DAY FIVE - Wednesday, December 30


THE INJURED BULL

When I go out to start the car this morning I find a bit more snow. Itís warmish, though, at 2 degrees.

Last night Rick ended up coming back to Silver Gate instead of staying in Gardiner. He is out at his usual time. When I join him at Footbridge, he tells me he believes 926 is in the Confluence or Middle Flats area. Laurie & Dan stay at Footbridge, Rick stops at Hitching post and I drive on to Confluence east where I see Kara, Dora and Rhonda.

A light snow is falling, making it a little hard to see very far. Then suddenly I hear reports from various places - wolves are being seen both north and south of the road. And some of the ones to the north are trying to cross to the south. This always makes it hard for Rick because of traffic.

Kara finds two black wolves above the eyebrow hill to the north. We think they are Dark Black and Mottled. Laurie & Dan find a single black in the middle flats. Dora, Rhonda and I move to Hitching Post and hike out to the rolling hills in hopes we can see wolves on both sides.

Carl climbs up Confluence Hill. He looks into the Confluence area and reports a bull elk, two wolves and lots of birds. Many of us wrongly add this together with the chase from the other evening and think Carl means he sees wolves on a bull elk carcass. That's not what he said: that's the power of suggestion!

Well, when the snow lets up, we realize that he meant a live bull elk. This bull is clearly injured, though, so it could indeed be the one that the wolves chased on Monday. Or a new one. But what we like most about this injured elk is that it is being watched by the Lamar alphas, Twin and 926F. They are standing near each other, 100 feet to the south, at the edge of the willows, and their manner is intense.

Story and Dave join us, on the hill, along with many other visitors. The parking lot is getting very full. This is a clear and close view, with the promise of drama. Then it gets even better. Three blacks are seen to the north, above the eyebrow hill. Little T has joined Mottled and Dark Black. Most likely they meant to come down and cross the road but were stopped by cars.

At the same time, we learn that Big T and the three pups are visible again from Soda Butte East, bedded under the same conifers and getting up at times to gnawing on the carcass bones further down the slope.

Hitching Post becomes noisy and crowded with dozens of cars and eager visitors. We share our scopes and answer questions. Phil and Juliet come out and Juliet spots an ermine! The tiny little thing is dashing across the snowy knob just in front of us with a vole in its mouth!

We notice medic trucks in the pullout as well and learn that some poor woman slipped on the ice and hit her head so they are treating her.

The Rangers have put up some ďno stoppingĒ signs at 21ís crossing but they do no good - people stop anyway because the wolves are so visible. But the animals never make a serious effort to come down and just sit up there, sometimes visible, sometimes hiding behind the trees. They howl on and off which makes a lot of people happy, including me.

I remain out here on the rolling hills for 3 hours, waiting for the alphas to make their move. The sun is out and the skies have cleared. Itís warmed up to a quite-nice 13 degrees. The morning rush has come and gone and things are a bit calmer now.

There is much discussion about the bullís injuries. When I first saw him, he was standing. During the last 3 hours he has changed position numerous times, bedded and re-bedded, giving us many views of his body, allowing us to assess his condition.

He seems well muscled, fat and healthy with a huge 6 x 5 rack, but his injuries are visible and look recent. He moves as though his hind quarters are very sore; his right hind leg in particular. He frequently turns his head to lick at a spot under his right front leg. His nose is pinkish from blood and blood-stained icicles hang from his chin and throat. But whenever the wolves come close, he stands up and faces them, looking quite formidable.

During most of these three hours, the alphas have been mostly stationary. 926F took a solo walk close to the bull once and stood and faced her. She backed off fairly quickly and returned to Twin. They then moved to a bedding site just out of sight for a while. 926 does not bed for long. She has been standing most of the time Ė her mange makes it uncomfortable for her to lie down in snow. Twin has no such trouble. When they are close to each other, they behave attentively to each other, but without any particular affection.

Around 10:30 I take a short break and walk back to my car for a sandwich and to make coffee. My sunscreen has frozen so I borrow some from Dave. Hah! Iíve never had that happen before!

I am back out on the hill around 11:15. It seems pleasantly cold but I donít record the actual temperature. Could have gotten as warm as 20.

Around noon, the alphas get up again. We are gruesomely hopeful that the wolves will move on the elk (not because I want the elk to suffer or die, but because the idea of a three day meal will do wonders for the mange-infested individuals.) But it is not to be. 926F seems far more unsettled than Twin. Again, she moves close to the elk. The bull stands up again and she takes a good look at it, issuing some sort of challenge. The elk wins, though, and she surprises us by suddenly heading north past the elk at a fairly determined clip.

Despite a bit of anxiety from regular wolf watchers, and far too much self-serving chatter from two people in particular, she gets across at 21ís crossing just fine.

Once she is loping up hill, I swing my scope back to Twin and find him moving the opposite way, south. We are treated to a lovely view of him as he meanders through the willows and cottonwoods in the river bottom.

As he nears the old river bank I make a wish for him to climb it so we can see him even better. And miraculously, my wish is granted. He crosses the creek out of our sight and soon we see him traversing the diagonal path through the snow-covered bank.

Once he tops the bank, he walks along the edge for a few yards, giving photographers their dream shots. Then he complies further, by stopping in a patch of sun, lowering his head and beginning to dig and gnaw on something under the snow here. Whatever it is, he digs it up then sits down broadside to us, chewing on his find. He then improves the pose by extending one front leg over the lip of the bank. What a pretty wolf he is.

