions for protecting the GYE against the three primary drivers of change.

And change is already rapidly occurring in the GYE, one of the largest intact temperate ecosystems on the planet. Peak runoff from snowmelt is happening 10-20 days earlier and the growing season in the GYE has increased by two weeks. Invasive species adds threats as well, such as the lake trout driving out Yellowstone’s native cutthroat trout or the Canada thistle marginalizing wetlands.  Additionally, human population in the GYE has grown by 61% from 1970 to 2000 and at the same time rural land under development has increased by 350%.

All of these changes have significant implications for the diverse flora and fauna of the region. Dr. Stephen Gray, Wyoming State Climatologist, warned: “What we think of as drought today could become the norm in the future.” Along with Hayden’s butterfly, a warmer and drier climate has consequences for a number of animal species in the GYE.  For example, Doug Smith, Yellowstone Wolf Project Leader, presented his research on winter wolf predation rates in Yellowstone and found that “big climatic patterns associated with snowfall are impacting the wolf kill rate.” The wolves in recent years have been switching from elk calves to bulls as a result of the bulls being in poorer condition in early winter because of drought. 

Other climate related findings included a possible disruption of hibernation patterns for bears, and a shift in the GYE to warm water fisheries. “Bears don’t pee for five months,” observed Professor Hank Harlow of the University of Wyoming. His research showed that the bear’s physiological strategy to conserve protein in hibernation through recycling urea could be disrupted by the animal being aroused from its den in warmer winters. Scott Christensen, the Climate Change Program Director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (and an avid angler), said native trout faces risks from decreased river flow and warmer water temperatures. “Climate change is already impacting native trout and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.”

Dr. Bob Gresswell, from the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, addressed the severe threat the invasive lake trout poses to Yellowstone’s native cutthroat, and recalled the days when hundreds of thousands of visitors would gather at Fishing Bridge every year to watch the Yellowstone cutthroat spawn. “If you’ve been to Fishing Bridge lately, you are lucky to see any trout,” he lamented. Dr. Andrew Hansen from Montana State Universityproposed the choice of either loving the GYE to death or loving it to health in his keynote address. His research has shown that land use development in ecologically significant areas is already impacting the GYE, and in response to a predicted doubling of the population by 2040, he posed the question, “What is the population here that would serve the common interest?”

Despite all these challenges, the group remained hopeful that science could provide solutions to assist with protection of the GYE. In his panel on the area’s science agenda, Tom Olliff, with the Great Northern Landscape Conservation Cooperative, announced, “The good news is a lot of the work on these issues has been going on over the past year,” referring to two prior workshops held on the topic. Continuing this work—and finding viable solutions to the issues facing the GYE—is a vital next step.  Dr. Marcia McNutt, the Director of the USGS, provided attendees with the call to action: “Yellowstone like many of America’s great places is many things to many people but what it can never be is a failed scientific experiment.”

The 10th Biennial Scientific Conference, “Questioning Yellowstone’s Future: Climate Change, Land Use and Invasive Species,” was held in Yellowstone National Park on October 11-13, 2010.

Conference sponsors include the US Geological Survey, Biological Resources Discipline, Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center; US Fish and Wildlife Service, Mountain Prairie-Region, Office of Landscape Conservation; Montana State University;Yellowstone Association; University of Wyoming Ruckelshaus Institute; Rocky Mountains Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit; University of Wyoming-National Park Service Research Center;Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee(National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Forest Service); Canon U.S.A., Inc., the Yellowstone Park Foundation, and the Greater Yellowstone Science Learning Center.

Yellowstone’s once legendary Druid Peak Pack down to one wolf

A collared Yellowstone Druid Peak Pack member in 2000 (Photo by Doug Smith)Since 1996, when five wolves from a second phase of the reintroduction banded together upon release, the Druid Peak Pack has been a fixture in the Yellowstone wolf world.

Wolf-watchers eagerly followed the epic struggles of the pack as intently as any reality television show and their dramatic exploits have been featured in many documentaries including Return of the Wolf and In the Valley of the Wolves.  In their heyday in 2001, the Druids numbered an amazing thirty-seven wolves and visitors watched in awe and delight when they paraded across Lamar Valley.

As Yellowstone Wolf Project Leader Doug Smith wrote in his book, Decade of the Wolf: “The sheer size of the Druid Peak Pack in 2001—along with the fact that they often lived, right out in front of us, what seemed like epic lives, full of struggle and conquest—made for some of the most unforgettable encounters of the past ten years.”

