DAY FOUR - Friday, July 3, 2009


6 GRIZZLIES AND 2 ALPHAS

Hoo boy, my cabin is cold this morning! I can't get into my fleece jacket fast enough!

I'm on the road a little late, at 5:00 AM. It's a little foggy. A tiny little mouse or vole scurries across the road. Cute little thing.

I join Rick and about ten other wolf watchers in Exclosure Hill, and train Layla on the same carcass area. Aha! This morning there are two wolves nearby. One is 691, the orange-ish gray Druid female we saw last night and the other is an unidentified black Druid female. Rick thinks she is either "The Thin Female" or "White Line".

And that's not all. We have a total of five grizzlies in the viewing area at the moment. To my eye, it looks like the same two wrestling siblings, Bears 1 and 2 are out there, as well as Bear 3, who we think might be their mom. From the behavior I watch this morning, that theory still makes sense. But there are two other grizzlies in the area, both quite large, and after about an hour, a sixth bear arrives from the east, coming out of the tree line.

There is so much back and forth going on between and among all these animals that I can't keep track of it all. I can tell you this, though, there is quite a bit of chasing and I lose track of how many times I see a bear stand on its hind legs.

Each time a bear on the carcass vacates it in order to chase (or be chased by) another bear, the two wolves dash in for a bite. When Bear #4 gets his turn on the carcass, the wolves make an aggressive move and push him off. In fairness to Bear 4, he may actually be more un-nerved by the approach of Bear #5. Bear 4 swats at the wolves, but they dart out of the way and as Bear 5 gets closer, Bear 4 gives up and gallops off.

Over on the right in the grass, Bears 1 & 2 are at it again, wrestling and carrying on to our delight. Bear 3, the large dark bear, is peacefully grazing close to the two wrestlers, making a plausible case that she is indeed their mother. She still seems no more interested in the carcass this morning than she did last evening, but perhaps she simply wants to avoid a fight. She may have chowed down plenty overnight.

A golden eagle swoops over our heads, close enough for us to hear the beat of his wings. Behind us a mule deer buck comes down the hill, watching us intently. He continues down the hill, using a draw for cover, and soon disappears.

It is a very nice two hour sighting and I can feel my wolf-luck changing. In fact, it feels like an excellent time to try to find 302. So down the hill I go and soon I'm heading for the Blacktail.

As I come down the curves above Phantom Lake I see a mule deer buck near a narrow drainage, bending down to take a long drink of cool water trickling down the hill. How pretty that looks. A bit further on I stop for another black bear jam. This is a yearling bear, eating grass on the side of the road.

At the S Curves I find Dorothy and Bonnie already here and we scope dilligently in all the right spots. Dorothy relates a report from earlier this morning in which the adults were seen arriving in the rendezvous area. They regurgitated to the pups but then they all moved out of sight. So it's a good bet they are still there.

Bonnie and I decide to hike up to South Butte to see if the view from there is any better. I haven't been up that hill since 2002. I remember seeing Leopold pups in their rendezvous about a million miles away. We pack up our stuff and start up. It is steeper and longer than I remember, but we finally make it.

It's less windy up here than I expected which means the skeeters are fierce. Not much we can do about that so we endure it. The view is great and we set up our scopes and get down to business. We find a pronghorn, a raven, a hawk and lots of shed antlers. But no wolves!

Then Rick comes up the trail. Our chances of seeing a wolf just improved. Once he gets set up we talk about various areas and where the most likely places are. When the view is long like this, turning your scope an inch to the right or left makes a big difference.

Sure enough, after about 10 minutes, Rick says "black pup". I miss it and he only has it for a second. But after another minute I see a flicker of black in the same general area. He thinks 302 is bedded on the other side of the hump and we may be seeing the top of his ears. I am hopeful but wonder if all I'm going to get for my effort is a glimpse of the edge of his ears!