After about 15 minutes, though, he comes back down the diagonal trail and heads straight to the re-bedded elk. As he gets close, the elk rises again. These two males have their own face to face; Twin is much closer to the elk than 926 was. This stare-down lasts about two minutes, and I wonder if Twin is making any threatening noises that we cannot hear? Regardless, the elk wins this round, too. Twin turns and heads back south. He retraces his steps, but this time when he crosses the river he does not go up on the old bank but comes out in to view just south of us, heading east towards Footbridge.

It looks like he wants to cross to the north, and I think at first he might try to do so between the two lots, where there is a bit of tree cover, but he continues towards Footbridge. Many people rush to their cars to head there but I donít. Laurie & Dan are there, so I know they will keep us informed of his movements.

She and other watchers there have a great view of him and eventually he heads for 480ís crossing. He makes it across quickly and safely.

I turn back to the bull elk as he settles back in for a rest. When I first saw him, I thought, along with most other people, that he was done for, and that the wolves would make quick work of him. But I now see my assessment was premature. None of his injuries, painful as they may be, are hobbling injuries, and he is otherwise quite healthy. Itís very possible he will heal and survive, as long as he can keep eating and get some rest. There is abundant forage among the willows and he has access to water, so he is smart to choose this spot to tough it out.

At the same time, another wolf pack perhaps would not allow him to rest. The Lamar Pack is not particularly cohesive, and nearly all of them suffer with mange. They did not hunt this elk as a unit but in pairs of two. Had they been more cooperative, they might wear him out. He still has full use of his formidable antlers.

Both alphas made a clear assessment of the bullís condition and decided against attack. I am inclined to trust their instincts. Hungry as they may be, they know they will need to wait for him to get a lot weaker.

While the elk is bedded, two coyotes approach the area from the west. Then get fairly close to him and we joke about how they are probably getting some big ideas in their head about taking him down. But when they maneuver close enough to make the elk stand, they quickly change their minds!

They trot off and the elk beds again. You can almost see his eyes roll.

From my spot on the rolling hills I can look north and see the wolves on the hill doing this or that. Mostly sitting and howling. Shortly after the alpha female crossed, we did see some interaction between her and the two males. She is always so flirtatious with them!

I check in with Laurie. She has gone back to Soda Butte East and says the three pups and Big T are still visible in that area. One of the gray pups crossed to the south side of the road and is nosing around in the area where the old carcass elk was first brought down.

I decide to head there to take a look. A carful of visitors from Virginia in the Hitching Post lot asks where Soda Butte East is. I tell them I am heading there and they can follow me. But when I get past the Soda Cone, I see the biggest car jam Iíve ever seen in winter. Both sides of the road are lined with cars and no traffic is getting through at all. All for the four mangy Lamar wolves.

I stop my car, get out and tell the carload behind me that I am going to turn around but that if they are patient, the jam will probably move little by little. Then I turn my car around and head back west.

I actually feel bad for the snowmobile truckers trying to get through. Having to slow down when wolves are visible from a pullout is one thing. Coming to a dead stop with no movement in sight is another.

I donít know if Rick or any Rangers are around. But I did run into the Virginia visitors later, and they happily relayed that they did get to see those wolves and got great photos.

I stop a Confluence East, joining Richard, Story and Dave. We have a good view from here at the eyebrow hill above 21ís crossing. We can see Mottled, Dark Black and Twin up there. Dark Black is on his haunches, staring into the willows, looking longingly at the injured elk. He places his front paws on a rock Ė looking quite heroic. Twin is bedded on his side, flat out, tired, I guess from his roundabout journey. Mottled alternates between standing and sitting on his haunches. They howl sometimes.

We can see the injured bull from here and I find a bluebird tree.

Around 3PM I drive again to Soda Butte East. This time, traffic has thinned enough for me to stop for a bit and take a look at these four. They are so pitiful, ravaged by mange, needing food and sleep, and only able to get tiny snatches of both.

Now I head back to Hitching Post. Most people believe itís likely that once dark descends, the wolves will come down the hill and try for the bull. Perhaps, if they work together, they might weaken it enough to kill it.

Story and Dave are here, too, and several other folks. But we see no wolf activity. However, we are entertained by a pack of three coyotes that trot through the flats towards the elk. The elk sees them but remains bedded. The boldest coyote sneaks up close and bites the elk on the butt. Ouch! That makes him stand. Once the huge bull is on his feet, the bold coyote stops in its tracks. We laugh, though, because his move is more than the wolves had done.

The elk licks its chest wound a bit more and then begins to graze.

Rick joins us on the hill, the first time Iíve had a chance to talk with him since early this morning. I ask him how he liked Star Wars. Alas, he did not care for the new girl (I liked her). He liked the movie but didnít love it. We discuss how hard it is to see Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford looking so old, and how it reminds us that WE are old, now, too!

We wait for the wolves to show as the light dims. By 5:10 I canít see any more so I pack up and head back to my car. Laurie & Dan & Story & Dave stay much later. I should have stayed in the lot watching the road but I headed east. Shortly after I left, those who stayed saw Dark Black and one other wolf come down the hill and cross, heading straight to the elk. They also see two more wolves still sitting on the hill (not sure which ones).

I am back in Silver Gate, wondering where they are, but when they arrive, they tell me nothing more happened before they had to give up for the night.

TODAY I SAW: bison, coyotes, elk, 1 ermine, 9 wolves (full count of the Lamar pack, including 926F, Twin (992), Dark Black (993), Mottled, Little T, Big T and the three pups) and the spirit of Allison.




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