DAY FOUR - Saturday, December 24


THE PROSPECT INVASION

There is a dusting of snow on the car this AM but itís powdery and easy to brush off. There has been a change in temperature. Itís a balmy 24 degrees and I mean ABOVE zero. But it looks cloudy so we may still get more snow.

Kara and Rick B are ahead of me. They have found wolf tracks in the road. Many, many wolf tracks.

Hmmm.

I join Rick at Round Prairie. He has 926ís signal southwest and suggests I set up. As soon as I do I see wolves! Oh wow, they are especially exciting to see in the half-light of pre-dawn. Theyíre at the far end of the meadow, traveling across snowy flats moving towards the low berm out there. At first I think I am seeing Lamars but I see grays as well as blacks andÖwow, there are a lot of them! Iím up to four blacks and four gray.

Who are these wolves?

They are scent-trailing, moving with serious determination. And they are gorgeous. They are not the Junctions, either. Itís the Prospect Peak pack. What are they doing this far east?

Given where they were at 3:30 yesterday, it seems they have deliberately traveled into Lamar territory, probably via upper Slough Creek and down Pebble Creek. And there are twice as many of them as there are Lamars.

The wolves pass behind the berm and begin to disappear into thick trees. Someone points out two moose in the nearby willows, but the wolves have no interest in them. They are on a mission, heading down the Soda Butte Valley.

I head west to get ahead of them, setting up at Soda Butte East. I scan the hills for movement. Since no one has seen the Prospects come out on the low route, I have a hunch they went high. People spread out. Things get a bit tense, as people worry for the well-being of the home pack.

Doug calls from the Soda Cone. He has spotted them up high on a rocky slope where I have often seen bighorn.

I see them! They run down the open slope with their tails high for about 2 minutes. Wow, they are really beautiful wolves. My high count is 9 (4 blacks & 5 grays) before they disappear into the forest again.

Then someone at Slough radios that the Junctions are being seen there. Well, when it rains it pours! Maybe the Junctions pushed the Prospects out of Little America and thatís why they traveled east? Iíd love to see the Junctions but I am more interested in sticking around to see what happens with these two packs right here.

People at Footbridge hear howling. Itís the Lamars. They are now being seen on Mt. Norris above Dead Puppy Hill. I hope they donít stay there because it seems to me that the Prospects will reach Mt. Norris in no time.

The Prospects show up again, this time on a high spot the bear watchers call Penny Lane. Itís just a narrow slope of open snow on the skyline east of Mt. Norris.

I drive to Footbridge and set up just in time to see wolves on the low slopes of Dead Puppy Hill. I see three blacks; two to the east and one in the center. Oh look! Thereís a fourth black coming down the trail on the western side.

Itís the Lamars. They know they are being pursued.

One of the two at the eastern end comes out on a low rise and stops there, looking back towards Norris, as if waiting for someone. Itís 949M. Iím not sure where the second wolf went.

There is so much to watch itís easy to lose track. But I swing my scope to the right because I now recognize 926F. She is the wolf coming down the center of the hill at a very fast clip. She gets to the bottom and crosses the sage flats, crosses the frozen river and will soon cross the road, angling for a spot between the western end of this lot and the hills east of Hitching Post.

While she is making her approach, Husky Black is observed on the western side of the hill. He stays higher than 926F, racing above the old riverbank and seems to be aiming for 21ís crossing.

949M is still slightly east of us, standing on his low hill, looking agitated, panting, turning this way and that, repeatedly looking back towards Norris. Husky lopes through deep snow and finally reaches the river corridor.

926F has crossed the road and continues running up the north hill toward the den area. Several cars leave this pullout and head west in an ill-considered attempt to see Husky as he approaches the road. I understand people want to see wolves up close, and perhaps photograph them, but these wolves are under attack. They are clearly stressed and I wish people would just stay where they are and let them reach a place of safety.

Rick puts on his vest to concentrate on traffic, which means he cannot remain to observe the wolvesí behavior.

Someone at Hitching Post radios that Husky has made it across the road. He stops half-way up the eyebrow hill and starts to howl for his family. 926F has disappeared from view but it looks like she and Husky have the same goal. I trust her to meet up with him soon. None of us have seen Little T or Small Dot but I donít think the Prospects have quite reached Norris yet, either.

949M is the only wolf visible to me now. He leaves his hill and begins to head west, moving across the flats at the base of DPH, parallel to the pullout, right in front of us. He stops to sniff where 926 came down the hill. He continues west and stops to sniff Huskyís trail. Now he scent trails Huskyís route above the old riverbank toward 21ís crossing.

Meanwhile, someone has spotted a black wolf at skyline on Norris. Most believe it is Little T, but it could be Small Dot. They are both dark black and each has a small white mark on the chest. When you see them together, Small Dot has a larger build, and his chest mark is smaller, but what I see is a single wolf at a distance, standing broadside. I donít know either wolf well enough to tell which one this is.

In the meanwhile the Prospects are spotted again, still east of Norris, in and out of forest, heading towards an area we call the eastern rolling hills, directly east of DPH. I glimpse a few of them, moving through heavy timber and snow.

Behind me I hear bark-howling from the traditional den area. This is the sound an agitated wolf makes. It is sad and worrying to hear. 926 trying to gather her family.

Once 949 makes it to the river corridor I drive on to Hitching post. Once Iím set up I can see him, stalled out in the middle flats to the south. In the opposite direction I see Husky Black and 926, now together on the ledge trail. She faces south and howls with such emotional distress it almost breaks your heart.

Husky joins her howling on and off but she howls continuously for over an hour. We can hear her getting hoarse. On occasion I will hear 949 reply so they know heís near. Iím not sure why he has not come north to join them. Maybe heís waiting for Little T?

