Finding a Wolf in Yellowstone

Spitfire, before being collared. Now known as 926F, the alpha female of the Lamar Canyon pack.
Spitfire, before being collared. Now known as 926F, the alpha female of the Lamar Canyon pack.
The search for a wolf in Yellowstone
Nearly everyday I drive into Yellowstone National Park and while there are many different species of wildlife that I hope to see and photograph in the right conditions, my eyes are always on the lookout for the wolf. 
But, that is not true, exactly, for if I were to look for wolves and nothing else, I would rarely find them. Instead, I drive slowly, dissecting the park bit by bit, on the look out for elk running or standing in a tight group at high alert. Or many birds flying in a small area and diving towards the ground. I look for eagles sitting in the trees, watching something in the distance, and follow their gaze. I listen to the sounds of the ravens because if you know their many different voices, you know when they have food. I look for magpies flying in a line, fairly close to the ground, because they might be following canids, in hopes that they will soon provide a meal. I look for bison with their tails raised like flags and watching the ground, possibly charging towards something hidden by tall sagebrush. I look for fresh tracks in the snow. And, I listen for the howls of wolves and follow their sound. I do this nearly every morning, beginning the slow drive at the north entrance and continuing on to Soda Butte Valley where, as a last resort, I look for people watching the wolves.
It is true, I have a “wolf radio,” and often hear bits and pieces of information about wolf sightings. Or, even listen for the silence of the radio which often tells me that the Lamar Canyons are out and about. I can pick up the radio and ask, if someone is willing to tell, if any wolves are being seen. As a last resort. Because, for me it is about learning the habits and movements of the wolves. It is about reading the landscape and the wildlife in order to determine what might be hidden. I want to hone my skills of observation – sharpen my senses to the environment and find things on my own. Often, using all of the above, I do find wolves. And, once in a rare while, one will cross the road in front of me – just out of the blue and unexpected. But, if time is running out and it is beginning to look as though I might not get the chance to see a wolf, I will pick up the radio and ask, or stop by a crowd of folks with scopes. 
I thought of all of this yesterday, as I avoided stopping at the crowds and chose to try and find them on my own. It did not work yesterday and finally I saw Mottled through Lizzie’s scope. But, the reading of the landscape was fun and I saw so much more than if I had just been looking for a wolf and nothing else. I saw a large, lonely bull elk walking through the snow, over a mile away, undetected except for my eyes. I noticed different nooks and crannies in the landscape that would help me find the wolves the next time. It is all about the search for me, with the prize being the view of a wolf in the wild, or maybe some other wildlife.
Recently, someone asked me what the deal was with all of the secrecy surrounding wolf locations. I believe that they had an experience long ago when they desperately wanted to see a wolf but could not get one person to let them know anything. 
When I arrived in Yellowstone, I was taken aback by the secrecy that surrounded wolf world. Desperately wanting to see a wolf and learn about them I experienced cold shoulders and the backs of people’s heads. No one would look at me, let along talk to me and I found this confusing because it seemed obvious to me that the key to educating people about the truth of wolves, and saving them from the hatred that was palpable amongst hunters and ranchers, was to share them. 
And, so, I didn’t give up and I insisted that in a national park it was my right to see wolves. Later, I was told that two things weighed heavily against me, that I was a photographer and that my license plates said Idaho. 
And, much later I realized the a lot of the secrecy at that time was fear for the wolves. Lamar Canyon 754M had just been killed (though I didn’t know that) and 06 was about to be killed. The wolf watchers were frightened for the wolves and wanted to protect them.
But, it was also clear that wolf world was a secretive, exclusive society, and you were either accepted or you were not. I think it had been that way for many years and no one challenged this for fear of retribution. From the stories I have heard and what I have seen, the wolf watching society ruled Lamar Valley and it had become a place that photographers avoided at all costs – simply because they didn’t want to be hassled and instead wanted to enjoy their precious time in Yellowstone.
In a way I get it – because there are times when it would be nice to watch the wolves without others yelling loudly, howling, stopping to ask what I see thereby interrupting my viewing time. There are times when I would prefer not to listen to wolf radios, or to people giving us a blow by blow account of what we are watching. There are times when there isn’t enough parking for everyone. And, there have been times when I did not want to share – mostly because someone was rude or demanding. They interrupted a conversation I was having, or distracted me from my search. They yelled from the car, “Whatcha got?” Or, “You got some?” And, if I don’t answer I am the one who is rude, not them, because they are entitled. So, I get some of the attitudes and secrecy. I get wanting the opportunity to just watch wolves undisturbed – to relish the moment.
But, back in the beginning, before I got all of that, and lacking in tact and political savvy, I demanded to know why the secrecy. I had come through the Roosevelt Arch many times and it told me that the park was for the enjoyment of everyone, not just the wolf watchers, or the geyser watchers or the bear photographers. It said we were all welcome. Had someone forgotten that? Today, I regret my lack of tact and some of the things I said, despite their truth, because it has made life hard for me. Truth and honesty is not a desirable virtue in Yellowstone, take my word for it. I would much rather have less animosity and be able to enjoy my days in the park more. But, then there are some who tell me – those who have been here much longer than I – that everything I said was true and that no one had had the guts to say those things before. And, if they did they left the park and were never seen again. 
