By Christine Baleshta
The Yellowstone west entrance is melting down. On the first Saturday in May, patches of snow are everywhere. Bison cross the road in front of the car, heads turned toward us, eyes wary, always moving forward to the other side. One of the first bison calves born this spring clings to its mother and moves awkwardly, still not used to its legs.
It’s chilly at 5:30 p.m., but clear and there’s plenty of light. We turn left at the Madison Junction and head towards Norris. We’ve heard a grizzly sow and her two yearling cubs have been feeding on a carcass in that area and hope they’ll be there tonight. The remnants of winter are striking: ponds and lakes still frozen over, trees and meadows dusted with snow. We travel slowly, looking from side to side, hoping to see something moving through the trees. As we round a curve in the road, we are startled to see the grizzly sow and her two yearling cubs running down the road headed straight towards us followed by a long line of vehicles. A man hangs out the passenger side of the first vehicle in line, video camera in hand. My eyes open wide as I see No. 264 and her cubs through the windshield. For me, in Yellowstone, acknowledgment of what I’m looking at may have a slightly delayed reaction - we’re driving along and all of sudden there are three grizzlies in front of us. It takes me a moment to process.
The bears jump off the road and run into a tree-studded meadow. And everyone pulls off the road. The sow and her two cubs are less than 50 yards away from the road, grazing, ignoring us all. 264 has been around for a while and she is unusually tolerant of her human fans. The first car behind her was a couple from Utah and they are taking digital pictures, which are already visible on their computer in their van. The pictures are superb – even the bears’ footpads are visible. They show us a couple of pictures of a wolf they saw a couple of hours earlier, south of this area, near a creek. “She” is almost white, shadowed in pale gray. A bite wound on her neck causes some speculation, but she is a beautiful creature. This is my 6th trip to Yellowstone, and I’ve never seen a wolf in this area, though I know they’re there. Could she be a member of the Nez Perce Pack?
We would see 264 and her cubs again the next morning, but we came to see wolves and until that first glimpse, the trip would not be a success. We dutifully appear at the Lamar Valley each sunrise and dusk, hovering near the Druid den site, but even they, the most visible pack in Yellowstone, elude us the first couple of days. Numbers 21 and 42 have denned near Buffalo Ranch, smack in the middle of the Lamar Valley. The pups are probably only about two weeks old or so, and the rest of the pack stay nearby to cater to the needs of the alpha female and their new pack members. Even though there seem to be plenty of elk in the Lamar Valley, which has to be good for the wolves, the first week of May does not seem to be the best time to see wolves.
We persist as the long spring days give us more daylight. On Tuesday evening, the fourth day of our trip, we drive to Lamar Valley and park at a turnout looking south across the river at a wide landscape of tree-covered hills. We wait and search the horizon for something that moves. I follow a large brown spot climb up and over a hill, pretty sure it’s a bear, but it’s out of sight before I can be sure. Finally, I see a black wolf lying in tall grass under a bench, and then a gray. Then, three more black wolves get up, walk toward one area and disappear behind some grasses. A bald eagle watches from a dead tree and several ravens harass the wolves, particularly one black one, who seems too tired to chase them away. They must have been feeding on a kill.
The three black wolves eventually travel east along the river to a small group of cottonwoods, while the other wolves disappear in the grass. It’s getting dark, and late, so we leave for the evening, but we return at daylight the next morning to find three wolves in the same area near the kill site, this time a dark, charcoal gray wolf, which was quite large, a gray wolf and a pure black wolf. The black wolf seems to be a young subordinate, soliciting play from the large, charcoal wolf, who cooperates briefly until they all lay down and are barely visible in the grass. I can’t remember how long we have been watching, but again the wolves get up and move along the river to the cottonwoods and again they disappear. This is a typical scenario for time spent wolf watching in the Lamar: all eyes are on the wolves until they are no longer visible or until the cold drives us away.
