Kathie Lynch’s Winter Yellowstone Wolf Update
Wolf watching in Yellowstone over the winter holidays far surpassed my expectations. In fact, it turned out to be some of the best ever, at least in terms of numbers. The fact that the Mollie’s pack of 19 wolves unexpectedly turned up in the Northern Range definitely helped!
Mollie’s pack is named after Mollie Beattie, the first woman to head the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She was the Director when gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995 after an absence of almost 70 years.
The Mollie’s home territory is the Pelican Valley, in Yellowstone‘s interior. The pack had not been seen in the Lamar Valley and Little America since a brief visit in December 2009. Although eager to see the normally elusive Mollie’s, devoted wolf watchers soon wished that these big bison hunters would go home before causing trouble for the Northern Range packs.
The Mollie’s pack may have left home to find easier prey than bison, their usual winter fare in Yellowstone’s harsh, snow-bound interior. Or, they may have just followed their new leader, 686F. The likely alpha female, she may be on a walkabout looking for an alpha male.
The pack underwent a leadership change after the death of both former alphas last fall. Illustrating just how risky it is to make a living in the wild, 495M (who, at 143 pounds, was no light weight) was killed by his prey, probably a bison or elk. As often happens, his mate, 486F, subsequently disappeared. The loss of one or both alphas leaves the pack structure in disarray.
In December, with few adults in the pack of 19 (which possibly included seven yearlings and seven pups), the alpha role likely fell to four-year-old 686F. Since she is probably related to all other pack members, and, with the February breeding season fast approaching, she must seek a mate from outside of her own pack.
When we saw 686F prancing across the Slough flats, leading the troops with her tail flying high, she certainly looked available and very much the alpha. We did see one lone unknown gray howler, presumably a male, in Little America and Lamar Valley. However, although he had her number, she did not answer his calls.
Actually, there aren’t really that many eligible bachelors in the Northern Range. The only obvious potential dispersers (male yearlings coming two years old in April) include the Lamar Canyon “Light Gray Male” (who has always seemed like a homebody) and several Blacktails.
Of course, new males can always materialize from parts unknown. Two years ago, 755M and his brother, 754M, briefly joined the failing Druid pack females before hooking up with “The ‘06 Female“ to found the Lamar Canyon pack.
Intelligent, industrious, illustrious alpha “The ‘06 Female” rules the roost. With her nose in the air and her eyes on the prize, she is ever vigilant, ever resourceful, and ever the great hunter. Alpha 755M, the three yearlings, and even the five pups have learned a thing or two about hunting from her.
Beta 754M still hasn’t quite caught on, but he can be excused due to the severe foot injury he suffered last August, which has taken a long time to heal. He is finally much better and puts weight on the leg, which is great news in case the Lamar Canyons get chased by a rival pack. Wolves slowed down by leg injuries are often the ones who do not survive.
With the much larger Mollie’s pack in the area and on the prowl, the Lamar Canyons must maintain silence and distance or risk being attacked. One day we held our collective breaths as the Mollie’s picked up the Lamar Canyon’s scent trail and followed them east along the top of Specimen Ridge. Luckily, “The ’06 Female” kept her family many miles ahead, avoiding conflict and potential disaster.
The same cannot be said about some members of the Blacktail pack, which seems bent on getting into trouble. With 14 members (including five pups), they already rule the immense and mostly remote Blacktail Plateau. But, the Blacktails still seek to acquire new territory and range freely from Mt. Everts to Little America and even Lamar Valley.
One morning, from Hellroaring Overlook, we saw four gray Blacktails moving out rapidly on a mission to the east. The war party consisted of alphas 778M (“Big Brown”) and 693F, “Medium Gray,” and a male yearling. Having forgotten about them when they went out of sight, we were shocked when the group burst upon the scene in Little America, shattering the peaceful afternoon.
We had been watching three black Mollie’s pups lounging and howling on the Peregrine Hills when the four forgotten gray Blacktails sent the three black Mollie’s pups running for their lives. The terrified pups split up, one and two, and we prayed that they would get away, reunite, and make it to safety. Thankfully, the pups somehow avoided certain death and were back with their own pack the next day.
The Mollie’s, however, did not take that insult lightly. A few days later, the three adult Blacktails made the mistake of returning to the scene. They were met with a full scale attack by nine Mollie’s, who came barreling down the flank of Specimen Ridge. Tragically, that chase ended in the death of four-year-old Blacktail “Medium Gray,” who may have been slowed down by a bad front leg limp.