Most people think it is Little T up on skyline. She moves around a lot, looking quite agitated. She knows the Prospects are near and does not want to give away her position by howling. I am sure she hears her motherís call.

The alphas move down lower from their spot on the ledge trail. They begin howling from this lower spot, then move back up to their original place and howl from there. Then they move up even higher and howl from that position for another half hour.

Around noon, Little T finally responds to 926ís howls. This sparks a response from the Prospects. We hear their multiple voices reverberating like singers in a cathedral. Shortly after this Little T crests skyline and disappears over the top.

Steve finds the howling Prospects on a snow slope partly hidden by trees just above the eastern rolling hills. Thankfully, they seem to have stopped there to bed for a bit.

I can see three of them from here; people at Footbridge can see quite a few more. While the Prospects are still howling, a single black wolf is spotted on a snowy slope below the crest of Norris, which means heís above and well west of the Prospects.

This lone wolf does not join in the howl; it is likely this is Small Dot, the fifth Lamar.

When their howling ends, the Prospects get up and begin moving west. As they do, the lone black begins to make his way quite stealthily across the steep slope, in very deep snow, just below an exposed cliff face.

I realize I have not heard 926 or Husky howl for a while. I discover they are no longer visible on the ledge trail. Then I realize why. They have just crossed the road to the south at 21ís crossing and are heading out to join 949 in the middle flats.

I watch them happily reunite with 949. They wag tails and nuzzle each other. Itís very heartwarming to see after all this stress.

The three of them howl from here and the Prospects respond. I wonder if they are trying to keep the Prospectís attention, in order to allow Small Dot and Little T to reach safety?

Well, whatever their intention, this latest howl certainly serves to stir up the Prospects again. People at Footbridge say they are running. Now I see them on Dead Puppy. The ones in front stop so that the ones behind can catch up. They have a big, effusive rally and I count 8.

There are a few bull elk on shoulder of Norris and the wolves seem interested in them. But the bulls are strong and stand their ground and the wolves give up quickly.

Now the Prospects begin running again, taking a route down the shoulder of Norris which will eventually bring them to the middle flats. I scan to the right and find the Lamars quite a bit further west than they were before, but way too close to the Prospects for my comfort.

Suddenly the Prospect wolves stop short. They stand in place for a while looking towards the Lamar River corridor. Then, to my surprise, they turn around and head back east. I breathe a sigh of relief for the vulnerable Lamars, but canít figure why the Prospects would give up.

Then someone spies a pair of skiers out on the Lamar River trail. Wow. Now thatís an interesting turn of events. For once, it seems, the timely appearance of humans unknowingly protected the Lamar wolves from an almost certain attack by a rival pack.

The Lamars now seem to be heading toward the old Druid R-V at a ground-eating trot, while the Prospects retrace their steps, moving steadily east and away from trouble.

When the Lamars go out of view, I drive over to Footbridge to try to find the Prospects from here. They are in easy view and I follow them all the way across Dead Puppy and back to the very same hill where Steve first found them. It is a better view from here but I still canít get a very accurate count.

Shortly after this, a lone black wolf appears at the eastern end of DHP, low in the flats, close to where I first saw 949 on his low hill. The black wolf makes its way towards the river and begins to bark-howl. When it turns to face the pullout I can see this is Small Dot. He has snuck all the way down Dead Puppy on his own, successfully avoiding all those Prospects. It now seems as though the Lamarís decision to howl and stir up the Prospects was exactly the right thing to do to give Small Dot his chance to get back home.

Small Dot now makes for the river, crossing its shallow but chilly water and making a bee line for the road. Rick and another Ranger keep the road clear for him to use 480ís crossing. He makes it across safely and I smile, watching him lope easily through thick snow uphill towards the traditional den area.

Unfortunately the alphas are no longer there to greet him Ė they are now to the west!

Throughout this drama it has been snowing on and off. Itís now coming down pretty heavily and has greatly reduced the visibility.

I talk to other watchers and learn I am too late to see Junctions, but I would not have missed this for the world. No one is sure about Little T. Itís worrisome but I tell myself that this is her home territory and she is a young, healthy wolf. I believe she will find a way to avoid the Prospects, just as Small Dot did.

I end up driving west and join Rick at Picnic. He has the alphas and 949 right at the tree line of Chalcedony fan. I see Husky for a brief second as he disappears into the forest.

As we are recounting the day, we hear a single low howl to the north. I swing my scope around and find the howler just above the exclosure fence. Itís Small Dot! Wow, he got over here fast! He continues to howl but I do not hear any response from the alphas.

Nevertheless, itís clear he knows where they are. He makes his way down slope to the road. He desperately wants to rejoin them.

Again, Rick has to deal with traffic to make sure Small Dot crosses safely. He does. Through the softly falling snow I follow him as he makes his way across the flats and into the trees where his pack awaits him.

Iím confident Little T will find her way home later as well.

Now I head back east. I stop at Footbridge to take another look at the Prospects. I see them but the view is still obstructed so I still donít get a good count.

I stop once more at Round Prairie and find two moose, probably the same ones that were here this morning at the start of the drama. Kara tells me she saw 9 here this morning, including two bulls who were clashing antlers in the road.

Back in Silver Gate, Kara, both Ricks and I talk over Christmas Eve pizza. Rick tells us about the new, draconian ďno stoppingĒ rule and how hard it is to enforce if Rangers are not nearby.

Today I saw: bison, elk, 2 moose, 14 wolves in two packs: 5 Lamars (including 926F, 949M, Husky Black, Small Dot and Little T) and 9 of 11 Prospects (4 blacks and 5 grays) and the spirit of Allison.




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