Looks like we picked up a little bit of snow overnight, perhaps a half inch. It's so soft and powdery, though, it's easy to brush off.
Snow continues to fall as I begin the drive, but the road is easy to navigate. The sky threatens bad visibility again, but when we get to Round Prairie the snow stops, just as it did yesterday. Even under this dim first light, the scenery is gorgeous.
Again, we drive all the way through Lamar Valley and through the Canyon without seeing wolves. Our first stop is Slough. Many cars are here already and more are arriving as we pull in.
Apparently, wolves are being seen from Bob's Knob. Becky and I pack up and head out, crunching through the snow.
I see them with my naked eye even before I am set up. There are so many of them, it's impossible not to! It's the Mollies. All 19 of them!
Wow, there they are! The fabled interior pack, which, truth to tell, originally formed as the Crystal Creek pack, by reintroduced wolves in 1995. Crystal Creek itself is visible from this very spot, directly south. After an unpleasant confrontation with the original Druids in 1996, the pack left Lamar Valley for the interior - and made the Pelican Valley their home. They found success there, despite dangerous thermal areas and a lack of wintering elk. They learned to hunt bison in the deep snows of winter and grew large.
Over the years, the Mollies were known for their forays into the territory of neighboring packs, often to the detriment of those packs. In perhaps the most notorious incident, they killed the well-known "white wolves", the Hayden pack alpha pair. But several dispersing Mollie males have become stalwart alphas of other packs, and in most cases, the brought stability as strong leaders and providers of their pups.
The Mollies have long been regarded as an aggressive pack, but that can fairly be said about any pack that grows large, simply because wolves generally win inter-pack skirmishes by simply outnumbering their rivals.
The Mollies have made many visits to Specimen Ridge, Lamar and Little America over the last 15 years, but usually these visits are of short duration, and usually it is only individual wolves that remain. But even short visits can have wide-ranging results.
During the spring of 2008, several mange-afflicted Mollie yearlings hung around with some friendly Druid yearlings for a week or two. Shortly thereafter, mange spread among all the Druids, weakening them and triggering their slow demise.
This visit by the Mollies is unusual because the whole pack has remained for longer than a week. In fact, today marks the 8th straight day they have been here. The pack currently consists of 11 grays and 8 blacks including two collars: the alpha female 686F (a gray) and #779F (a black).
I watch them wander in a somewhat haphazard line through the flats, moving steadily east, sniffing and exploring all the way. The gray in front is the current alpha female. This pack does not have an alpha male; all the males in this pack are closely related to the female, so she won't breed with any of them.
They stop at an old carcass and do some extra sniffing. We notice that the pack does no "double-scent marking", because that is behavior specific to an alpha pair. These wolves stay in view for a solid hour, and eventually move all the way over to the campground area, past the out-house and the trail-head marker.
After they go out of sight we linger, hoping they will appear again, perhaps higher on the hill, or further to the east. While others are focused to the northeast, I turn around to scope to the south, and I find a bull elk and some bighorn up on Specimen.
After they go out of sight we stay another half hour, hoping they will turn up again. A few times I turn around to scope in the other direction, and find a bull elk and some bighorn up on Specimen.
But then we hear a report that the Blacktails have a carcass far to the west, in the Wraith Falls area. So we pack up and head thataway. As we drive, the snow falls more heavily and the wind picks up. Overall visibility is lessening fast.
By the time I reach the pullout at Wraith Falls, the main group of Blacktails is already out of sight, hidden in the forested hills to the south. We hear howling; in fact, we hear it coming from both sides of the road. But we're in the middle of a squall, and can't see a thing!
Once it passes and the veil of snow lifts, I see three wolves in the sage on the north side of the road: two blacks and a gray. I recognize the blacks as Big Blaze and his enamorata, Lady Blaze. Kathie says the gray is a yearling male. We notice he has no black tip on its tail, which is a tad unusual.
This trio of wolves howl a great deal, calling to their pack mates, bemoaning their predicament of being stuck on the wrong side of the road with all these people are looking at them. This is a nice, close sighting but I feel bad because these wolves clearly want to cross the road and our presence is preventing them.
