Nearly every winter in Yellowstone, bison fall through the ice that covers the Blacktail Lakes, between Wraith Falls and Blacktail Deer Creek at the NW corner of the park. Often, someone witnesses the bison falling through and their relentless struggle to get out of the lake, which usually fails. These lakes are deep and have no sides to them and the bison are unable to get their hooves into anything substantial that will help them lift themselves to safety. A few escape but most don’t. NPS has been known to save at least one bison and I’ve been told, several elk. Most of the time, the bison dies after many hours of struggling in frigid waters – a gruesome and heartbreaking sight for anyone who watches.
This year, at least two bison fell through the ice when no one was watching and so we did not know about them until predators turned out for a feast. Once the bison has died, photographers and wildlife watchers wait in anticipation for the first grizzly bear of the season, and they hope for wolves. This is one wildlife show that we get to view at close range and always one of the best photo ops of the year.
The second carcass was discovered by a huge grizzly boar several days ago – I call him One Ear because he only has one ear. He showed up on the Blacktail and before we knew it was feasting on a bison cow that had fallen through in the thin stretch of water closest to the road. Horrible for the bison that died, a gift for a hungry bear fresh out of the den and for eager photographers looking forward to a new season.
One Ear is a bear of schedules. He feasts during the night and always leaves the carcass before dawn. And then between 6 and 6:30 each evening, he comes running down the hill, from the north or the south, to the carcass where he feeds for 15 to 20 minutes, taking time out to check us out. When he finished he races to the north, up Everts, until we leave. This year we had a wolf, Starlight, hanging out hoping for a meal, and the bear would dance with the wolf some – he would chase Starlight and then they would come nose to nose, as if buddies. Starlight loves to pester One Ear.
Some of us think that Starlight is a female, while others think a male. I have seen the wolf urinate as a female and as a male. What I do know is that he/she is a beautiful wolf.
A bear coming in to the carcass for 15 to 20 minutes of daylight is not enough to get me to spend two solid and very long days sitting in the pullout and watching the scene. But, a beautiful wolf trying to get a few bites to eat, that is a different story. I parked some time after 4 a.m. and stayed until 7:30 p.m. both nights.
Every carcass scene has the potential for a whole lot of action by predators – bears, wolves, coyotes, birds, eagles, foxes – even pine martens and weasels. Anything that eats meat. And, even better than seeing any or all of those critters is watching the interactions between the species. Or, just watching their behaviors. So, I am here to tell you that spending two whole days watching a wolf is amazing. Then you add the wolf’s interactions with coyotes, the grizzly, the birds, the fish, the water, the bison, and you have the greatest show on earth. Starlight gave us everything he/she had to give and more.
We had 4 coyotes that wanted their share of the feast and their main plan was to annoy the heck out of the wolf. One morning we had mama coyote, looking ready to pop with pups any second, alarm barking for hours. She was cute and annoying.
The coyotes fed, howled and lounged on the ice.
And when the coyotes weren’t doing all of that, they pestered the wolf non-stop.
In turn, the wolf pestered the bear.
And then there were the birds that wanted their share.
And, as if that isn’t enough going on, we have ducks, geese, herons and Sandhills flying in and making lots of noise.
And then amongst the coyotes, birds, grizzly and wolf, comes the bison tromping through and they too feel a need to lift their tails and harass the wolf.
At other times Starlight just roamed around and looked beautiful.
Or, she snarled at the coyotes.
At other times, when unable to get to the carcass due to large crowds and lots of noise, she went fishing.
She looked bewildered at her fish.
And, often she wandered before us, nice and close, when it was too dark to get a decent shot and so I went for the motion.
Two very long and wonderful days on the Blacktail and the action was continuing but it was time for me to leave room for someone else to enjoy. Yellowstone, in its raw, beautiful, ugly nature, gives us its all.