June 16, 2019
“For the strength of the wolf is the pack, and the strength of the pack is the wolf.”
Today was incredible. Our first full day of adventure began at 5am this morning. Our first sighting was a young, but large bull moose who hadn’t yet started regrowing his freshly shed antlers. While mesmerized in our “moose moment” we heard someone say, ‘Bear!’ and after quickly turning around we saw a black bear rounding up its morning breakfast. As some of us watched the bear, and the moose, we also simultaneously saw mountain goats grazing on the side of steep cliffs above us! Needless to say, the first 30 minutes of the day was full of exciting, extraordinary nature. Many of us believed that our trip couldn’t possibly get better than this.
Boy, were we wrong.
As we’ve continued on our travels, we have become increasingly good at identifying contrasting colors on the landscape through our wildlife watching. This is a skill perfected by the professionals and one admired by many. Because, let’s be honest, when you’re as excited as we are, traveling in the park looking for critters- everything (rocks, bushes, shadows) looks like something. But, good news! As the sun rose over the mountainside, we peered into the breathtaking Lamar Valley. We observed playful “red dogs”, as the baby bison are called out here, their stocky parents, sandhill cranes and pronghorn. The beauty here is breathtaking, and each landscape is different, making you forget that you began your day this morning at 4am.
Late morning, we sighted a wolf den and also saw a grizzly feverishly digging for grubs after his long hibernation. Around 8 o’clock we met with Kira Cassidy, a wolf biologist at the park. She holds an important and somewhat envious position in Yellowstone, researching the behavioral aspects and overall influences of the various wolf packs on the park. With Kira, we hiked down to a cluster of wolf collar points to see if we could determine why these canines spent time in the area. Unfortunately with the recent rainfall, the water level in the creek nearby was too high, and we weren’t able to reach what was likely the remains of an elk carcass. But Kira entertained us with wolf stories – including the tale of wolves that were helping to care for pups but if they couldn’t find any food to bring back to the den, would instead find and bring back humorous souvenirs such as sticks to chew on, lost tourists hats and even a traffic cone for the new pups to play with! How funny!
Kira told us an interesting story about two female wolves who keep trading roles as alpha female in the Junction Butte pack. Both wolves denned at the same time and the beta wolf, the alpha’s sister, and other subordinates attacked the alpha and her pups. Kira states that this is only the 10th or 11th time this has occurred over the last 24 years. However, the alpha then went on to raise the beta’s pups, as if nothing had ever happened! The politics of the wolf hierarchy far surpass anything originally thought.
After our big wolf excursion, we continued observing wildlife and went round-trip to Mammoth where we saw some amazing and disturbing things. And here we’d like to take a moment to discuss taking ‘safe-selfies’ as a much needed (based on today’s observations) public service announcement….When you next vacation to Yellowstone, or anywhere you might see wildlife, especially the wildlife that is faster and larger than you (i.e. wolves, elk, bison, bears, large birds of prey, etc.) do not get within 75 to 100 feet. Be aware of how fast things can change when these animals become stressed. They do not not want you there, the selfie isn’t worth it. Please get out and experience nature, conserve and educate others about it. But, be safe doing it.
To end our day, we drove to the Lamar Valley hitching post pull-off for our evening group meeting. As we unloaded for our short walk to a better view, a car of five unloaded and began jogging very quickly towards us. We stopped to look around, ‘They’re here, right there, right there!’ in hushed but forceful tones. We looked at each other. What is there? Where?
Binoculars snapped upwards, some ran to the van to pull out the spotting scopes. We quickly scanned the ridges ahead of us and helplessly tried to see what we had been waiting for. ‘Look between the conifers, on a game trail, they’re walking,’ they said. And they were. Two very large black wolves and off to the right, a grey wolf. Suddenly barking, loud yelps, brown masses began to emerge on the ridge much smaller than those already in our eyesight. Their cries echoed between the hills. These coyotes, another, smaller species of the dog family, were not happy with the proximity of the wolves to what was likely their den. Pronghorn turned up to face the action, flight animals, ready to run. For what seemed like forever, the coyotes barked and we traced the ridges following the pack, watching them weave between tree clusters. Satisfied with their work, the wolves strolled over the ridge, unaffected by the uproar they caused. Frantically, we asked others if they could see them, we moved locations to find the pack but they were gone. Silence.
Without a doubt, today is a day we will never forget. We had an octo-ungulate morning, seeing all eight hoofed animals in Yellowstone National Park, all before 10:30 am. That alone has to be a record. Finally, after hearing all that Kira had to say about the infamous park wolves, our encounter was that much more meaningful. We wake up each morning to a beautiful sunrise, each day a new journey. Everywhere you look you see God’s creation thriving in an incredible piece of history. We sleep tonight knowing that more adventure awaits tomorrow.
⁃ Black bears are generally smaller here than ours in eastern North Carolina.
⁃ Bison will sometimes run towards their predator which acts as an intimidating trait.
⁃ The ungulates in Yellowstone are: bison, pronghorn, moose, mountain goat, big horn sheep, mule deer, white-tailed deer, and elk.
Mandie, Kristen and Emily