Big Blaze looks more handsome than ever. He is very buff and has a bit more gray on his muzzle than I saw last time, which completely reminds me of both 302 and 480. I get a pang of melancholy, remembering those now-gone wolves.
Lady Blaze is petite compared to him and I notice that her winter coat is lumpy and uneven, tell-tale signs of mange. Poor thing. She does not look as bad as the poor Druids did their last winter, but it is worrisome to see.
The pack on the south side stops howling, but the trio keeps it up, making them seem all the more pitiful and lonesome.
Early this morning Blacktail wolves were seen on a carcass mostly hidden in the forest between the Wraith Falls pullout and the Lava Creek picnic area. People tell us the carcass itself cannot be seen, as it is in a gully, but that several wolves could be seen between the tree trunks, tugging pieces from it.
The area can only be seen from one spot near the road, and there is no place to park there, so people are leaving their cars in the Lava Creek lot and walking back with their scopes to view it. But no one is having much luck at the moment.
The trio on the north side begins to move east, looking for a car-free stretch of road where they can cross. Many cars have already left the Wraith Falls pullout, paralleling the wolves as they travel east.
Rick and the Ranger try to convince visitors to gather in the pullouts to watch them, thus leaving long sections of road open for them to make their break to the south side. The regular wolf watchers comply but other visitors do not. It's a pretty impossible situation. Most visitors understandably don't wish to spend hours in one spot, looking at these three wolves; they want to take a photo or two and drive on.
I am encouraged by my friends to join them at the next pullout but when I get there another car has taken the only available spot. I drive on and find the next pullout full, too. Finally, I see the Blacktail Ponds pullout has room for me. I stop here and set up close to my car. I have a great view of Big Blaze and Lady Blaze in the snowy flats to the north. They are still howling!
I can't find the gray, though. Perhaps he made a run for it and got across?
Big Blaze's howl is a deep baritone. Every once in a while I hear a single-voice response from the hill south side of the road. I assume it is the gray, telling Big Blaze that he got across alright and that he should hurry up. After a few more minutes I notice a west-bound car has stopped near a grove of trees.
Then I see a gray wolf loping down the bank from the road, sending snow flying. The gray runs directly to Big Blaze and Lady Blaze, low to the ground, with his tail wagging wildly. As he nears them he drops even lower. It's a very submissive but oh-so-happy-to-see-you posture. He greets Big Blaze with licks and whimpers; Big Blaze accepts the adulation and is very dominant, standing, stiff-legged over the gray like a monarch.
Then I realize this a different gray than the one I saw an hour ago. There is a black tip on the tail and a very noticeable case of mange.
These three continue to howl on and off, then the gray moves off on his own. He begins to head upslope on the eastern end of Everts. He howls some more. Slowly the two blacks begin to walk in that direction. They reach the trees, then the skyline and then ...they're gone. It looks like they have finally given up on crossing the road. They will probably bed down for a nap.
I rejoin Becky and Chloe and we compare notes. We drive back to Lava Creek and take a peek at the carcass area. We manage to see a bald eagle and a coyote but the wolves are long-gone.
So we decide to go in search of otters. Back through the Blacktail Plateau we go, admiring the scenery along the way. We stop in Lamar Canyon and investigate several spots but don't find any otters today. I do find a previously unknown (to me) thermal spot in the Canyon and enjoy watching the bubbles and steam erupting from the cold water.
We run into Richard from Utah and have a great reunion. Kara arrives and shows us the remains of something that died in the road recently. It's CSI Yellowstone as we find bits of hair, bloodstains, a little tissue. Perhaps a deer or elk was hit by a car, or…perhaps taken by a lion? Kara points to a couple of tracks she feels are surely made by a big cat. The day has warmed up to 30 degrees. We continue east but otter sightings elude us. We do see two coyotes in the flats.
We call it a day and drive on to Silver Gate. When we get inside we discover that Kara has arrived ahead of us. And she has prepared a delicious dinner! YUM! Thanks Kara!
Today I saw: bison, coyotes, deer, a bald eagle, elk, bighorn sheep, 9 wolf-watchers, 23 wolves (including 19 Mollies and 4 Blacktails) and the spirit of Allison