Kathie Lynch: Yellowstone Wolf Update

Kathie Lynch’s report on Yellowstone wolves. April 2015-
© Kathie Lynch

“Change is the law of life,” John F. Kennedy once said, and that certainly applies to the lives of wolves in the wild. As always, the February breeding season and the following weeks brought excitement, danger, and consequences to the wolves of Yellowstone’s Northern Range.

The biggest shock had to be the loss of Lamar Canyon alpha 925M, who was killed by the Prospect Peak pack. Sadly, the Lamar Canyon pack’s path crossed that of the Prospects at Slough Creek, where 925M was attacked and fatally injured. He died a hero, trying to lure the attackers away from the rest of his pack.

What a blow this was to the Lamar Canyon pack. Trusty 925M (“Big Gray”), with his quiet presence and charmingly askew right ear, had become a huge favorite of wolf watchers since he arrived on the scene (probably from Wyoming) two years ago to become alpha male and adoptive dad to Lamar Canyon “Middle Gray’s” two black pups.

After “Middle Gray” disappeared, 925M resurfaced last year as the alpha male to “Middle Gray’s” younger sister, 926F (also a daughter of the late, great “’06 Female”). Bucking the odds, 925M and 926F successfully raised six pups, a truly amazing accomplishment without an extended family to help protect and provide for them.

My favorite memory of 925M was from last summer when he was bedded in the pack’s Soda Butte Valley rendezvous, regally surveying all six of his pups as they whirled around him. One pup, the only one who was gray like his dad, stopped playing and went over to give 925M a shy face lick. The pup sat quietly right next to him, as if he knew that if he wanted to share some quality time with dad, he had to be like him, strong and silent.

After 925M’s death, the pack spent a few days in shock and then faced the reality of finding a way for his alpha female, 926F (and 925M’s pups that she is possibly carrying), to survive. With only six unskilled almost-yearlings to provide for the next generation, reinforcements would be needed, and they would be needed soon.

No one could have predicted that 926F would take up with some of the very same Prospect Peak wolves who had killed her mate. But, the urge to survive and pass on those alpha genes is strong, so that is exactly what she did.

About two weeks after 925M’s death, 926F started hanging out with four Prospect Peak males: black “Twin” (who looks very similar to Prospect Peak alpha 763M); handsome 120-pound gray 965M; patchy black-and-brown “Mottled”; and “Dark Black.”

“Twin” seems to be number one in line for the next Lamar Canyon alpha male position, followed by “Mottled.” “Dark Black” pretty much stays out of the way in any kind of dominance dispute. The big guy, 965M, found out that he wasn’t the top dog. He has already returned to the main Prospect Peak pack where he may assume the beta male role.

When the Prospect Peak males joined Lamar Canyon alpha 926F, last year’s pups probably weren’t too sure about what was happening. They may have been frightened by the newcomers, and, amid the turmoil, the pups rather quickly disappeared.

Not knowing where they had gone, we worried for their safety. It seemed like 926F wanted to find her family, but she also knew that she needed to get more help to provide for the new pups on the way and to secure the future of her pack. Little did we know that those six elusive pups would later play an important role in an interaction with the Mollies!

Until things settle down, this new group of adults is being referred to as 926F’s Group. They have already had some adventures together, including killing a badger! The males wisely let 926F eat the whole thing after they were greeted with a lip curl and a snap when they ventured near 926F and her prize.

The Prospect Peak pack, too, has been in a state of flux. Since last fall when the Cougar Creek pack killed Eight Mile pack alpha 871M, some wolves have joined the Prospects from other packs (Eight Mile and perhaps Cougar Creek and/or others), and three big males have left the Prospects to join 926F.

The main Prospect Peak pack usually numbers eight (3 blacks, 5 grays), including black alpha 763M and gray alpha 821F, gray 965M, and five 2014 pups (3 grays—including 964M and 966M—and 2 blacks). Some of those pups were probably born into the Prospect Peak pack and some may have come from the Eight Mile pack.

The Prospect Peak pack, in whole or in part, travels far and wide. They have ranged from their home territory on the Blacktail Plateau all the way east to Slough Creek and the Lamar Valley.

It was a real circus in January and February as the Prospect Peak males were busy courting the few breedable females in the Northern Range (Junction Buttes 969F, 907F, and alpha 970F; Lamar Canyon alpha 926F; Prospect Peak alpha 821F).

While Prospect Peak alpha 763M took care of his own alpha, 821F, the rest was a whirl. Prospect Peak 965M was interested in Lamar Canyon alpha 926F, but she bred with her own alpha 925M.

Prospect Peak “Twin” made many attempts on Junction Butte 969F, but no tie was observed. However, he did eventually tie with Junction Butte alpha 970F—who also tied with her own alpha 911M and Junction Butte former alpha 890M!

