The wonder of wolf-watching in Yellowstone
Despite the down jacket I'm wearing, puffier than any of the low clouds scudding across the sky, I'm shivering. Or perhaps the shivering is from the scene framed by my spotting scope: a pack of wolves tearing into an elk carcass. The face of a dun-coloured wolf is stained with blood.
I can't believe that I ever thought wolf-watching was boring.
The first time I went wolf-watching in Yellowstone National Park, in 2006 with the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, I was ready to call it quits on the first afternoon.
Yes, seeing wolves - once hunted and poisoned to extinction in the Lower 48 - free and in the wild was cool. But for the first hour, the animals that our naturalist guide trained our spotting scopes and binoculars on did little more than sleep.
The idea of three more days of watching wolves comfortably slumber while I froze didn't exactly excite me. The idea of soaking in the 104-degree natural hot springs pool waiting at our hotel did.
Still, I didn't call it quits.
And over those next three days, the wolves' Druid Peak Pack rewarded my resolve. Through the four spotting scopes and the two pairs of binoculars that our group of six shared, I saw pups playing, the pack feeding on an unidentified carcass and even the alpha pair mating.
I was most enthralled watching the pack at play. The pups ran at each other, colliding in a tangle of fuzzy legs and freakishly large paws. Tiring of each other and still seeing the pack's alpha male as Dad rather than dominator, they pounced on him three times as he lay resting. As two pups wrestled around and on top of him, he barely lifted his head.
By the time we headed back to Jackson, I was addicted.
Since then I've been back to the Lamar Valley, the park's most consistent wolf-watching destination, about half a dozen times for the express purpose of spotting wolves. Friends have taken me. I've taken friends. I've gone by myself. Once, driving from Bozeman to Billings, Montana, I detoured more than 100 miles (161 kilometers) each way to see whether I could spot some wolves.
Everyday wolf-watching is interesting. But what's fascinating is following individual wolves and packs over days or years, coming to know their differing personalities - and even to care for them.
As recently as 20 years ago, there was no wolf-watching in Yellowstone. Because there were no wolves in Yellowstone.
Shortly after Yellowstone's designation as a national park, the first in the world, in 1872, the government, prodded by ranchers and farmers, took the view that wolves were vermin. Their habit of killing prey such as elk and deer, and of sometimes going after livestock, was deemed "wanton destruction."
So in the late 1800s and early 1900s, canislupus was poisoned and hunted. By the 1940s, wolf packs were rarely sighted in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which includes Yellowstone National Park as well as the Gallatin, Custer, Caribou-Targhee, Bridger-Teton and Shoshone national forests, the John D Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway, the National Elk Refuge and Grand Teton National Park. In 1974, gray wolves were listed as an endangered species in the Lower 48 and Mexico.
Pressure to reinstate them arose soon after, but it wasn't until 1995 that 14 wolves captured in Canada were reintroduced into Yellowstone. In 1996, another 17, also from Canada, were released. Biologists had predicted that five years of reintroductions would be needed, but those two releases were so successful that no more were done.
There are now about 500 wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. About 80 wolves still live on Yellowstone National Park's 2.2 million acres.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service's recovery goal for the population was met in 2002. Since then, the removal of gray wolves from the endangered species list has been one of the Northern Rockies' biggest wildlife controversies. In September 2012, Wyoming's wolf population was the last to be removed from the list, meaning that if they ventured outside a perimeter established around Yellowstone National Park, wolves could be shot on sight. Idaho and Montana had previously allowed this.
"The issue of wolves and the management of wolves is a very hot political issue," says Ken Voorhis, director of education for the Yellowstone Association, the park's official nonprofit education partner.
"There are people on both sides. Some feel that the hunting of wolves is not appropriate, and others feel like they need to be managed because of the growth of the population."
Wherever you are on the politics, Yellowstone's mission now "is the preservation of wolves within the park," Voorhis says.
"They are still out there, and we still see them regularly. The park's population is still a healthy population."
While it's possible to see wolves in other places - Jackson Hole, Wyoming, about 70 miles south, has several companies offering winter wildlife tours and about half a dozen wolf packs - "Yellowstone is still the best place in the world to view wild wolves, especially in winter," says Doug Smith, a senior wildlife biologist in the park.
This is in large part because Yellowstone's wolves are among the most tracked and studied in the world. And the people tracking and studying them - both biologists working for the park and educational institutions and zealous non-professionals - are friendly and willing to share their knowledge.
Numerous outfitters and guide services offer wolf-watching trips in the park. It's also possible to head out on your own, armed with only binoculars, a spotting scope and an inclination to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger whose license plate might read "WLFR." More often than not, you'll still get a fabulous day of wolf-watching.
WATCH FOR WATCHERS
You'll know that there are wolves around when you see a jumble of SUVs parked on the side of the one road in the northeast section of the park that's open in the winter. Winter is the best season for wolf-watching, because the animals stand out against the snow.
The SUVs will be outnumbered only by the spotting scopes and the SLR cameras with lenses the size of small children. A frenzy of biologists and John Q Public will be walking around, animatedly pointing and nodding their heads. Radios will be crackling. Cellphone coverage in much of the park is spotty at best.
