A gorgeous fog obscures the familiar shapes in Round Prairrie and a thin slice of moon peeks over The Thunderer, bright and cold.
There are no cars at Footbridge today, so I keep going. I eventually stop at Aspen and listen to the activity reported from Slough as I set up Layla. Suddenly I see a wolf bounding through the sage at the top of the ridge above the river. This young wolf heads toward a group of bison with several calves.
Although the wolf moves this way and that, he never poses much of a threat to the wary and capable bison. I hear faint howling behind me, which I later learn was coming from the ostracized Dark Female, bedded near the Crystal drainage. The yearling wolf meanders back to the west and noses around some large boulders. Then I hear howling coming from the den area. It sounds like a rally to me.
Sure enough, next thing I know the Sloughs are seting out on a hunt.
In a short while I see several wolves come together in the flats between the river and the ridge. It seems like more Sloughs were out there in the rolling hills south of the den. Unfortunately my view of them is mostly blocked by hills and distance; I mostly see tails and an occasional head above the sage. But then they come out on the bare sand cliff and my view improves considerably. I count 11. Next thing I know, Laurie & Dan pull in and we continue to scope together.
The wolves proceed in a stop-and-start fashion across the bare ridge and on to the Peregrine Hills, slowly heading west. One yearling is distracted by the presence of two bighorn rams on the rocks of the Peregrine Hills - a spot where I've never seen them before. One of the bighorns stands up as he becomes aware of the approaching wolf. Both rams stand with their front legs on boulders, posing impressively with high-held heads. Predator and prey face off but soon the wolf sensibly turns away.
Laurie predicts the Sloughs will go into the river corridor where no one can see them. We do see a herd of elk on the move, ahead of the wolves. It's easily a hundred individuals, the biggest elk herd I have seen yet. Laurie proves correct as both elk and wolves soon disappear from view.
We now head west ourselves and gather again on the hill by Boulder pullout. Rick is already set up here, watching wolves that a good sized crowd has been watching for the last hour or so. To my delight I learn these are Agate wolves! They are pretty far away, nearly to the edge of the river corridor. I see two Agate wolves still feeding on an elk carcass.
To the right of this carcass is a second, smaller carcass (which we learn later is that of a poor coyote who must have been caught by the Agates). A golden eagle holds forth here, and there are ravens in both spots. Then someone spots the Sloughs approaching from the east. I first see them on a sage slope below Mom's Ridge, and I see a large elk herd running from them. The herd splits into several groups - some head north up Mom's Ridge, some veer downhill to the south and others continue downhill to the west and presumably the river. The main group of Sloughs follows the elk heading west while a group of five blacks follows the group of elk heading uphill. I see one group of about 10 elk make a clever move that outsmarts the wolves, doubling back east. But then three wolves suddenly appear behind them, so maybe they were not so smart after all. But, no, the wolves give up anyway and those elk get away after all.
The group of wolves that went uphill gives up on the elk they were chasing and come back down. Now all the wolves stop, then, as if responding to a new order, head for the river from their various locations. For a little while, no Slough wolves are in sight so I turn my scope back to the carcass to see what the Agates are doing. Welp. they are gone, which is hardly surprising. I hear someone say they ran towards the north side of Junction Butte and disappeared into an aspen grove.
In a few moments, the Sloughs suddenly appear at the carcass area, tails raised high in excitement. They smell the rival wolves of course. The Sloughs mill around the carcass sniffing everywhere. Some of them begin to feed but most do not, looking kind of nervous.
The wind is fierce and relentless today, and if there wasn't so much action, it would be hard to stay up on this hill. One visitor solves that problem by sitting with her back to a large boulder, peering at the wolves through her binoculars while snuggled inside her sleeping bag.
The Sloughs don't stay at the carcass very long. After a great deal of sniffing and milling around they begin to disappear back into the river corridor whence they came. Then we see a black wolf running towards the carcass. It scares off the ravens and begins to feed.
Then another black wolf comes walking through the sage from left to right, towards the carcass. Rick identifies this one as an Agate female yearling. Uh oh. The Agate female stands broadside looking straight at the wolf on the carcass. The feeding wolf does not seem to be aware of the Agate female a mere 50 yards away. The Agate female beds and then the wolf on the carcass starts to walk in her direction. I am worried we are going to see a fight between them. But then the black wolf beds near the Agate female and suddenly it is clear - these are BOTH Agates and they've come back to claim their carcass now that the Sloughs have left.
Next we hear a wonderful howl from the Sloughs in the river corridor. They are answered, but not by these two we have in view. The Agate response comes from somewhere "behind" Junction Butte. Now the two Agates in front of us stand up and join the howl, and then move west at a brisk trot, presumably to re-join their pack.
Once these two go out of view and the howling stops I immediately notice the wind. Man, it is fierce today! I try to find something else to keep my mind off it but no dice! I leave the hill and head back to Aspen, hoping to be able to see the Sloughs as they head back home. While I'm wating for them I see a bald eagle and another coyote and a red-tailed hawk perched in one of the aspens.
I do eventually see the Sloughs as they travel back east along the base of Mom's Ridge, but only for a short time. Then they are out of sight again. It is nearly noon and I am feeling the need of a nap!
So I head west to find a good spot. I choose Wrecker Pullout since it is off the beaten track. I have some lunch, then lower the seat and drift off quickly. When I wake up about an hour later the pullout is crowded. Someone has locker herself out of her SUV and others are attempting to help her get back in. Another group of people is watching bighorns put on their daily mid-day show close to the road.
