By Kathie Lynch
Golden aspens and cottonwoods, plus a dusting of early snow, set the lovely autumn scene in Yellowstone, giving a hint of winter to come. As the grizzlies head up to the high country to fatten up on white bark pine nuts before hibernation, bugling elk stream back into the valleys, coming down from summer’s high pastures.
Wolf watching has been good, especially with the Lamar Canyon wolves usually in residence around the old Druid rendezvous in Lamar Valley. The Lamar Canyons (not to be confused with the Canyon pack in Hayden Valley) currently have 11 members, including five pups (three black, two gray).
“The ’06 Female” rules the Lamar roost. Always on the go, the great hunter keeps her nose in the air, sniffing out her family’s next meal. Having learned a thing or two under her watchful eye, her mate, 755M, has really stepped up to the alpha role.
His brother, 754M, still has a ways to go in the hunting department, but he more than makes up for it in his starring role as favorite uncle to the now 6-month-old pups, who absolutely adore him. He also deserves kudos for exceptional bravery in dealing with the serious injury (unknown cause) which has rendered his left front leg virtually useless since August.
He makes an endearing sight as he hops along on his three good legs, sometimes even leading the pack. It took more than a month before 754M could at least put some weight on his bad foot at a walk. We are so glad that he seems to be recovering before he has to deal with deep snow in the coming winter.
The three adults are joined by three of their four yearlings. The dark gray male yearling had always marched to a different drummer and was away from the pack often this summer. He has evidently already dispersed, several months earlier than young wolves usually do.
At least that makes one fewer gray yearling to try to identify. This is a constant topic of conversation as we note tail scent marks as an aide to tell the yearlings apart (dark spot–”Middle Gray” female; slight “C” shape–Light Gray male; very faint–776F, who, unfortunately, lost her collar). Of course, all of those markings can change as they grow their luxurious winter coats!
The Lamars put on quite a show in early October at the old Picnic area in Lamar Valley. One evening they chased several elk into the trees and cut out one cow. She fled to the Lamar River, kicking and fighting, with the alphas and yearlings in hot pursuit. As evening fell, the cow stood in the river, looking fit and feisty. When the wolves left her and headed back to the rendezvous, we thought that she might escape.
However, come morning, there was a carcass in the river, providing excellent wolf and grizzly viewing for the next three days. At first, the wolves were nervous about going to the carcass and waited patiently on the river bank. One by one, they darted in and quickly fed until they were full to bursting. Then they ferried meals back to the rendezvous, where the gleeful pups ran up, licking the adults’ muzzles to solicit a regurgitation.
By the first evening, as so often happens, a grizzly came in and commandeered the carcass. The next morning, the pups showed up, playing merrily in the log jam nearby. However, with the bear on the carcass, they wisely decided to return to the safety of the rendezvous.
It took the teamwork of four adult wolves to finally dislodge that bear. So, on the third morning, at last, the pups actually got to go to what may have been their very first carcass and gnaw on what little was left, mostly bones.
The pups are often supervised by the “Middle Gray” female yearling, a most excellent baby-sitter. She plays fun games with them, teaches them the rules of the pack, and encourages them to explore. One inquisitive pup even stuck his nose in a bit of foam floating on the river and came up with a “Got Milk?” mustache!
The Lamar Canyon pack provides a great example of connections to the past. This year’s five Lamar pups are the great-great-grandchildren of the first wolves to produce pups in Yellowstone in almost 70 years, famous Rose Creek alpha female 9F, and her ill-fated mate, 10M.
The Lamar Canyon pups are descended through their son, legendary Druid Peak pack alpha 21M (born in that first litter in 1995), and then through 21M’s daughter, venerable Agate alpha 472F, and then through 472F’s daughter, their mother, Lamar alpha “The ’06 Female.” In fact, “The ’06 Female” may have denned this year in the very place where her own mother was probably born 10 years ago!
Despite the death of long-time Agate Creek alpha 472F last December, the Agate pack has been very stable. Her daughter, 715F, is the new alpha. The pack also includes alpha 641M and elderly 586M (both from the Mollies pack), 471F (still looking great at age 8), two gray yearlings (775M and a female), two black yearlings (one male and one female) and five gray pups. Except for one foray into the Lamar Valley and the occasional sighting far away on top of Specimen Ridge, the Agates have continued to make themselves scarce this fall.
The Blacktail pack, on the other hand, seems to pop up everywhere, from their own territory on the Blacktail Plateau and all the way east to Slough Creek. However, they have been a difficult pack to actually watch since they typically appear only briefly and unexpectedly as they pass through their huge territory.
The Blacktails currently number 15, including alphas 693F and 778M, 4-year-old males “Medium Gray” and “Big Blaze,” (all three adult males were originally Druids), two 2-year-old females (one black, one gray “Cut Tail”), four yearlings (one black, three gray, including 777M) and five pups (two black, three gray).
The Canyon pack in Hayden Valley continues to provide reliable wolf watching. The pack’s eight members can often be spotted from Grizzly Overlook, six miles south of Canyon junction. The Canyons include the 6-year-old, almost white alpha female, big black alpha male 712M, three yearlings (one black, two gray), and three pups (two black, one gray).
Chances to see the Canyons will diminish when the park roads to Yellowstone’s interior close to car travel in early November. When prey gets scarce in the winter, the Canyons do sometimes visit Mammoth and may occasionally be seen there. The Quadrant Mountain pack (no pups again this year) and the Eight Mile pack, which originally came into the park from Montana, may also appear in the Mammoth area.
The Mollies pack does stick it out in the park’s snow-bound interior in the winter. It takes a big wolf to tackle bison, which is the Mollies’ main prey during the long winter. The late alpha male, 495M, who weighed 143 pounds when he was collared, was probably killed by a bison while hunting.
This pack includes seven pups and perhaps 15 adults. Wolf watchers had quite a thrill recently when 20 Mollies were seen east of Fishing Bridge! That didn’t even include the almost white, old alpha female, 486F.
She will be in the market for a new alpha male when breeding season rolls around in February. Perhaps she should check out the Delta pack’s alpha male, 760M. When he was collared last winter, he weighed 147 pounds, even with an empty stomach!
Autumn’s colorful leaves and chilly temperatures herald changes for all of Yellowstone’s wildlife. From wolf pups going to their first carcass to early snows bringing the elk herds home, all life focuses on getting ready to survive the winter to come and ensuring that life will go on.