The weather changes constantly. Wednesday morning is bitterly cold and windy, with snow flurries all the way to the Lamar Valley while the afternoon in Mammoth turns sunny and clear. We discover that if we can’t hike in one area because of rain or snow, all we have to do is drive out of it to another part of the park. That afternoon we hike south of Mammoth Hot Springs. Most of the trail is covered with a couple of inches of snow, but we climb over sagebrush and zigzag through snow patches and mud, sometimes a very wet experience. This is one of my favorite places to hike in Yellowstone, the trail stretching out into a meadow surrounded by mountains and rolling hills. On sunny autumn afternoons, I’ve shared the meadow with coyotes, bison and elk.
There is a point in the trail that curves and wedges tightly between the mountains, where we hit an impasse. We try to stay near the ridges to avoid snowdrifts until a large, deep drift blocks our path. We stop to figure out our next strategy when I casually look to my left and lying there in the meadow is a large silverback grizzly, chewing on something. Startled, I stop myself from screaming, “What’s that?!!” “Bear” answers Tim. He’s beautiful; chocolate brown legs and markings on his face, while his silvery body reflects the sunlight in the snow. And he is only about 100 yards away. We back up the ridge quickly and quietly, the bear never seeing, hearing, or smelling us. Perched on rocks high above the meadow, we can appreciate this incredible animal and enjoy our luck. He reminds me of a panda with his light color set off by dark markings. Totally absorbed in his find, a carcass buried underneath the snow, he never looks up to see us.
That is the turning point of our hike. We return walking on top of the ridges, but navigating the snow and mud does not get any easier. It seems to take forever. Drawing near the road, we notice a crowd of people facing away from the flats. When we reach the road, we briefly catch sight of two wolves, one very light colored and one gray, before two snow mobiles noisily zip down another trail and frighten the wolves into the trees. We cross the road and find two sets of footprints in the snow, side by side, like those of two very big dogs running together.
We are very annoyed by the disturbance, but equally excited to see wolves - they must be from the Swan Lake Pack. As large as the wolf population is in Yellowstone, very few wolves outside the Druid Pack are seen by visitors on a regular basis. (At this point, the Druid Pack had not split into separate packs.) The white wolf seen by the couple from Utah is an exceptional experience. These wolves are an exceptional experience. We learn that there is a carcass about 150 yards from the road and our plans for the next morning are made.
We’re there at 6:30 the next morning. A small group of people, mostly photographers we later learned, are already gathered, spotting scopes and cameras focused on the carcass sunken into the creek and hidden by tall grasses. There is a slight cloud cover and an icy wind nips at our faces. I don’t remember when we first spot the three wolves, but it takes some time for me to notice all three. A large wolf streaked with dark gray tugs at the carcass. His head is down and all that can be seen is his tail with a dark spot on it and his hindquarters. Then I notice the other gray wolf lying in the grass to the right of him. It looks very serene and content. Its face is unusual with brown markings near its nose. The third wolf curls in the grass to the left of the center wolf. Grey and white, it rarely lifts its head. All three have radio collars. Ravens flutter madly around the carcass, lifting their wings and hopping up and down in short jumps in a kind of dance.
Around 8:00 a.m., the wolf to the right begins to walk off. It rises and moves around, and then lies down in the snow and rolls around. Eventually it walks south and disappears into the sage. The wolf to the left also gets up and walks in the opposite direction. Although it’s moving slowly, I lose it quickly in the trees. The center wolf also moves south, almost as if looking for the other wolf. We follow it intently, but lose it too in the sage and grasses.
The wolves gone, or so it seems, we drive south on the road just a short distance to another turnout to see if there is better visibility and search for tracks. We find some tracks in the snow showing where a grizzly crossed the road and headed toward the carcass, probably from the night before. There are also wolf tracks, but they aren’t fresh either, so we head back to our original spot. Driving slowly and looking carefully, Tim spots a wolf on the other side of the road in the flats. We pull over immediately while the wolf disappears. I miss it completely.
Out of the car, we dart across the road and scan the open flats, hoping to see the wolf reappear in the snow and sage. Cautiously, we walk into the meadow. Hiking through the sage is slow and deliberate. We intend to walk in only a couple of yards to find a better vantage point, but keep walking, gradually lengthening our little hike. We see wolf tracks, but are not sure when they were made.
