Friday, May 6, 2011

Wolves of Yellowstone and Jackson Hole

We took off looking for wolves, and we found them! I have always believed that gray wolves are the top predators on this North American continent. I often argue about this status to myself as well as smarter people and it often ends up as a tug of war between the grizzly, polar bears, cougars and wolves. There are of course many smaller predators who are efficient and deadly predators also such as any members of the weasel (Mustelids), shrews, lynx, predatory birds and vicious insects of all types, most of whom we discount because of their lack of size or perceived threat to ourselves. There is a mysticism about wolves, a great misunderstanding and fear, even, because of what we don't really understand about their values and way of life. Everyone who wanders around the wildness of this great continent does so with a heightened awareness and keener senses in the hopes of, or of not, encountering wolves, bears or wild cats, and escaping with life and limb intact. I believe it is because of the presence of the great predators that makes our wilderness experiences most satisfying. If there was no chance of an encounter with an apex predator, our senses would not be challenged and the wilds would no longer be wild and we would be forever civilized.

Last week I took some very civilized people, from one of the worlds largest most densely populated cities, to try to find wolves. The wolves were their main reason for travelling for hours by plane and car. All the other stuff you see while travelling is nice, but just give us wolves. We spent time watching pronghorn antelope, herds of bison and elk, birds, spectacular scenery, culture, history, beautiful hotels and great food, but it became a successful trip after we spotted our first timber wolf. The wolf we first spotted was half a mile away, gnawing away upon an old worn out carcass. It was recognizable as a wolf, silhouetted against the snowy background in the distance, but the excitement of the moment was infectious as camera shutters began clicking away. Mission was accomplished, we have seen a wolf, now lets relax and see if we can get a better look. The next day was better. Early in the morning we headed for the spot we had chosen to have a good chance to get a closer encounter with the elusive pack. Other wolf spotters had already spotted our quarry so we pulled up to see them too. With the help of one of their spotting scopes we were able to determine that there was a wolf lying under a dead tree behind some shrubbery about 300 yards away. We will hang around for a while to see if it emerges from it's secure hiding spot. Finally it began to move, then another joined it. They came right out into plain view and trotted closer to us where a kill was hidden in a small wash. Over the next hour or so we enjoyed a very good visit with 8 different wolves of the Lamar Wolf Pack. Along with the wolf pack we watched the mountain sheep grazing on the exposed mountain slope above us, a mountain bluebird flitted about, a young moose calf grazing in the thin willows and bison calmly chewing their cud while monitoring the wolves.

What a great day so we decided that it was time to head down to see the geysers of Yellowstone. We did see a black bear grazing on very short grass emerging from between the snowdrifts, a grizzly bear searching for winter killed carcasses preserved by the deep snow and freshly dropped bison calves guarded closely by protective mothers. The atmosphere in the car was calm, serene with polite chatter and observances as we drove away from the wolf pack. It was as if everything from here on for the next few days was an anti-climax, a time filler to be endured until finally getting on the plane home. The geysers were fine, the scenery spectacular the drive beautiful as we made our way to Jackson, Wy. The Lexington Hotel was beautiful and luxurious with very reasonable rates during this off season. The weather was dreary so we scouted a few locations and did some shopping and general sightseeing. The National Elk Refuge at Jackson Hole was loaded with an estimated 4000 to 5000 elk. This is a wondrous sight to see. We decided to leave early in the morning to see if the sun would highlight the Grand Teton Mountains and give us a great photo of the iconic barn we always see pictured.

As we left the hotel in the chilly, dark, overcast morning we had little hope to see the mountains shrouded by the low hanging clouds, but lets go take a look anyways.

In the early light I spotted something familiar as I drove along. Can it be? A wolf? Here, so close to civilization? Yes! "There are two wolves!" I blurted out to my dozy companions as I guided the car to the shoulder of the highway. We got out quietly with binoculars in shaking hand and carefully confirmed my sighting. There were 8 wolves in total, strung out in a long line with destination in mind. As we watched quietly another vehicle pulled up to see what we were watching. A local fellow could not believe it when I told him. "We never see them here, we can hear them and will maybe see 1 or 2, but never a pack!" His excitement was gripping as he phoned his wife to get out of bed and, "get over here with the spotting scope!" The wolves laid down for a couple minutes waiting for a limping member to catch up. Suddenly, a couple of them began running, then the whole pack. I was frustrated that we had chased them off as more vehicles joined us to watch these ghosts of the gloom. As I watched I could suddenly see a coyote dodging and darting, trying to out maneuver the chasing wolves. There was no competition and the wolves caught and mobbed this hapless coyote. In seconds it was dead, the wolf pack all huddled over the coyote corpse. They howled their victory into the gloom of the lightening morning. As quiet, patient observers, we silently rejoiced in what had just transpired before our eyes. There was no time to get the camera but I enjoyed the moment anyways. We have just witnessed one of Mother Natures cruel realities of competition, dominance and strength. We have just watched an event that happens everyday in the civilized and uncivilized world. The strong take over the weak, competition for food resources is powerful, the weaker members can survive, but only by the good graces of the more powerful. Even the Wiley coyote can survive, but he should not have let his guard down. Can you imagine his thoughts this cold dark morning; I have found a kill, I have a free and easy meal, my belly is full and now I need a nap. All was good in his day as the sun began to poke through the clouds, but he forgot to watch for the wolves. "Oh crap!" were his final thoughts.

Needless to say, this was the highlight of our trip. We had seen what we had come to see. Thousands of elk and bison, herds of deer and antelope, a few bears and birds, 5000 kilometers of beautiful scenery, but nothing to compare to 20 minutes of time watching one of Mother Nature's great predators defend their space.

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