Yellowstone Wolf Update
Copyright Kathie Lynch 2015

The key words for wolf watching in Yellowstone this summer have to be patience, luck, and sunscreen! Sightings are often hard to come by and may require long hours of standing in the broiling sun watching, waiting, and hoping–or simply being in the right place at the right time.

The most reliable pack to see has been the newly named Wapiti Lake pack (formerly “755M’s Group”) in Hayden Valley. To the delight of park visitors, alpha 755M and his very light gray alpha female produced two black and two gray pups, one of which is very small.

Some part of the pack is usually visible at least some time of each day, with evenings generally offering the best viewing. The only problem is that the Wapiti Lake pack’s rendezvous is far away across Hayden Valley and sightings are often brief. It does require considerable dedication to endure the early morning fog over the Yellowstone River and the late night bison jams in order to catch a glimpse of the wolves.

On the other hand, sometimes watchers are richly rewarded. One morning, alpha 755M moseyed toward the river and passed directly below watchers at Grizzly Overlook! He proceeded south to feed on an old bison carcass only 170 yards away across the river, giving watchers an up close and personal view for over two hours.

Seeing 755M for so long and so well was definitely the highlight of my summer wolf watching so far. Now 7 years old, 755M’s black coat has faded to almost flannel gray, highlighted by a distinctive Y-shaped black stripe from his eyes to his nose and some dark guard hairs on his back.

He has been through so much since his days as the Lamar Canyon pack’s alpha male, when he sired three litters (2010-2012) with his mate, “The ’06 Female”/832F (who was shot in Wyoming in December 2012). After losing a mate, alpha males usually leave their pack to find new breeding opportunities, a dangerous and uncertain pursuit. However, 755M is the rare success story.

After spending time with a succession of females (including Mollies 759F, Junction Butte “Good Tail,” Mollies 779F, Mollies 889F, the Junction Butte “Black Female”/970F), he finally settled down again to have pups with his new mate, the light gray Canyon 5-year-old female.

She is the daughter of the Canyon pack’s white alpha female and 712M and is the granddaughter of famous Hayden Valley pack alphas 540F and 541M. Although not quite as white as her mother or grandmother, 755M’s new mate is a very light blonde color, which, luckily for watchers, really stands out at a distance.

She is a good mother to her four pups and spends a lot of time protecting and providing for them, never an easy task. One day, she even took on a grizzly that had wandered too close to the rendezvous for comfort. It was amazing to see how she intentionally lured the bear, wagging her tail and even play bowing to entice him away.

On another day she gave chase to a whitetail deer doe. The doe raised her white flag high and soared away with incredible leaps and bounds as they both disappeared into the forest.

Long-time Canyon pack alphas 712M and his white female (both now 10 years old) have apparently left Hayden Valley and relocated elsewhere. Occasional sightings have been reported anywhere from Norris south to Old Faithful. Although the pair bred in February, it is not known whether they have pups this year.

Would be wolf watchers can travel north to the Lamar Valley in hopes of seeing the reconstituted Lamar Canyon pack. After the disastrous loss of alpha 925M (who was killed by other wolves in March), no one knew what would become of pregnant alpha 926F, the pups she was carrying (sired by 925M), and her six yearlings.

Unbelievably, four males from the Prospect Peak pack (the very pack that killed 925M) moved in with 926F and are now helping to raise her pups in the Lamar Canyon pack’s traditional den forest in the Lamar Valley (the same den forest formerly used by generations of Druid Peak pack wolves).

The four former Prospect Peak pack males include graying-black new Lamar Canyon alpha “Twin” (so-called because he looks similar to Prospect Peak alpha male 763M), black “Mottled,” “Dark Black,” and gray 965M.

After the new males joined the pack, all six of 926F’s and 925M’s 2014 pups (now yearlings) left the Lamar Canyon pack. Eventually, two black female yearlings did rejoin the main pack, but the others have not returned. However, an unidentified gray has been seen occasionally in the area, and there is a chance it could be the Lamar Canyon gray male yearling, the only gray in last year’s litter.

