by KATHIE LYNCH
With wolves more scarce than they used to be in Yellowstone’s Northern Range, hopeful watchers should count themselves lucky if they get to see them, and, especially, if they are able to observe interesting behaviors. While the February breeding season did not offer the chance to see as many ties (matings) as in other years, it did not disappoint in terms of action and intrigue!
Even dedicated observers only saw two ties during the entire breeding season, both on February 2 and both in the 8 Mile pack. Surprisingly, the older beta male, 763M, accomplished both ties while alpha male 871M was busy keeping track of alpha female 909F! Each time 871M realized what was going on, he rushed to the scene, but he was unable to break up the ties.
The two females who bred with 763M were 821F and an uncollared gray. They are both probably sisters of 8 Mile alpha female 909F. The three are thought to have dispersed together in 2011 to the 8 Mile pack from the now defunct Quadrant Mountain pack. DNA testing may eventually show that the three sisters carry valuable genes from important YNP packs of the past inherited from their probable parents, former Quadrant alphas Leopold 469F and Geode 695M.
The large 8 Mile pack (18 strong last summer and fall, including nine 2013 pups) has now likely split into at least two groups, the main pack and 763M’s Group of three, with a few other individuals unaccounted for. We hope that the 8 Mile wolves, which have an excellent record of raising pups to adulthood, will produce several litters in 2014 to carry on those important historical genes.
Unquestionably, the most famous repository of currently famous genes lies in Lamar Canyon alpha 926F (“The Black Female”), a daughter of the late, great, legendary “’06 Female” (832F). The very small Lamar Canyon pack of two, 926F and her alpha, 925M (“Big Gray”), has spent a lot of time this winter in the traditional Lamar Canyon territory formerly occupied by the Druid Peak pack in the Lamar and Soda Butte Valleys.
© Kathie Lynch 2014
Gray alpha 925M served nobly last year as adoptive dad to the two black Lamar Canyon pups of 926F’s older sister, “Middle Gray.” If 926F does have pups this year, we hope that 925M, who will have to hunt alone for a while, will be able to keep his new family well fed.
Following several dispersals, the Junction Butte pack seems to have settled down to a count of seven: alphas 890M and 870F, 2-year-old mange survivor 869M, and last year’s four gray pups, now officially classified as yearlings.
Ever gregarious 869M serves as the pack’s official greeter, perpetually bouncing around. He loves his role as favorite uncle and is especially overjoyed to see and play with his younger siblings.
The Junction Butte alphas had quite a time during the breeding season trying to keep track of each other, while at the same time rounding up wayward females who were attempting to run off with interloping males. It looked like a merry-go-round in the Slough Creek area every day, with wolves chasing each other this way and that and a constantly shifting configuration of who was with whom.
Two Junction Butte female dispersers, an uncollared black female and black 889F, were the objects of interest for two males, former Lamar Canyon alpha 755M and gray 911M, whose origin is uncertain (although he was collared as a Blacktail).
Before 890M became the Junction Butte alpha, he was with 889F throughout last summer. However, in the fall, 890M rejoined the Junction Butte pack and rose to alpha status, while 889F turned up with 755M. During the winter, the Junction Butte black female started showing up with the duo, and then 911M made his appearance. After that, it was a whirlwind of mix and match, often leaving 755M as the odd man out.
We could not believe our eyes one day when Junction Butte alpha 870F sneaked away from her alpha male, 890M, and made a play for 755M! There stood 870F on a nearby hill, averting her tail (signaling readiness to mate) to 755M, who twice tried to mount her. Wisely, he was too nervous to be caught in a compromising position and kept looking for trouble, expecting to be blind-sided at any moment by the jilted 890M. It was hilarious when 870F stood upright on her hind legs, trying on tiptoes to see just where 890M might be! The flirtation ended without a tie or an attack.
Since the breeding season ended, 755M has again been seen with 889F, so maybe that relationship will stick. If 911M stayed with the black female, then two more alpha males will face the same problem as Lamar Canyon 925M: trying to feed and defend a growing family with only one adult male in the group. Poor old 8 Mile beta 763M has an even bigger problem with possibly two pregnant females. It will be a challenge for each of these new, small groups to carve out a territory and survive.
Meanwhile, another lone male, gray Blacktail alpha 778M (the last true Druid Peak pack member), apparently solved the problem by adopting a ready-made family. After his alpha female, 693F (the last true Agate Creek pack member) died, a gray adult female and two pups (one black, one gray) moved in with 778M. Their origin is unknown, but the female may be a Canyon pack disperser. If 778M produces pups with this new female, his illustrious Druid genes will live on.
The Canyon pack, which lives in the Hayden Valley in Yellowstone’s Interior, made fewer trips than usual to the Northern Range this winter. Occasionally, the stalwart now-9-year-old alpha pair, 712M and the beautiful white female, appeared in the Mammoth area, sometimes accompanied by one or two grays. Hopefully, the Canyon pack’s long-time alpha pair will produce their eighth litter together this year, an amazing accomplishment.
We will be watching closely to see where the various females choose to den. It was exciting to actually see Junction Butte alpha 870F digging furiously at the old Slough Creek pack’s den above Slough Creek, last used by famous Lamar Canyon alpha “‘06” in 2010. Pregnant females spend a lot of time and energy investigating and preparing a variety of likely spots, so there is no way of knowing if 870F will choose to den there—but it sure would be great for wolf watching if she did!
And now, at last, it’s April—denning time in Yellowstone! Time to reap the rewards of seeds sown two months ago in the breeding season. Time, once again, for wolves to flourish and secure their rightful place on the landscape and their keystone role in the circle of life.