By Christine Baleshta
Yellowstone – May 2006
The black bear is in the wooded area at the base of the ridge. Her cinnamon colored cub of the year bounces on and around her, bursting with energy. He swats at her and she swats back. They roll and tumble over grass and twigs. The cub climbs on a long grey log lying in the deadwood, broken branches jutting out every which way. He bites the branches and rolls off the log, only to climb up again and run along its length. He falls off and runs to his mother, jumping up on hind legs and trying to climb on top of her.
I hoped I would see them. Yesterday, the pair was foraging in the same area closer to the road, but trees and other people blocked my view. Now, hiking a steep trail in the quiet of the morning, I look down and there they are and we watch this mother and her spring baby alone. I wish I could hear them. I am fascinated by the sow’s tolerance and tenderness, her willingness to play with a cub who has no sibling to explore the world with. The cub jumps about, tireless, until the sow leans back against a fat tree trunk and the cub begins to nurse. It is a poignant sight. The sow knows we are there and I feel like we are intruding, so we quietly move on.
Farther up the trail a cow elk lies at the edge of a meadow, her back to us, licking her calf. They are barely visible in the tall grass. The calf stands clumsily and has the dark, wet fur of a newborn. He immediately falls, his new legs collapsing under him. But he gets up again, and the cow rises to her feet so the calf can nurse. Although her brown body is facing away from us, she turns her head around to stare at us.
I learned that elk cows will wander away from the herd, sometimes taking one other cow, to give birth to their calves. This elk has chosen a beautiful quiet meadow high above the Yellowstone River. We often see bighorn sheep here. It is the first elk calf I have ever seen since most elk calves are born in June. Mothers Day 2006. Their faces, the way they look at their young – and us – are etched in my memory. They are what I see in my mind when I think back.
I have many expectations – I should say hopes – for this trip. I expect to see black bears in Tower and bison calves everywhere. I hope to see coyote puppies and I hope to see wolves, especially the Druid Pack who I have not seen in a year. In between my expectations and hopes are windows into the world of wildlife where they share some part of their lives with me.
The week is warm for this time of year. Days that begin in the 30s climb to high 70s, low 80s, and the sun is so strong it feels like it’s burning my skin. It’s daylight at 5 a.m. and the wildlife are out early for morning feeding. As the day warms up, most animals retreat into the trees for shade and cooler temperatures.
The wolves elude us the first few days. I feel both anticipation and anxiety as I begin this week knowing that it’s been a rough Spring for the northern range packs. In February, I looked forward to seeing pups – a lot of them – but life in the wild is never predictable, especially when it concerns wolves.
The Slough Creek Pack denned in the same site it used last year, four dens dug into the side of a hill. Then, out of nowhere, appeared a pack of eleven wolves, of which only one was collared and that collar no longer worked. The unknown pack slipped right into the Slough territory and den site area and tension between the two packs grew. The Slough alpha female was trapped in her den for several days, possibly slipping out at night for food and water. The "siege" continued for approximately one month and in the end two Slough wolves were dead and there were no puppies. The Slough Creek Pack dispersed, traveling in groups of two or three in different directions, while the Unknown Pack took up residence in Little America and the Lamar Valley.
Every year since 1998 I have come to the Park, once, twice, three times, to see the wolves I have learned to recognize by sight. The harshness of their lives scratches at me, but I still come, wondering if I will see them and in what condition I will find them. On our third morning in the Park, we see "Slight Right," a grey male from the Slough Creek Pack traveling with a beautiful grey female. They sniff their way through a large herd of bison, probably looking for calves. The bison surround their calves and chase the wolves away. One bull charges at Slight Right.
The grey female has her own troubles. Two coyotes run after her, nipping at her heels. She runs with her tail between her legs, turning around every now and then with bared teeth and bites back. The coyotes mean business. Their den must be nearby and they want the wolves out of there.
