It’s been a tough few days. Another school shooting with 17 dead and revelation that a foreign power has interfered in our democracy and created chaos in our elections. Depressing and awful news. The kind of thing that gets me obsessing and second guessing my life choices. Is this really the country that I devoted 35 years in defense of? It’s also the kind of thing that makes me grateful that I have chosen to spend this winter in Montana, just outside the north gate of Yellowstone.
Today, I got the opportunity to step away from the news and the TV and immerse myself in the environment I am living in. I got invited to join a small group, led by an expert, to go looking for wolves. Wolves were once native to Yellowstone, but were hunted to near extinction in the early decades of the 20th century. They were re-established in the park in the mid-90s and now there are several packs that are doing their job of contributing to the health of the Yellowstone eco-system.
It was a very cold morning and there were several inches of fresh snow overnight with winds and drifting. The most popular areas in the park for sighting wolves are the Lamar and Hayden Valleys. The original plan was to go to Lamar. Because of the weather, driving conditions were pretty sporting. The roads between Mammoth Hot Springs and Tower Junction and out to Cooke City were closed today, so we did not get to the Lamar Valley.
Instead, we took an old highway along the west side of the Yellowstone River. We got perhaps two miles, maybe three, down the road when our guide (Emil McCain of Yellowstone Wild) pulled over and said, “I’m going to get some glass out and take a look.” Within minutes, he’d spotted a big gray settled down in the snow on the top of a hill about a mile out (towards the west). We all got a chance to look, and it did not appear any others of his pack were around, but Emil was sure they weren’t far off.
Toes and faces hurting from the cold, (it was -4º and -15º with the wind chill), we got back in the van and went a little further on, passing some bison, and then Emil pulled over again. Now he was excited. “Hurry! They won’t be here long!” The rest of the pack, 15 wolves (including the white alpha female and a very large black male wolf who stuck to her like Velcro) were crossing the field about 1/2 mile to the northwest of us. We could see them with our naked eyes. Not well enough to describe them, but well enough to know they were canine and they were moving together. He got the scopes set up and we watched and counted. At one point, they were in a lovely line, with no more than 15 or 20 feet between any of them.
In three summers in Yellowstone, I’ve seen perhaps five wolves. One on the road between Norris and Mammoth and a den of pups at Specimen Creek (through a scope and a looong ways away). I never imagined I would get such a treat as this. Emil acknowledged that we had been very, very lucky (“blessed”) with this sighting. It was the Wapiti Lake pack and they were trespassing on the Eight-Mile pack territory.
We saw other things today, and I have photos of bison and big horn sheep that will make for very nice prints. My friend got some photos of the wolves, as well as some nice shots of prong horn on the river, but my day was complete with the incredible treat of seeing the Wapiti pack and watching them move together across the hills and fields, just inside the Yellowstone park boundary. We were sworn to silence, not to talk about it in town, because there are still wolf haters in these parts and they haven’t yet caught the assassin that shot the white alpha female in the early spring of 2017, the mother of the beauty we saw leading the pack today.
What a day!