And it is. I follow Dan & Laurie and we are treated to a gorgeous sunrise in a clear cold sky. We stop at Footbridge and set up and immediately we see 5 Druid wolves on the north-side rolling hills east of the den forest. There are 3 black and 2 gray. They may have been coming down to cross, but at the moment they are bedded.
They begin to howl from that spot and then we hear a glorious reply from the rest of the pack - a rich, full answering howl rising out of the den forest. It is a real thrill to hear the Druids this way. With a welcome like this, the five youngsters lose no time heading back home.
We try our best to spot them on their route but there are many low hills in the area, just high enough to hide them from eyes on the road. We wait for a further appearance and I scan the surrounding heights on Norris, finding bighorn and elk.
I head west following Laurie who has alread gone to Little America. She radio-reports two wolves in sight; Big Blaze and High Sides M. These are both former Druid males who followed 302 in the fall when he left the Druids for points west, eventually establishing the Blacktail Pack. At first these two males hung out with 302's pack and the Agate females which they were courting, but then they broke off to remained in the traditional Agate area (Little America-Specimen Ridge-Antelope Creek) with two of the Agate females they especially liked. Agate alpha female 472 chose Big Blaze as her alpha male. High Sides M is the beta male and 715F completes the "new" Agate Pack.
As I come down the hill from Slough I have to slow to a stop because a bison is standing in the road as if he is asleep on his feet. His eyes are closed (well at least the one eye I can see) and he is motionless. I'm not sure what's up with him, but since he is broadside across my lane, I think I will wait, rather than try to go around him. Then a friend of his comes up out of the sage on the left and stands there, staring at Sleepy, as if this sort of thing happens a lot. After a beat or two, Sleepy seems to remember where he was going. The friend turns around and heads back down and Sleepy follows. I chuckle, thinking that maybe Sleepy is the other bison's forgetful grandpa?
I stop at the big pullout on the south side just across the bridge. Several scopers are here, focused on the first big hill to the southwest. A wolf is plainly visible, resting on top of the hill. Who is this? I set up Layla and listen to the others talking. This is a collared gray with a pretty, Alaskan sled-dog face. To me this wolf looks old. He stands up for a few minutes, looking towards the Crystal drainage. Oh! He has mange on his tail. His belly looks full. He is awfully close to the road I think to myself. He seems aware of us but not really bothered. He stares intently, seeing something we cannot.
I find out this is a Mollie wolf! 461M. Wow! My first Mollie, famous rivals of the Druids. The Mollies live in the Pelican Valley and were the first wolves to be documented killing bison. He may have been part of the group that killed the Hayden alphas two years ago. After about 5 minutes he gets up and wanders down the other side of the hill, out of sight, heading towards Crystal, the direction he was looking all this time. There may be other wolves up there he wants to join?
We get periodic calls from Laurie who is further west. She is seeing other wolves so I head that way and join her and Dan at straightaway. They had seen the two Agate males (former Druids Big Blaze and High Sides M) cross the road from north to south but they lost them because at the same time they spotted other wolves to the north. Those wolves are still visible. The Cottonwoods.
I train Layla's great eye on a low rocky ridge - the spur that comes down west of the old Slough den area. On a ledge in those rocks are four Cottonwood wolves. I see four of them, two blacks and two grays. One of the blacks is 716, formerly called "the Dark Female". She is a former Slough wolf who was tormented and chased by the strict Slough alpha 380F until she finally sought succor with her similarly ousted relative 527F, who is now alpha female of the Cottonwood Pack. We don't see 527 with this group. Perhaps she is back at the den with her presumed pups.
These wolves seem somewhat interested in some bull elk above them on the same rocky spur. But they also howl a lot so they have something other than dinner on their minds. One gray beds on a rock ledge with his front paws dangling over the edge, like a kid waggling his feet. Another black hops from rock to rock, nosing around. And a gray Cottonwood seems to like standing on a rock just to look down. What is he seeing?
With two Agates and at least one Mollie wolf close by, I wonder what is going on with these four wolves? Was there an altercation that we missed? Did one pack make a kill and was it stolen by another pack? The Cottonwoods continue to howl periodically from their rocky perch. They are telling the tale but alas we do not speak the language.
There are many elk in the area, especially in the flats and low hills north of the river bank around Aspen. We wee them moving about, semi-alerted. I look to the east every once in a while, trying to see if I can pick up the collared Mollie wolf but I don't see him again.