Sadly this legendary pack, which became leaderless last fall with the death of its alpha female, may soon be regulated to memory and pages in history books. After struggling with disease, invasion from other wolf packs, and malnutrition, the pack has dwindled to a sole survivor—black yearling female 690F, herself mange-ridden and food stressed.

During an interview this past January, Smith commented on the Druid’s condition and pronounced them in bad shape. Since then their decline has worsened rapidly. Smith observed, “we saw them eating snow and that’s a bad sign for sure.” Last month, the alpha male wandered away (some speculate that he left because the only mating partners remaining were his daughters). Adding even more challenges, the Silver Pack moved into the Druid’s territory, and killed at least one known pack member.

The disappearance of the Druids certainly marks the end of an era, but the torch of the reigning Yellowstone pack is being passed on through the unsympathetic race of natural selection. Perhaps Mollie’s Pack, with its amazing ability to hunt bison and its magnificent alpha male, 495M, the largest wolf ever recorded in Yellowstone at 143 pounds, will be the next to dominate the park—and gain a celebrity following.

Women Who Run With Wolves

"The gaze of the wolf reaches into our soul."   Barry Lopez

To live in Yellowstone is to dwell in constant wonder and delight. I’m still marveling over the bison grazing in my front yard in the morning, or the ghostly steam rising from a hotspring on a pale winter’s day. Yet nothing in the park transports me into such heights of unadulterated joy than the sight of a wolf trotting over the landscape. For me, wolves represent the fearless, bold, and magnificent character of wildness. Aldo Leopold captured it perfectly in describing the wolf as having eyes filled with “fierce green fire” and their howl an “outburst of wild defiant sorrow.”

Wolves in Mammoth, April 24, 2009On our drive to work this morning, my co-worker and I stopped to observe five wolves in Mammoth Hot Springs wandering and resting on a small hillside frosted with last night’s snow.  A few other fellow staff members also gazed at the wolves, along with some park visitors. All shared the same look of delight.

I did not have my good camera with me (first rule of thumb--always bring your camera along in Yellowstone) but I was able to make a short video.


This afternoon, another happy wolf surprise arrived in a letter from the Yellowstone Park Foundation. One of my close friends, Susan McCarthy, had made a donation to the non-profit to purchase a radio collar for the Yellowstone Wolf Project. She had requested that they inscribe the collar “For My Friend Beth Pratt.”  Susan—you are too wonderful—what a special gift!

Over the winter, Doug Smith, the Wolf Project leader, and his crew collared a number of wolves. My collar was placed on wolf 495M, a six-year old black alpha male of Mollie’s Pack and also at 143 pounds, the largest wolf ever recorded in Yellowstone National Park. We must share a love of good food!

Wolf Project Technician and Wolf 495M during collaring operations, January 2009. Photo courtesy of the Wolf Project, YellowstoneThe letter from the Foundation relates a comment from the park researcher: “As the two sedated wolves came into view…we saw what looked to be a gray wolf next to a good sized black bear. We immediately joked with Wolf Project leader Doug Smith that he had darted the wrong species, but indeed it was a wolf, the 143 pound alpha male 495M.” When I think of this magnificent creature bounding through the park with my name on his collar, I admit I get a bit teary-eyed. Doug Smith and crew—thank you for all the incredible work you do with wolves in the park!

In 2007, I took a great course through the Yellowstone Association about wolves from Doug Smith. Our class was so inspired by his teaching that we pooled our resources to also sponsor a collar (and inscribed it with an Aldo Leopold quote), which was placed on wolf 482M. These collars enable researchers to gather valuable information about the wolves in the park. If you would like to consider funding a radio collar or donating to the Yellowstone Wolf Project, visit the Yellowstone Park Foundation’s website.

You can learn more about 495M and the Yellowstone wolves by visiting the National Park Service’s science pages. Doug Smith has also co-authored an excellent book about Yellowstone's wolf reintroduction called Decade of the Wolf.

I’ll keep you posted on 495M’s adventures!

A Wolf's Journey Ends

Wolf 314F (341F) under anesthesia after being fitted with GPS Collar (Montana Fish, Wildlife, Parks)In February, I wrote about the incredible journey of Yellowstone’s  adventurous wolf 341F (she was previously misidentified as 314F). After departing from her pack in September, she wandered over a thousand miles and traveled through Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado. Since February, signals from her radio collar indicate she remained about 120 miles west of Denver.

Sadly 341F was found dead in late March—the cause of her death has yet to be determined. Gary Wockner, a former member of the Colorado Wolf Working Group "This adventurous wolf sparked Colorado's imagination. She made us think about what Colorado is missing without its wolves."  Defenders of Wildlife representative, Suzanne Asha Stone, states, “We hope that this wasn’t the result of foul play but will do what we can to support the state’s investigation including offering a reward for information leading to conviction if this was an illegal killing of an endangered species.”

