INTRODUCTION AND WOLF UPDATE
This year I am back to my Christmas tradition of spending the holidays in YNP. A month ago I took a quickie trip that was low on wolves and comraderie; I'm happy to say this Holiday visit made up for both those shortcomings!
Chloe and Becky from Missoula joined me in Bozeman on Christmas Eve. We had dinner and a gift exchange, with hot chocolate around the fire - er, well I don't have a fireplace, but I tried to mimic the feel of one with lots of candles and twinkly Christmas lights. 8~)
Then we convoyed to the the Park on Christmas day, via Trail Creek. In the short interval since I had been in the Park, the ongoing wolf drama had played several pivotal chapters.
First, we learned that the alpha female of the Agate pack, 715M, had died. She had been injured in a confrontation with other wolves, most likely the Lamar Canyons, on the very day I had arrived in November. While I was there, she remained in pretty much the same spot on Specimen Ridge. Her collar went into mort mode a week later.
The remaining members of the Agate pack were seen off and on, through December 19th, with one of our favorite wolves (and one of the oldest in the Park at the moment) 471F, observed as having assumed the female leadership, along with 641M. But then, around Dec 19th or 20th, an additional confrontation took place - this time between the arriving Mollie's Pack and the Agates. 641M was killed, and perhaps several other Agates.
As of January 10, 2012, no Agate wolves have been seen. If any remain, I hope they may just be staying out of sight, or nursing their wounds. I sincerely hope the Agates can somehow regroup and survive the winter.
In the past, members of the Mollies have been seen on Specimen Ridge or in Lamar on occasion. It is thought that it was several Mollies yearlings who brought mange to Lamar (and doomed the Druids) in 2009. But in past years, we observed short visits by individual members; there seems to be a difference this time.
At this writing, the Mollies have been located on Specimen or in Little America every day since December 20th. They are making kills and showing no signs of leaving. During one long sighting they travelled through Little America, along the flats below Mom's ridge all the way to the Slough Creek trailhead and beyond into the east. Mating season is approaching, and the consensus is that the "acting" alpha female may be looking for a mate. She is 686F, a gray. There is one other collared wolf in the pack, 779F a black female.
I don't know what happened to the former alpha female of the Mollies, but she was a different wolf than the one we are now seeing. We do know that the former alpha male of the Mollies is no longer with his pack and it is thought he has taken up alpha male duties with the Mary Mountain pack. The alpha male before him, 495M, the father of the Mollies we are seeing now, was killed by a kick to the head, by either a bison or elk.
The current pack consists of 8 yearlings and 7 pups, making the current count of 19 a very large and very young-skewing pack (similar to the Druids in 2001 & 2002). It is bound to split up at some point, so more changes are likely in the offing. With mating season a little over a month away, it could be a wild scene. No doubt, when flying permits, the wolf project will try to collar a few more Mollies and hopefully find the remaining Agates as well.
I am happy to report that the Lamar Canyon pack is healthy and well bonded. And I am also happy to report that the 06 may soon be the star of her own film, if Bob Landis's plans go as scheduled. Her mate, 755, has matured into a very responsible and attentive father, and his brother, 754, has finally recovered from his severe injury during the summer. He now sports a noticable limp but it does not seem to deter him. He remains a favorite uncle of the pups and yearlings and we see them play and tussle fairly often. The three black pups are gorgeous, and one of the gray pups is noticably small.
The Canyon Pack is also in fairly good health, although with a bit of mange here and there. They may have lost a pup and a yearling recently to tussles with the wide-ranging Blacktail Pack. There had been a usual count of 8, including the white alpha female, the black-going-gray alpha male 712, two gray yearlings, one black yearling, and three pups, two black and one gray. When we saw them on New Year's Eve, we only saw 6, missing one black and one gray. Both of the blacks we saw on 12/31/11 had white marks on their chests, one a fairly large mark and the other a small dot. The two blacks were noticably different in size, leading us to believe one was the yearling female.