Then I see a shrub on the edge of a hill where there was no shrub before. Then the shrub moves. "Black wolf!" I say. Rick sees it. Bonnie sees it. Then a gray shows up. Suddenly we see two adult wolves. They don't stay long but we see the black behave submissively to the gray. Then they both move back downhill and out of sight.

Suddenly the flicker of black that I saw before grows into ears, a head, a back and then an entire wolf. A large, collared black wolf, and he looks very familiar. Hooray! It's 302. Rick confirms it. Finally! Woo hoo! Finally!

He stands broadside in the sage, looking in the direction of the other two adults. He gives us this great view for about two minutes, maybe three. He is still very black. Then the dear boy re-beds on the hilltop, but luckily in a way that leaves his head visible. I realize now that he was probably there the whole time, just further out of sight over the rise. Yay!

Then to my delight, a mini-version of 302 shows up a ways behind him. A black pup emerges from the trees on the right and takes a little journey all by himself across the hill. The pup romps, hops, trots and romps some more, eventually disappearing in the same spot where we last saw the two adults. If we could see around this hump, we'd probably be seeing all of them! There are six pups total, four black and 2 gray but we only see this one.

302 never seemed to notice the pup behind him. Now a second gray adult appears to the right of 302. This gray is collared and Rick says she is 693F, the alpha female. She moves toward the area where we presume the other wolves are and 302 stands up again. He seems to be watching what is going on in front of him. Then he stretches and moves down the hill towards the others. Ahh, that's it. He's out of sight.

We have nothing in sight for several minutes and then a black pup appears, probably the same intrepid fellow we saw before. He basically retraces his steps across the hill. Then he drops into a stalking posture, which is almost too cute to bear! He is probably stalking a grasshopper, but he is completely serious about it. He pounces and gobbles. But I'm not sure he likes the flavor, though, because he seems to spit it out!

Pleased with himself, black pup completes his journey and disappears in the trees.

I am thrilled. Of course I want more but I am so happy to have seen 302 in his new proud papa position. The last time I saw him was early September of 2008, back when he was still part of the Druid Pack, perhaps when he was just formulating his plan to head out and start his own pack.

We stay up here and talk a while, until the skies overhead begin to look threatening again. Then we put on our rain gear and hike back. As soon as we are out in the open the rain pours down. By the time we get to the cars, we are thoroughly drenched.

We thank Rick and wave goodbye as we go our separate ways. He heads further west. Once I get out of my wet clothes and into dry ones (this is why I always bring extra clothes!) I realize I need coffee, so I get some at Roosevelt. I run into Bonnie again so we have lunch, too. We still plant to hike up to the Rose Creek Pen so at about 3:00 we head east again.

There is another black bear visible near Junction Butte and a wonderful bison jam in Little America just west of the Lamar River Bridge.

We park in the back lot at the Institute. A lovely mule deer doe is standing just beyond the corrals, watching us intently. She is quite beautiful and seems very curious about us. I wonder later if she has a fawn nearby and just wants to make sure we mean it no harm.

We follow the rutted road for about a quarter of a mile, roughly paralleling Rose Creek. We stop in a meadow to take some pictures. There is a bison in a wallow about a quarter mile away at the base of a hill. We watch him roll around and wait to see if he is going to move in our direction. He just stands there.

Bonnie and I take pictures of the abundant wildflowers in the meadow. Then we see movement to the left. It's a pronghorn and her fawn, racing across the meadow from the left and up the hill behind the bison. They stop about half-way up and look at us. I take a photo, knowing they are really too far away for it to look good.

We continue to talk and take wildflower photos but then we notice that the pronghorn mother has started back down the hill, more or less the way she came. After a few steps, her fawn follows. It's a little odd, only because I would have expected her to lead her fawn away from us, not back toward us. So I stop.