There are spotters in many places this morning and it is sometimes hard to follow by radio what people are seeing from a different vantage points. But I hear that elk are running so I look that direction. Above the river bank I see a herd of elk tightly bunched, about 25 animals. I look for what might be chasing them. I see a gray, then a black, then another gray. When I say "see" what I really mean is that I see a tail or a set of ears and sometimes a wolfish back moving through the sage. It is impossible for me to tell what's going on.
Shortly after this I see another gray and what I think is a different black, because the first black I saw was large with a full, fluffy tail and this one is smallish with a rope for a tail (perhaps the result of mange). Others are reporting four grays and two blacks in all.
I think I am watching a pack of wolves chase elk but Laurie believes we are seeing wolves chase wolves. She and Rick are dilligently trying to determine who these individuals are. They piece together the available clues and eventually put a story together.
They believe that the large black wolf some of us saw is the Jasper male, an old warrior who seems to have been living on his own, sometimes with a mate, in this general area, for quite a few years. The smaller gray with him is probably his current mate. Wow! I saw the Jasper male last year at this time for the first time. How cool! The other three wolves, two grays and a black, two of which had signs of mange, are likely Mollie yearlings who have remained in the area since their full pack excursion into Lamar several days ago. The Mollie alpha's have already left the area, but the yearlings are still here, sowing their wild oats.
Whether or not there is a carcass out there somewhere to fight over remains unknown.
While the wolf-chasing is going on to the north, we suddenly have howling behind us to the south. I turn around, determined to find the howler. And I do. In fact I find two of them. And to my delight one of them turns out to be 472! I recognize her immediately - the daughter of 21 and 42 and looking like both of them at once. She is accompanied by another gray, which turns out to be High Sides M. As I watch her and her young escort, they meet up with a black wolf, the alpha male Big Blaze. There is a fourth wolf in this group, a collared gray female, 715F.
472 is still a beauty to me, even in her advanced years. And this is my first close view of the very handsome young male, High Sides M and I understand now why people comment on his looks. He is gorgeous! These four romp and play with each other as if they are all pups and have been parted for months. They continue to howl back to the Cottonwoods on and off and I wonder if they are negotiating terms or cursing each other?
Now we have howling from the Crystal Creek area, as well. Wow! What a morning! Wolves everywhere! The poor elk on the flats are now standing in two alerted, bunched groups but none of us see any signs of a chase or a kill. No ravens or magpies alighting. Then I get distracted by a gorgeous mountain blue bird flitting around in the flats to the south. Wow, they are royal blue, almost phosphorescent!
The Agates bed a while on a low slope, then they begin to move east and south up the hill. I see some affectionate behavior between Big Blaze and 472 which I like. The four wolves disappear into the first band of trees and then we hear a howl from them, coming right through the trees and echoing slightly off the ridge. It is a gorgeous farewell howl. I think of it as their best and final offer to the Cottonwoods. "Get out now, while the going is good!"
There is so much going on in these two hours but I also want to mention some of the other animals. One bison catches my eye because she is laying down flat on her side in the sun by a large melt-water pond to the north. At first I wonder if she is either dying or giving birth. It turns out neither. She is just sleeping! And while all the wolf activity is happening we also see red-tails flying, sandhills croaking and watch two lovely swans paddling on the water.
The sun is so strong I think it must be 80 degrees but when I check, it's only 60. I have to employ my white towel as a sunshade to protect my ears and neck. I know it looks ridiculous but I do it anyway. Jan & Bill and Richard and I head east to hook up with Ralph. He is reporting wolf sightings from Lamar while we were having our wolf bonanza in Little America, and he seems to have had wolves coming and going in all directions!
We don't find Ralph but we stop at Dorothy's and Richard finds a black out in the big fan nosing around, being harassed by two coyotes. I see the coyotes first, then the black. We head further east to the Institute and Rick shows us some more wolves - there are three bedded blacks on a hill behind and to the east of the corral. I figure they are Druids but Rick says he thinks they are probably Mollie yearlings!
A little later we head down to Picnic. From this pullout we look across the road to the high hills and see several wolves sitting here. A gray is sitting on his haunches and some blacks are laying down. I see two blacks but Rick has 5 altogether: 3 blacks and 2 grays. Suddenly I see all five as they get up, ears perked and tails high as they charge down the backside of the hill to the right, disappearing in the folds. Hmmm, they might have been greeting a friend or chasing a foe - we won't know for a while, maybe never.
