Below is The Oregonian story of my trip to Yellowstone, dedicated to 06 and the other wolves who were killed when they left the safety of the park, and to the good people who dedicate their time, energy, and money to protecting wolves and other wildlife.
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Published: Sunday, December 16, 2012, 6:00 AM
I only dreamed this would happen — me at Yellowstone National Park, gazing at a wild wolf, with nothing but the crisp mountain air between us.
But there it stands, a large black wolf filling the lens of my spotting scope. Although the distance between us is a quarter mile, the details are clear. Variegated hairs, black, brown, a few gray, blend together to create the dark coat. The tail, bushy and long, stands at half-mast.
Ears are pricked forward and amber eyes stare in my direction, as if the wolf is watching me as well. One of the most enigmatic of species, Canis lupus is a rare sight in the wild, except at Yellowstone.
Snow swirls in the overcast sky of the Northern Rockies where, as I glance around, a dozen others are also enjoying the sight of the black wolf. They chat about the size and condition of the creature while I remain transfixed over my first sighting of a wild wolf.
I grew up with wolves at a zoo my father directed in Iowa, yet I yearned to experience them in their native habitat. So when friends invited me to Yellowstone, with a near promise of seeing wolves, I jumped at the chance.
I’m atop a rocky knoll in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone, the area known as the American Serengeti, teeming with bison, elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, moose, pronghorn antelope, grizzly bear, coyote and now wolves. Reintroduced to the park in 1995 after an absence of 50 years, wolves have become a major attraction.
Most tourists arrive in the warmer months, but devoted staff, volunteers and interested public find winter the perfect time to spot wolves. The crowds are long gone, and all but the lightest wolves are easy to spot against the white background.
While winter brings an average of 150 inches of snow and the temperature can be as low as 50 below, the most die-hard wolf searchers line the Lamar Valley Road with spotting scopes and binoculars in what has become a distinctive Yellowstone tradition.
I’m with Wolves of the Rockies, a wolf advocacy group, and this allows me an insider edge to my first Yellowstone trip. Based in Montana, these folks know where wolves lurk, which pullouts to stop at along the winding road, each with a name like Trash Can Hill and Dead Puppy. We glean information from people who are even more in the know, those who work and volunteer for the park.
It’s easy to spot these folks. They stand bundled in warm clothing alongside the road behind their tripod-held scopes. Some speak into walkie-talkies, conveying wolf data to those at other sites. There’s no guarantee of seeing wolves, but following these experts around is the best way to catch sight of your quarry.
I speak with David Brooks, who drives from Chelsea, Mich., three times a year to spend two weeks in the park, rising before dawn each day to search for wolves. He made his first trip to the park in 1966, when people were still feeding bears from their cars. Now a retired electrical engineer, David never tires of searching for the wolves he knows by name, their personalities and pack history all familiar to him. He’s hooked, and he sees no end to his wolf-watching days.
And no wonder, for there is high drama in the lives of wolves. There are currently 10 packs in Yellowstone and around 80 wolves. Despite the fact that the park is over 2 million acres, the resident wolves have disputes over territory. Occasionally, they fight among themselves.
One wolf, known as the Queen of the Druids (Wolf 40 in technical terms), was the powerful female leader of her pack. She led raids on neighboring wolves and reigned supreme over the other females in her pack, including her sister, Wolf 42.
One day, biologists found 40 dead, and determined that her sister and other members of their pack, who afterward moved their pups to the dead monarch’s den, had killed her. Perhaps the Queen of the Druids had been a bit overzealous in her ruling.
If they venture from the safety of Yellowstone, wolves may die at the hands of humans as well. Within the last month, hunters have killed at least eight wolves after they crossed the Yellowstone boundary in search of prey. Wolf 832F, better known as 06, the year of her birth, was the long-reigning alpha female of the Lamar Canyon pack. Tan with distinctive dark markings on her back and face, 06 was well-known to visitors for her prowess as a hunter and her devotion to her family. On Dec. 7, she was shot and killed outside the park.
There are cheerful stories too, though. Kim Bean lives in Helena, Mont., and frequently drives to Yellowstone to observe wolves. Each visit is different, she says, a fresh experience in witnessing animals in the wild.
Once, she watched through her scope as a dozen grizzlies and a pack of wolves took turns at a bison carcass. Behind Kim stood a large group of other viewers, focused on the scene before them. Kim glanced past this group and saw that a lone, black wolf had skirted his way around the crowd to sit on top of the hill behind the humans, intently staring at those who had been staring at him.
Another time, Kim was backpacking on the Cascade Lake Trail and inadvertently hiked among a pack of wolves. A large gray wolf yelped and ran at the sight of her. Kim backed off, not wanting to disturb the frightened pack. She then heard a chorus of howls; sad sounds of distress over the human interruption, followed by joyous yips and calls as the wolves reunited. So moved by these vocal emotions, Kim sat down on the trail and cried.
There is a buzz of conversation among those of us gathered at a Lamar Valley road pullout called Elk Creek. We watch a gray wolf carrying a flesh-covered bone that extends from his mouth by nearly a foot on each side. The wolf trots past three resting wolves with his prize. They ignore him, obviously satiated. One of the park staff members informs us that this is the Junction Butte pack, the newest to form in the park.
Someone says, “Hush!” and we’re all quiet. From a distant valley comes what sounds like wind, then deepens in pitch and becomes the howl of a wolf. I’m thrilled, as much as when I first saw the black wolf. The sound stops, then returns as another wolf responds from a distance.
Someone whispers, “I see him!”
We line up behind the scope to view the howling wolf. It sits atop the snow-covered ground, amid sage bushes and boulders, gray muzzle pointing skyward. I watch, and begin to plan my next trip to Yellowstone.
— Beckie Elgin
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