DAY SIX - Thursday, December 31


A TALE OF TWO PACKS

There is a bit more snow on the car this morning. Itís a tad warmer at minus 6. The stars are out and I see one particularly bright one Ė probably Venus.

I see paw prints in the snow across Laurieís driveway. I think itís probably a fox but then I see a collared dog trotting down the road. Ahh, probably his prints! But good lord, I would not leave my dog loose outside in this area.

Iím making use of ďstick onĒ toe warmers today Ė something I have not tried before. I am happy to report that they work quite well. But when I reach the entrance gate I realize I forgot my radio so I have to head back to get it.

Back on the road again, I canít help but wonder whether we will find the bull elk alive or dead.

My first stop is at SBE with Laurie. We have five wolves in the same place, just to the north of the road, around the old carcass. But this morning, the group includes mama 926F. All five of them are together, moving towards the road. For a while they are ON the road. Itís still dark but their shapes are easily visible against the snow.

The pups are extremely affectionate with Big T and 926F, wagging their bony tails and licking their muzzles. Big T looks absolutely awful. Iíve never seen a wolf so skinny. Her tail has a puff in it just before the end. The rest is bone. Skinny 926F looks robust in comparison.

Rick is having a good deal of trouble keeping people from stopping or encroaching on them. Cliff is one of the non-cooperators. Itís a fairly impossible task and I donít know how to help him, other than politely asking people from the east to please stop here at the pullout rather than driving on. Luckily there is little traffic overall.

The wolves seem to be playing in the road. I think it must be somewhat comforting to their fur-free legs to not have to be stepping in snow. The joy of seeing wolves up close is diminished by the terrible shape they are in.

They leave the road, crossing south but then almost immediately, come right back on it. They do this about four times. It appears that 926F is trying unsuccessfully to lead them south but they do not want to obey. Finally they do. When they are far enough south of the road, Rick flags us forward. Laurie and Dan and I move on to Footbridge.

We scope the old carcass south of the cone where they were the other day but they donít show up there. In fact, we soon hear they have returned once again to the road. I donít want to go back because it will just make things worse.

Then Doug and Carl, who are west of us, both report wolf sightings in the middle flats, upriver of the confluence. We set up our scopes at the western end of Footbridge and Laurie finds them quite quickly. I see them too. Itís the three males and Little T. There is no mistaking her and her flirtatious behavior. She LOVES being with those males. In fact, they all look frisky and happy. She is like a ball bouncing around with them. We do see some birds in the trees.

It could be they got that elk.

As we are enjoying this sighting, we hear from Chloe & Becky. They are at Fishermanís and report that two grays, both collared, just crossed from south to north in front of them. They set up to try to find them again and end up finding even more wolves up on skyline above Lamar Canyon. When they give the gray/black count, itís apparent they are Junctions.

I was just about to move to Hitching Post but now I think Iíll head west to see the Junctions. When I get there, the large lot is already jammed with cars and buses, but Iím able to find a place to fit my car.

I congratulate C & B on their spot and set up my scope. Itís a beautiful sight to see robust, healthy wolves, especially after watching the poor, mange-ridden Lamars. The Junctions seem to have a fresh carcass. C & B report having seen blood on muzzles. It certainly looks to me that their bellies are full.

The pups are romping about like crazy, using a snow-covered boulder to play king of the hill, while their siblings run circles around it, ambushing each other, roughhousing and tumbling in the snow. It is delightful to see such happy puppy play.

Even uncle (or possibly dad) 890M gets drawn into it as does 907F. Thatís nice!

We keep seeing more wolves come climbing up a trail through the deep snow to the group resting or playing on the crest. It looks like their carcass is below and to the right of the trail, hidden in a clump of trees.

At one point 970F (alpha female) begins to chase a gray wolf with intense determination. Other pack members get excited and pile on, chasing the poor gray. I hear Laurie ask Becky & Chloe if they saw that and they say yes. She makes a distinction between this activity and the play behavior of pups we saw earlier. She feels this is aggression, not play. B & C agree.

Laurie thinks the gray is likely a young female, and that 970 may be trying to drive away her away in advance of the upcoming mating season. She has seen countless alpha females do this in packs when there are too many breeding-age females. We donít really know who this gray is; it could be her daughter, or more likely her niece.

I see a total of nine wolves: four blacks and five grays. The collared wolves I see are 911M, 890M, 970F, 907F and 969F.

Itís minus 4 but feels warmer with the sun out and healthy wolves in view. We hear sporadic reports of activity in the Lamar and I become a little anxious to get back there. But itís hard to tear myself away from a nice active sighing.

But once the Junctions start to bed down, I pack up and head east. But I stop at Coyote to check the view from here. I think itís a bit better. I can see two more wolves from here for a high count of 11 (there are 14 in this pack). While Iím here, the Junctions begin howling. Wow, that is really nice.

I overhear a report that 926F is leading her troops south of Footbridge, aiming for a possible reunion with the other group. Iíd love to see that so I drive on towards Hitching Post.

Luckily I get here in time. Again I join Rhonda and Dora, Story and Dave on the rolling hills. At first we see the three males and Little T, some bedded, some standing, out in the middle flats. They are at the southern end of a row of cottonwoods growing out of the bank of the Lamar. They all turn broadside, looking east, anticipating the arrival of the rest of their family. There are reports that the Lamars could have a carcass out there. But itís not the injured bull elk. He is still alive, grazing in the willows pretty much right where he was yesterday.

Someone spots 926 and her group. I see Big T out front, then the three pups, with 926F bringing up the rear. Laurie is certain that the male group has a carcass and that 926F deliberately went to the Soda Butte East area to let her children know there was food for them. It totally makes sense and warms my heart.

