It’s 30 frosty degrees as I step out of my room in Silver Gate. First light is well underway, dimming the stars at the edge of the horizon.
I see several elk feeding in the first little meadow beyond the Entrance station and a big bull moose standing in Warm Creek on the north side.
At Round Prairie I join Laurie and Rick and learn that, alas, there are no Druid signals here this morning. I am disappointed, of course, but I remind myself that I want the Druids to survive this spring and to be able to safely raise whatever pups they have. If being less visible to us will accomplish that, then so be it.
I thoroughly enjoy the drive along the Soda Butte to the Confluence, as the beauty of the land is slowly unveiled by the growing light.
As I come out of the big curve I see a lot of cars at Trash Can and more at Picnic with scopes pointed north. I find a spot and join the crowd. On the north sage slope I see a grizzly sow and THREE darling cubs of the year, moving from right to left. I listen to the talk around me and piece together what I missed.
About a half hour ago, two visitors heard coyotes barking and yipping. They found three of the little dogs on a slope east of their den, engaged in a tense standoff with two wolves, a black and a gray. The visitors watched, fascinated, as the three coyotes harassed the two wolves, with the coyotes (who were defending their nearby den) succeeding in driving the wolves away. Once the wolves left, the coyotes moved to the east and then the grizzly appeared with her three little ones. All this and it’s not even 6AM! There are also sporadic bird sightings and some nervous elk, so it is generally thought that a carcass of some sort is in the area. It could be that this grizzly sow caught an elk calf and the wolves were drawn by it - or perhaps the other way around.
So, I’ve missed the wolves but I do see the bears! The sow is a beauty, very dark, almost black, with a classic grizzled-silver “vest”. All three of her cubs are black and one is noticeably larger than the other two. The bear moves briskly across the hill, nose to the ground, and her three little shadows have to run every few steps to keep up with her. We get a terrific, unimpeded view of these bears and they move across the slope above us.
Then, on a knoll above a wooded gully I see a coyote, then a second and now a third. It suddenly dawns on me that the sow is heading straight for the coyote’s den. The coyotes know it, too, and act accordingly. They surround the bears, using teamwork to try to head the sow uphill so she will bypass the den.
The bear cubs are so cute, scurrying behind mama, one after the other, trying their tiny best to keep up with her. The last cub is about 10 feet behind mom and the third coyote follows about two feet behind it. Mama bear betrays no nervousness as long as the coyotes maintain their proper distance. But she seems to have eyes in the back of her head because as soon as the trailing coyote sneaks in too close, she whips around and bluff charges, sending the coyote wheeling, tail tucked, and the cubs rush to gather under her. Sometimes the cubs stand on their back legs, perhaps to make themselves appear larger to the coyotes. In truth, they are about the same size.
Mama bear has to bluff charge two more times but still continues on her way at a good pace, yet not so fast as to lose her dignity as a grizzly. The coyotes keep up a steady pressure. But then the trailing coyote sneaks in one more time to try to nip the last cub. Suddenly the cub wheels and charges the coyote all by itself! Whoa! The coyote bolts and the cub chases it several yards downhill, ending up a good 30 feet from Mama. My heart is in my throat, seeing that tiny cub out there all by itself. What a tough little guy! He may be just a cub but he knows he’s a grizzly! Now he scampers back to mom and falls back in line, having earned the admiration of a pullout full of humans.
After this, the coyotes are more cautious, although it’s clear the sow has gotten the message. She heads up hill and to the west, continuing her search for hidden elk calves. The coyotes seem to know that danger has passed and they stop together on the ridge top, watching the bear shapes grow smaller and smaller.
Next we hear a report that the wolves have been sighted further to the west. Most people pack up and head there but I stay a while, hoping to see if the coyote pups are all right. The coyotes gather at the den area but before I see pups, someone spots another grizzly!
Up along the ledge trail on the flanks of Druid Peak, a lone male is making his way straight down, aiming for the wooded spot below the knoll. I see his nose raised, smelling the air. He disappears below the knoll and a few birds rise into the sky. He‘s not in there very long, though. He comes back out and simply heads back the way he came, an indication that the original carcass is already consumed and probably was an elk calf.
I glance over to the coyote den and see three pups on the den porch. Yay! And then I see the other two. All five pups have survived and the four adults are in a huddle, as if re-assuring each other that all is well.
So now I pack up and head west, stopping at Mid Point north just in time to see a single black wolf trot over the Ranger Rock hill. This is one of the yearlings of the Unknown pack. Other folks saw four of them, the black alpha female, a white yearling, and two black yearlings. But I don’t have time to feel bad about missing the wolves because across the valley, up on Specimen Ridge, is a courting pair of grizzlies. I see a large bear following a smaller bear across a snow patch. How pretty to see that!