And, so I asserted my right to see the wolves. Later, I wondered why some people, other visitors, were entitled to information about the wolves but myself and others were not. And, it was established that all wolf information, except for that obtained from GPS collars, was available to everyone on an equal basis. The secrecy was to stop – no more wolf watching by text – everyone had a right to know wolves were being seen. No more saving of parking spaces for friends. This was, after all, a national park and the wolves, information and parking belonged to all of us. The watchers were well known for filing many false complaints about people they didn’t like and while some innocents were caught up in the beginning, they began to lose credibility. Myself and others have fallen victim to numerous complaints and the stories that were made up were unreal. Just recently I was reported for being too close to a wolf, parked, inside of my car, 140 yards away. Nothing but a lie. Yet, the person who made the report stood still as wolves came within 60′ of them, not long afterwards. Yellowstone seems to breed dishonesty and unfairness – what is good for your friends is not good for others. There is little consistency. It also seems to breed ownership – different groups claiming ownership of certain information – different people thinking that they are exempt from the rules. 
But, I have to say that while nothing is perfect and it never will be, it is so much better. Key people have stepped up to the plate and embraced the fact that the wolves belong to everyone and there is to be no secrecy. And, I have seen them, time and time again, bend over backwards to share and inform. They seem to understand that if they want the wolves to be around for a long time to come, people need to see them and experience them. They need to know. I see park personnel/wolf project folks, treating everyone with respect and giving them the dignity of time and an honest answer. I value this deeply. And, I have learned patience and understanding from these same folks – learning to ignore the rudeness and put the wolves ahead of all else. Because if I value their lives then it is my job to make sure others see them too. I am not perfect – humans are not perfect – but I am learning. This isn’t about personal feelings it is about the lives of beings that belong on this earth.
Someone else told me that they have heard people say that wolf watching was fun before I arrived. I am sure it was fun when it was a secret, private, exclusive world where watchers could do whatever they wanted while others had complaint after complaint thrown at them. As in all things, in all groups, there are great, good, bad and poor. The people I respect and admire are those who are fair and honest and can embrace change when it is for the greater good. As for me, I only told the truth, which is more than I can say for a lot of folks. There will always be some who hold onto the way things were and who selfishly try to keep the wild animals of Yellowstone to themselves. In my opinion, they do not care whether wildlife continues after they are gone from this earth, they only care about what the wildlife gives them today. That is just my opinion.
Sharing so visitors can see and learn in Yellowstone is so vitally important to the survival of our wildlife and the continued existence of our national parks. If people don’t care about those things they will go away and all will be lost – all that is good in the world will be gone, replaced by greed and concrete. I will not be a part of any exclusive club and will not be a part of the secrecy game. Visitors to Yellowstone deserve to see the wildlife and they deserve to be educated about these animals, and if I can help make that happen that that is the way it will be.
Again – please know – things are so much better out here. Some outstanding people have really stepped up to the plate and they put their own desires aside to share wolves with others. Some, they might have other motives, but at least people are seeing the animals. Me – I just told the truth. I regret the delivery of the truth and wish there were do overs but there are not. But, I do not regret telling the truth – it was inconvenient for some but only sought fairness for all. I personally have gained nothing from my actions, and lost much, but do enjoy hearing others talk about how much more friendly things seem. And it is – very positive stuff. I just wish that the infrastructure of the park was enough to accommodate the increased visitation so that everyone could enjoy all of it, but that is not the case.
And, so, my message to you isn’t about complaint or rehashing the past, it is about how to move forward and make things better for beings who can not speak for themselves. It is about taking a chance and doing the right thing, despite the loss of popularity or status. Despite whatever might happen, the truth does count. I leave this story with a quote from William Faulkner:
“Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world…would do this, it would change the earth.” 
― William Faulkner


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Different wolves that the searches have yielded
Different wolves that the searches have yielded

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Some wild wolves the search has found.
Some wild wolves the search has found.


Owner, publisher and photographer for The Yellowstone Daily. And, passionate about nature and wildlife

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One thought on “Finding a Wolf in Yellowstone

  1. Thank you, Deby for an informative post. I made my first trip to Yellowstone this past fall and fell in love with it, and with the desire to learn more about it, discovered your website and Facebook page. We were able to see lots of animals, but did not see any wolves.
    I have a strong, yearning desire to return to Yellowstone in the winter and spend the trip exclusively watching for wolves. Since I have never been there in winter, I would be most appreciative if you could give me some input as to when would be the best winter time to visit – balancing the very cold winter weather, with the best opportunities to watch the wolves. I’m struggling with whether to try for December, January, February or March. I know that historically, February & March are probably brutal where the weather is concerned. I’m also aware that the only road open is between Gardiner and Cooke City – through Lamar Valley.
    Would you be able to recommend which winter month would best balance between seeing wolves and the weather? (I know you can’t predict weather, but I’m just wondering if you have a general feel for it)? Thanks for your great posts and love your pictures!

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