Kathie Lynch. Yellowstone Wolf Update: August 2015

Yellowstone Wolf Update-
© By Kathie Lynch.

Late summer wolf watching in Yellowstone’s Northern Range was all about the Lamar Canyon pack. Except for some distant sightings of the Prospect Peak pack at the end of July and a very brief (but exciting!) appearance by the Junction Butte pack, watchers stayed glued to the Lamar Canyon’s traditional den forest area in Soda Butte Valley.

The five new Lamar Canyon pups were first sighted in mid-July. These much-hoped-for pups are the last offspring of the late Lamar Canyon alpha, 925M, who was killed by the Prospect Peak pack in March.

In a strange turn of events, four adult males from that pack then joined Lamar Canyon alpha 926F and are now helping to raise the pups. It is indeed a lucky thing that all wolves love puppies, and even adult males will willingly adopt pups sired by others.

The 12-member Lamar Canyon pack now includes alpha 926F (black), her two black yearling daughters, the four former Prospect Peak pack big males (new alpha “Twin,” gray 965M, black “Mottled,” and “Dark Black”), 3 gray pups and 2 black pups.

We were very lucky to have many (or at least some) of them in view almost every day. It was like having a window into their world as we watched the pups (who had been born about April 27) grow from 2.5 to 4 months old. It was a great privilege to be able to share some of the amazing experiences in a wolf pup’s life.

Very early on they started attempting to follow when the adults left to go out on a hunt. It was quite nerve-wracking to watch as the pups at times came down toward the road, which was filled with speeding cars and motorcycles.

One time we found small puppy paw prints etched in the frost on the footbridge, so we knew that they were likely out on exploratory missions (and had even crossed the road!) when we weren’t watching.

The biggest surprise was when a black female pup apparently crossed the road without being noticed and went on a solo 3-hour walkabout! She suddenly materialized near the hill behind all of the watchers who had been looking in the opposite direction for wolves at the den forest!

We thought that the pup was perhaps scent-trailing an adult who had left on a hunt earlier, but she seemed to be having a good time just being out on her own. She made a big circle around us, poked around in the marsh along Soda Butte Creek, nonchalantly walked across the creek, and finally safely crossed the road to head back home to the den forest. It seemed pretty obvious that she knew the area well and had probably done the same thing before.

The adults have had to work hard to find food to bring home to the pups. The longer the hunters are gone, the more quiet the pups become, sort of like the Energizer Bunny winding down. When the adults do return, all of the pups rush to mob them, soliciting a regurgitation by licking the muzzle of the incoming adult. It’s amusing to watch as the adult plows forward through a wriggling sea of begging pups.

Sometimes, the adults don’t return for 3-5 days, though they usually leave at least one baby-sitter with the pups. Yearlings are almost always ready to babysit. But, surprisingly, most of the new adult males also seem happy to do the job.

The big (120 pound!) gray 965M is especially tolerant and playful with the pups. He lets them climb all over him and will play with them by grabbing onto a stick to trying to wrestle it away from them. I have seen gentle giant 965M proudly lead a pup parade and then settle down to keep an eye on them while they play in the marsh or visit the pond.

The “Dark Black” male also plays the role of good shepherd. He may lead the pups to a nearby carcass area where they can find some tasty bones to gnaw on while waiting for the hunters to return. “Dark Black” keeps an eye out for danger (bears) and may relax in the shade of a tree, much like a parent watching over kids at the playground.

The best fun occurs when the pups just stir things up on their own. Left to their own devices, they play just about every game imaginable—it is infinitely entertaining to watch! Favorite games include tug-o’-war with two on a stick, prance around with three abreast on a long branch, toss and catch a pinecone, pounce on something/anything, run rings around a tree, mouth-wrestle, take down and stand over, chase, watch a squirrel in a tree, stand on hind legs with front paws up on the tree to try to reach that darn squirrel, dig a hole, and pull another pup’s tail!

The oddest behavior we’ve noticed with these pups, though, is what can only be described as an Army crawl. All five pups seem to be doing it, and it’s funny to watch. They will just belly crawl forward from one place to another as if that’s the only way to get from Point A to Point B. One thought is that perhaps fleas are driving them crazy, and they’ve found a novel way to scratch the itch. (We haven’t seen any sign that the pups have mange.)

The four new males (from the Prospect Peak pack) take every opportunity to get to know the three Lamar Canyon females (alpha 926F and her two yearling daughters). None of these males is related to any of these females, so it should be interesting in February when they will all be eligible for breeding.