Then they have a mock wrestling match and I see the small one run a few yards, chased by the larger one. Then they both stop abruptly and sniff the ground very seriously. As I am trying to figure out what they are sniffing, I am distracted by a shout from another scoper in the pullout.
The grizzly and three cubs has re-appeared on a ridge to the north right smack in front of us. So for a good half-hour I switch between these two bear sightings, the sow and three to the north and the courting pair to the south.
The sow continues her determined search for elk calves, nose to the ground and sometimes raised high in the air, as she roams the hillsides, up and down over fallen logs, in and out of sunlit patches of sage, in and out of trees. Her darling babies follow dutifully behind. Although they seem to have enough to do just keeping up with mom, they manage to play a little but with each other. They often stop to investigate something that catches their attention, or wrestle a little with each other, then gallop to catch up.
I continue to turn around to catch another glimpse of the courting pair on the opposite hill, until the time I see them top the ridge and disappear. What a morning! 7 bears and it‘s only 8AM!
When the sow and three moves into thick woods I decide to go back to Picnic to watch the coyote pups. When I arrive I am surprised to see Rick here, sitting on his collapsible chair, focused on the coyote den. I almost wonder if there are more wolves in view?
But no, it is the coyote mother. She is moving her pups.
Anne and Laurie and Hellroaring Kat and I set up near Rick and watch this fascinating drama. The mother is the only adult here. I don’t know where the others have got to. The pups romp around in happy oblivion on lower slopes.
Mom is all business. She trots back and forth along a little path from the den to a little drainage gully separating two slopes. It looks to me as though she wants the pups to follow her but they just don’t get it. She does not want to waste time. She wants to do this NOW so she moves to the nearest pup and tries to pick it up.
She tries one grip, then another and another but the squirming pup is not making it easy. But Mom persists and grasps the pup by the pelvis, and the poor pup goes limp, dangling head down. Mom trots down the path to the drainage with her tawny bundle in her jaws. She hops across the trickling water and continues heads along a path on the other side. She gets to a patch of ground near a large sage plant and stops. She puts the pup down and stands there, panting, while the pup looks up at her, wondering what’s going on. She lowers her head and starts to dig! Aha! It looks like there is already some sort of hole here that she is now sort of clearing out. Dry dirt goes flying between her hind legs! The pup goes inside and mom re-traces her steps back to the den.
I ask Rick why the other three adult coyotes don’t help. He says no one really knows, but it might be that only the mother is able to master the delicacy needed to carry pups in her teeth without harming them. He adds that it is typical for coyotes to move their dens periodically while the pups are growing, especially after experiencing the type of disturbance they had this morning, with the wolves and then the bear.
I watch in fascination as the coyote mother travels back and forth between the new den and the old den, moving each of her five pups by mouth. Each time she starts off with one, the remaining pups follow for a few feet, then get scared and dash back uphill to the den. They must be very confused. One pup is grabbed by its shoulder skin. Hmm, that doesn’t work, so mom puts him down and tries a different grip. Middle of the back, yes that’s better! Off she goes.
When she goes back for the fourth pup, the fifth pup follows her all the way to the edge of the gully but when mom jumps the little stream, the fifth pup chickens out and runs all the way back up the hill to the old den. He sits there looking so scared and forlorn on the porch of the den, wondering where oh where has his family gone!
Then the mother surprises me. Instead of heading back to get her fifth pup, she picks up one of the four pups she has already transported and trots off further west to yet another already existing den. This den is partially hidden by a clump of high green grass. Mom does some quick excavating here, too. Oh, I love to see the dirt fly! She leaves one pup at this den and trots back to the middle spot and picks up another pup, beginning the process over again.
I begin to fret about the fifth pup still at the original den. Rick says coyotes can‘t count and that this happens sometimes. I can‘t bear to think that this little pup will be abandoned. But I needn’t have worried. The coyote mom knows best and once she has stashed four pups at the grass-clump den she goes all the way back and gets pup number five.
Watching this process, I am filled with a new respect for the hard and dangerous life of coyotes, and the determination and care of one coyote mom.
I move on to Dorothy’s. The elk and calves that I have been seeing each day near the river are nowhere in sight. I look for them a while but only find geese on the river, honking.
It’s time for me to get my camp site at Tower so I head west. In Lamar Canyon I stop to look at the owls. I find the nest but see no critters in it, neither adults nor chicks. At Junction Butte I see some mule deer and several more on the way up to the campground. I reserve #8 for two more nights and now I head off to the Interior, which I haven‘t seen since the I arrived four days ago.