Cry Wolf

Wolf Crossing Gardner River, Spring 2008Two weeks ago when Shad visited me in Yellowstone, we noticed in the basin across from the house a herd of elk on high alert standing atop one of the hills below Sepulcher Mountain. We scanned the landscape with binoculars and observed a dark wolf loping across the landscape. Shad had not seen a wolf in Yellowstone yet, and as luck would have it he didn’t even have to leave our yard to do so. 

I checked with Doug Smith, the manager for the wolf project, and he said there have been quite a few sightings of the small quadrant pack below Sepulcher, along with a lone female wolf. Today, on my drive to Mammoth for a ski I saw Rick McIntyre’s yellow X-Terra parked on a turnout along with a crowd of people equipped with spotting scopes—a sure sign of canis lupus activity. Lamar Valley has always been the prime spot in Yellowstone for wolf watching; if the wolves keep making an appearance near the north entrance perhaps this winter I’ll save on gasoline if I don’t have to drive to Lamar to gaze at wolves.

Specimen Ridge Hike

Slough Creek from Specimen RidgeYellowstone’s expanse of rolling hillsides and gentle meadows appear endless in most areas of the park, and today I gazed at miles of this sublime landscape. I ventured up Specimen Ridge, which overlooks Lamar Valley to the northeast, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to the south.

The trail wanders through sub-alpine meadows, all a comforting shade of brown with the arrival of fall. Small patches of the bright yellow dress of aspen trees decorated distant ridges. A lone bison munched on the sparse fare, and raised his head to consider my presence. Not wanting to disturb him (nor get charged) I gave him a wide berth.

Wolves frequent this area, although I was not lucky enough to see any today. The territories of the Slough, Druid, and Agate packs all intersect near Specimen Ridge and recent entries on the trail register indicate sightings.

The name Specimen Ridge, according to Yellowstone Place Names, originates from prospectors, as the area was known for its specimens of amethysts. Amethyst Mountain, 9,614 feet, is the highest point on the ridge.

I made a quick video of the 360 views from the north end of Specimen Ridge.


Victory for Yellowstone Wolves

grey wolf close 2.jpg.jpgYesterday a federal judge halted the killing of the gray wolf—at least temporarily—by reinstating their protection under the Endangered Species Act. The Natural Resources Defense Council, The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and other non-profit wildlife advocates successfully argued that the wolves had not met the set recovery goal, and that the state of Wyoming had failed to implement an adequate management plan to protect the species.

I celebrated with a toast of sake (having no champagne in the house). The slaughter of wolves once the protection was lifted in April was truly disturbing to watch. According to the NRDC, 106 wolves have been killed since then—at a rate of almost one a day.

wolf in snow 3.jpg copy.jpgWhen you consider the statistics, the rage against wolves is a bit perplexing. Only 1% of livestock losses are attributed to wolves—for example, in Montana only four sheep and thirty-six cattle were killed in 2006, and reimbursement programs by non-profits have been established to compensate for those losses. The NRDC website states that “a person in wolf country has a greater chance of being hit by lightning, dying of a bee sting or being killed in a vehicle collision with a deer than being injured by a wolf.”

Last year I hiked with a friend up the Lamar River Trail in Yellowstone. Out of the nearby forest rose the chorus of a wolf pack. As we listened to the musical howls, tears came to my eyes. We were in the presence of wildness, and were listening to what Aldo Leopold described as “an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world.”

Why are we so threatened by wolves and other predators? I understand they can be scary, injure people and livestock, and cause an occasional death, but so can automobiles and we certainly don’t advocate against the wholesale destruction of the car. Is our fear of death making us miss vital and beautiful (but perhaps not safe) experiences? I think so. And on that theme, I’ll end with another quote from Leopold from his affecting essay, “Thinking Like a Mountain.”

“We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau's dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.”

You can read the full text of Thinking Like a Mountain at http://www.eco-action.org/dt/thinking.html

black wolf 2.jpg.jpg

15 minutes, 1 Black Bear, 1 Grizzly Bear, 2 Wolves

I think I might have set a new record for rapid wildlife sightings in Yellowstone. On my drive back to Mammoth from the Grand Tetons, I encountered what can only be described as a “wildlife hotspot.” I pulled my car over to watch a black bear amble on a hillside and took some photos of it through the snow flakes. I had not even traveled a quarter of a mile up the road when I sighted a grizzly bear in the surrounding forest. But wait, there’s more! A half a mile up the road, I observed a bunch of cars on the shoulder, a sure sign of wildlife activity. I quickly saw the reason for the crowd--two beautiful wolves were crossing the Gardiner River.

