This morning begins much like yesterday with another couple of inches on Greta. But this snow is fine powder; and flies off with the slightest touch. I am on the road at 7:01 and the temp reads 25.
I see ungulate tracks on the road in the forested sections - not sure if they are bison or elk. The temperature drops steadily as I head into the valley. Rick and Laurie are well ahead of me. Apparently there are no Druid signals from Footbridge as I see them driving on past the Confluence.
We hook up again at Trash Can. Snow falls lightly and fog hugs the higher slopes, just like yesterday. Laurie and I scope the rendezvous, looking for the pup. Rick moves west. Laurie calls to me that she has wolves. I see them! Three black wolves, standing broadside on a ridge of snow-covered sage, tails extended. They are looking intently to the northeast - sort of towards Exclosure Hill. Laurie asks if I notice their tails and I detect a note of concern in her voice. Instead of waiting for my answer she radios Rick to come back.
I see that these wolves' tails are raised and wagging, but then I realize what she means. Their tails are FLUFFY, not skinny. These three wolves are thickly furred, healthy-looking wolves. They gather together in a rally, tails wagging high. Now I get it. These are NOT Druid wolves.
Who are they? And what are they doing in the Druid rendezvous?
Snow continues to fall as we watch, spellbound. What just happened to make them so excited? They look quite large and are certainly full of pep. And they remain very focused on something in an area out of sight from this pullout. We both know someone needs to go closer.
Rick arrives and I volunteer to stay here and keep the blacks in sight while he and Laurie drive down to Exclosure. I climb up Trash Can Hill to maximize my perspective. Since we saw the main Druid pack way west of here last night, it could be that they are still away from home, or perhaps they are down there, looking back at these three black wolves?
The three blacks rally a second time, noses together, tails wagging furiously. Then I see them raise their muzzles to the sky and I am sure they are howling. The wind is behind me, though, and I hear no sound. I would love to know if any wolves howled back.
Then the three blacks suddenly take off in the direction they were looking. I lose them quickly in the sage and decide that I'd better head east for a better view, too. I load Layla inside and drive the short distance to Exclosure Hill and park on the snow-covered shoulder to the north.
I head straight for the trail up the hill, then stop as I hear the sound of pebbles tumbling. I turn back to the road and the river. Suddenly I see four dark wolves, right across the road in the river corridor, running to the east, almost silently, across the snow-covered pebbles. I am struck by the beauty of the setting. It's like a vision, my own private wolf movie.
Then suddenly a gray wolf is on the road RIGHT THERE - no more than 30 feet my car, skinny tail between its legs. The gray pauses a moment, looking toward the wolf-shapes moving away, then looks towards me for the briefest of glances and charges up Exclosure Hill 50 feet east of the trail.
I am transfixed by wolves so close and can't bring myself to move. Adrenalin is shooting through me, making it hard for me to do more than stare. I realize something important is going on but can't put it together. Where did the fourth dark wolf come from? And if the gray Druid was chasing them, why did she stop? While I'm staring I see three of the four slow down and then move toward the south bank of the river. The fourth black continues running, becoming smaller and smaller.
I glance at Exclosure Hill, thinking I might see where the gray went. But I see nothing. I am in a fog of excitement The snow continues to fall, muffling my comprehension of this evolving drama. I see an SUV stopped in the road - it's the Missouri ladies. Clearly they saw what I saw, and maybe what preceded it. The three blacks are climbing to the top of the bank, now they move in between the trunks of the tall trees lining the bank, right at the edge of the sage.
My radio crackls and Rick asks if I can go to the Confluence. "Yes", I respond, and, zombie-like I load my gear back in my car and drive slowly past the Missouri ladies, making wide eyes at them in acknowledgement of what we just saw. Thank goodness there is no traffic, because I can only creep towards the east, glancing across the river at the blacks moving south through the sage.
As I round the bend just before the Confluence lot, I suddenly hit the brakes. Another wolf! It's trotting in the road towards me in the opposite lane. As it reaches the Confluence lot it curves north and lopes up the hill, disappearing instantly. How do they do that? I wait a few seconds, then park in the western end of the lot.