But after about 5 minutes, a black wolf appears quite a bit to the left, emerging from behind one of the hills. This wolf looks back several times as it trots to the west. Rick feels this wolf is not one of the ones we saw before.
The lone black continues to trot west and disappears behind another low hill. Then three Druids reappear in the same general area where I first saw them from this spot; one gray and two blacks. They wander over to an eroded cliff and bed there.
Richard has been checking the fan behind us and we have heard coyotes barking and complaining steadily off and on. It's the black we first saw from Dorothy's. So again, we have wolves in front of us and at least one wolf behind us. From this angle we can also see several bighorn on the high cliffs several levels above the bedded Druids, and also a soaring golden eagle and two red-tails. There are also bighorn on Specimen Ridge behind us.
We hear a howl. It's the gray Druid up near the cliff. Richard says to me with a wink - watch the black in the flats - I bet we get a response. And he is absolutely right! The black in the flats perks up his/her ears and immediately begins to head toward the road. Some of the people in our pullout can't resist a closer view of this wolf and drive down to Trash Can, anticipating that the animal will cross the road near there. One person climbs Trash Can hill. But the wolf is not deterred by any of this.
The black moves steadily towards the river, crosses it easily and heads up the bank. We lose it, then find it loping through the sage. Well, from this response, it is likely that this black is a Druid, too! The black crosses the road to the east of Trash Can and heads up the north hill close to the exclosure fence, hardly stopping at all. Instead of hooking up with its brothers & sisters it seems to be heading straight for the ledge trail.
I keep hearing periodic faint howling which may be coming from the den forest. Then I notice that none of the bedded wolves is visible anymore. They must have moved while we were all watching the black in the flats. So we pack up and head to Hitching Post to see if we can see any of them appear on the ledge trail on their way to the den.
As it turns out, I don't see any of the yearlings come back along the ledge trail but that is no complaint! What an amazing morning! It's just a little past noon.
I hang out at Hitching Post a while, making some coffee and eating some lunch. A truck passes, towing a flatbed with a culvert trap. I wonder if there is a problem bear somewhere? I relax and just enjoy the scenery and the wonderful smell of the air.
I stop at the Institute, hoping I will find the Mollie yearlings from before but they are no longer in that spot. I look and look but don't find them.
Eventually I head west again until I see Richard's truck parked at Boulder Pond. I pull in and see he is relaxing on his tailgate with his friends from California, Scott and Steve. The chorus frogs are chirping up a storm again. Actually "chirping" is not the right word for the volume of sound they are making - croaking is right either, it's higher pitched than that. I think I'll call it "chorusing". The frogs were chorusing loudly. 8~)
We soak up the sun and have a grand time just jawing and joking. It feels like a mid-summer day. All of us were prepared for snow and bitter cold, so this weather is just a god-send. We talk about past sightings and scary experiences and see elk and pronghorn and bison and I show them where I saw cougars years ago.
Eventually we decide to head to Hellroaring to see if we can find the Cottonwoods coming back. We don't have any luck with wolves but we do find many bison, a herd of pronghorn and lots of elk. We are all encouraged by the numbers of elk we are seeing. We also see a golden eagle soaring way out there, and numerous beautiful mountain blue birds.
Jan & Bill show up and we hope they will improve our wolf luck, but it's not to be. So we head back to Little America in search of bison babies. We find them in the meadow below Junction Butte. There are two babies in this group. They may be the same two I saw yesterday or they could be different ones. One is very attached to mom and doesn't leave her side. The other is braver - he tests his spindly legs in a series of short spurts and quickly gets lost. He approaches a cow and she pushes him away. He bleats and in an instant his real mom comes over toward him. He bolts to her and she lets him nurse, then she leads him uphill to a boulder where she begins to scratch her side.
We move on again to the east. I stop at Aspen to watch another bison herd. The highlights include a three-way head-butting match and a lone cow scratching her chin on the edge of a boulder. Some of these bison are asleep, legs tucked beneath them and others lie flat out on their sides.
As I drive through Lamar Canyon I am startled by the noise out my window - a full-on waterfall is roaring down the rocky cliff: meltwater from the snow. It pours downhill, across the road and into the canyon, joining the Lamar.
I pull in at Fishermans to look at the osprey nest. This is the one that has sometimes housed a goose instead of an osprey. Today we see three osprey here. One in the nest and two more perched on lower branches. One on the right and one on the left, as if they are palace guards!
