A detailed northern range wolf update-

At a time when the wolf population in Yellowstone is declining and interest from the news media down, Kathie Lynch has put together a most detailed report on the activities of the Park’s northern range wolves.

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Thanksgiving 2009 wolf update. By © Kathie Lynch

Thanksgiving in Yellowstone included being thankful that I was able to see wolves on three out of four days. With the deaths of many wolves and poor pup survival, population numbers are down, and packs are more difficult to find and observe.

The visit did yield several unexpected surprises, however. Mollie’s pack wolf 586M journeyed from the south to pay a visit to Lamar Valley. We were so surprised to discover this gorgeous, dark gray wolf one morning north of the Druid’s traditional rendezvous site.

He was absolutely beautiful, with an excellent hair coat and no sign whatsoever of the terrible mange that he and the rest of the Mollie’s had endured last winter and spring. The sight of 586M looking so magnificent offered hope that the wolves, at least those with strong immune systems, can overcome the scourge of mange.

Although 586M was probably looking for one of the many available Druid Peak pack females, instead he found three burly brothers, the Hoo Doos. These two-year-old blacks dispersed from the Hurricane Mesa pack in Wyoming, outside of the Park. They include Wyoming 697M, Wyoming 682M, and an uncollared male.

The three Hoo Doos have dropped in to the Lamar Valley several times in recent months, perhaps also looking for Druid females for the upcoming breeding season. On the day I saw them, they had probably chased Mollie’s 586M. But, none of them had found the Druid females because that pack was far away to the west, way up Hellroaring Creek, at the time.

The 10 remaining Druids have not spent much time in Lamar Valley lately. Things have changed this fall since the death of alpha female 569F, the disappearance of three other pack members (“Bright Bar,” 645F, and the male gray yearling), and the eventual loss of all of the pack’s pups.

Five sixty-nine was born in 2004 in the last litter sired by legendary Druid alpha 21M. She, along with her sister, 529F, and the two Leopold pack interlopers, 480M and 302M, resurrected the Druid Peak pack after 21M died. She died, killed by other wolves, way up the Lamar River sometime in September or October.

Of the perhaps nine Druid pups born this year to two mothers, 569F and “Dull Bar,” none survived. Only four, all with severe mange, returned to the Lamar rendezvous site in late August, and eventually all four just disappeared.

The loss of 569F leaves the Druids in a dicey situation. Alpha male 480M is probably related to (as the father or uncle) all seven of the pack’s adult females (571F, 691F, “White Line,” “Dull Bar,” “Thin Female,” 690F, and the “Black Female Yearling”).

Those females will be looking for an unrelated male for the upcoming breeding season in February. They have already attracted at least two serious suitors, including a limping gray male and a black male, both of whom have mingled with various Druid females. The limping gray’s strategy has been to simply hang around the outskirts. However, the bold black seems to have his eye on the alpha position, and 480M has kept busy running him off.

The upshot for 480M may be that he must leave the Druids in order to find breeding opportunities for himself. The only other Druid males are the yearlings “Black Bar” and “Triangle Blaze,” both of whom are coming of age and may also have to disperse in search of unrelated females.

All of the Druids are still suffering greatly from mange. Many have pencil tails and bald areas of hair loss from scratching at the mite. With the recent double-digit below zero temperatures, the mangy wolves are so cold, they can’t even lie down on the snow to rest. They often just stand in one place and appear to even try to sleep standing up.

The one ray of hope as far as the mange goes is that, if they don’t die of hypothermia or infection first, wolves with strong immune systems do appear to eventually recover. The now spectacularly beautiful and healthy Mollie’s and Blacktail pack wolves suffered mightily with mange last winter and spring and did fully recover.

The Blacktail pack now stands at nine wolves, after this fall’s death of probably the most famous (and infamous!) wolf in the world, nine-year-old alpha 302M (killed by other wolves), the disappearance of two of his six pups, and the death of the two-year old black male, “Small Blaze” (hit by a vehicle in Little America).

Known to many as “Casanova,” 302M leaves a tremendous and enduring legacy. Born to Leopold pack founders 2M and 7F in 2000, 302 spent his youth being chased away from the Druid girls by their father, 21M. Although his younger brother, 480M, eventually became the new Druid alpha, 302M did his share to resurrect the Druids, while also making sure that he kept in touch with his legion of other female admirers.