As I approach the lower Hellroaring pullout I see cars stopped and people looking uphill. I see a black bear moving up the slope, headed for the trees and two visitors running towards it in the grass below, cameras in hand. The bear is well above them and it looks like they will only succeed in driving it out of sight.
Two red-tails soar above me at the Elk Bowl and I see a pronghorn on the hill just before the Children’s Fire Trail. And just before the S curves I get that spectacular view of mountains and meadows! Oh, I love it!
I wind through Blacktail and on into Mammoth, then up through the Golden Gate and into Swan Lake flats. I stop here and see quite a few elk and enjoy the beautiful snow-tipped mountains all around me. There are sand hill cranes in the high grass and some ducks on the Lake, but alas, no swans. I am hoping to see the grizzly and two cubs that I’ve been told are making daily visits to this area. Thanks to another visitor, I do see them, but unfortunately, I’ve picked the wrong morning, as they are quite far away on a lower flank of Bunsen. Even Layla can’t make them look bigger than dots. Oh well.
I wait here a while hoping the bears might turn and move closer but they do the opposite. So I head south. I’ve don’t remember ever seeing Willow Park so green! There is abundant water everywhere, glistening bright blue.
There is a lot of re-growth in this area and especially around Mt. Holmes it looks remarkable. All in all I’m glad I took this drive because the area looks so different than in did on the rainy, chilly afternoon when I first arrived.
I have some lunch at the big meadow turnout near Norris Campground. It’s very quiet and relaxing. Then take the side road to Virginia Cascades. Boy am I glad I did! The waterfall is astonishing. It‘s solid white-water and looks like a super flume, complete with snow still clinging to the rocks at the top of the falls. After gazing at it for a while I drive on past the brink and pull over. The river is so mellow and placid right here…just before it plunges into oblivion!
All along this drive between Norris & Canyon I notice thick remnants of snow on the north side and pools of standing water on the south side. I turn left at Canyon and head up the new road. Winter still holds on to this area. The slopes are still bare with little to no green-up at all. The higher I go the more snow I see.
I see a bird soar over the road, then it hovers a second or two and then dives out of sight. I would say kestrel but it was much larger, hawk sized. Do hawks hover?
At about 4PM I pass the Chittenden Road and then head down the sharp u-turn. As I come around the curve I see a huge jam to the east; cars parked on both sides of the road and visitors all over the hill with binoculars and scopes. I am in need of a nap and feel temporarily anti-social, so I simply drive by the jam without stopping or asking what‘s going on. I make a cursory search for wolfer faces or cars but find none.
Then at Tower I run into Gerry who has just arrived from Scotland. We chat a while and I bring him up to speed on the wolf situation. I tell him I am in desperate need of a nap but will no doubt see him later this evening, wherever the wolves are.
At Junction Butte I grab some shut eye, about an hour. But I am startled awake by my radio, which suddenly bursts to life with static. In between the scratches I am pretty sure I hear Calvin’s distinctive voice saying “up here”. Something in his tone makes me believe he is seeing wolves. But where is he? “Up here” could be Dave’s Hill or perhaps Cardiac, above Dorothy’s. But the static itself is a clue, as it‘s common to get static between here and the high pullouts on the east side of Dunraven Pass. Then I flash on the big jam I saw and realize in an instant just how silly Wendy has been.
It was a wolf jam!
I rouse myself and get ready to head back there. Anne and Laurie drive by and signal me to follow. I do! I don’t know how I missed Calvin and Lynette‘s camper. But as it happens we are not too late. The jam is still going strong. I find a place to park and get set up. Anne spots a wolf right away; a black, 525F of the Agate pack, resting in the grass near a boulder. Yay!
I trot over to Calvin and Lynnette and sheepishly confess that I passed them earlier. They fill me in on what I missed. They have seen five wolves so far, and I just missed alpha 113M, who has already left the area. They have a fresh kill down below in the timber among some tangled deadfall. Lynnette and Calvin say they had a nice long sighting of him as he headed across the flats and they now know approximately where the Agate den area is. They say there are three more grays bedded near the carcass area, 472F, the un-collared gray and 524F.
I go back to watching the lone black wolf and see she is now laying on her side, totally relaxed, trying to stay out of the sun. I figure we won’t see much action until things cool down a bit. I look around. I think this is the biggest wolf jam I have ever seen.
I set up my camp chair and wait for the evening to cool down and the wolf action to heat up. No sooner to I get settled than the black wolf gets up and trots closer to the carcass area. I have a nice, easy sighting of her which I happily share with the steady parade of visitors. Everyone is nice and friendly. As she leaps over the little stream and nears the carcass area, I see two gray boulders lift up their heads and become gray wolves!
