Slough Creek, Yellowstone National Park, January 17, 2014
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!
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.
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?”)
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.)
We watched her for an hour or so until she wandered off across Soda Butte Creek and started 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.