My last day starts as usual at 6:50 - at a chilly minus 6. I guess I can be glad itís warmer than yesterday!
The questions in my mind as I drive into the valley are all about the Mollies: Why are they here? Are they hunting or looking for new territory? Will they go back south or hang around a bit? Will they interact with the mange-weakened Lamar Canyon Pack? Will they find and kill the injured bull elk? Will they cross paths with the Junctions?
Of course, it could all work out fine and the packs might be savvy enough to just keep their distances.
My first stop is at Confluence East where itís dropped to minus 13. I scope the flats and the cottonwood carcass area as well as the eyebrow hill to the north. But I find no wolves. I do see two bull elk in the confluence, but neither is the injured bull. Hmmm, perhaps heís moved on.
A bit later I join Laurie at Slough. She is eager to see what the Mollies are up to. I learn that there are signals for Junctions to the north & Mollies to the south but nothing in sight yet. Rick asks us to spread out and I end up at Lamar Bridge where I scope with Dan from YA and his tour group. We find many bull elk grazing on the slopes of Specimen alone.
Kathie and Dan brave the cold and hike out to Bobís Knob, while Laurie scopes from the lot. As soon as Dan puts up his scope, he finds a wolf! I pack up and drive to Slough which is already jammed. But I find a spot and pack up for the walk out.
I join Dan and Rhonda and Dora. We end up seeing 12 of the Junctions. At first, Dan found them in the flats but soon they begin moving higher so everyone in the lot can see them, too. My count is 8 grays 4 blacks. Itís cold out here, but itís a nice sighting that lasts over 2 hours. I have an extra hand warmer Ė one of those chemical packets Ė which I place over the bridge of my poor cold nose.
I watch the Junctions take a slow winding walk up a rocky knob. They use several trails that snake through deep snow. We see no signs of a carcass here, so perhaps we will see them hunt. They ascend easily, casually, passing each other with short greetings, sometimes wagging tails or briefly licking muzzles. Some take a break and bed (911M), while others keep moving uphill. For a while they are sort of all over the place. Then one by one they choose a place to bed and I say hmm, weíre watching bedded wolves again!
But then, as if responding to my complaint, a collared gray (907F) continues over the knob to the east, in the direction of the old Slough den. Several other wolves follow her. They look like they are exploring, not on a mission somewhere. In fact, we realize they have become interested in two cow bison with a calf of the year. Upon closer inspection, Doug thinks he sees afterbirth on one of the cows. Hmm. Could be an aborted fetus. There is a single magpie flitting around rather determinedly.
The group of exploring wolves grows to seven; most are pups, five gray and two black. They circle the bison, looking for a chance to get closer. Every once in a while an individual wolf will lunge in at the bison. It looks somewhat playful to me, but I suppose they are testing them. The bison are wary and never quite seem to be in danger, but they raise their tails and charge the wolves when necessary.
From my perspective, the wolf behavior is mostly comical. One of the pups is especially excited; his tail is wagging so hard it looks like a helicopter rotor. He moves in a circle, he creeps up, carefully, hesitates, creeps closer, then just as heís ready to lunge, the bison wheels in his direction, making him bolt and run with a tucked tail.
Two of the grays in this group are that pretty cream color that I like and two are more of a silvery gray. These animals never coordinate their attack and therefore never really have a chance. But their behavior does has an air of seriousness, I guess because 907F is there. If Doug is right, and a fetus was aborted, she would have smelled it.
I scan back to the bedded group and notice 911 is bedded with another gray close by. They are quite a bit higher on the slope than the others. This is normal for 911. He likes napping alone. Laurie suspects that the other gray might be the female that has been getting chased by 970F. It would make sense for her to seek protection from 970 by hanging close to 911M. They both nap, oblivious of the bison-testing going on below.
We scan periodically in the opposite direction, looking for Mollies. At one point Doug thinks he has them Ė he sees something moving way up high. He calls it in to Rick but then is quite embarrassed when it turns out to be fox! You see? We all make mistakes!
Well, itís approaching 10AM which is my departure time. The temp has risen to a warm-feeling 2 degrees. I pack up and head out for my drive back to Bozeman. I am sorry to leave my friends but glad I can leave on a happy note, when they are seeing wolves.
I have a nice easy drive to the west. I see a mule deer eating pine needles north of the Elk Bowl. And I have to go slowly as I approach Christmas bear because a big bull elk has bedded right in the road, drawing many fans with cameras. There are more elk bedded at Phantom Lake.
The Park is always especially beautiful when the sun is out, and today is no exception. Electric Peak is particularly gorgeous.
I have a bison Jam at Wraith Falls and then a sweet little coyote pops onto the road just past Undine. He trots along the icy road downhill in front of me for a while, turning his head to keep his eye on me while glancing now and again at the route ahead. I donít want to push him but I canít really stop on this section either so I go slowly with my flashers on. He gets well ahead of me but stays in the road. Finally he leaps over the berm into the forest.
When I get across the high bridge, the roads turn dry and stay that way all the way to Bozeman.
I stop in Mammoth for my thank you and goodbye visit with Allison. After that I use the heated bathroom to change out of my extra warm clothes. Itís now up to 24 and feels like 60! Once Iím out of my Sorel snow boots and into my regular hiking boots, I no longer feel like a yak. Iím a person again!
I stop at the Super 8 to thank the guy in person for giving me the refund and deliver a jar of Huckleberry Jam.
I drive back on dry, clear roads seeing elk, mulies and thousands of geese under a beautiful bright blue sky.
TODAY I SAW: bison, coyotes, mule deer, elk, a fox, geese, bighorn sheep, 12 wolves of the Junction Butte Pack and the spirit of Allison.