Here’s a photo collage of my wolf and bear sightings. I am still recovering from the euphoria that accompanies a wildlife overdose!
wolf crossing gardiner river.jpg.jpgblack wolf 2.jpg.jpgblack bear in snow.jpg.jpggrizzly in snow 3.jpg.jpggrizzly in snow 2.jpg.jpggery wolf close.jpg.jpgblack wolf close.jpg.jpg

Wildlife of Yellowstone's Northern Range

Wildlife%20Watchers%202.JPG.jpgWhat do mountain goats, bighorn sheep, grizzly bears, bison and bison calves, pronghorn antelope, coyotes, sandhill cranes, red-tailed hawks, wolves and wolf pups, elk and mule deer all have in common? We observed all of these animals today in Yellowstone.

For my family’s visit to Yellowstone, I scheduled a custom wildlife tour of the northern part of the park through the wonderful non-profit the Yellowstone Association. Barbara and Ariana, our excellent and fun guides, greeted us at 6:00 am this morning with coffee and hot cocoa, and we boarded our own bus to head to Lamar Valley. Some highlights of our trip:

Redtailed%20Hawk.JPG%20copy.jpg6:15 am: Grizzly bear traffic jam just fifteen minutes into our trip as we passed over the bridge spanning the Yellowstone river. We observed from the relative safety of our bus as the bear rambled along the road.

6:45 am: It’s never too early for a dose of cuteness. A large herd of bison with about five drowsy baby calves rested in a meadow near Roosevelt.

6:50 am: At Floating Island Lake, our guide shows us a nesting sandhill crane, which on my own I might have taken for a small rock. After a short time the feathered mass stands and through our binoculars we are able to see her eggs. Just for affect a red-tailed hawk soars overhead.

Sandhill%20Crane%20on%20Nest%202.JPG.jpg7:15 am: We arrive in Lamar Valley and quickly find the yellow X-terra of Rick McIntyre, the wolf guru of Yellowstone. Where his SUV is parked is a sure sign of wolf activity. We settle at Slough Creek Campground and focus our spotting scopes on a den site of the Slough Creek pack. We are rewarded with an appearance of a female and a pup—the cuteness quotient of our morning suddenly increases exponentially

9:00 am-11:00 am: Barbara, our guide, spots a lone collared black wolf sitting by the river, which is later identified as female 526. Coyote%20Glance.JPG.jpgRick, via the radio wolf network, credits the Yellowstone Association with the sighting, which is akin to being thanked by Audubon for a spotting a bird. Suddenly 526 dashes down the bank of the river, meets up with five other wolves, and after chasing a pregnant cow elk in the river, they take her down. After the hunt, one wolf trots off with her unborn fetus—a grisly reminder of the indifference of Mother Nature. While we watch the wolves, a coyote trots among us searching for food.

1:00 pm: Barbara scouts the snow-covered ridges of Barronette Peak, searching for mountain goats and within a few minutes has found some scurrying on the perilous cliffs. On an opposite facing ridge, we find four bighorn sheep.

wolf and two coyotes 2.jpg.jpg1:30 pm: On our return drive through Lamar Valley, Ariana notices four red-tailed hawks soaring low over a meadow, and a herd of pronghorn dashing down from a ridge. We stop and spot a lone dark wolf and three coyotes giving chase to each other, a truly mesmerizing sight. Although the game could have deadly consequences, the two species appear at play, teasing each other with feints and charges. At one point they call a truce and rest, and one coyote gives a loud howl.
wolf coyote chase 2.jpg.jpgwolf and howling coyote.jpg.jpgwolf in lamar.jpg.jpg

Never Cry Wolf

On my way home from Old Faithful this evening, I spotted a beautiful black wolf at the end of an expansive meadow. I gazed at him--and he at me---for at least fifteen minutes before he trotted into the woods. Here's my first official photo of a wolf in the wild--a very blurry shot as I don't have a big enough lens. Not exactly a prize-winning photo, but I like the mysterious, eerie cast of the out-of-focus wolf shape.

blurry wolf.jpg.jpg

Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center

wolf in snow 3.jpg copy.jpgWhile I stayed in West Yellowstone this week, I took an afternoon and explored the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, a non-profit wildlife park dedicated to educating the public about the grizzly bear and the grey wolf.

The non-profit GWDC was formed in 1999 in order to purchase the center from a private company and to focus the center on education rather than entertainment; the site is now an Association of Zoos and Aquariums certified facility.