“Medium Gray” had been a stalwart founding member of the Blacktail pack in 2008, along with his four Druid pack yearling brothers and famous future alpha 302M. “Medium Gray” served the Blacktails as a faithful beta to his brother, eventual alpha 778M, and had recently seemed to mature into a presence of his own. With his death, the Druid lineage in the Blacktail pack is now left up to alpha 778M and next in line “Big Blaze.”
“Big Blaze” has always been one of my favorites. He was born to the last Druid alphas, 480M and 569F, in 2007. In 2008, he dispersed to the Blacktails and then to the Agates, serving as alpha male until he was vanquished by Mollie’s 641M on Valentine’s Day, 2010. We feared that he had died from injuries suffered in the fight, but, by summer, he showed up with the Blacktails again.
“Big Blaze” has stayed close to home ever since, having found his soul-mate in the black female two-year-old Blacktail beta female. She was born in 2009 in the only litter sired by illustrious “Casanova” 302M during his reign as Blacktail alpha.
One really special memory I have is of watching “Big Blaze” and the beautiful dark black female standing a few feet apart on the far side of Blacktail Ponds, facing each other and howling in unison. It was truly a joy to behold!
Two other Blacktails deserves special mention. Black two-year-old 752F is also from 302M’s last litter, and she looks very much like him. She has led a tough life. Along with four-year-old Blacktail 642F, 752F was forced out of the Blacktail pack by alpha 693F. Together they co-founded the ill-fated “642F’s Group” last year.
That group was attacked at least twice by the Blacktails, and many, including pups, were killed or disappeared. Although both 642F and 752F survived the Blacktail attacks, 642F was then killed in the legal Montana wolf hunt in October.
After that, 752F has been seen only rarely. So, we were especially happy to discover her trotting across the Slough flats on Christmas Day! She seemed completely at ease until she detected the Mollie’s scent trail, and then she became very cautious, as a lone wolf must. With airplane ears and tucked tail, she considered what to do and where to go, finally choosing to head west. Luckily, the nearby, but out of sight, Mollies went northeast instead.
The Agate Creek pack has also suffered from inter-pack aggression. Agate alpha 641M was probably killed by the Mollie’s in December on their northward march. Agate yearling 775M and several others may also have met the same fate. Agate alpha 715F (slowed down by a bad leg) was also killed by other wolves, probably the Lamar Canyons, and Agate beta 586M was killed by the Blacktails. Slow and old at age 10-11 years, 586M may have been the oldest wolf in Yellowstone at his death.
All of these losses may mean the that the end is near for the Agate Creek pack, a dynasty since 2002, when Chief Joseph 113M lured away Druid females to found the Agates. With few remaining members and no working radio collars, the pack is hard to find and there have been few recent sightings.
We can only hope for the best for eight-year-old true Agate 471F (daughter of long time Agate alphas 113M and 472F), who returned to the pack in 2011 after an adventurous life away with other packs and as a lone wolf. She may have some yearlings and pups with her, and perhaps this resourceful old girl can find a new alpha male this breeding season with whom to rebuild the Agates.
The Canyon pack, which hails from the Hayden Valley, did put in one of their usual winter visits to the Mammoth area and treated us to a fantastic New Year’s Eve of wolf watching in the Gardner River canyon. With a carcass in the river next to the road, we had great views of the entire pack all day as they bedded on a nearby hill and sometimes approached the carcass to feed.
The beautiful alpha female is now six years old and almost white, like her mother, famous Hayden alpha 540F. Alpha male 712M, three yearlings, and two surviving pups round out the pack. Sadly, one black female pup was found dead in the area at about the same time, another possible victim of the Blacktails.
Although Yellowstone was amazingly short on snow until recently, the winter scene was cheered by the most spectacular sunrises and sunsets I have ever seen. When you add in occasional moose and otters, magnificent bighorn sheep, huge herds of elk, and, thanks to the Mollie’s, wolves galore most days, it was a great visit.
On January 12, 1995, Mollie Beattie made history when she helped bring gray wolves back to their rightful home in Yellowstone. How fitting that now, 17 years later, her namesake pack continues to help shape the future of Yellowstone’s wild wolves.
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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