I get out and look up the hill, but that wolf is gone! I look back at the pavement and see his tracks clearly visible in the snow-covered pullout. I radio Rick to tell him but he does not respond. I look across the river and realize I can no longer see the three blacks so I hop in Greta and drive back east. I see Rick and Laurie heading up the Confluence Hill so I pull over to join them.
The Missouri Ladies come up, too, as well as Kira. Our small assembly watches the three black wolves rally again and then they choose a bedding spot. Once the wolves settle down we begin to compare notes and slowly the full picture of the morning's events gels into an amazing tale. Here's what I didn't see.
There were at least two Druids in the neighborhood; a gray female 571 and a black male we call Triangle Blaze. They were on the south side of the river, and most likely they were what the three blacks had been looking at so intently. A howling match began; the three blacks howled and the two Druids howled back. Then the Druids charged the invaders and the invaders likewise rushed at them. Triangle Blaze saw they were outnumbered and dashed to the east, while 571 turned tail and ran for her life.
The three blacks caught 571 but she got back up. They caught her again and she got back up. The third time she was pinned her on her back, the most vulnerable position a wolf can be in. Laurie saw all three blacks biting and shaking her and it looked like she was done for. Then suddenly Triangle Blaze came charging to the rescue and suddenly 571 was on her feet again. She reached around and bit the rump of the closest invader wolf, hard enough to make him yelp, then bolted to the river and down the bank while Triangle Blaze took off to the east with all three invaders after him.
Triangle Blaze made it down the river bank and onto the exposed pebbles in the river corridor, trailing the three blacks. This where I entered the picture again, in time to see my "beautiful" vision of the black wolves running on white stones.
While Triangle BIaze was being chased, 571 was swimming the river channel and climbing the bank. So when she appeared on the road close to me, she had just escaped with her life (!). She ran up Exclosure Hill and passed very close to Rick and Laurie, heading towards the den area, where presumably she may find safety. Laurie saw her pass a mere 50 feet away, and she noticed a bloody gash on her chest. 571 was alive, but perhaps mortally wounded.
When the three wolves broke off the chase and headed up the south bank, Triangle Blaze headed up the north bank and then doubled back along the road to check on his sister. He's the wolf I saw trotting towards me on the road at the Confluence lot. I can only hope that he met up with 571 somewhere above us on the ledge trail.
If this tale seems amazing to you, believe me, it is doubly amazing have witnessed parts of it. We are all shocked that poor 571 might not survive this encounter, and yet we can't help but admire the seemingly selfless behavior of Triangle Blaze. He was out of danger when he initially sped east and he put himself BACK in danger for the sake of his older sister. And when you see his skinny, weakened condition compared to the robust healthiness of the three blacks, it makes him seem all the more remarkable.
We hope that 571 will be able to hole up in the dry rock crevices of the den area and that the other Druids will find her and be able to help her. As a Druid fan, I find myself temporarily disliking the three invader wolves, but I know their behavior is without ill will: they are in dispersal mode, seeking new territory, perhaps mates, and were defending themselves from attack as wild wolves do. And I admit they are beautiful wolves.
They are all males. Two are black, and one is actually a dark gray. The gray has a collar and so does the largest of the two blacks. Due to telemetry we learn that the large black is 682M and the gray is 697M. It takes a while (several weeks, in fact) to retrieve the correct information about them but eventually I learn that they were once part of a Wyoming pack called the Hurricane Mesa Pack. That pack's alpha female is former Agate wolf 525. Her pack was recently re-named the Hoo Doo Pack and that is its current name, but these three wolves have not been with the pack for some time. They were seen in the Miller Creek area earlier in the year and may very well have had run-ins with the Druids before. To lessen the confusion in this report, I am going to refer to them as 697's Group.
We speculate about what may have happened between yesterday afternoon, when we saw the three Druid adults and the pup cavorting in the rendezvous, and I begin to get a bad feeling about the pup. If my suspicion is correct, it is already a sad day for the Druids.
We stay on this hill for over two cold hours, watching very little movement from 697's group. They have tired themselves out and remain bedded. Rick heads west around 10:30 to see if he can find the rest of the Druids but Laurie and I stay till nearly noon, then decide to take a break, more out of necessity than desire.
