Kathie Lynch: Wolves and Wildflowers Highlight Yellowstone’s Summer Bounty
Kathie Lynch reports on bounty of summer life among the wolves, bison, elk, bears and vegetation of Yellowstone Park-
Story copyright © Kathie Lynch 2011
There is only one word to describe the beauty of Yellowstone in summer: breathtaking! After winter’s world of eternal white, the colors of early summer’s palate leap at your eye–grass green, soft sage, deep forest, sky blue, and the chocolate brown of raging creeks and rivers.
When summer temperatures finally arrived, right on schedule on June 21, the huge winter snow pack started melting quickly. In just three hours on June 24, the torrent entirely washed away one lane of the two lane road at the confluence of Soda Butte Creek and the Lamar River. That night brought the highest ever recorded stream flow in the Lamar River canyon between Lamar Valley and Little America.
The spring rains and melting snow brought on a spectacular display of wildflowers. In Lamar Valley, spunky orange bison calves frolicked in vast fields of yellow Mountain Dandelions. Entire mountainsides on Dunraven Pass and Hellroaring Mountain glowed with expanses of Arrowleaf Balsamroot (or was it Rocky Mountain Helianthella?). Beautiful summer meadows showcased fragrant purple Silvery Lupine, pink Sticky Geranium, snow white Common Yarrow and yellow Shrubby Cinquefoil.
The short trip to Trout Lake rewarded hikers with the thrilling sight of spawning cutthroat and rainbow trout making their way up the inlet stream. Six river otters (no pups this year) enthralled watchers, catching hapless trout and devouring them on the log near the inlet.
The kaleidoscope of wildflowers on the hillsides around the lake included Indian Paintbrush, Wild Rose, Mountain Bluebell, Larkspur, Silky Phacelia, Pasqueflower, Fringed Gentian, Green Gentian, Harebell, Yellow Violet, Shooting Star Lily, Alpine Forget-Me-Not, Penstemon, Phlox, Purple Aster, Blue Flax and Clematis.
Early summer brought the usual abundance of wild animal babies, with playful badger kits in Lamar and an incredibly cute moose calf near Soda Butte Picnic stealing the show. A black bear sow in the Elk Creek area often sent her two cubs of the year scurrying up nearby trees for safety. The sandhill crane pair returned once again to Floating Island Lake, delighting visitors with their nightly ritual of putting their colt (chick) to bed.
Birders enjoyed watching a golden eagle aerie high on a rock ledge near the confluence, at the east end of Lamar Valley. When wolf watching at the Hitching Post turnout was slow, we turned our scopes skyward and looked for the clumsy eaglet flapping its wings precariously on the cliff edge.
Speaking of wolf watching, the Lamar Canyon pack has been the only show in town in the Northern Range this summer. As opposed to last year, they did not den in an easy to view site, so we have missed out on watching the daily life of the five pups (three black, two gray) as they grow up. Despite hours and hours of watching, we have only been rewarded with infrequent and brief glimpses of the pups.
However, on the morning of July 28, after about two pup-less weeks, the rascals finally appeared again, and what a rowdy bunch are they! Of the three black pups, one is especially big and stocky. It romped with the gray yearling babysitter, who often took a gentle bite hold on the back of the pup’s neck, perhaps using play to teach it something about growing up wolf. Meanwhile, the darker of the two gray pups, a big female, raced to and fro, playing catch me if you can.
The pack’s seven adults include alphas “The ’06 Female” and 755M, beta 754M, and four gray yearlings (776F, “Light Gray Male,” “Middle Gray” female, and “Dark Gray Male”). Since 776F lost her collar, it is very difficult to tell the three lighter yearlings apart.
The adults range far and wide in search of food for the hungry three-and-a-half-month old pups. One day, all seven adults visited their old home at Slough Creek. Early on a beautiful summer morning, they appeared on the side of Dave’s Hill and then crossed the campground road to briefly visit an old carcass.
Great hunter that she is, “The ’06 Female” soon stuck her nose in the air, and I knew that the bucolic scene of peacefully bedded elk cows and calves in the Slough Creek valley below was about to change. With the kill accomplished behind a hill, “’06” later emerged with a leg assembly. She handily folded it up into a neat little package, and, nose in the air once again, held her prize high above the water as she swam across the creek, en route to her waiting pups eight miles away.
