It's just before 10AM as I leave Bozeman. There is snow on the ground and the temperature reads 17 degrees. Chloe & Becky are behind me - they drove in from Missoula last night and we had a nice, low-key Christmas celebration at Wendy's West.
I am taking Trail Creek Road, my favorite route to the Park. Several ducks fly overhead and I hope they are a good omen. All three of us are feeling very sad this Christmas, like all wolf watchers. We are in mourning for all the wolves we have lost to hunters this fall. Most of all, I miss the one I knew the best, 832F, whom we called "the 06". She was killed less than three weeks ago, on December 6th.
Before we lost her, we lost 754M, whom I also knew well. He was so enamoured of the 06 and was such a good uncle to her pups. The deaths of these two wolves cast a pall over our whole trip.
A lot of our talk last night was of the fate of the remaining Lamar Pack and how the loss of the 06, who was such a strong leader, will affect the remaining pack. Will they remain in Wyoming or return to Lamar Valley? What is in store for them during the upcoming mating season? Will we ever see any of them again? The possibility of never seeing those enthusiastic yearlings again is hard to accept.
A light snow is falling. The lovely scenery helps my mood a bit. I am hopeful that Nature will work her healing way on me.
Once we get to the highway, B & C take the lead. They turn right at the flashing traffic light at Emmigrant. They have discovered a bake shop in this tiny town called Wildflour Bakery. Given that it's Christmas Eve, I am surprised to find it open, but boy am I glad it is!
The baked goods are so delicious, I will never again pass up a chance to stop here again. I have a savory scone with spinach and feta cheese which is out of this world! I also sample their version of a blueberry muffin. Yum! This just adds to the list of reasons to be grateful to B & C!
Back on the road now. The Yellowstone River is edged with ice on both banks but mostly running open. The snow-fog shrouds the mountains, which is too bad. Horses in their thick winter coats wander in snow-powdered fields. The road itself, though, is dry and wonderfully empty.
There are elk and mulies just outside Gardiner. The snow level here is very low; in fact, it looks more to me like October than December.
We stop at the Super 8 and although our rooms are not quite ready, the manager allows us to drop off some of our gear. We decide we have enough time to try to get out to Lamar and back.
The day is quite windy and feels much colder than 24 degrees. Visibility remains poor. We stop at the big pullout and I say hello to Allison. I notice three elk far out to the north in the flats and watch them walk warily to the trees.
I notice a lot of birds alighting on a low rise to the north. Hmmm? Might that be an old carcass? A bald eagle shows up, and then Chloe notices a coyote in the flats beyond. He seems to smell something and moves towards the road.
We notice another car stopped further ahead. Its driver is looking to the south. When I turn my gaze that way I see dozens of ravens flying suddenly up. The hillside blocks me from seeing what they might be landing on, but this certainly looks like a fresh carcass.
The coyote crosses the road and heads for the area where we saw the birds. He goes out of sight behind a hill but then we see 5 big birds, three balds eagles and 2 others, either goldens or immature balds, standing on the slope above the area. Hmmm, there is definitely something to eat here.
The wind is fierce and makes scoping quite unpleasant. Chloe sees another gray canid and I make a mistake of calling it in. To late, I realize it's not a wolf but a coyote. I make the correction over the radio but it's an embarassing way to announce that I am back in the Park! 8~)
I find lots of bighorn sheep up on the cliffs of McMinn Bench and a few elk on the slopes north of them. We keep watching the carcass area in hopes of finding wolves somewhere. After a while I am so chilled that I suggest we warm up by driving on.
There are bison west of the High Bridge and more of them at Blacktail ponds. In the pullout is a bit of a crowd watching a carcass.
A cow bison fell through the ice two days ago and made a hopeless attempt to free herself. Apparently this was upsetting to many visitors, who then demanded that the Park Service "do something". Local wildlife watchers know it is a fairly common occurrence for a bison to fall through the ice in this area each winter; the bears tend to find them in early spring. But I think the Park Service might have been concerned that a visitor might take matters into his own hands, so rather than risk a human life, the Park Service shot the poor thing and put an end to it.
The carcass is mostly under water at this point; I can see its head and one horn amid the icy slush. A single coyote nervously circles it. There are dozens of birds as well.
It's sad to see but at least it's no longer suffering. I try to think of the numerous animals who will need the nourishment this bison will provide, albeit frozen at the moment.
We drive further east and meet Rick at the S Curves. C & B have added a phone booster to their gear this winter, which makes it possible for them to get cell service in areas that were previously off-limits.
Alas, Rick has no current information on the Lamar pack. They were last seen on December 15, ten days after the 06 was killed. Everyone believes they are still in Wyoming, but no one knows if they are in a "safe" area or not. Two hunting units close to the Park are now closed to further hunting, but outside those units lies the "predator" zone, in which wolves can be killed at any time, as if they were rabid skunks. It is nerve-wracking to think they could all be shot for wandering over a line on a map.
We tell Rick about the carcass signs we saw near Rescue Creek. He decides to head west in case the 8-Mile Pack might be in the area. The 8-Mile pack formed north of the Park but has been seen inside the borders on and off during the last month.
So, a half hour later, we are all back in the big pullout, facing the same bitter wind. One nice thing is we get to say hello to our fellow wolf-watchers, Kirsty and Allen, Colleen and Des, Kara and Marlene. We are glad to see one another, but our greetings are commiserative, less cheerful than usual.
More snow comes in and visibility dwindles. Alas, there are no signals for any of the 8 Mile wolves. However, Rick suggests we try the Jardine Road for a view of the carcass, once the snow passes.
The Silver Gate contingent heads east. C & B and I decide to try the Jardine Road while the light remains. We do find the spot and see coyotes on it. But the wind is even more fierce up here and snow is still falling.
So, we head back downhill and go to The Mine. Marlene has gotten a table right next to the fireplace. We have a nice meal and meet a photographer at the next table named Travis, with whom we remain friendly throughout the trip.
Merry Christmas Yellowstone!
TODAY I SAW: bison, 3 coyotes, ducks, 4 bald eagles, 3 golden eagles, elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, ravens and the spirit of Allison.