We start a bit earlier today, at 7AM, mostly because we want to get to the Lamar, hoping, however unrealistically, for a glimpse of our favorite pack.
We arrive at Blacktail Ponds at first light. The world is so still at this hour, and with such promise. A substantial bison herd is in the area, and we hear them lowing softly in the distance.
After a while we continue east and stop at North Butte where we see Colleen and Des. They heard howling a little earlier, coming from the south. We scope from here for a while, but find nothing moving so we continue east. I notice a lot of elk this morning in various spots throughout the Blacktail.
We get a report of wolves further east so my next stop is at Slough Creek in Little America. I join a number of wolf watchers out on Bob's Knob and soon I have wolves in view! It's the Junction Butte pack.
I watched this pack in October when the single collared wolf 823F was still alive. She was killed by hunters when she stepped outside the Park into Montana, leaving this pack with no collars at the moment. Finding them requires luck and experience and fortunately for us, Bob L. has both.
My scope is aimed at the Marge Simpson tree. I see two blacks, a pencil-tailed gray and the two gray alphas. Their noses are to the ground, sniffing. It's good to see the poor gray pup so close to the others - he is often trailing the pack. As the leaders start to move down the slope into the flats, additional wolves come into view.
My count grows to 8. They do a lot of scent-marking and several engage in romping and playing. To me, this is a sign of well-fed, bonded wolves so it makes me smile.
Eventually the pack begins to move across the flats and up the rocky slopes. They stop on the crest and bed down for a breather. After a little while they move to another hilltop - the one with a distinctive broken stump. This post was once a frequent gathering place for the Slough Creek pack, back when they were kings of this valley.
The majority of the pack beds here but one black wolf seems to be restless. I watch this black, as it moves down the hill to the east toward a pair of bull bison. When I turn back to the hilltop, only two wolves remain bedded there; the rest are now following the black. I see them spread out on the slope, taking a variety of paths in same direction.
Eventually they form more of a wolf-line and travel through the willows, past another bison bull, into a long gully with trees. This is where I lose them. I try to anticipate where they might re-appear but never find them. After a fruitless 15 minutes, I realize that everyone else has lost them, too.
Well, it was nice while it lasted.
On to the east we go.
Finally I have my first sight of Lamar Canyon and Lamar Valley. The views do not disappoint, but I find myself in tears.
There is a good amount of snow on the valley floor, and I see lots of tracks. The river is low and mostly frozen, with only a few thin ribbons of dark open water slipping past the ice.
A herd of bison shovels snow just beyond Fisherman's pullout.
Snow begins to fall again, lightly, reducing visibility.
I join B & C at Dorothy's, where we scope despite the shroud of snow. It's as if we want to WILL the Lamar wolves back into the Park. We see elk and bison and I enjoy watching a single coyote mousing in the flats below. Later this lone coyote is joined by two more.
There is some very musical howling by the song dogs but there is no response from any wolves. They are not here. We scope high and low, and Chloe finds some amazing cornices up on Specimen Ridge.
I take a drive further east, and see a parade of bison running east along the trail on Geriatric hill. They scare a herd of bighorns up into the cliffs above the trail. It is common to see rams in this spot but today there are ewes and lambs, too. Perhaps with the Lamars out of town, the sheep feel safer.
At the confluence I look for otters, but find instead dozens of ouzels. They are such cool birds!
Back at Dorothy's with B & C, a visitor notices a bison herd across the river, coming down Jasper Bench to the river. Several people in a group at the end of the lot are excited, pointing and calling out "a wolf is chasing the bison!"
We swing our scopes in that direction. We do not see a wolf but do see that this bison herd has a late-born calf, which brings up the rear of the herd as they run. A calf this age is exactly the same size as a wolf and the people mistook it for a wolf. I have done so several times myself. When you see prey animals running in an area known for wolves, it's easy to think you are watching a chase, so you naturally look for whatever chasing them. This calf was last in line, so....
Anyway, once it's clear there is no wolf here, everyone relaxes and enjoys watching the herd with its tiny calf. Every year, it seems, one or two late-season calves are born in the Park. If the winter is mild they usually survive. This calf is really small, but it looks healthy.
We scope a while longer, then head back west, stopping at Slough to see if the Junction Butte pack has re-emerged. No luck.
At Phantom Lake two gorgeous bull elk have drawn a late-day crowd of happy photographers. A light snow falls, adding to the beauty of the scene.
At dusk we stop at Blacktail Ponds. We see a dark hunched shape feeding on the frozen bison carcass. It's a wolf! Chloe and I exit our cars as quietly as we can, and speak in whispers, because the sighting is close.
With such little light, I can't tell whether the wolf is gray or black - only that it is a wolf and not a coyote. It tugs and tugs on the frozen meet until my own teeth hurt watching him! After several minutes, the wolf gives up and trots away, paralleling the road.
Well, that was nice!
The dark closes around us as we head to our nightly rest.
TODAY I SAW: Bison, coyotes, a bald eagle, elk, ouzels, ravens, bighorn sheep (with lambs), 9 wolves (including 8 from the Junction Butte pack and 1 unknown wolf, probably a Blacktail) and the spirit of Allison.