At about this time, a bunch of Loons arrive: Lew & Deb, Hellroaring Cat, CT Carolyn and Victor and Mark & Lynn. It’s great to see them and share this wolf sighting. The two bedded grays are the alpha female, 472, and an un-collared gray yearling. The black interacts with the un-collared gray a little bit, but then they both re-bed.
Then, two additional grays are spotted, way out across the flats and heading this way. They are 471F and (I think) 383M. From Lynette I learn that 471F is the beta female. I find her coloring very distinctive, almost white. Her face is quite unusual, too, and at this distance, reminds me of a bull terrier - someone says she “looks like the Target dog“. LOL.
The other gray wolf goes straight to the carcass and I admit I kind of forget about him, because I am so enamored of 471. I also see very little of alpha female 472, whom I do know from past sightings. But she stays bedded next to a tree and I never do get a good look at her. After a while the gray male comes out, carrying a chunk of meat in his jaws. He finds a place away from the others and sits down to enjoy his meal.
Now I watch 471F go in for her turn. The carcass is behind a long, fallen log with a row of aspen and a lone conifer growing in front of it. Lynette tells me to find two aspen that look like “goal posts“ and to look right between them. I follow her excellent instruction and find 471‘s white face tugging at something dark on the ground. The spot is so tangled with deadfall I can’t imagine how a chase might have ended there.
When 471 comes back out, her paws are so black with mud that it looks like she is wearing shoes. Her face is stained with blood and she carries a chunk of meat, just like the other wolf did. She beds in a grassy area and begins to rub her cheeks and chin on the grass, wiping off the blood.
I speculate that things are so tangled and muddy back there that the wolves enjoy having a meal “al fresco” instead of in the damp, dark butcher shop.
Then the black wolf (525F) gets up and walks to the carcass area for her meal. Muddy paws gets up and carries what’s left of her meat to another spot where she digs a hole and caches it for later. Then she beds again.
The un-collared gray seems to have eaten so much all he can do is sleep. Same with 472, or maybe, as Laurie suggests, she may be taking a welcome break away from the pups. For a while all the wolves are stationary so I check the hills for other critters. There are elk in small groups just about everywhere and a very “wary” group of cows whom I suspect may have hidden calves, nearby. And there are bison, always bison.
Then 525 comes out, walking along the top of a fallen log, looking just like a kid playing in the woods! She is not carrying a snack, though. Instead of bedding like the others, she continues to move across the flats and we realize she is on her way back to the den.
This affords me (and everyone else) another nice long sighting of her. Black wolves are always easier to see and this one can actually be seen with the naked eye. But those with scopes are willing to share with anyone who wants to look. And it’s an eventful journey to watch. As 525 passes the group of cow elk, one of them charges and chases her into a row of trees. Then suddenly she bolts right back out of there at an unexpected angle. First I think the wolf is turning the tables on the elk but then I realize she spooked at something IN the row of trees.
The elk runs back to the group but the wolf stays, looking intently back into the row of trees. Calvin says it’s a grizzly sow with a cub. He thinks the sow probably has an elk-calf carcass in there and when 525 ran in there to escape the elk, she stumbled into the bear who immediately charged the wolf!
I see 525 move slowly toward the row of trees as if drawn by something, which would make sense if she thinks there’s food in there. Then I see the bear myself as it charges again. The wolf dodges away, tail tucked and for a second I see a small black thing right at the bear’s nose, as if the cub tried to mimic mom but overshot his charge. But the little black thing quickly moves to her flank and they both disappear into cover.
The black wolf continues on her way. She meets the same group of elk again, though, and this time she starts to run before they chase her. One elk cow takes off after her anyway, (maybe the same one?) and both animals run a good long way across the flats before they give up. 525 continues the rest of the way safely.
I look back at the carcass area and see three gray lumps so I’m still missing one wolf. I never do find it. The action may be over for tonight.
It gets chilly all of a sudden and I realize it has probably been chilly for a while, but I just didn’t feel it while the wolves were on the move.
It’s a great ending to a great day. I think Calvin and Lynnette feel that tonight has pretty much made up for all their wolf-less days. As we bid each other goodnight, we can’t help but grin, since we know exactly where we will be tomorrow morning!
Today I saw: antelope, 1 black bear, 12 grizzly bears (6 adults and 6 cubs), bison and bisonettes, 9 coyotes (4 adults and 5 pups), 4 sand hill cranes, mule deer, elk, 3 hawks, magpies, 1 moose, ravens, 7 wolves (1 from the Unknown Pack and 6 adults of the Agate Pack (472F, 383M, 471F, 525F, 524F and the “un-collared gray”), 9 Loons and the spirit of Allison