Sightings of the Lamar Canyon pack members have been random as they venture out to hunt. We had a good look at them one morning when they were going back and forth to a carcass in the Lamar River, sometimes carrying chunks of meat back to the den forest, a good indicator that pups do exist.

One evening, three blacks chased a pronghorn (almost always a fruitless endeavor) and then killed a river otter in Soda Butte Creek. Alpha 926F took the otter carcass into a nearby forest and must have cached it there. She was seen a week later hauling it up to the den forest for her pups.

A couple of the four former Prospect Peak males are especially reluctant to cross the road and often get separated from the rest, which results in a lot of forlorn howling. At times, a group howl may also arise from the den forest, occasionally including little puppy voices, so hopes are high that the pups will soon make an appearance.

One night in Lamar Valley we did have what I would call a “just like the good old days” wolf watching experience. As all seven Lamar Canyon adults headed west on the north side of the valley, four Junction Butte pack wolves materialized amidst a bison herd on Amethyst Bench and headed east on the south side of the Lamar River.

We held our breaths as the two packs proceeded in opposite directions on opposite sides of the valley, but neither pack seemed to detect the other. Tension ran high among the watchers because the Junction Buttes were traveling east toward the Lamar Canyon’s pups in their unguarded den forest, but both packs went out of view without a problem.

The Junction Butte’s six adults include new alphas black 970F and gray 911M, black former alpha 890M, two gray 2-year-old females 907F and 969F, and one gray female yearling. She is the last known survivor of the pack’s five 2014 pups.

No new Junction Butte pups have been seen yet, but we’re hoping they make an appearance soon. In 2013 and 2014 they magically materialized at Slough Creek on exactly the same date, August 1. However, a different alpha female (870F, who died this spring) was in charge then, so it’s hard to predict if we’ll get lucky again.

The Prospect Peak pack is another one that may come to the rescue for late summer wolf watching. A year ago, we were already watching the Prospect Peak pack pups on the Blacktail Plateau, but the pack has proved to be more elusive this year.

This pack, now in its second year, still has the same alphas, 7-year-old 763M and 6-year-old 821F. The other members include an adult black female and six yearlings.

Three of those yearlings (one black female, two gray females) were born into the Prospect Peak pack. The other three yearlings (gray 964M, gray 966M, and a black male) dispersed from the 8 Mile pack last fall when their father, alpha 871M, was killed by other wolves.

To sum up, the most likely packs for late summer wolf watching include the Wapiti Lakes in Hayden Valley, the Lamar Canyons in Lamar and Soda Butte Valleys, the Prospect Peaks on the Blacktail Plateau, and the Junction Buttes in the Little America/Slough Creek area.

If wolves are hard to find, visitors can always enjoy Yellowstone’s other wild delights. Wildflowers, which bloomed 2-3 weeks early this year due to heat and dryness, can still be found on a drive over Dunraven Pass or a hike up Mount Washburn.

Beautiful Trout Lake is always a great destination for a short hike. But, unfortunately, no otters live there this year, and the trout run up the inlet stream is probably mostly over by now.

Bighorn sheep are often seen in the area around the Yellowstone Picnic area near the Yellowstone River bridge. A drive out the Northeast Entrance might turn up a moose at Round Prairie or mountain goats on Barronette Peak or in the Beartooths.

Bear watchers can often find black bears in the Tower Junction area. Many grizzlies have already headed for the high meadows, although famous 25-year-old grizzly “Scarface” is not shy about putting on a good show.

Whether or not you find wolves to watch, one thing’s for sure—there’s always something wonderful waiting for you in Wonderland!

 
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About The Author

Kathie Lynch

Kathie Lynch's passion is watching wolves in Yellowstone National Park. She enjoys helping park visitors learn about the wolves, especially their behavior and individual life stories. Kathie is on the Board of the Wolf Recovery Foundation.

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