"Private wolf-watchers - they are super-avid wolf fanatics," says Taylor Phillips, a Jackson-based lead naturalist guide and owner of Eco Tour Adventures, and they're "incredibly passionate and informed and helpful with advice."
Phillips says that some wolf-watchers have moved to towns such as Bozeman and Livingston "so they can be close to Lamar Valley and their passion." They might miss only a day or two of wolf-watching a week.
Some of these wolf-watchers have founded the Web site YellowstoneReports.com. For an annual fee of US$20 (NZ$24), the site offers detailed naturalist reports on the whereabouts of wolves and other wildlife in the park.
Both scientists and hobbyists benefit from the fact that a number of wolves in the park are fitted with radio collars, which track them without interfering with their movements.
And they help true amateurs like me get to know the various wolves.
On my first wolf-watching trip, wolfers shared the histories of individual animals and of the Druid Peak Pack. Concentrating on the animals they pointed out to me, I learned that the lightest-coloured pup would be the one to work the other pups into a frenzy and then spearhead the pounce onto their dad. The biggest pup loved chasing its tail.
Some people follow sports teams. But Wyoming, where I've lived for 16 years, doesn't have a single major professional sports team. The Druid Peak Pack became my football team.
On that initial trip, I also met wolf 302M - all tracked wolves get numbers rather than names. A junior member of the Druids, he wasn't as interesting as the alpha male or the pups. Still, perhaps because he was all black, he stayed in my mind. And as I followed him online afterward and saw him on subsequent trips to the valley, he grew into my favourite.
And not my favourite alone. He was interesting enough that a film was made of his life, The Rise of Black Wolf. His nickname was "Casanova."
In addition to being a favourite with breeding females, 302M was also popular with both amateur wolfers and wolf biologists. He had the rare - in the lupine world - ability to travel solo and between packs. Wolf packs are highly territorial, and wolves out on their own often don't live long.
Wolf 302M was born into the Leopold Pack but bred with several females in the Druid Peak Pack at age 3. For some time after that, he traveled between the Leopolds and the Druids. I think that when I first saw him on the Conservation Alliance trip, he had recently committed to the Druids full-time.
When 302M joined, the Druids were no longer 37 wolves strong, as in 2001.
Rick McIntyre, a biologist with the park's wolf restoration project, surmised that the 2001 Druids were possibly the largest wolf pack ever recorded in the world; 15 is a more usual pack size.
Shortly before the Druids collapsed in late 2009 and early 2010 - the pack's demise makes a Greek tragedy look dull and uncomplicated; Ajax and Antigone never had to deal with an infestation of mange, a disease that doesn't kill but does severely weaken the infected - 302M left the pack along with several yearlings. They joined with three females from the Agate Creek Pack to form the Blacktail Deer Plateau Pack, and 302M was its alpha from the start. His alpha female was the svelte, tawny 693F.
I saw 302M as an alpha three times, sadly never doing much besides eating and sleeping. One of the meals I shared with him was of a bison, a 2,000-some-pound carcass. He ripped into it ferociously.
The last time I saw him, in late winter 2008, he was looking on as other pack members ate an elk carcass. Counting all my trips, I've seen wolves eating more than anything else but sleeping.
The following fall, I learned online that he'd been killed by the Quadrant Mountain Pack. Several months later, I read on YellowstoneWolf.org that his nephew had become the Blacktail pack's new alpha male.
I didn't see the Blacktail pack on my most recent visit to the Lamar Valley last winter. In 2011 and 2012, with as many as 15 members, it was the largest pack in the northern area of the park. But last winter and spring, two males went to other packs, one female was killed by other wolves, and another female was legally shot outside the park. Recently, YellowstoneWolf.org was reporting that as of last summer, the pack's alpha pair - 693F was still alive and well - were the only remaining Blacktail Deer Plateau Pack members.
When I checked YellowstoneWolf.org again the week before last, I saw a pack update that rather ruined my Sunday evening. The pack is up to four members, but 693F died of unknown causes in October.
Though I didn't see the Blacktail pack last winter, I did see a couple of members of the Lamar Canyon pack. Spitfire and Middle Gray - the wolf-watching community sometimes gives uncollared wolves names - crossed the road in front of my car.
Spitfire lived up to her name, not that I knew her name when I saw her. If there are no real wolfers around, almost all my identification is done after the fact, either describing animals I saw to a wolfer or, in this case, combing through photos online.
As Spitfire first trotted across the road 150 feet in front of my car, I thought that her coat was black. Once on the far side, though, standing in a shaft of sun, she looked bright red. And then she turned obliquely to the light and became brunette. Busy trying to discern her colour, I almost missed Middle Gray 50 feet behind her.
Safely across the road, the two animals moved through the snowy sage flats at a fairly good clip. I grabbed for my binoculars, sadly still in their case - amateur move! - on the passenger seat. By the time I'd unsheathed and focused them, the two were cresting a small rise. Seconds later, they were gone, loping down the far side.
I liked the look of Spitfire, and since her pack had taken over the territory that had historically belonged to the Druids, I thought that perhaps I was ready for some new favorites.
Then recently, a biologist friend told me not to check the status of the Lamar Canyon pack online or expect to see them if I head to the Lamar this winter.
Perhaps I should find a football team.
Mishev is the editor in chief of Jackson Hole magazine.
-The Washington Post.