The Blacktail Pack had been divided during November and early December, but they seem now to have reunited. The two packs were made of the "board of directors", meaning alpha pair 778M (Big Brown) and 693F, as well as 778's brothers, Medium Gray and the gorgeous Big Blaze, and several others, including the black female we call by various nicknames (Lady Blaze, Mrs. Blaze or "Ta Da"). The splinter pack was temporarily called 777's group, and it included several uncollared yearlings and pups. They had travelled apart from the alpha group for most of late November and early December, a traditional time for young adult wolves to explore away from home, but now they seem to be hanging out together, which makes for a largish pack of 12-14 wolves. It seems inevitable that the Blacktails will clash at some time with Mollies, as the Blacktails often visit Specimen Ridge and/or Little America. I hope that meeting will prompt new pairings, good for both packs, rather than the demise of additional wolves.
I am sad to report that 692F, born an Agate, who became a founding member of the Blacktail Pack with 302M and his nephews, was ousted by her sister 693 and had been roaming alone for many months. Even more sadly, she had the ill-luck to be near Jardine on November 5th, 2011, when two Gardiner residents, Travis Cody Daniels (39) and Brandon Mace (19), decided to "go hunting" in an already-closed hunting zone. Doing so fits the definition of poaching, as it is every hunter's responsibility to know the rules, including what units are open and closed.
Reports say they both saw her, both shot at her, and Brandon's shot killed her. Brandon carted her body in his pickup truck to the Blue Goose bar where he works and bragged about the kill, inviting people in the bar to come out and take a look. One brave Gardiner resident reported it to the Game Warden. Claiming he "did not know" the zone had been closed (for four weeks) Brandon pled guilty and was fined $135.00. Mr. Daniels has pled not-guilty. He also has some alleged previous experience with poaching. His next court appearance will occur early in 2012.
Since 692F was a collared wolf and since what Brandon did is considered poaching (hunting out of season), he does not get to keep her body. Instead she was "returned" to the Wolf Project. I don't know what they plan to do with her remains in the future.
In my opinion, it stretches credulity that two Gardiner hunters would NOT be aware of hunting unit boundaries in their own neighborhood. it stretches credulity that they would NOT be aware of their home units' quotas, much less whether and when those quotas had or had not been met. By Montana rules, the onus is on the hunter to know and abide by such rules. Nevertheless, both claimed ignorance. In Brandon's case, at least a few officials bought it. If, in fact, he was truthfully ignorant of the closing of that zone four weeks prior to Nov 5th, it is my opinion that at least SOME loss of hunting privileges ought to have been assessed, as an incentive for him to wise up in future. $135.00 may be considered a high fine for a place like Gardiner, but I daresay the fine would have been higher for a poached elk. I will refrain from commenting on Mr. Daniels until more information is available, other than to say that as he has been hunting in the area for a much longer time, his "ignorance" of the hunting zone's particulars is even harder to swallow.
But back to the wolves.
Another lone Blacktail female, 752, has been seen on and off in Little America and Lamar. We hope she can survive until mating season and perhaps find an unattached male.
Again I want to recommend a website set up by some friends of mine: www.yellowstonereports.com . It is hosted by several writers, all of whom love the Park and spend a good deal of time in it. Laurie Lyman writes daily reports of the Yellowstone wolf packs, concentrating on the Northern Range. Nathan Varley writes about his adventures and explorations, and Dan Hartman relates tales of the wildlife he observes near his Silver Gate cabin and on nearby hikes. There are several other writers who contribute from time to time who I do not know as well, and there is a nominal cost of $20.00 to receive password access to the site. The money goes to support various Yellowstone-related charities, with a small amount going to website maintenance. In my opinion, it is well worth the initial expense.
Thanks to Laurie and Rick M, Becky & Chloe, Calvin and Lynette, Colleen and Des, Kara, Richard, Jeff, Mike and Karen and Steve and Robin. And a special thanks to the two Franks for the hike on New Year's Day.
P.S. I am not a wolf or wildlife expert, but an enthusiast, and if you find anything in this report
to be wrong or misleading, feel free to bring it to my attention by e-mailing me at