Alpha 926F seems content with her new alpha male, “Twin,” but the other males (965M, “Mottled,” and “Dark Black”) take turns cozying up to the two female yearlings. Almost any occasion seems right for a big greeting, playful romp, and even some fanny dancing as they all get acquainted.

One morning, 926F treated us to the most amazing howling serenade in the pre-dawn darkness. It was probably the loudest howling I have ever heard—and for good reason—she was standing right next to the road near the turnout!

She quickly slipped across the road and headed south out to the middle flats, presumably to take her usual path out toward Cache Creek. What happened next was a crack up! She stopped at the Cache Creek trail sign and marked it with a flex-leg urination (a variation of a raised leg urination)—just like it was the neighborhood fire hydrant!

With nose to the ground, she went this way and that all around the trail sign, looking for a message she could read. When she found it, she changed her course and headed out toward the Lamar River instead of Cache Creek. Soon we saw another black (possibly the “Dark Black” male) follow her exact path, “read” the message she left on the signpost, make his own mark, and then follow her lead!

The whole mystery of how they communicate with each other is really fascinating. One evening, one of the black female yearlings sat under a tree with one black pup, high on a hill to the east of the pack’s usual rendezvous area. The yearling howled and howled. I thought at first that she was calling the other pups to come to her. Instead, the one pup with her went back home, and the yearling was then free to follow the other adults out hunting.

On the morning of August 7, I bet the Lamar Canyon pack simply couldn’t believe their good fortune when they discovered a dead bison bull right in their own front yard! It was likely the victim of the rut (perhaps gored by another bull) and had died in their rendezvous site.

For the next three days (until the bison carcass was totally flattened and dragged away into a gully), we were treated to a real wild nature show. At various times, we had seven grizzlies (including a sow with two cubs of the year) and seven adult wolves feeding on the carcass or badgering each other for control of it.

The pups mostly stayed away from the carcass due to the danger from the bears. When the pups did approach the carcass, they seemed interested, but wary. I never did see the pups actually feeding on the carcass. Activity around the carcass kept the wolves and wolf watchers entertained for the next 10 days to 2 weeks.

The big event for the Lamar Canyons happened in their own territory on the morning of August 17 when they ran smack dab into five members of the Junction Butte Pack! Some Lamar Canyon adults had crossed the road to the south, presumably to go out hunting, and some pups had evidently followed them.

The Lamar Canyons were up on the middle flats (south of Hitching Post) when they encountered Junction Butte alpha 911M, big black beta 890M, 2-year-old females 907F and 969F, and an uncollared gray yearling female. (Luckily, Junction Butte alpha 970F, who has been to the Lamar Canyon den forest before, was not with them.)

The Lamar Canyons desperately tried to gather their pups as they saw the Junction Buttes approaching. What ensued can only be described as helter skelter, but the scary thing was that the Lamar Canyon pups ran down into Soda Butte Creek and were pursued by all five Junction Buttes!

From our vantage point out on the trail south of Footbridge, we couldn’t see what happened between the Junction Buttes and the Lamar Canyon pups in the creek. But, somehow the pups made it out and safely back across the road! We all breathed a huge sigh of relief when one watcher spotted three gray pups streaking across the hillside on the way home to their den forest.

Meanwhile, Lamar Canyon alpha 926F, one black female yearling, and 965M zigzagged through the rolling hills south of Hitching Post, crossed the road, and ran right past their rendezvous site. They kept on running to the east past Soda Butte Cone, crossed the road again, and fled up to the safety of a high meadow (way above last year’s rendezvous site).

Next, we discovered that alpha male “Twin” had somehow circled around to a low bench behind us! He howled and howled before heading east to join 926F, the yearling and 965M in the high meadow.

Then “Dark Black” appeared near the seedling forest on the flank of Mt. Norris, west of where “Twin” had been. “Dark Black,” too, headed east, presumably to join the other adults in the high meadow.

All this time, adult male “Mottled” had most likely stayed on the north side of the road and was seen returning to the den forest area. The other black female yearling was most likely there too, so that was good for the returning pups.

At some point (probably soon after the pups had escaped with their lives), the five Junction Buttes had retreated to the west. As far as we know, no contact had been made between the two packs and no harm had been done.

The next morning, I was somewhat worried because I only heard one faint adult howl from the den forest. But, later in the day, other watchers saw all 12 Lamar Canyon wolves safe in their home site, so all ended well.