Jan & Bill join me and notice some Barrows Golden-eye in the Lamar River. A woman stops to tell us she and her husband saw a black wolf a few hours ago in the valley. She says it crossed the road to the north and disappeared. Hmmm, I wonder which wolf that might have been?
We stop at Picnic. Rick pulls in shortly thereafter. No sooner do I have Layla set up than Jan finds wolves on the north slope: three blacks and two grays. They are in approximately the same spot as they were earlier today. They are probably the same wolves (Druid) but we can't be certain. Laurie and Dan pull in and set up. We have happily crowded pullout, watching Druids. Just then, the wolves get up and run down hill, nearly repeating the move we saw earlier today. But one of the blacks, or perhaps a new black, then re-appears and beds in full view near the cliff.
Rick says he had seven altogether. After he and Laurie compare notes, he suggests that these seven wolves are all yearlings and that some are Druids and others are Mollies, perhaps some of them are the same wolves we saw bedded east of the Institute earlier this morning. He also says the two grays I saw from Boulder yesterday were Mollies, too. And the ones we saw chasing the Jasper Male this morning were Mollies. I ask how Druids and Mollies can seem to "get along" since I know them as rivals. He says that generally, yearling wolves are very tolerant of other wolves. It's the alphas that become aggressive and the yearlings just do what the alphas do. But if the alphas are not around to "show" them how to behave, they revert to their tolerant selves. Hmmm, fascinating.
For a while we called the one black we have in view "Ears" because that's all we can see. Then Richard notices a largish black wolf coming into the area from the west, seemingly following a scent trail. When Rick and Laurie see him, they recognize him as The Widower - the black male (most likely a Slough) who formed a group during mating season with two Druid females, High Sides F (694) and Dull Bar. The one who lost his mate and his pups to the Cottonwoods.
Laurie reminds me that around the time 694 probably gave birth, still-pregnant Dull Bar headed back to her Druid family and it is still not known if she gave birth to live pups or not, but she has been seen in Druid company since then, although frequently far from the alphas. The Widower wolf was left all alone, to feel whatever wolves feel when they are unable to defend the lives of their pups or their mates from other wolves. She suggests that The Widower might be seeking Dull Bar, or even, if she has given birth, to follow his instinct to help raise his offspring. I find it fascinating that he is here and reflect that 480 could use a new strong male in the pack since 302 now lives elsewhere. I wonder if The Widower has the social skills to allow him to be accepted into the Druid pack?
While we are speculating on the lives and loves of wolves we also see bighorns on the shoulders of Druid Peak and on Norris. We find elk in many places, both bulls and cows, always in smallish groups. The Widower plays hide and seek with us. We see him appear in one place or another, sometimes moving east, sometimes moving west, then lose him altogether. We see Ears pop up every once in a while. Rick suspects that Ears is actually 690, but her head is so low we cannot see a collar. We wonder if there might be a carcass back behind the hill as we do see some bird activity.
Eventually Ears gets up and disappears. The sun drops down behind the mountain and the air gets chilly. We move on to Hitching Post and amazingly, in this low light, Dan finds a black wolf on the ledge trail as it passes some elk. I have no trouble seeing the three elk who are all aiding me by looking intently in the same direction. But all I see is a silhouette of a wolf passing a patch of snow, which is cool enough in itself. Great spot, Dan!
Laurie and Dan and I compare notes and realize we have each had a 6-pack day! The Widower wolf makes the 6th. He is very likely a Slough, but even if he is not, we know he is not part of any of the other 5 packs we saw today: Druids, Mollies, Cottonwoods, Agates, The Jasper male & mate and The Widower. Woo hoo! That's an all-time high for me.
I end the evening in Cooke City at the Miner's Bar, having a beer with Jan & Bill. It's great fun to unwind there. The place is full of wonderful relics from the past and has a great sense of humor about them. And although I get here too late for dinner, the food is great, too.
I drive slowly back to Silver Gate sharing the road with only a skyfull of stars.
Today I saw: blue birds, bison (including 2 babies), 2 coyotes, 5 sandhill cranes, 1 golden eagle, elk, 2 red-tailed hawks, 3 osprey, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, 2 swans, 28 wolves from 6 packs: 11 Druids (including 690F), 6 Mollies (including 641M, 2 other grays and 3 blacks), 4 Cottonwoods (including 2 gray & 2 black), 4 Agates (472, 715, High Sided M and Big Blaze), 1 Jasper Male & grey mate, 1 Widower), 7 wolfer buds and the spirit of Allison