The weather is pretty much a repeat of yesterday - periodic snow squalls, followed by clearing. Sometimes the wind blows quite fiercely, other times it drops back to nothing. I meet up with Rick at Dorothy's and learn that he has Druid signals to the north, but has not seen them yet. I keep saying "go home, Druids. 571 needs you!"
I drive through Little America and Tower and on up towards Elk Creek where I find Calvin and Colleen. We look for the Blacktails and talk about the fate of the Druids. While we are here, a car of French tourists stops to talk. They have photos of wolves they saw very close to the road north of Norris Junction and want to know if we can tell them which wolves they are. We crowd around and look at their excellent photos and confirm that they saw the Canyon Pack, at least the three that are currently being seen - the light gray alpha female, the black alpha male (712) and the uncollared gray.
At Floating Island Lake I watch a coyote mousing in the far meadow, but with no Blacktails in sight to distract us, I can't help thinking about the Druids. So I head back to Lamar. I want to be there when 697's Group wakes up to see if anything else goes on. But I'm a little late! They get up sooner than I expected and I hear Laurie report that they are on the move. I stop at Exclosure and climb half-way up. I find them in the Chalcedony fan, sniffing around the trunks of the aspen trees.
The three of them wander around the deadfall and the trees, stopping frequently, turning around to sniff some more, tails high but not quite so excited as before. I see the large collared black do two raised legs. Then Rick calls to say he's found the Druids on the north side of the road across from Coyote, so he's going to stay with them. I keep watching the three males until they finally go out of sight to the south.
Next I hook up with Colleen and Calvin again and we all set up on Trash Can Hill, hoping we can see the Druids to the northwest and 697's Group to the south. We finally see one black Druid, but it's just a speck at this distance. The wind kicks up again and blows snow in my face, so I turn my back and scope the Chalcedony fan area, looking for any sign of the Druid pup.
Calvin calls that he's found the three males again and soon I see them too, pretty much in the same place where I lost them. They continue to roam in and out of the aspen forest at the point of the fan and I realize they are in an area I have scoped extensively before, which must be full of Druid smell as it is one of their favorite hang-outs.
Then we see them begin to lope off to the south, heading upriver. I can't help myself from making a little wish out loud "Go home, now, and leave the Druids in peace!"
A little later we join Rick at Dorothy's, and I am rewarded with a nice sighting of 480, 691, 690 and two other blacks. I watch them for about an hour and a half and I can't help but notice the enormous difference between the two groups of wolves.
A bison herd comes up from the flats below, some passing us on the north side and others passing us on the south. This herd is mostly cows and calfs but there are a few bulls to be wary of. It is quite entertaining to be surrounded by the multitude of grunts and bleats. There are several new people in Lamar this evening, and we strike up a chat. Two women from Oregon are especially enthusiastic wildlife advocates. They want to know all the places where wolves can best be seen. I try to help by pointing out various locations from this pullout.
At about 5:30 I start to pack up, because even though wolves are still in sight, I have to keep my promise to meet Doug and Helen for dinner in Gardiner and I don't want to be late or hold them up. The Oregon ladies decide to caravan west with me. We stop at Slough to wait for a bison herd crossing the road. Some of them stop to drink from a puddle near the pullout that has frozen over in the cold. They break the ice with their hooves and lap the water beneath!
Some of the calves in this group are very small. Their coats have darkened from baby orange to a sort of tan, not quite the rich brown they should be at this time of year. They must have been born late!
We stop again on the Blacktail to watch a large herd of elk. They are fairly close to the road so it's a nice sighting. The elk look so good this time of year.
The rest of the drive is uneventful and I meet Doug and Helen as planned. But as it turns out, Doug has a surprise for me - he's invited Bob Landis to join us at the Mine. That makes for a doubly interesting evening for me as we talke about wildlife and photography and 302 and the effects of the hunt.
And I tell them all the tale of the Druids's home invasion this morning, and for once, I actually know something these guys didn't know. 8~)
TODAY I SAW: bison, a coyote, elk, 10 wolves (including 7 Druids -5B 2G - 480, 691, 690, 571, Triangle Blaze, the Thin Female and one other black, plus 697M, 682M and the uncollared black male), and the spirit of Allison