Other than that encounter, the Junction Butte wolves have remained elusive in the late summer. As far as I know, no one has actually seen any of their pups this year, although they did localize and are presumed to have denned. Some of them have been up high on the Buffalo Plateau and the Mirror Plateau, both great places to find elk in the hot summer months. But, these are not good places for watchers to see them.

The Prospect Peak pack has also been elusive most of this summer. At the end of July, we had a few days of sightings around their den forest on the vast Blacktail Plateau, but then they moved really far away to the south and west and were not seen much.

However, one day we did get to see the Prospect Peak adult black female and three gray yearlings lead all five pups on a rollicking romp to the west. They all ran along jumping on each other and just generally enjoying the pups’ big adventure.

Alphas 763M and 821F are now in their second year of leading the Prospect Peak pack. The other pack members include the black adult female, four gray yearlings (964M and 966M—both of 8 Mile pack heritage—and two females who were born to Prospect Peak), 2 black yearlings (1 female Prospect Peak, 1 male 8 Mile), and 5 pups (3 black, 2 gray). (The Prospect Peak pack picked up some 8 Mile pack members last November after the 8 Mile alpha, 871M, was killed by the Cougar Creek pack.)

Meanwhile, down in Yellowstone’s Interior, life has been good for 7-year-old former Lamar Canyon alpha 755M and his new Wapiti Lake pack. He and his mate, the 5-year-old very light gray (almost white) Canyon female, produced four pups (2 black, 2 gray). The pack continues to live in the old Canyon pack’s Sour Creek rendezvous site in Hayden Valley.

Although they are not seen every day, many watchers have been able to enjoy some really great viewing opportunities. One hot summer afternoon (when you really wouldn’t expect any activity), I happened to see the alpha female chase a mule deer doe into the forest. The hunt must have been unsuccessful because the wolf reappeared several minutes later and continued her trek across the open flats as though nothing had happened.

Alpha 755M was the star of the show on at least two other occasions when he brought down an elk all by himself. (He certainly must have learned some valuable lessons from his late, great mate, the Lamar Canyon “’06 Female.”) He handled himself with authority as he chased a grizzly away from the carcass, providing great viewing for watchers lining the roadside just west of Canyon Junction.

On another day, 755M and his alpha female chased an elk calf into the Yellowstone River near Alum Creek. The calf swam and waded back and forth from bank to bank to avoid the wolves whenever they entered the water.

The alpha female spent most of the time bedded behind sage on the high bank so she could keep an eye on the calf in the river. It was amazing to see her consider just how to get that calf. I felt like I could almost see the wheels turning in her head!

A few times, while lying down, she would go into stalking mode and then silently slide down the bank to make a rush at the calf. In the end, though, both wolves bedded out of sight in the tree line and the calf simply walked away!

The Wapiti Lake alpha female’s parents, 712M and the white female, have remained away from Hayden Valley all summer. They have evidently found a new home to the west, between Norris and Old Faithful, and they may even have pups there. Both alphas are now 10-years-old. If they do have pups this year, this would be their eighth litter together!

We did have some unusual wildlife sightings recently. One day a man asked me what the “white things” were near the Lamar Canyon’s den forest. My answer (“probably pronghorn butts”) turned out to be way off the mark—a look through the spotting scope clearly showed two mountain goats!

Another morning, after a torrential rainstorm the night before, we found that it was a fine time for blotched tiger salamanders to be on the move. They’re the only kind of salamander in Yellowstone, and I actually saw five different ones that morning!

Not all of the unusual sightings had to do with wildlife. One gray, foggy morning as we waited for the fog to clear so we could look for the Lamar Canyon wolves, an amazing sight appeared—a fogbow (also called a white rainbow, seadog, or fogdog)! It is produced by sunlight shining on fog and does look exactly like a white rainbow!

As August draws to a close, it is already beginning to feel like early fall in Yellowstone. Several mornings have been below freezing, the wildflowers are long gone, and some leaves are turning red.

The bison rut will be winding down (good news for drivers trying to negotiate bison jams!), and the elk rut will start soon. When the first snows in mid-September bring the elk down from the high meadows, things should improve for the adult wolves who have worked so hard all summer to ferry food to the pups.

The Lamar Canyon pack has found a way to survive despite the devastating loss of alpha male 925M last March. No one could have predicted that those four big Prospect Peak males would come to the rescue and fit in so well.

The whole unlikely story speaks volumes about the tenacity and resilience of wolves. They have evolved a system to ensure that the pack will survive and that the legacies of the great ones who have gone before will live on.







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