Another memorable morning, “The ‘06 Female,” 755M and the dark gray male yearling took on a herd of about 200 elk in the meadows above Slough Creek. It was chaos as the wolves ran among them, forcing the elk to split up. As the panicked cows ran helter skelter, “’06” got caught in between the two groups of elk and was apparently trampled, but she emerged unscathed.
With wolves and elk running everywhere, “’06” and the yearling singled out a cow and pursued it relentlessly. The yearling kept pace with “’06” for quite a ways, but “’06” would not give up, and she ran and ran for what seemed like miles. This chase clearly illustrated just how difficult it is for the wolves to make a kill, especially when the prey is in excellent condition. Despite being pursued relentlessly by a great hunter, this cow elk and the rest of the huge herd got clean away. That day the wolves headed home with nothing at all to show for their efforts.
The seldom seen Agate Creek pack very occasionally crosses Specimen Ridge to visit Little America. Alphas 641M (a huge former Mollie’s pack wolf) and 715F (a four-year-old Agate) are thought to have five grey pups. The pack also includes beta 586M (also originally a Mollie’s and now, at age 10, possibly the oldest wolf in the Park), four yearlings (gray 775M, a gray female, a black male, and a black female), and almost white 471F.
One evening on Dunraven Pass, I witnessed an amazing sight. Right from my car as I drove along, I saw 775M take down an elk calf! The yearling fed first, while veterans 641M and 471F rested nearby, panting, after the chase. Despite a very bad limp on her right front, the game old girl 471F had joined in the chase on her three good legs.
It’s always a great day when I get to see eight-year-old 471F, one of our long-time favorites. Her radio collar no longer works, so her whereabouts are sometimes unknown, and she has spent most of her adult life away from her natal pack. We were thrilled when she returned to her roots this spring and was accepted back into the Agates.
Like her younger sister, illustrious Lamar alpha “The ’06 Female,” 471F is also extremely independent and accomplished. Both are the offspring of legendary Agate alphas 113M and 472F, who certainly passed on some extraordinary genes.
During her adventurous life, 471F has had pups as an Agate, bred with various interlopers and old Leopold alpha 534M, helped found the short-lived Lava Creek pack, spent time with Everts 685M and Canyon 712M, and consorted with members of the Blacktail pack.
The Blacktails currently have 12 adults, including alphas 778M (“Big Brown”) and 693F, four-year-old males “Medium Gray” and “Big Blaze,” an uncollared black and the uncollared gray “Cut Tail” (both two years old and likely daughters of infamous “Casanova” 302M), and six yearlings (two black, four gray, including 777M). The five or six Blacktail pups likely come from multiple litters, with alpha 693F, the uncollared black two-year-old female and “Cut Tail” as possible mothers.
Although the pack is seldom seen, one fine early summer morning, some of the Blacktail wolves seized an opportunity to gnaw on an old winter-kill bison carcass which finally emerged from the depths of the mud at Blacktail Lakes. I watched beta male “Medium Gray” (born a Druid, like his now Blacktail brothers alpha 778M and “Big Blaze”) tug at the carcass, which was sunk in the muck. “Medium Gray” buried a prize tidbit and came up with a muzzle dipped in chocolate-colored mud. He was a comical sight as two of the local coyotes (who must have had a nearby den) escorted the beleaguered wolf out of the area.
The Canyon pack in the Hayden Valley has provided the most reliable wolf watching this summer. For the crowds at Grizzly Overlook (six miles south of Canyon junction), the pack’s five adults and three pups (two black, one gray) may appear just about any time of day, with evenings seeming to be the best.
The pack includes alpha 712M and the six-year-old, almost white, alpha female, who glows like a beacon to announce her presence at the distant rendezvous site far across the Yellowstone River. The three yearlings include a beautiful jet black female and two grays. The more dependable sightings of the Canyons and their pups has shifted many hopeful watchers’ focus to the south this summer.
With hints of brown in the grasses, spires of pink fireweed blooming halfway up their stalks, and morning temperatures sometimes near the freezing mark, the glorious fullness of summer in Yellowstone already shows signs of fading.
A summer which held only questionable promise for devoted watchers has turned out to be just fine, thanks to the Lamar Canyon and Canyon wolves. Both packs continue to delight park visitors, inviting them to share in the incredible experience and privilege of observing wolves in the wild. The wolves are doing their best to inspire and excite us about the value of wildlife and wild places. Yellowstone in summer offers all of us the chance to be a part of Wonderland and the wild world.
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