Slough Creek Sonata: The Yellowstone Wolves’ Choir

Slough Creek, Yellowstone National Park, January 17, 2014

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We’re standing on a ridge overlooking the valley, scoping the hillsides and hoping to see a wolf.    The day is sunny and calm, and not too cold, so we’re just pleased to be out in one of our favorite spots on earth.

Suddenly, a lone howl from the south.

We hold our breath…and a chorus of howls answers from the west.

Two howls from the south.  And more answers from the hills to the west of us.  A crew of coyotes gives a few tentative yips, and goes silent as the wolves start in again.

And then….howling that sounds like the wolf is right next to us, from behind a little hill to the east.     We’re surrounded!

Magic.

We’re so intent on trying to find the howling wolves that I don’t notice a lone hiker heading up the ridge with a large spotting scope on his shoulder.    When I do see him, he’s close enough that I realize it’s Rick McIntyre, from the Yellowstone Wolf Project.  Score!  If anyone can find these wolves, Rick can.

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Rick arrives, asks us what we’re seeing, and sets up his scope and almost immediately finds a pair of wolves about a mile away to the south.    He makes sure that his scope is set up at the right height so that we can see, and we are thrilled to be able to watch a black and gray wolf playing on the slope across the Lamar River.    Rick doesn’t know who these wolves are, which surprises me – I always think that the Yellowstone wolves are so studied that the experts always know who they’re looking at.  But no – these two aren’t collared, so they’re a mystery right now.  Cool.

A family with two young girls makes its way up the ridge, and Rick jokes with the girls and makes sure that they are able to see and hear the wolves.  He’s great with kids…and with all visitors.    (His patience is amazing.  Later that day we listened while an excited woman told him a long story about something she’d seen last winter when she was in the park.  She asked him if he remembered her.   He drily replied, “I think I do.  Were you wearing a down coat?”)

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After finding the wolf pair, Rick tells us that we’re in luck, because the Wolf Project is planning to re-collar wolf #755, which is one of the ones we can hear closest to us.   The spotter plane found them just before we arrived apparently, and a helicopter would be arriving at any moment so that Doug Smith, the Wolf Project leader, can net and tranquilize him.    Wow.    Rick doesn’t think we’ll be able to see the actual process, since the wolves are behind the hill, but still…

The helicopter arrives, and yes…goes behind the hill.   But we can hear Doug Smith on Rick’s radio, so we get pretty much a blow-by-blow account.  They net 755, and tranquilize him, and the biologist jumps out and quickly takes the data he needs and puts on a new collar.     They then hop back in the helicopter and take off.   It doesn’t take more than a few minutes for the whole operation.     755’s mate has stayed nearby during all of this, and we can hear her plaintive howling during the whole operation.  One of the young girls asks Rick if she’s sad, and he says “well, she’s a little worried, I’m sure.”

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The helicopter arrives…

and lands behind the hill.

and lands behind the hill.

But because of the large pack that is to the west of 755 (not his pack) and also because of the two unknown wolves we can see, the team decides that it wouldn’t be safe to leave 755 in this spot while he wakes up.   They fly off to scout out a good place to take him, then zip back in, pick him up, and fly him over the hill to put some space between him and the stranger wolves.

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Rick suggests that we pack up and head a mile or two to the east to see if we’ll be able to see where they’ve placed him.    He’s also trying to get a signal from the new collar, and hopes he’ll have better reception from the Fisherman’s Pullout in the Lamar Valley.  So we all head out.

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We arrive at the pullout at the same time as a group of students from a Yellowstone Association class.  We can’t see the wolf, but do get to listen to the talk that Rick gives to the class.  (Gotta love it when you get the benefits of a course without actually having to pay!)   The combination of seeing the two unknown wolves, hearing the amazing howling and witnessing the collaring operation made it a day to remember, that’s for sure.

Rick giving his talk.

Rick giving his talk.

After a long snowshoe the next day, we headed to the Lamar Valley to see what we could find.  And our luck was holding.  We saw ravens on an old carcass, so we pulled over and yes, there was a striking black wolf on the carcass as well. (I thought it might be the unknown wolf from the day before, but this one was collared, so I knew it wasn’t.)

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We watched her for an hour or so until she wandered off across Soda Butte Creek and started howling.

She's pretty far away now, but you can see that she's howling.

She’s pretty far away now, but you can see that she’s howling.

She was howling for her mate, who we heard howl back, and who eventually showed up on a ridge to the east of her.    They met up with lots of tail wagging, and settled down on the ridge as the sun went down.

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About westerner54

Hello. I'm Cindy, and I love to hike, bike and explore the outdoors - particularly the western U.S.
This entry was posted in Adventure, Hiking, Montana, Nature, Outdoors, Wildlife, Yellowstone and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Slough Creek Sonata: The Yellowstone Wolves’ Choir

  1. avian101 says:

    That’s so cool! 🙂

  2. oopsjohn says:

    What a great experience for you! Yes, Rick is fantastic. Whenever I am there, I just follow him around and eavesdrop on all his stories to the onlookers.

  3. Gary Holmes says:

    I must say, there’s something primal about seeing even photos of a wolf. Great shots, as always.

  4. beeseeker says:

    Agree absolutely with oopsjon and Gary, but also love the title – you have a talent for writing and this piece proves it.

  5. Lyle Krahn says:

    Captivating story about a wonderful series of events. You lived the experience I was hoping for when we went there last year.

  6. What an *incredible*, exciting, amazing day! So much beauty in one outing. I envy you, but love that you’ve shared all of these astounding wonders with us!
    xoxo
    Kathryn
    PS—I wonder if the wolves could use a choral conductor… 😉

    • westerner54 says:

      I’m sure they could – but I don’t believe they take direction too well. But who knows? You’d just need to get the alpha male to follow your lead and you’d be all set! Thanks so much for the nice comment.

  7. Mandy says:

    Amazing. I would have loved to stand beside you as the wolves howled their sonata.

  8. Wow, I’m deeply envious that you can hike out and see wolves in the wild. What an amazing sounding day…..and your photos are wonderful.

  9. Janet says:

    So COOL! Wow, that is so cool! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a wolf in the wild. I am surprised at how much like a dog this one looks.

    • westerner54 says:

      She does look very dog-like, doesn’t she? I didn’t catch it adequately in the photos, but her eyes don’t look dog-like at all…much more piercing. And their tails never curl up, either, which is pretty interesting. Thanks for the great comment!

  10. hazelzs says:

    Amazing photos and story!

  11. Once in awhile we can hear the howls of wolves when up at the cabin — it never fails to thrill and enthrall. The black-coated wolf is a beauty!

  12. Mind Margins says:

    Fantastic story. So exciting to be a part of all that!

  13. Wild Writes says:

    Great post! I have yet to see a wolf in the wild, although I’ve definitely heard them around my campsites in the past. They are so beautiful!

  14. BeeKeeper says:

    Fantastic story and experience! Thank you for sharing. Glad I found your blog today 🙂

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