My trips to Yellowstone are about many things, but mostly the chance to have as quiet a time in Nature as can be managed. I have found that this is best accomplished by choosing to go in the "shoulder seasons" of late Fall and early Spring.
The trade-off, of course, is that many less Park facilities and roads are available during these visits, but knowing in advance makes it easy to adapt. Luckily, my main interests (seeing wolves and bears) lie along the one road that remains open in all seasons - the Northeast Entrance road through Lamar Valley.
My Late October trip did indeed offer me wonderfully empty roads and vistas but it turned out to be remarkably rich in wolf drama - and in particular Druid drama. I didn't expect this but was delighted to be a witness. In fact, since my previous three trips had been notable for their lack of sightings, this trip really made up for it.
About wolves: My experience in Yellowstone has taught me that late fall is the "exploring season" for wolves. Pups are old enough to keep up with the adults, so packs tend to venture further afield than usual, for territorial checks or in search of elk. Elk have the upper hand at this time of year: they are fat and healthy from eating well all summer and the snowfall amounts are usually not so deep as to encumber them.
For mature wolves (especially non-alphas), this is the dispersal season, which can work out well (a wolf might find a mate, new territory, or both) or not so well (a wolf might be killed or injured in conflict with other packs).
It was this time last year when famous wolf #302 said goodbye to his Druid brother #480 and his former love #569 and set off with several of his nephews, eventually founding the Blacktail Pack. Happily, that Pack is still thriving; 5 of his pups are now robust "teenagers", romping after the adults, but alas, on October 7th, less than three weeks before I was to arrive in YNP, I heard news I had long been dreading: 302 took his last breath of clear, crisp Yellowstone air.
It was eventually confirmed that he was killed in conflict with other wolves. My sadness at his passing and at missing a chance to see him once more was mitigated by the fact that he died as he lived, a wild wolf. And his legacy remains for me to get to know, glimpse by glimpse.
Since July there has been very little good wolf news at all, given that the first legal hunt of wolves began in Idaho and Montana, only a few short months after their having been delisted as an Endangered species. Although the outright "slaughter" that some predicted has not come to pass, wolves have been killed every day since the hunt started, in one zone or another. A day before we got the news about 302, four members of the Cottonwood Pack, including two collared wolves that I have watched on several occasions (527F and 716F - see earlier Trip Reports) were shot by hunters in wilderness less than a mile north of the Park border - a human construct no wild wolf could possibly understand nor avoid.
Besides this awful news was the knowledge that the Druid alpha female, 569F, had not been seen since late September and was very likely dead. In fact, we got confirmation of her death just three days before I flew to Bozeman. And to top it all off, the Druid Pack has contracted mange and can be seen suffering from it daily, some worse than others.
So given all this bleak news, I was prepared for a poor wolf-sighting trip. But Yellowstone served up a number of surprises which made my visit quite remarkable.
Note about mange: the good news is, contrary to popular belief, wolves CAN survive and even fully recover from mange, although it takes a lot out of them and weather can make survival especially difficult. Both the Blacktails and the Mollies made a full recovery, although some individuals in the Mollies may have succumbed without our knowledge. The Druids are at a disadvantage because they are entering the winter season with the illness, which makes it especially hard. I am afraid we are going to lose a few individuals, but let's hope the core pack survives into Spring.
Long Live 302! Long Live 569! Long Live 527! Long Live 716! I will not forget you.
Thanks, as always, to John Uhler for starting it all, and this time especially to Doug Dance and Helen for sharing their day with me and to Laurie for sharing her lovely home.
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.