Kathie Lynch: Yellowstone Wolf Update. June 12, 2014

Nothing can compare to Yellowstone in May, with orange newborn bison calves dotting the landscape, rushing rivers spilling over banks, and early spring wildflowers lighting up impossibly green valleys. The absolute best sight of all has to be seeing a wolf heading home from a hunt carrying a meal for pups at the den!

The Lamar Canyon pack has dwindled to just the two alphas, gray 925M and black 926F. The good news is that they have been busy making frequent round trips from the den forest to feed on carcasses in the Lamar and Soda Butte Valleys–a very encouraging sign for everyone hoping for summer wolf watching in the Northern Range.

Although the den itself is not in view, watchers are very lucky that 926F chose to carry on the family tradition and den in the old Druid den forest. It is in the same area where her mother (“The ’06 Female”/832F), her sister (“Middle Gray”), and generations of Druid Peak pack wolves denned over the years.

It is always a worry, though, when wolves from other packs venture nearby. One day, 911M and the Junction Butte Black Female gave everyone a scare when they chased 926F, who was feeding on a bison calf carcass that her mate had killed.

Suddenly, 926F went on high alert and started to move rapidly back toward the den where 925M and the pups were hidden. The two interlopers gave chase, but 926F escaped across the road, and her pursuers turned back at Soda Butte Creek. If they had made it to the den, a fight would have certainly ensued and all might have been lost.

You never know where the Junction Butte Black Female will pop up. Sometimes she is with 911M, but she has also been seen recently with 755M (with whom she spent time during the February breeding season). Both 911M and the Black Female have free rein to be off on their own, but they also seem to have the option to associate with the main Junction Butte pack.

Alphas 890M and 870F, plus four gray yearlings (who are not these alphas’ offspring) form the core members of the Junction Butte pack. Unfortunately, the pack’s official greeter and favorite uncle to last year’s pups, spunky little mange survivor 869M, has not been seen since late April. His brother, 906M, is also missing and may have dispersed from the pack before the breeding season.

After watching Junction Butte alpha 870F dig industriously in the old Slough Creek pack den holes on the hillside above Slough Creek in April, our hopes of having a den in plain sight were dashed when she chose to den out of sight elsewhere. However, the restless yearlings and even 890M have taken to hanging out around Slough Creek and Little America, so at least there may be wolves to watch there this summer.

Another Junction Butte disperser, 889F, is certainly very independent. She spent the spring and summer a year ago in the Antelope Creek area with 890M (the current Junction Butte alpha male) and then spent the fall with 755M (former Lamar Canyon alpha male to “The ’06 Female”). During the breeding season, 889F was with both 911M and 755M at times. However, she had no pups this spring.

Without pups to tie her down, no relationship seems to stick for 889F. One day she wandered from the western end of Lamar Valley to the eastern end of Soda Butte Valley while 755M took a trip south to the Hayden Valley. Meanwhile, an unidentified, collared gray wolf paralleled 889F’s path on the other side of the valley. The mystery gray even stopped briefly to take a rest right on the edge of the Lamar Canyon pack’s den forest!

Another day, 889F put on quite a show as she traveled along the road in Lamar Valley, crossed under the road through a culvert, swam the Lamar River, and then turned up at a bison carcass–where she was surprised to discover Junction Butte alpha 890M!

She came to 890M in a submissive posture with her tail low, but soon their two tails were wagging happily as recognition turned to delight. They spent a couple of hours feeding, frisking, and just generally enjoying being together again—although I’m sure that 890M had some explaining to do when he returned home to his mate, 870F, at the den!

I did have a chance to take a good look at 889F’s right front leg, which she severely injured in February, perhaps due to getting stepped on and/or kicked by her prey. I was surprised to see that besides the flattened paw, the whole leg bends outward at the elbow. Although 889F gets around quite well now, it looks like she will have a permanent limp.

Wolves from “763M’s Group,” an offshoot of the 8 Mile pack, wander the vast Blacktail Plateau area. Six wolves (3 blacks, 3 grays) have been seen in this group. Gray alpha 821F and her gray sister may both have had pups this year.

The group’s alpha male, black 763M, was previously the beta male in the 8 Mile pack. The other two blacks and one gray may be dispersers from the 8 Mile pack or wolves that go back and forth between “763M’s Group” and the main pack.

After ranging far and wide from Madison to Norris this spring, the Canyon pack may have finally settled back into familiar territory in the Hayden Valley. However, at this point, it looks unlikely that the 9-year-old alphas (black 712M and the white female) produced pups this year. So far, despite a lot of wishful thinking about the alpha female looking like she was pregnant or nursing, no evidence has been found that points to pups.

Another clue is that the alpha female did not den in her usual spot. And, instead of frequenting the pack’s traditional rendezvous northeast of Grizzly Overlook in Hayden Valley, sightings have been more to the west where the pack made their rendezvous late last summer. Five to six wolves have been seen in the western rendezvous/Alum Creek areas, including the alphas, a gray adult, two yearlings (1 black, 1 gray), and possibly one other gray

Now that June is busting out all over, elk calves and pronghorn fawns are joining bison calves and bear cubs as the big attractions. Beavers have been seen at Slough Creek, and nesting birds abound–Osprey and Red-tailed Hawks in Lamar Canyon, Bald Eagles on the face of Jasper Bench in Lamar Valley, and Peregrine Falcons across the Yellowstone River near Calcite Springs.

A black bear sow with three tiny black COYs (cubs of the year) continues to wow the crowds near Rainy Lake and along the Tower Road. The impossibly cute cubs climb up and down trees, and mama bear shepherds them back and forth across the road with the help of ever-vigilant rangers.

Yellowstone in May and June paints a pretty picture indeed! The only thing we need now to make this spring-into-summer show complete is for a wolf pup (and, hopefully, many, many more) to scamper into view!

© Kathie Lynch 2014




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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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Kathie Lynch