The grey female moves east and into the trees. Slight Right beds in the woods and we lose them both. Occasionally we hear howling – Slight Right looking for the grey female. In the early evening we see Slight Right again, moving through the sage, still looking for the grey female.
In the middle of the week, finally, we see the Druids in Lamar Valley. They are spotted at Round Prairie heading west as they travel along Soda Butte Creek, all four adults, 480M, 302M, 529F and a grey yearling, moving quickly on the banks of the creek, through the woods and up the slope toward Cache Creek. 480M and 302M are not the solid black I remember. As they shed their winter coats they look greyer. 529F, the alpha female, looks like 286F, who I think was her mother. A black wolf originally, she is now a charcoal grey. I do not remember her well. All I remember is seeing her last May, playing on a patch of snow with another grey yearling and her mother.
This is what I was waiting for. To see the Druids safe and looking good. Once the most visible pack in the Park, they have been lying low, staying out of sight, not even howling. They do not reveal their location to any other packs. 480M is a practical alpha, knowing how to stay out of the paths of other packs. He doesn’t seem to be belligerent or aggressive, going after other packs. The Druids have pups this year, though no one has seen them yet, and they seem intent only on protecting them and keeping the pack safe.
They pass quickly, marching in a line along the south bank of Soda Butte Creek traveling west, past Soda Butte Cone and Hikers Bridge to turn slightly south towards Cache Creek. And that is the last I see of them.
There are other wolves this trip. Some of the unknown pack chased an elk high on rocky hillsides in Little America early one morning. One grey and five blacks. For a short while they chase one elk, then two elk, at high speed into a gully. One black absolutely flies at the elk and chases them out of sight. I am glad I got to see them. There is a lot of speculation about these wolves. Some think they are the old Rose Creek Pack driven out of the Park by some of the younger Druids in the fall of 2001. I believe this. Most of them are black and I remember seeing the Rose Creek Pack on this same hillside in March 1999, when it had 21 members. Part of me is excited to see them return; another part worries about the inevitable conflicts they bring.
Later that morning we see the Hayden Pack for the very first time. Four almost white wolves trot along the banks of the Yellowstone River and then one by one step into the water and begin to swim across to the opposite bank, gliding, only their heads and noses visible. The carcass of an elk cow, one of their kills, lies on the other side of the road, where it lay for days, untouched, a small dome of light fur visible. The alpha female steps out of the water and shakes herself off, then darts across the road to reach the kill. The whitest of them all, she is the picture of confidence, her eyes slightly turned down. An unusual face.
They all get there, one by one. Crossing the Yellowstone, then a creek, wary of people, especially the two yearlings. They are close to the road, the best wolf viewing we have had in a long time. And we watch for a long time as they tear pieces from the carcass, until the wolves walk off through the large patches of snow and up the hill and down again. Until they bed in the tall grass and sage and all we can see are the white tips of their ears.
By the end of the week one day blurs into the next as more and more faces fill my mind. They are more than wolves and bears and bison and elk. They are images colliding, stories untold. A great horned owl, glowing golden and spotted brown, wings covering two chicks with fuzzy white heads. A peregrine falcon lying on her nest, wedged in a narrow longitudinal crack in the wall of the Yellowstone canyon. Tiny black bear cubs scrambling after each other up a tall pine tree and suddenly crashing, asleep, little black legs dangling on either side of its branches. A grizzly ambling out of the northeast entrance, head swinging from side to side. And a majestic cow moose standing next to Soda Butte Creek, her left hind leg torn, staring at us, looking through us.
I carry so much with me when I leave the Park that now it is not so difficult to leave. It is stored somewhere on pages within. Every year I look for the same things and every year I find some things different. Some wolves are older, stronger, and some are gone. Puppies grow into new packs. Coyotes now chase wolves. There are more moose, foxes and beavers and always bison and calves. If anything is true about the Park for me, it’s change and consistency. I arrive with expectations and hopes and leave filled by the Park’s generosity.