The pronghorn reaches the flats and then begins to run straight towards me. Huh? She just eats up the ground between us. I see her face dead on, her gorgeous black eyes and long lashes and I can't figure out why she isn't running somewhere else, there is open land all around! I am just about to reach for my bearspray when she abruptly veers left and heads for the creek. She leaps across. Her fawn veers too, and puts on an amazing burst of speed as it clears the creek. They sprint up the hill in a blur.

They stop for a split second on the top of the hill to look back, and then they are gone.

Whoa!

I look back at Bonnie with my mouth open and she is grinning. She comes trotting over, she got the whole thing on video! We watch it over and over, in fact, we run down the batteries on her camera!

We continue our hike, far more wary of pronghorns mothers than ever before. I have gained a new respect for their maternal instincts, let me tell you!

We follow Rose Creek through astonishingly green grass, many fat blades still hold water droplets from today's rain. At one point we turn around to see a lovely view of the Lamar Valley below us backed by the imposing Specimen Ridge. As we go on, Druid Peak comes into view, looming high above.

When we get to the pen I am surprised to see it far more deteriorated than the last time I was up here. Not that I think it should be maintained, but the story it tells is more muddled this way. Many more trees have fallen and even more of the fence has toppled over. Bonnie loves seeing it, though and we take a good long time exploring.

We take a lot of photos, and I can't help but wonder what the Druids think of this place? None of the current Druids would have any memory of it as a pen, so I wonder if they explore it? Or do they avoid it?

We head back down and reach our cars just as another rain shower is beginning. The curious deer is still here, still looking intently at us. I can't figure her out. I drive east toward Footbridge and by the time I arrive, the rain has stopped and a Druid wolf is in sight.

On the eastern side of the pullout people are watching a black wolf sitting in the grass near a braid of the Soda Butte Creek. Dorothy is here, but not Bill W. I learn that this wolf has apparently been visible for a while, having come out from the trees at the bottom of DPH. And I learn she is "White Line", a two year old Druid female who is known to be particularly nervous about the road. She has made several attempts to cross already but has been scared away by passing cars each time.

She moves to the river and takes a drink. Her black coat stands out clearly against the green grass. Most likely she has food in her belly and she wants to get to the den to feed the pups.

The area between this pullout and the Soda Butte Cone is one of the natural corridors used by generations of Druid wolves to cross from south to north and vice versa. The road curves slightly out of sight from here, preventing anyone in the pullout from seeing the northern hillside right at the favored crossing spot. At this time of year, while the den is still an active site, the Park Service puts up signs on the road that say "no stopping or walking" which is meant to help the wolves get across unimpeded as they bring food to their pups. Once the pups move to a rendezvous site, the signs will be removed.

However, in my opinion, three things make these signs nearly useless: 1. It is very easy for visitors to miss the signs' message in a place so full of distractions 2. Not all of Yellowstone's visitors read or understand English 3. It is next to impossible to expect people to NOT stop when they are driving along and suddenly see a wolf coming their way.

And also, in my opinion, three things make these signs valuable: 1. They are fairly successful at keeping wildlife regulars from stopping in such areas, since they create peer pressure against ruining the view for the majority, and peer pressure is a far more effective deterrent than a seasonal sign. 2. Their existence gives support to any NPS personnel who might attempt to enforce the rule. 3. I find that only a very small number of people either deliberately or inadvertantly break the rule anyway.

White Line remains quite restless, as if she is having an internal debate about crossing. The light is gorgeous and we all have an easy view as she meanders between the the river channels, seemingly trying to get up the courage to bolt across the road.

When Rick arrives he switches into visitor education/traffic assistance mode, which means he sometimes has to drive down to the curve to roust those who have stoppped, and ask them to either drive on to Footbridge or just keep going. We keep him informed, via the radio, of White Line's progress (or lack of progress) and he keeps flagging down cars headed east so he can give them an update.

Rick works hard, varying his presentation to each car's occupants. Most listen politely and oblige him. A few speed on, annoyed, while others back up and join the crowd watching the wolf.

