Yellowstone Wolf Update: December 2015

 

© Kathie Lynch 2015
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It’s not very often that you get to have a 38-wolf/four-pack day in Yellowstone. But, when the Mollies venture north to the homes of the Lamar Canyon, Junction Butte, and Prospect Peak packs, anything can happen.

Actually, if every individual in the four packs had been seen on the same day, it would have added up to a 55-wolf day! The only problem is that trouble often follows when the Mollies leave their Pelican Valley territory and invade the three Northern Range packs’ territories.

Trouble was exactly what happened in the Soda Butte Valley in late November when the Lamar Canyon pack was near a carcass just west of Trout Lake.

After a morning of howling back and forth between the two packs, the entire Mollies pack, 16 strong, suddenly appeared on the same ridge, and the 10 Lamar Canyon wolves ran for their lives!

As they scattered across the hillside, black Lamar Canyon adult male “Mottled” veered off with seven Mollies wolves in hot pursuit. “Mottled” ran full blast down the hill, across the road, and disappeared into Soda Butte Creek.

For the watchers standing along the road, what followed can only be described as agonizing. Although we couldn’t see the actual attack, the tortured howls, growls, barks, and yelps rising out of the creek could only mean one thing—a real dogfight.

Minutes later, the pursuers, including Mollies alpha female 779F, reappeared on the far bank of the creek and rallied with a chorus of what sounded like victory howls. As we listened in stunned silence, there seemed to be no other possible outcome than that “Mottled” was dead…

…except, he wasn’t! All of a sudden, the cry went up, “There’s ‘Mottled’! He’s alive!” Amazingly, there he was, trotting and loping off along the creek bank with frequent glances back to check for pursuers, and there were none. With only a few stops to lick at several injuries along his side and the back of his rear legs, he quickly disappeared into his favorite hiding place in the forest.

Although he had survived the attack, we could only hope that in his weakened condition he would survive his injuries and the bitterly cold, sub-zero nights. To everyone’s extreme relief, “Mottled” was briefly seen alive the next day.

Then, on the second day after the attack, we were treated to a heart-warming scene as Lamar Canyon alpha male “Twin” came down from the den forest and went out to greet “Mottled” south of Hitching Post. It wasn’t until the next day that “Mottled” finally mustered enough courage to cross the road so he could return to his pack, and we finally knew that he would make it.

Besides having to deal with the Mollies, the Lamar Canyon pack has struggled with Sarcoptic Mange. It is spread by bodily contact and is caused by a parasitic mite that gets under the skin and causes severe itching. When the wolves scratch continually at one spot, their fur comes off. Incessant scratching can lead to open wounds and infection or hair loss over large areas of the body.

Wolves with severe cases of mange may stand still in one place in the sun. They are reluctant to lie down on the cold snow and instead try to bed on exposed dirt under trees. They may even try to sleep standing up.

Most or all of the Lamar Canyon wolves have some degree of mange. The remaining one black and two gray pups all have whip tails and have lost a lot of body fur, although their condition seems to be improving.

The pack originally had five pups. However, for unknown reasons, the small black female pup and the big gray male pup disappeared at separate times this fall. Last summer, we had watched the five little pups slide from place to place on their bellies doing an Army crawl. Little did we know then that what seemed like amusing, unusual behavior was actually an early indicator of the tormenting itch of mange.

Others in the pack are also affected to varying degrees. Alpha male “Twin” and 2-year-old black female “Little T” have little or no mange; alpha 926F and “Dark Black” male have some spots; black male “Mottled” and 2-year-old black female “Big T” have large spots or areas of fur loss. Sadly, big 120-pound gray male 965M, who used to have the most beautiful coat, is the most severely afflicted. It is heartbreaking to see.

Whether because of the mange, the upcoming breeding season, or some other reason, 965M has started to wander. He is often away from the Lamar Canyon pack and has been spending a lot of time on his own or in the Hellroaring area near his former pack, Prospect Peak.

Unfortunately for 965M, he doesn’t seem to be welcome in the Prospect Peak pack now. Recently, an up-and-coming gray male in the Prospect Peak pack actually attacked 965M when he ventured too close.

The Prospect Peak pack of 14 itself is in a state of flux as alpha male 763M may be on the way out. Although he was the founding alpha male of the pack almost two years ago, he is older and somewhat disabled, having broken his right front leg twice.

Lately, 763M has been staying away from the pack, and the same younger gray male who attacked 965M attacked him. That up-and-coming young gray male carries his tail high and has been doing raised leg urinations, both signs of dominance.

It remains to be seen whether 763M can regain control of the pack. Sometimes, former alpha males have been allowed to remain with the pack in a subordinate role. However, 763M may be forced to leave and would then have to try to survive as a lone wolf. The prospects are not good if that is what happens to him.

The rest of the Prospect Peak pack includes gray alpha 821F; one black female adult; gray male yearlings 964M and 966M; two gray female yearlings; one black female yearling; one black male yearling who has a huge white spotlight blaze; and five pups (three blacks, two grays).