The bears and wolves at the center have been relocated from a variety of areas, most having been labeled "problems" and would probably have been killed otherwise. The exhibits tell each animals' story, and also provide a wealth of information about wild bears and wolves.

big bear.jpg.jpgGWDC offers wonderful viewing opportunities of these magnificent animals, along with a number of excellent educational activities. I spent hours just watching the animals-- the wolves trotting friskily around the park, the grizzlies playfully wrestling. Sam and Illie are the bears pictured; the wolves are the Gallatin Pack. Sam and Illie wandered into an Alaskan fishing village in 1996 after their mother disappeared and were soon relocated to GWDC.
grizzlies playing.jpg.jpg close up.jpg.jpg happy bear in snow.jpg.jpg yawning wolf.jpg copy.jpg

Wolf 482M

At the end of our wolf study course last November, Jack Laws organized an impromptu group fundraiser for our class to sponsor a radio collar for the Yellowstone Wolf Project through the Yellowstone Park Foundation (a great non-profit!). Our collar was placed on wolf 482M, the alpha male for the Gibbon Meadow Pack in the park. Doug Smith, the leader of the wolf project, told me 482M was one of the biggest wolves they've ever captured for study. He's certainly a beautiful wolf--see below. I hope to see him trotting through a meadow someday as I hike in the park.

Jack inscribed the collar with a quote from Aldo Leopold--I like thinking of the wolf running through the landscape and carrying a bit of wilderness "poetry" from one of my favorite nature writers. If you would like to make a donation to the project, or to support Yellowstone in general, visit www.ypf.org

"To look into the eyes of a wolf is to see your own soul...." Aldo Leopold

Winter Ecology

dr. james halfpenny.jpg.jpgToday I played hooky from work--with the approval of my boss--and attended a Yellowstone Association class, Skis Across Yellowstone. Dr. James Halfpenny (Jim) taught the class and literally wrote the book on our subject matter--his Winter: An Ecological Handbook is one of the definitive works on winter ecology.

An amazing naturalist and educator with over a thirty-year history in Yellowstone and a global travel log to be envied, he also runs an ecology education center and museum in Gardiner that offers field courses in Yellowstone and around the world. I'm saving my pennies so I can attend his Polar Bears of the Arctic trip.

lamar buffalo ranch.jpg.jpgThe class returned me to my second favorite place on earth (Tuolumne Meadows being my first)--Lamar Valley. After a cozy night in my cabin, I arose early and joined the faithful wolf watching crew (with Rick and his yellow Xterra) at Slough Creek campground. I gazed at members of the Druid pack while they frolicked on Specimen Ridge. One wolf played with what appeared to be a discarded radio collar; another bantered with ravens. Before they trotted off into the forest the pack provided us with a farewell group howl. (Sorry-still no wolf photos--my scope adaptor for my camera is still on order).

After breakfast, Jim led the class on a delightful ski along the base of Barronette peak. We dug snowpits, took temperature and density measurements, and learned terms like depth hoar. I also enthusiastically volunteered to help with counting animal tracks using a really cool GPS device. We observed the tracks of multiple snowshoe hares, grouse, martens, coyotes, moose, and one snowshoer.

big horn sheep near roosevelt.jpg.jpgOn my return trip home I navigated several bison jams and stopped once more at Slough Creek to watch wolves. Near Roosevelt, I turned a corner and suddenly beheld a bighorn sheep not five feet from the road. My failed quest over the weekend had been suddenly realized. I parked the car and got my camera ready. He munched away, and considered me for only a moment before resuming his meal. With my naked eye I could count the ridges on his horns. I was mesmerized and sat on a rock for a half an hour simply watching him nibble forage.

Women Who Run With Wolves

What is it about the presence of wildness that stops us in our tracks? I have been utterly amazed and captivated by the sheer beauty of seeing wolves frolic in the wild. The sight of a wolf loping through a herd of bison nearly drove me to tears today.

img_0244.jpgMy fellow intrepid explorer buddy, Jack Laws joined me for a two-day wolf study course in Yellowstone with Doug Smith, the project manager for the Yellowstone Wolf Project. He’s been overseeing the wolf reintroduction since nearly the beginning and he literally wrote the book on the project. A humble, intelligent man of incredible achievements, he has managed one of the most significant and controversial projects of our time and I learned much from him over just two days.

On our last day in Yellowstone, Jack and I took a hike down the Lamar River. In the middle of our hike we came across fresh grizzly tracks roughly the size of my head. Jack’s first reaction, “Do you mind if I take some time and sketch these?” Truly, dedication. I stood watch with my bear spray in hand, not wanting to interfere with the artistic process.