The mangy group gets closer and closer. Big T goes to greet Twin Ė oh, thatís sweet. Then she immediately heads downhill behind him and disappears, presumably, to feed on the carcass. The pups wag their bony tails greeting the others and they all move behind a snowy ridge. I can now only see wagging tails and bouncing backs. They disappear quickly thereafter. As Iím trying to find out where the disappearing wolves are going, I miss 926ís arrival so I donít know who she greets first (or who greets her).

Then we are suddenly distracted by a report of a black wolf in the river bottom, close to us and the injured elk. As soon as I find her, I know itís Little T Ė she seems to have left the male group in advance of her motherís arrival. I guess they spoiled her fun!

She trots determinedly through the flats, paying no attention whatever to the injured elk. She aims for the road and crosses easily, loping up 21ís crossing. She stops only about 20 yards up and begins to bark-howl like crazy. She sounds exactly like a coyote. She barks a lot, then eventually howls more ďnormallyĒ.

As she climbs higher and higher on the north side hill, I can see and hear her progress to the east. She continues to howl on and off, I guess to let the others know where she is.

Turning back to the south, I still see Twin, 926 and Dark Black still visible on the slope to the left of the cottonwoods, into which the others disappeared. We watch them a while, discussing the behavior weíve witnessed, commenting about the injured elk being stronger than we first thought.

Then someone notices a person out on the Lamar River Trail. Itís a snow-shoer with a heavy pack. The wolves are instantly aware of him and move off quickly. At first watchers are mad at the snow-shoer, because the wolves disappeared, but heís on a trail and he has a right to be there. We watch him and it doesnít seem that he was deliberately headed for the wolves, just out for a hike.

But I do point out to some visitors that the wolvesí behavior is natural Ė they run away from people, even a lone person Ė rather than rushing towards him to do him harm.

These three wolves then re-appear a bit further away. After a bit of a break, I join Laurie & Dan back at Footbridge. From here we can see the two males and 926F. From this vantage point they appear to the right of the line of cottonwoods. The bird-filled trees Ė signs of a fresh carcass - are more obvious from here.

Laurie tells me that shortly after she arrived, Little T appeared to the south, very close to the western end of the lot. She was howling and Laurie could see blood on her muzzle & neck, like sheíd been eating, which further confirms the carcass theory.

While we are watching the wolves out by the cottonwoods, other tourists pull in and we share our scopes. We notice a coyote trotting along the riverbank. Hmmm, he looks like he has a full belly. Wonder where heís been!

Once that coyote has passed to the east, another tourist says oh, look, thereís another coyote. I follow his pointed finger and say Ė uh, nope, thatís a wolf!

Itís Little T again Ė she has just crossed the road without any of us seeing her till now. She plunges down the hill and splashes across Soda Butte creek, heading west, working her way back to her family and the carcass.

We watch her for a long time as she makes her way across the sage flats and up on the old riverbank, giving visitors a big thrill.

Itís now about 1:30 and Iíve already had a day full of wolves, so I decide to go in for a while with Laurie & Dan Ė intending to go up to Cooke to get gas and pay a visit to the souvenir shop in the General Store there. But, alas, itís not open. When I come back to Silver Gate I find Dan in the garage, trying to fix their dumb waiter. Itís scary and he tries really hard but itís just too broken.

Laurie tells me she wants to go back out so just before 4PM we do that. Itís 3 degrees now. I think it got up to 18 today. We stop at Footbridge and find 926 but not the males. She cannot bed, so we see her standing close to the line of cottonwoods.

We decide to check on the Junctions. We stop at Coyote and find them right away. I have another count of 11. The Junction Pack treats us to three rallies, each accompanied by a wonderful howling session. And then the pups start up their delightful play again. I burst out laughing when two pups race around a boulder and crash into each other, tumbling into the snow, sending it flying. Another time they rear up on their hind legs to paw each other; one of them slips and harmlessly body-plants in the deep snow, and then the others pile on. Oh, those pups have so much fun.

After the third rally they begin to move off with deliberation to the west. The light is fading fast as they disappear from view. I step away from my scope, about to pack up when Laurie says ďlook! Thereís another grayĒ. And sure enough a 12th wolf appears at the bottom of the trail. Laurie suspects this could be the wolf that was being chased by 970 earlier today. We watch the gray come up the slope to the top and turn right to follow the exact route we just saw the pack take.

Then suddenly the gray wheels and bolts downslope, and I am shocked to see she is being chased by a collared black wolf! Whoa! Itís 970F of course! We watch the black chase the gray, full out, down and around trees through deep snow until the gray finally disappears heading into Lamar Canyon. The black disappears into that area, too.

The light is nearly gone and I really cannot see any more, but I still try. Laurieís scope is much better than mine and she can still see 970. So I train my scope on the road, hoping to see if any cars are stopped, which might indicate the gray has reached the road.

But no, there arenít any cars ON the road, much less stopped.

Neither of us got a long enough look at the gray to see if it was collared or not. We donít really know if it was the same gray wolf as the one chased this morning. But I trust Laurieís instinct!

Itís really way too dark to see now, so we pack up and head back. We are delayed for a while by a huge herd of bison at Footbridge, so I drive through the lot to get around them.

Itís New Yearís Eve and Laurie has invited Rick over for salmon dinner. I have some wine, so we serve that, too. We have a very nice time, although we miss a larger party to the west. Happy New Year!

Today I saw: bison, coyotes, elk, 23 wolves from two packs (13 from the Junction Buttes and all 9 of the Lamars) and the spirit of Allison.




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