INTRODUCTION and 302 NEWS
The following report is from my traditional trip to Yellowstone at Christmastime. However, due to some travel troubles and my growing responsibilities as a home owner in Bozeman, I spent a mere five days in the Park, and given the contant snowfall and resulting visibility woes, I saw many fewer wolves than usual.
But low wolf-count or not, it was a wonderful trip, as all visits to Yellowstone are. The scenery never disappoints and spending time with my good wolf-watching friends is a delight.
Wolf news: As you read this, please remember that I am not a wolf expert or a scientist, but a wolf fan who tries to be as accurate as possible.
The big news in the Park for wolf-watchers is the totally unexpected formation of what is now called The Blacktail Group, comprised of famous Druid wolf 302M, several young males (most likely his nephews) and several Agate females.
In non-scientific terms, late fall is something of a "dating" period for unattached adult wolves. They tend to roam far from their natal packs, seeking members of the opposite sex and exploring compatibilities in preparation for the seriousness of mating season which runs from late January thru February.
In past mating seasons, 302 would be noticably absent from the Druids for days or weeks at a time, only to show up in rival territories where he would woo various un-related females, often at the risk of fights with rival males. He would always return to his brother's turf, with appropriate subservient behavior, and resume his place as the beloved Druid beta male. From his early days as a wooer of Druid females, 302 never seemed interested in leading a pack; he's always been happy to be a lover. After one of his solo-wooing excursions in March of 2007, he returned to Lamar with a serious leg injury, and things looked pretty bad for him. But somehow he managed to re-unite with the Druids and his injury seems to have healed.
However, my imagination suggests that the injury had a profound effect on this easy-going wolf. I imagine every time his leg felt sore and stiff he wondered if perhaps there might be a way to avoid such unpleasantness in the future? Might there be a way to enjoy the rewards of the season with none of the risk? And I think he figured it out. This year he would have a mating season the 302 way. He put his plan in to action in late October, 2008, when 302 left the Lamar and headed west, taking with him four male "bodyguards" (Big Blaze, Big Brown, Small Blaze and Medium Gray). Two of these young males are especially burly fellows and they all seem to adore 302.
In very little time he and his handsome followers succeeded in attracting several unattached Agate females; 642, 692 and 693. Agate female 693 had fallen for 302 last mating season and soon after their reunion, she and 302 began exhibiting alpha behavior together and within the group. It was an unusual sight for long-time 302 watchers, and I noted a palpable sense among them (myself included) of something like amazement, and even denial. 8~)
All through November and December, 302 and his band have ruled the Blacktail area, roaming from Undine Falls to Specimen Ridge. There have been two witnessed encounters between the Blacktail group and the Druid Pack (now 13 members, including the reigning alphas 480 and 569). In both encounters, 302 and the males of the group behaved friendly to the Druid alphas but the Agate females apparently sensed enough animosity from the Druids to keep their distance. In the end the groups went their separate ways.
Slowly wolf-watchers began to accept the evidence before their eyes. 302 had finally become what none of us ever thought he would become, a bona fide leader of a pack.
Given this turn of events I am particularly interested in catching a glimpse of this unique wolf and his merry band. Of course, it remains to be seen what will happen once mating season is over, whether 302 will return to the Druids or remain the leader he has so unexpectedly become. Such an event will be, no doubt, affected by whether or not he sires pups and whether those pups remain healthy. Perhaps he will settle down with his Agate alpha female and return to the land of his birth? No one knows what may be in store for him, but in the meanwhile, long live the lover, and now the leader, 302.
Additional note: In my opinion, 302's ability to re-invent himself was made possible by several random factors, the type of randomness that nature is famous for and has been affecting individual animal behavior for eons. Three neighboring packs recently splintered - the Sloughs, The Agates and the Leopolds. In my view, had any two of these groups still been dominant in their usual territories, 302's group would have had quite a different history. In fact, I would argue that the current outcome would hardly have been possible if even one of these packs had still been at home, and healthy enough to defend it.
The Slough Creek Pack: These wolves never really recovered from the bizarre circumstances that befell them in April of 2006, when the Unknown Pack sudden appeared and occupied the den area. The Unknowns killed two of the Sloughs big male defenders and prevented the other Sloughs from feeding the mothers who had given birth in the den, causing the pups to die. There are still Slough wolves in Little America, but the Druids have dominated them since the fall of 2006. Their alpha male is now gone and the rest wander alone, or in small groups outside the traditional territory.
The Agate Pack recently lost its long-standing cohesiveness, due to several factors. 1. the death in 2007 of the long-time alpha male 113; 2. The fact that his death left his son, 383M in charge as alpha ...with his mother, 472F. Such close relationships just don't work for wild wolves when it comes to producing pups, so both 383 and 472 each sought other mates last year, as did the beta female 471, who is 383's full sister. 3. Disease, primarily distemper and possibly mange or parvo. In any case, the result was that no pups were raised by the Agates in 2008 and the pack splintered. This left the Agate females free to join with 302 when he came calling.
The Leopold Pack: This once huge pack, into which 302 was born almost 9 years ago, dominated the Blacktail Plateau for over 10 years. This pack also splintered this year, perhaps due to the same kind of factors that worked on the Agates. With so much territory suddenly available and undefended, 302's re-invention of himself was possible.
Wild animals are opportunists, and 302 is a grand opportunist. Perhaps he knew all about the dissolution of the other packs and it is I who came lately to the news. In any case, I take great delight in offering this latest chapter of the unfolding story of the Wolves of Yellowstone.
Thanks, as always, to John Uhler for starting it all, and also to Chloe & Becky and Kathie L for sharing their time, friendship and valuable insights with me.
Finally, a note about Allison and her spirit. Allison was a shining-light of a woman, my friend and the Queen of the Loons. She passed away suddenly in December of 2003. In June of 2004, her loving family arranged for her ashes to be scattered on Kite Hill in Mammoth Hot Springs, where she had worked in her youth. Many of us were in attendance at that ceremony. Thus, each time I visit the Park I feel her presence, and I hope always to share my trips with her.