The current Junction Butte pack has seven wolves (3 blacks, 4 grays), including gray alpha 911M and black alpha 970F, black beta 890M, gray yearlings 907F and 969F, and two 2014 pups (black 968F and a gray female).

The Junction Butte pack has really been in an uproar all winter. Once happily at home in the Slough Creek/Mum’s Ridge area, they have been squeezed on all sides by neighboring packs—Lamar Canyon from the east, Prospect Peak from the west, and even the Mollies pack from the south. Every time a rival pack comes near, the Junction Buttes retreat to the south over the top of Specimen Ridge and aren’t seen for days.

The trouble really came to a head this winter when 911M and 970F deposed 890M and 870F as Junction Butte alphas. While 890M was allowed to rejoin the pack as beta male, trouble had been brewing for a long time between sisters 870F and 970F (both originally Mollies).

New Junction Butte alpha 970F forced former alpha 870F out of the pack. Unable to hunt due to previous injuries, 870F, who had survived so much adversity, had to resort to scavenging on old carcasses and eventually died—alone, as she had lived much of her life.

Eight seventy was an amazing wolf. In 2012, she traveled north with other members of the Mollies pack to help found the Junction Butte pack. She served as alpha female until she injured her neck during breeding with then alpha “Puff.”

Unable to keep up with the pack, she lost the alpha position and spent much of 2013 alone, suffering from the neck injury and mange too. After she recovered, she did rejoin the pack and regain her alpha status. She had five pups last year with then Junction Butte alpha 890M. Two of those pups currently survive to carry on the legacy of incredibly brave and persevering 870F.

Her former alpha, 890M, another resourceful survivor, always finds a way to fit in and ensure that his genes will be passed on. In addition to the two surviving pups he sired in 2014 as Junction Butte alpha, this year (as Junction Butte beta) he bred with all three eligible Junction Butte females, including alpha 970F (!) and yearlings 969F and 907F (both sired by “Puff” and therefore not 890M’s offspring).

Originally named the Crystal Creek pack, the Mollies are the only pack to trace back to the 1995 reintroduction, and their influence only seems to grow with time. While they live most of the year to the south in Yellowstone’s Pelican Valley, their occasional forays to the Northern Range always have a big impact.

Current Mollies alpha 779F has resurrected the pack by producing pups in 2013 and 2014. The pack now has 12 members (9 blacks, 3 grays), including black 779F, gray alpha 980M, four yearlings (3 blacks and gray 978F) and six 2014 pups (5 blacks, including 979M, and one gray female).

Things are always sure to get interesting (and dangerous) when the Mollies come to the Northern Range. On a recent four day visit to Lamar Valley, they magically appeared bedded on the slopes near Amethyst Creek; chased all seven Junction Buttes over the top of Specimen Ridge; lounged near a carcass above Jasper Bench; and advanced to the east toward Lamar Canyon 926F’s Group!

Mollies alpha 779F has been in the Lamar Canyon den forest area before, so we watched nervously as 12 howling Mollies headed east on the Ledge Trail above the Confluence. Howling right back from the flanks of Mt. Norris, Lamar Canyon alpha 926F and the three black Prospect Peak males (“Twin,” “Mottled,” and “Dark Black”) started running directly toward the Mollies. Four against 12—it did not look good!

Just as we feared a headlong rush would bring the two groups into conflict, more (many more!) voices rose up behind 926F’s Group and joined in the howl-a-thon. The six missing Lamar Canyon almost-yearling pups were out there somewhere!

We hadn’t seen them for days (and we still didn’t see them), but the now 10-voice choir was enough to convince the Mollies to retreat. Disaster averted! I am convinced that those six young Lamar Canyons saved the day for their pack and maybe for the future of wolves in Lamar Valley.

The intrepid Canyon pack still has its famous long-time alpha pair, black 712M and his beautiful white female. Although they will both soon be 10 years old and had no pups last year, they were observed breeding in February, so maybe there will be pups this year! That would be great news for summer wolf watchers to the south in the Hayden Valley.

Still more wonderful news is that former Lamar Canyon alpha 755M (mate of the late “’06 Female”) was seen breeding with the creamy-white Canyon female he has been romancing since last summer! Hopefully, like her parents and grandparents (famous Hayden Valley pack alphas 540F and 541M), they too will den in the Hayden Valley.

Stories like these run through the tapestry of Yellowstone’s wolves. One has only to reflect upon their inspiring lives—the resilience of 926F, the brave legacies of the late 925M and 870F, the adaptability of 890M, and the continuing saga of 755M—to fully appreciate John F. Kennedy’s words. Change is, indeed, the law of life, especially in the wild.



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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