At last White Line seems to give up and she walks back towards the eastern side of DPH. A gray wolf comes out of the trees and I recognize her as 691F. The two wolves greet each other, White Line is submissive to 691. After the greeting is finished, they sit together and howl! Oh yes! My first howl of this trip. Oh it's lovely. The people in the pullout enjoy it immensely.

But what is really wonderful is the answering howl we hear from the den forest! It is faint because the den is so high up there, but I can hear many voices, and better yet, I can hear puppy voices!

I love watching White Line and 691 as they listen intently to the howl from home. Ah, how I wish I could speak wolf! Whatever they hear seems to energize and encourage them, because they start off for the river with a clear change of heart. White Line now moves with determination, where before she was hesitant.

At first, 691 is in the lead, but soon White Line has passed her sister. They splash across one channel and aim for the main one. Once they are in the water, the current sweeps them both downstream, not dangerously so, but a significant distance. They take it in stride and soon they are both climbing up the near bank.

Between Rick's efforts and the hand of fate, traffic behaves, and there are no cars stopped at the curve to worry them. Once they hit the flats, White Line picks up speed and lopes briskly toward the road. She's across! 691 follows pretty much the same route and she crosses boldly, as well. The entire pullout sighs with relief and there is scattered clapping.

We get one last glimpse of both wolves as they top out on the rocky knoll, loping easily uphill. They disappear into the trees, headed to the pups and home.

I have at least another hour's worth of light left so I pack up and head to Exclosure. I may no find any wolves but I bet at least one grizzly will still chomping on that bison carcass! As I set up, Rick calls me over to look in his scope. I see a big dark hump on the carcass and I say "oh, that's a bear". He says "No, that's 480! I look at him in disbelief. Really? He's so big! Rick just grins. He likes 480.

I center Layla on the Big Daddy Druid as he tugs off mouthfuls from the bison bones. How do you like that? I get to see both alphas, 302 and 480 in the same day. Nice. Yeah, looks like my luck has turned around!

In addition to the alpha male, two of the grizzlies remain in the grassy area south of the carcass. They may be grazing or looking for scraps dropped by one predator or another. They look like the same two rambunctious siblings.

There are very few birds around, and I take that as a sign that this carcass is about finished. Or maybe they are just wary of 480. He moves broadside and begins tugging really hard. He finally rips something off and holds it in his mouth. Ahh, he was looking for a tidbit to bring back home. He leaves the carcass, carrying his prize and heads east at a determined trot.

Rick starts to pack up. He doesn't say anything out loud but I guess he knows 480 will try to cross the road to the den and he wants to make sure he has a minimum of traffic trouble. He asks me to radio him about 480's progress.

I doubt he needs me to do this, as he knows this wolf and his habits exceedingly well. But I am glad to help. 480 makes his way through the sage and grass, following a route I have seen one Druid or another take countless times. There are a dozen people or so still up here and I ask them to help me keep an eye on him. Once he reaches the old river bank he drops down and I lose him a while. Then a sharp-eyed fellow near me spots him again and helps me find him trotting through the bottoms.

I love that 480 is bringing back a treat, either for himself or for the pups. I remember seeing 21 do that and I like the symetry. I radio Rick that he is in the river bottoms and he says yes, he has him in view. About 10 minutes later, Rick radios that 480 has made it across the road.

Relieved of my assignment, I am free again to watch the bears. They do not come back to the carcass but begin another round of wrestling, and at one point they both rise on their hind legs for a brief moment.

The moon comes up and I take that as a sign that it's time to go. Oh boy, when my luck changes, it REALLY changes! 8~)

Today I saw: 2 black bears, 8 grizzly bears, bison, 3 mule deer, golden eagle, elk, mouse, pronghorn, ground squirrels, 8 wolves (3 Druids, including 480, 691 and White Line; 5 Blacktails, including 302, 693, Medium Brown, Small Blaze and one black pup), and the spirit of Allison.




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