Kathie Lynch: Yellowstone Wolf Update. July 14, 2014

Pups Provide Excitement for Yellowstone’s Summer Wolf Watchers-
© 2014 Kathie Lynch

Oh, what a night—July 10 of 2014! Few wolf watching experiences can compare to the thrill of that beautiful summer evening when Lamar Canyon alpha 926F surprised her faithful fans by parading past with one, two, three, four, five, six (six!) black pups and one little gray pup!

For several days, hopeful watchers had gathered to try to catch a glimpse of the Lamar Canyon pack’s pups. First reports put the number at one to two blacks and perhaps one gray. No one was prepared for the wonderful surprise of seven pups!

The pups, which were probably born about April 26, all looked bouncy and healthy, although small. It is a credit to their parents that they have been able to provide enough food for seven pups.

The hard-working alphas have generally been very elusive so far this summer, with most sightings coming very early in the morning or very late in the evening. With no yearlings in the pack to babysit the pups, the parents often have to go out alone in search of food.

However, one evening, 925M and 926F came down Exclosure Hill together. They crossed the road and headed straight out into Lamar Valley toward a carcass that probably was the work of rival wolves.

We held our breath as the Lamar Canyon alphas trotted through the sage, crossed the river, and approached the Middle Foothill (the Druid Peak pack’s old rendezvous site), where interlopers 911M and the Junction Butte Black Female were bedded.

Luckily, 926F stuck her nose up in the air to check the surroundings, like her mother (“The ’06 Female”) used to do. Although 926F couldn’t see the potential trouble, she sensed danger and retreated to the den forest with 925M before the intruders could discover them. If there had been a chase and attack on the Lamar Canyon den, that might have been the end of having a resident wolf pack in Lamar Valley for a long time to come.

Gray 911M and the Junction Butte Black Female (“911M’s Group”) evidently consider the Lamar Valley to be their home away from home, although they don’t really have a home.

Since they have no pups, they are footloose and fancy-free. The duo tends to wander a big loop from Lamar to Antelope Valley, stopping frequently to lift a leg on all that they now consider their territory.

It is a real threat to the Lamar Canyon alphas and their seven pups that 911M and the Black Female are often so near. Recently, both groups were howling at the same time, so they definitely know that the other wolves are out there.

One early summer morning, 911M and the Black Female deftly demonstrated their skill at eliminating competition. They dug out a coyote den and killed two pups while three adult coyotes jumped straight up and down in the sage around the den, crying out their alarm.

What happened afterwards can only be described as a miracle for the coyote family. As we watched the three adult coyotes run away (with the mother coyote carrying one tiny pup), we saw something little bobbing along behind them—unbelievably, another coyote pup had survived! How it escaped destruction, I’ll never know.

To add to the drama, the little fellow had to stop twice to relieve himself, which caused it to lose sight of its would-be rescuers. The pup started running back toward the den (the wrong way!), only to be saved by the mother coyote, who returned, picked the pup up by its back, and carried it to safety…a heart-warming ending, for sure!

On the morning of June 26 we had a big surprise when the Junction Butte pack debuted their pups, early this year. Last year we didn’t see that pack’s pups until August 1!

So, it was a real treat to discover two black and two gray pups playing in a meadow near the Conifer/Aspen Forest, west of Slough Creek. The following day, a third gray pup joined the group, bringing the Junction Butte pack’s pup total to five.

Unfortunately, this wolf watching opportunity only lasted a couple of days before the pups decided to head home and out of view again. But, hopefully, they will return and maybe even rendezvous again near Slough Creek, like they did last year. That would be a real boon for late summer wolf watching.

The Junction Butte pack includes gray alpha 870F, black alpha 890M, and four gray yearlings (including 907F). The current alphas are not the parents of the four yearlings. Unfortunately, 2-year-olds 869M and 906M have been missing for a while.

One of the yearlings is often out and about on his own. He is a beautifully marked brownish-gray male with a dark mask and a dipped-in-an-ink-bottle black tip on his tail. He likes to leave the main pack and hang out with 911M and the Junction Butte Black Female. Apparently, he is welcome in either “911M’s Group” or his natal pack.

Junction Butte yearling 907F put on a tremendous show one morning as she chased a pronghorn fawn up, down, and all around Jasper Bench, at the west end of Lamar Valley.

The fawn was incredibly fast, and the wolf was incredibly clever as she tried to cut off the fawn’s path. She came so close to getting that fawn!

The fawn would spring away, stop, look back, and then sprint away again, leaving the tired wolf loping ever more slowly, with her tongue hanging out. She finally gave up the chase, and, I have to admit, I was pulling for that lovely, fleet fawn. So, this story ended happily for both the fawn and me!

Our very first pup watching opportunity of the summer happened on the Blacktail Plateau in mid-June, when “763M’s Group” showed off their three pups—one black and two grays, all females. The black pup is very bold and a real explorer, two traits that I hope don’t get her into trouble.

Graying black alpha 763M, gray alpha 821F, and her gray sister (nicknamed “Third Sister”) were the founders of this new group, which is an offshoot of the 8 Mile pack. Three other dispersers from 8 Mile have also joined up, including a mottled black adult female, a dark black female yearling, and a light gray male yearling.

During the breeding season, on February 2, we had seen 763M mate with both 821F and her sister. Considering a gestation period of 63 days, the pups were probably born around April 6. Both mothers were observed to be lactating, so it is a mystery as to why there are only three pups out of two litters.

However, this small family has provided fairly consistent (although distant) viewing on the Blacktail Plateau. Now over 3 months old, the pups have already been heading out on some big adventures, and it is usually the black pup who leads the way. The pups’ ability to scent trail at such a young age is amazing.

The pups love to play with each other, but it is especially sweet when they spend some quality time with their dad. Like some other older male alphas (legendary Agate Creek alpha 113M comes to mind), 763M is very tolerant of his pups’ antics.

One day, all three pups and 763M pointed their noses skyward, howling their hearts out. One gray pup even climbed right up on 763M so she could get a little extra projection!

Another day, it was quite charming when 763M curled up to bed right next to one gray pup, while the other two pups curled up together nearby. It always makes for great wolf watching when you get a sneak peak into the daily life of the pack.

Unfortunately, another older male, 9-year-old Canyon alpha 712M, has no pups to play with or curl up with this year. After seven litters with his beautiful white alpha female (who is also 9 years old), the pair failed to produce pups.

There is good news, however, for devoted Canyon pack wolf watchers—the pack is still usually seen most days in the Hayden Valley, although now they often appear way out to the west of the road. However, they do also visit their traditional rendezvous site to the northeast of Grizzly Overlook.

Besides the alphas, the five-member pack includes a very light off-white/cream colored gray adult (who is sometimes mistaken for the alpha female), a black male yearling and a gray female yearling.

A couple of other usually lone wolves complete the possibilities for watching in the Northern Range. Everyone’s favorite former alpha, 755M (who was Lamar Canyon “’06’s” mate), is still around, although seldom seen.

Another loner, Junction Butte disperser 889F, does show up here and there. Without pups to tie her down, she is a very independent soul and travels far and wide.

Finding wolves to watch may be harder than it used to be, but I wouldn’t trade anything for that exciting summer night when we discovered the Lamar Canyon pack’s seven pups!

If you enjoy the challenge and rewards of observing wildlife, it doesn’t get any better than watching wolves in Wonderland!



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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