Entering the Secret World of Wolves

Recently, I spent an entire afternoon hiking around the Lamar den hill.  The area was re-opened to the public several weeks ago, after it was determined that the Lamar Canyons had no pups in the den area.  According to Rick McIntyre, there was no consistent pattern or behavior that would indicate that the wolves were raising a family.  This does not mean for absolute certain that there are no pups, only that they are not in the normal place.  There was some indication early on, when the Mollies were near Soda Butte Valley, that the Lamars had moved their pups further north and that they were still caring for them after the other wolves left.  So, it is possible that the wolves moved the pups even further away, possibly on the other side of the road.  At less than 4 months old these pups would not yet be traveling with the adults, except very short distances.

It has been my desire to know the wolves as thoroughly as any observer/lay person can know them.  Hence, I have spent hours watching, despite my goal being to capture images of them.  I have passed up photo ops in favor of not disturbing the wolves and have gone after other photos ops that could have potentially disturbed them.  I am sure that there have been times when my presence has altered their course or their behavior.  But, there is no one who has spent time around the wolves that can not say for certain that they have not disturbed them as well.  The wolves always know where we are and often have to choose other routes of travel due to our presence.

As far as going to the den hill – this activity has ignited fire in some who believe the animals and the area that they give birth sacred.  While wolves are my favorite animal, I do not believe them any more sacred than any others.  If we are going to close one birthing spot of wildlife for one species, then we should do so for all animals.  Just close the park.  I tread lightly, touching nothing, taking nothing and leaving nothing.  Wolves cross our path on a daily basis, often traveling on our trails.  They cross our roads.  They come in contact with humans, on some level, nearly everyday, and they keep coming back.  So, I fail to see how hiking in any forest where wolves have been would deter them.  They might get my scent if they were to return soon, but it would most likely just interest them and not alarm the wolves since they are not currently raising pups in the area.  I would never go into any area that I know the wolves to be at that time and risk disturbing their day.  On another note, I will not take anyone to the place I’ve just been.  To minimize disturbance, mainly.  But, also because I took a so-called trusted friend into the general, out lying area of the den hill twice and she later berated me for being there.  Trusted friends are hard to come by.

 

Tracking a Wolf

When I enter Lamar Valley and there are no wolves running along the river, standing on a hill, or hiding in the trees, an emptiness comes over me. Without the howl of wolves it is like the fire in the valley’s soul has been extinguished.

The grass is brown, except along the water’s edge or under the trees up high, the river is low and there are no bison, no pronghorn, no coyotes, no elk and no wolves. Only the fast moving cars, speeding past because the valley’s beauty is masked by the dryness of late fall and the absence of wildlife.

With no hope, whatsoever, of finding a wolf in Lamar Valley, despite the lonely bison carcass on Ranger Hill, I went tracking the lives of the wolves, where they live when the puppies are born and too small to travel.

Bison carcass on Ranger Hill -
Bison carcass on Ranger Hill –

The more I watch the behaviors of wolves, the more I want to know about their lives. How and where they live – even where they poop, or where they bed during the long hours of a summer day when the pups are small, and where they travel, fascinates me. We watch the animals, when they come into the open, as they hunt, sleep and play with puppies and can be entertained for hours (unless they are sleeping) but what about all of those times when they are hidden? During the more intimate hours of their existence when there are small puppies in a den? When we are watching the actual wolves, we miss what they leave behind, the details that tell us their story. This can be true for all wild animals that we track into a secret, unseen world. It is seeing the wildlife, without really seeing them.

Recently, I spent 4.5 hours climbing steep hills and wandering around, following trails, looking for signs of the wolves. I only fell once, tripped without falling 8 times, scraped my leg once, and hit my head on low branches 3 times (the hazards of wearing a ball cap) but had one of the most fascinating afternoons of my life in Yellowstone.

As I climbed the hill I discovered only a couple of carcasses along the way. Both were old, as evidenced by bleached bones and white antlers. And, then, for a long time, no sign of wolves. No scat, no bones, no anything. The trails I followed were well worn, wide and full of bison piles. The bedding areas I saw were too large for wolves. But, I kept climbing, hoping to see some sign that wolves lived, or had lived, there.

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Antler sheds
Antler sheds

And, then the difference between a wolf trail and bison trail became obvious to me. The wolf’s lightly worn and narrow path eventually led me to actual evidence that wolves had been there. Old bones – leg assemblies mostly, that are often taken back to the den area for the pups. But, only one looked fresh enough to be from this year. In all of the bones I found, only that leg assembly was new.

Wolf trail and an old bone
Wolf trail and an old bone

And, as I followed the trail further, there were more white bones. And then white scat. Large, medium and small – it was obvious that certain wolves had favorite poop spots, under a rock or over a a specific bush. And, I found evidence of only one pup and its scat. There could have been more but that is what I found. Most intriguing of all were the bedding spots that consisted of dirt on rocks and that gave the wolf a view of the surrounding area. There were many places that the wolves had bedded – well worn and distinct. And, a mound of grass, smashed down that looked like the perfect place for nursing, or a little puppy play time. It was obvious that they ate and pooped away from where they slept and played. I wondered about water but soon found a small pond with a well worn path.

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Wolf scat
Wolf scat

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Bones - mostly leg assemblies. The adult wolves often carry leg assemblies back to the den for the puppies.
Bones – mostly leg assemblies. The adult wolves often carry leg assemblies back to the den for the puppies.

I could have wandered the area, the home of the wolves, for hours more, reading the wolf scape of their existence, but my tired legs would barely hold me and so I will have to return some day. This place that I found is my private spot and one that I will never take another person to. There was absolutely no evidence of recent wolf activity in this location and I tread lightly, touching nothing. It is my desire to know the wolves thoroughly so that I can teach others who want to know the truth about their lives. The biggest value of the wolf is what it does for the eco-system, not what it does for our hearts. Their living footprint is small and would be easy to miss. These are animals, families, just working to survive and reproduce, preferring to do so far from humans. But, as we build houses and put cattle on public lands we force them closer and closer to us. When do we say enough and make humans responsible for also preserving nature?

Twin - if any pups survived this year he would be the father. Twin is believed to be deceased after a possible conflict with the Mollies the day 12 returned to the valley
Twin – if any pups survived this year he would be the father. Twin is believed to be deceased after a possible conflict with the Mollies the day 12 returned to the valley

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926 and Twin soon after they met

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926 in the snow last winter, before her mange got bad.