We see Steve at the S Curves so we pull over and join him. And just that quickly, we have wolves in view. He has found the Blacktail alphas plus Cut Tail! Now, that's how I like to start my day during a Christmas visit.
The alphas are bedded along the crest of a snowy hill, in front of a stand of dark conifers, not far from where we saw them yesterday afternoon. Cut Tail is bedded a few yards below them. After a little bit, she gets up and walks uphill, past the alphas towards the trees. Just as she starts to dip down below the crest, she lowers her muzzle and her short tail begins to wag. Hmm, this is exactly what she would do if she were greeting another wolf, so I think the fourth Blacktail is here, too.
There is not a lot of activity, but each of the wolves gets up once or twice, yawns or stretched and then re-beds. When they do that I can see they all look full. Big Brown howls off and on for about a half-hour, but the others don't join in. He often looks off to the south after he howls. It's a chilly morning with a brisk wind, but I am glad of this sighting.
Chloe uses her new cell phone booster to report the sighting to Rick. When she finishes her call, she has a big smile on her face. She says "the Lamars are back!"
Oh lord, what a relief!
Information is scarce so far, but apparently the group of regulars who come in from Silver Gate saw tracks in the road, on both sides. Then near Icebox Canyon several wolves crossed the road in front of Jeff's car.
For now, they seem to be somewhere in the Round Prairie area. None of them are visible at the moment and visibility is poor, but Rick has signals for both 755M and 820F. (Note: these are the only collared wolves left in the pack)
I waste no time packing up and heading east. It is such amazingly wonderful news and it makes the drive east all the more enjoyable. But I am dying to know how many of them are back. I keep saying to myself, I don't even care if I see them. I am just happy they are back! Back at home, safe from the guns and traps of misguided men.
I see a sweet little coyote in the road at Tower and I slow down to see what he is going to do. He hops over the low snow berm so I drive on. When I get close to Slough, I hear the Junction Pack is in sight again, so I stop to take a look.
I set up with Colleen and Des and scan the slope where we saw them yesterday. After a while I find one black, far to the right, in front of some trees. Soon two more wolves come romping towards the lone black and together they head uphill. The three blacks are joined by three grays, all on the move. They climb higher on the slope and soon are out of sight among the trees.
So now I head to Lamar. The sun is out and the valley looks beautiful.
All the pullouts, from Fisherman's to the Footbridge, are empty. This in itself is so strange to see at Christmastime. When I pass the Soda Cone, I see some familiar cars up ahead.
Kara is scoping by herself to the north, which strikes me as odd, since I heard the Lamars were at Round Prairrie, south of the road. I stop to chat with her and she says she is looking for the uncollared Lamars - the youngsters.
She encourages me to head east but as I drive I can't shake the feeling that Kara seems worried instead of happy.
There are multiple cars at Round Prairrie and PebbIe Creek, and people with scopes and cameras in the road by the bridge. But they are not looking at wolves. They are looking at moose!
I join C & B on the bridge with my scope. There are three bull moose here, fairly close: one standing, one bedded in plain view, and a third bedded in some willows, nearly hidden. The hidden one is extremely large but has no antlers. Is this a cow moose with two bulls? Can a cow be larger than a bull? That would be unusual.
On closer inspection, though, the moose in the willows has nubs where his antlers used to be. Ahh, he is a "pedestal bull", one who has lost his antlers already. His larger size suggests he is probably older than the other two.
The standing moose is absolutely gorgeous, with a robust build, strong-looking legs and a very shiny coat. His antlers are impressive, too. The moose bedded in plain view has his head turned away from the the humans on the bridge. His antlers are about the same size as the standing moose.
Two photographers decide this wonderful view is not close enough so they circle around a stand of trees to come up on the moose from the flats. They succeed in bothering the pedestal bull enough to vacate his willow bed, and driving the handsome standing moose away entirely. He strides magnificently through the snow, lifting his long legs high, all the way across the flats and up to the road. He then crosses and disappears up the hill going toward Trout Lake.
But I am now officially confused by the lack of wolves in view. A few wolves might be able to give this many people the slip, but not 11 wolves. Especially when eight of the eleven are young wolves. Yearlings and pups are notoriously active. Where are they?
Yet once I ask this question, it hits me that perhaps the pack has already split? Or worse, that more of them have been killed...?
I join Steve and Brian, watching the edges of Round Prairrie and listening for howling. Then I head back west to talk more with Kara. I find her at Hitching Post and learn that she shares my worries. Rick seems worried, too, but there are so many people around him, I decide to hold my questions for another time.
I head back to Round Prairie and scope some more. We are confused by the lack of howling, at least from the collared wolves. Maybe they are just tired and glad to be home.
C & B drive up and ask if I want to join a group heading to Cooke City for lunch. Against my better judgement I say yes, figuring there will likely be no activity in the middle of the day.
On our way up the wolf tracks in the road are still visible. It's really cool to see. But it only looks like one or two sets to me. Earlier someone said that five to nine sets of tracks were seen. Hmmm.
Lunch is fun but on our way back our radios crackle with the unmistakeable hints of a wolf sighting in progress. I reach Soda Butte Cone just as the last gray goes out of sight over the hill.
We regroup at Hitching Post and I get the whole story. Apparently around 1PM some howling was heard at Round Prairie. Then three Lamar wolves emerged from the trees: 755M, 820F and formerly-collared 776F. These three then travelled west along the tree-line and developed a huge parallel following of cars and people.
As the neared the Soda Butte Cone the wolves turned north, clearly intending to cross the road. There were cars and people everywhere, including people out of their cars running towards the wolves, but they got across somehow and headed up the hill on a usual route towards the den forest.
A bunch of us are now scoping the diagonal meadow and the ledge trail in anticipation of a sighting. It is thought that they would likely do a territory check after all this time away, and the ledge trail is the most likely route for them to use.
But we see nothing.
Still, it is a relief to know that these three are back safe in their homestead again. Maybe the youngsters are ahead of them and already there? I can't shake the feeling, though, that we are chasing phantoms.
It's now 4:30 and I have still not seen them. Chloe and I go back to Footbridge and scope the flats from the eastern end. Our reasoning is that if the youngsters were left behind at Round Prairie, they would most likely scent trail the adults and if they do, we will see them!
But instead we see snow and willows and sky and mountains. I see the cut bank where the black yearlings played with such carefree abandon in the summer and I have a pain in my heart.
Lamar is beautiful in the waning light, but there are no wolves.
We start to pack up and Marlene passes us, heading west. As I put my scope in the car my radio crackles. Marlene sees two grays chasing a coyote at the confluence.
I join her there as quickly as is legal, but I am too late, so I drive on to Trash Can, thinking they might show up at the western end of the ledge trail. Still nothing.
I do see a herd of bison, mostly cows and yearling calves, running along the road. There is nothing behind them and they seem to be running for the fun of it. They leave the road and run for a while in the soft snow of the sage meadow. The yearlings are very rambunctious, wheeling and turning and play fighting with each other, kicking up snow spray left and right.
Perhaps the wolves' return got them excited? I'll hold onto that thought.
It's been an emotional day and I am worn out.
TODAY I SAW: bison, coyotes, elk, 3 moose, 9 wolves from 2 packs (including Blacktails 693F, 778M and Cut Tail and three grays and three blacks of the Junction Butte Pack) and the spirit of Allison.