Just one year before his death, he lit out with five Druid male yearlings and hooked up with three Agate Creek pack females to found the Blacktail pack. At last an alpha in his own right, he made their home in his old Leopold territory and sired six strapping pups this year.

In August, on my last morning in the Park, I had the very great thrill and privilege of watching 302 in one of his finest hours. While beta female 642F frantically searched for the six mischievous pups who had wandered far away to the west, 302 sprang into action and ran to find them. (Yes, he actually hurried, for once!) I will never forget the sight of those rascal pups bounding joyfully to greet dear old dad and then 302 proudly leading the rollicking procession back home!

“Big Brown,” a two-year-old Druid nephew of 302M, has stepped up to be the new alpha to 693F. Other pack members include beta 642F, 692F (“The Old Lady”), the male “Medium Gray,” and 302’s four pups (three black and one gray). They range far and wide over the Blacktail Plateau, south toward Prospect Mountain and east to Hellroaring. Their huge territory makes them more difficult than ever to locate and see.

Other wolf watching opportunities are limited. The Agates only number three (alpha 472F, alpha “Big Blaze,” and 715F; the Druid male “High Side” has disappeared). They have not been very visible, but occasionally appear briefly on or near Specimen Ridge.

Agate disperser 471F and her alpha, Montana 147M, seem to be around the Wraith Falls area, but are almost never seen.

The Canyon pack may only have three wolves now (the gray alpha female, the black alpha male 712M, and a gray former Mollie’s male). Unfortunately, two other pack members (587M and the black male pup) have not been seen for quite a while. However, it is hard to get information on sightings now that the roads to the interior have closed. Perhaps we will have a nice surprise if all five Canyons show up around Mammoth this winter.

Not much is known about which Cottonwood pack wolves may have survived the Montana wolf-hunting season. Alpha 527F, her daughter 716F, and at least two other Cottonwoods were killed then. However, three unidentified gray adults and a black pup with a white tip tail were seen at Slough Creek in November, so perhaps some others did survive.

The fledgling Grayling Pack (“Tripod’s Group”) recently lost their alpha female 632F, “Tripod,” the three-legged wolf. She was killed by other wolves.

The Everts pack also recently lost its alpha female, who was also killed by other wolves. That leaves alpha 685M, 470F, 684M and two female yearlings. The Everts had five pups, but none survived.

And, yet another pack, Gibbon Meadows, lost its alpha female (537F) due to intraspecific strife this fall. The Gibbons had six gray pups, but I don’t know how many have survived.

One other noteworthy wolf, Oxbow 536F, recently died of natural causes. Born a Leopold, she founded the ill-fated Oxbow Creek pack in the Hellroaring territory. She was the last known Oxbow survivor after the attack by the Agates in September 2008. She managed to survive on her own for another year, suffering from severe mange, and even hooked up with Everts 684M in her final days. At least she died a peaceful death and was found in a sleeping position, with her head on her paws.

The Quadrant pack has had a very successful year. Their territory is in the Swan Lake Flats/Quadrant Mountain area, south of Mammoth. Led by founder former Leopold 469F and 695M, the pack also includes all three of their gray pups and perhaps other adults.

Surprisingly, a few of the former Slough Creek wolves occasionally appear. In October, reigning alphas “Hook” and former Agate 383M were seen at Slough Creek. One or two other black female Sloughs have also been seen, so you can never count the Sloughs out. After all that the Sloughs have endured (the loss of all 2006 pups in the siege by the “Unknown Group” and the loss of all 2008 pups to disease), it is a joy to witness such resilience.

With the deaths of six alphas (Blacktail 302M, Druid 569F, Cottonwood 527F, Grayling 632F, Gibbon 537F, and the Everts female) this fall and only seven pups (four Blacktails and three Quadrants) surviving on the Northern Range, the official count of YNP wolves at the end of December will surely be down.

We can only hope that the Druids beat the mange and that the genes passed down by those gritty and memorable alphas provide the spark and fuel to reignite their packs and reinvigorate the Park’s wolf population.

 
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About The Author

Ralph Maughan

Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University with specialties in natural resource politics, public opinion, interest groups, political parties, voting and elections. Aside from academic publications, he is author or co-author of three hiking/backpacking guides, and he is President of the Western Watersheds Project.

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