As I rouse myself I watch a coyote in the meadow digging rapidly. He comes up with a ground squirrel which he rapidly devours, then digs up two more! Satisfied with his efforts, he trots off toward the river to see what else he might find.
I watch the bighorns a while then head back east. I stop at Boulder and see nothing moving on the Agate carcass other than birds. Next stop is at Dorothy's. I talk with some people who have spotted a lone black wolf bedded high on the snow slope of Specimen Ridge, in roughly the same spot where the Agates were two days ago.
After a good bit of discussion, we become fairly sure this is the Jasper Male, a legendary lone wolf who has been around the Lamar Valley for several years, sometimes with a mate, sometimes alone. I admit I don't quite believe that the tiny black spot I see is actually anything other than a boulder until I catch a glimpse of movement. Suddenly his head is up and he rouses himself to his feet. He stands broadside and now I believe it! He looks large and robust, like 480 or 302 but without the tell-tale indentation of a collar. He looks all around, every direction, sniffing, listening, then beds again, curling his tail over his muzzle. There is nothing nervous about his movement. Instead it is confident and savvy, and is probably an example of why he has lived so long on his own without a pack to help him.
Since this seems to be his "neighborhood", it's a good guess he came upon the Agates' carcass in the forest, helped himself to a snack, and now is sleeping it off. Some visitors wonder aloud why he is out in the open, seemingly exposed. But others remark that his chosen spot offers a clear and unobstructed view in all directions, which would give him ample time to flee, should any threat appear. He hasn't lived this long by being foolish.
Once he is bedded again I start to hear radio reports of activity at Slough so I pack up to head there. But then I hear another report that 302 has been spotted from Footbridge. What to do? Three guess and the first two don't count. I head east. I am first and foremost a Druid fan, you know. On my way I notice that there is a picked-over elk carcass high on a hill next to the exclosure fence. It is an old one, with a substantial rack of antlers.
I reach Footbridge and luckily I am not too late.
There are two black wolves visible at the base of DP hill. I learn from a fellow wolfer that she first saw them moving from the east toward DP hill. The big male regurgitated twice to the smaller wolf. We both see teats on the underside of the smaller wolf, so we
figure she is one of the yearling mothers out for a stroll.
302 looks bothered. There are only about six cars in the Footbridge pullout and two more stopped in the road east of here. His tail is down, which looks strange to me. He howls and I think I hear faint response from the den forest behind me. I am delighted to see this famous wolf, but I am perplexed by his body language. I am so used to seeing 302 look so confident. The wolf I'm watching seems off-balance and I can't quite figure why.
He howls, standing, two more times, and then I notice the female has set off at a determined trot towards the east. 302 does the same, paralleling her route. Then the female turns and heads for the creek as if to cross it.
As she reaches the snow-covered edge of the bank she lowers her nose to the water and two ducks explode out of a little cubby hole below the bank - escaping death by only a few feathers.
I don't know if the wolf approached that spot on purpose to grab those ducks or if it was just coincidence that ducks were in that spot but I think the ducks just survived their worst nightmare! I can imagine them happily feeding in the seeming-privacy of that little overhang and then suddenly WOLF JAWS! The poor things looked like were shot out of a cannon - in two separate directions!
Anyway, the female Druid sits down for a moment, then moves again and crosses the channel, reaching a mid-creek sandbar. She noses around and then beds. 302 is still walking east in deep snow at the base of DP hill. The female gets up and crosses the next channel which is very shallow. Now 302 seems to make a decision. He turns to the river and the road.
He crosses the river without stopping and then breaks into a lope. Despite the uneven terrain and the thickness of the snow he picks up speed, sending it flying. As he reaches the slope below the road the female begins to run, too, but he now lunges with greater and greater strength and clear, confident determination, looking suddenly like the 302 I know. He passes the female and in an amazingly short time he is up on the road and across, disappearing from view behind a snowy north-side slope.
She follows quickly, a bit further to the east. Now they are both gone, headed back to the den area.
Dear old 302! I am so glad to have seen him, even for such a short time. I scope the Footbridge and Norris and enjoy the surrounding beauty. I still have about a half hour of light left so I head to the confluence as I have not spent much time there yet this trip.
I glass the area and after a few minutes I am rewarded by an amazing sight: a golden eagle swoops down upon some unsuspecting ducks at a bend in the river. I hear lots of squawking and see at least three ducks flapping away in terror, each in a different direction. I hear an awful sound and then see the eagle fly slowly behind some trees as if burdened by a weight. It lands in the branches of a cottonwood above the river. I can't really see much from my position, but I think it may have caught one.
As I turn my attention to the foreground, I notice that more ice has broken up, despite the continued cold and snow of the last few days. Spring is coming; it's just very, very slow this year. I always like hanging out by the confluence - there is always something wonderful to see, even if it is just chunks of ice gurgling and glunking along.
I go back to Dorothy's but find the Jasper Male has gone. Daylight is also going, so I begin the drive back to Silver Gate and reflect on the sights I've seen today. This is the first time I have seen members of four wolf groups in the same day. The Northern Range has certainly grown crowded since the days of Druid dominance. No one knows how many pups the Druids are raising but multiple females were visibly pregnant in March. Same for the Sloughs. I suppose We shall see in the coming weeks...
Today I saw: antelope, bison (and bison calves), 5 coyotes, 2 sandhill cranes, ducks, 1 bald eagles, 2 golden eagles, elk, geese, 1 red-tailed hawk, 6 bighorn sheep, 16 wolves from 4 different groups (11 Sloughs, 2 Agates, 1 Jasper Male and 2 Druids, including 302M), six wolfers and the spirit of Allison.