One interesting note: the up-and-coming raised tail gray male who attacked Prospect Peak alpha 763M and Lamar Canyon 965M may be the gray male yearling 966M, who has lost his radio-collar. He was born into the 8 Mile pack and joined Prospect Peak a year ago. If the raised tail gray male is indeed 966M, he is not the offspring of Prospect Peak alpha 763M, who had already left the 8 Mile pack to found Prospect Peak by the time 966M was born.

The Junction Butte pack gave everyone a wonderful surprise in late September when watchers discovered that the pack had 12 pups, instead of six, as was previously thought! Unfortunately, the pup count is now down to eight, including two blacks and six grays. One dead gray pup, which was likely from the Junction Butte pack, was found on Jasper Bench. The disappearance of the others remains a mystery.

Junction Butte alpha 911M is currently hopping about on a bad right front leg, perhaps injured while he was attacking prey. Alpha 970F was part of the original Mollies invasion in December 2011 that led to the formation of the Junction Butte pack in 2012. She is the mother of one of the pack’s two litters this year.

However, the father of all of 970F’s pups may not necessarily be alpha 911M. Last February, she was also observed breeding with former Prospect Peak (current Lamar Canyon alpha) male “Twin” and also with Junction Butte beta 890M!

Beta 890M was formerly the Junction Butte alpha, but he has stayed with the pack after being replaced by 911M. (Note: this could be similar to a best case scenario for Prospect Peak alpha 763M if the raised tail gray male replaces him as alpha.)

Other Junction Buttes include 2-year-old beta 907F, who was also a mother this year. She was observed breeding with 890M last February, as was her sister, 969F, who did not have pups.

A gray female yearling and black yearling 968F are the last surviving offspring of the late, great Junction Butte alpha 870F. They were sired by current beta 890M when he was alpha. Unfortunately, 968F is often away from the pack for extended periods and is not always welcomed back.

The 15-member Junction Butte pack is often out of view on the south side of Specimen Ridge, but they do also frequent the Little America area. Often visible south of the Slough Creek lot, they have given many visitors the chance to enjoy watching a wolf pack go about its daily life. Their rendezvous site there includes the original Crystal Creek acclimation pen site where the Mollies pack (then named the Crystal Creek pack) originated in 1995.

Since the roads to Yellowstone’s interior closed to vehicle travel in early November, the Wapiti Lake pack has been out of sight. A great favorite for summer wolf watching in Hayden Valley, the Wapitis include black-faded-to-silvery gray 7-year-old alpha 755M, his almost white 5-year-old alpha female, two black pups and two gray pups.

The Wapiti Lake alpha female’s own mother is the Canyon pack’s beautiful white alpha. A fixture in Hayden Valley since 2007, she and her mate, 712M, left Hayden and moved to a territory closer to Old Faithful this year.

It was a long wait, but the good news finally came that the 10-year-old Canyon alphas do indeed have two pups, one black and one gray! This is the Canyon alphas’ eighth litter together, having produced pups every year since 2007 (except in 2014).

Canyon alpha 712M was born into the Mollies pack a long time ago. As the only current pack that traces all the way back to 1995, connections to the Mollies run deep throughout Yellowstone’s 20-year history of wolf restoration. The Mollies wolves are literally the ties that bind Yellowstone’s wolves together.

Five years ago, 19 Mollies wolves, mostly females, came north seeking a new alpha male. Their presence then created a lot of havoc, leaving several dead alpha male candidates in their wake. Ultimately, Mollies females joined with Blacktail pack males to create the Junction Butte pack.

Now, because Mollies alpha male 980M was killed (possibly by prey) in late summer, the Mollies are once again in need of a new alpha male. It was probably no accident that their search prompted alpha 779F to lead the whole pack north to the Lamar Canyon pack’s doorstep in November.

The Lamar Canyon’s big adult males (“Twin,” “Mottled,” “Dark Black,” and 965M) are all potential alpha material. All four were formerly in the Prospect Peak pack but probably originated in the 8 Mile pack.

Mollies blood already runs deep in Yellowstone through Canyon alpha 712M to the Wapiti Lake pack alpha female and her offspring. The Junction Butte pack’s founding and current alpha females were Mollies, including former alpha 870F and current alpha 970F. If 779F’s search for a new alpha male is ultimately successful in the Northern Range, Mollies blood will find its way to even more of Yellowstone’s packs.

After two weeks in the Northern Range, the Mollies finally headed home to the Pelican Valley. They made a beautiful sight on the snowy hilltop as the 11 dark blacks and six strikingly marked grays slowly made their way in single file up and across the K Meadow and over the top of Specimen Ridge.

With the February breeding season coming up soon and competition for mates heating up in the Northern Range, one thing is for sure—the Mollies will be back. In fact, they’ve never really left.
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© Kathie Lynch 2015

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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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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

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