We march over the sagebrush and snow patches, alternately scanning the flats and surrounding mountains and searching the ground for tracks. Reaching a large, marshy area in front of a ridge we stop to think about where we are headed. A ridge blocks our view. Walking around means a much longer hike than planned; however, walking is warmer than standing still and we might see something.
As we reach the curve in the marsh it’s obvious the ridge is only hiding the rest of the snow covered flats. I glass the tree-studded hills for signs of movement when Tim points southwest of the ridge and yells “Bear.” Surprised, I turn to see a grizzly charging out of the trees into the meadow and turn sharply in our direction. Part of me freezes and then I back up and start to run when Tim reminds me “Don’t run!” I change my pace immediately, backtracking as quickly as I can toward the road, about one quarter of a mile away. The bear runs, then stops and rises up on his hind legs, sniffing the air, attempting to determine what we are. He is headed toward the carcass on the other side of the road and we are right in the middle of his path. Tim shouts “He sees me,” and a few long seconds later, “And I do not have the bear spray.” We had left the safety of our car not expecting to go far or be gone long so all we have are the keys to the car. All I can think of is that we must keep moving and get to the road as soon as possible.
The cold air burns my lungs as I jump over sage in my boots. I’m running out of breath. The bear continues to alternately run and stop, seeming to follow our exact steps, keeping a distance somewhere between 100-150 yards from us. Moving as fast as we can, we finally get to the road winded, the bear on our trail, and rush across. On the other side of the road, we break into a trot until we reach the car. The noise of cars distracts the bear and he stops at the road, separated from us by a growing line of vehicles slowing and stopping to watch him. Inside the safety of the car, the bear now 20-25 yards away, we catch our breath and get a good look at the bear, now standing on his hind legs, looking out at the road.
The bear cannot get across the road. He zigzags between the road and the meadow, then runs along the road and up into the wooded hills. Frustrated, he climbs into the trees and sits there waiting for a better opportunity. At this point I wish the cars would stop and allow the bear to cross the road and get to the carcass. Obviously hungry, the smell of food must torment him.
Having calmed down a little, we return to our original viewing site to find another wolf tearing away at the carcass. This wolf is lighter colored than the others, sort of golden, but definitely not a coyote, and without a radio collar. Seemingly oblivious to everything around him, he eats, while ravens continued to circle above and dance around on the ground, impatiently waiting their turn.
We are so busy watching the wolf, we fail to see the bear cross the road. Suddenly he appears and heads straight for the carcass. The wolf turns his head, watching the bear, but still tearing pieces of meat from the carcass. As the bear approaches, the wolf steps away, but seems prepared to defend his food. Holding my breath, I expect to witness an altercation. As the bear steps forward, challenging the wolf, the wolf slinks to the side and the bear takes his place on the carcass, where he immediately rips meat off with his teeth and claws.
While the wolf and bear were coming to their “agreement” over the carcass, a coyote had stepped into the area, looking for an opportunity to feed. He was watching the wolf and bear intently from what could have been only a few yards away. If wolves have had enough food, sometimes they will allow coyotes to feed on the same food source. For this coyote there is no such luck. Still hungry and possibly feeling humiliated by the bear, the wolf takes off after the coyote, chasing him – fast – into the ravine by Bunsen Peak. The coyote barely keeps ahead of him. I hope the wolf will chase the coyote out of the area and back off, but he does not let up. The two are out of site before I know it, somewhere deep in the ravine hidden by woods, and I worry that there is one less coyote in the world.
As we watch the bear feed, three more coyotes cross the road from Swan Lake Flats and when the grizzly finally ambles away, the coyotes take their turn on the carcass. They feed in much the same way as wolves, heads down behind the grasses, tails and hindquarters in the air, sometimes not visible at all. We eventually count a total of four coyotes, though we did not see the fourth arrive. What we do notice is one coyote limping, holding up his left hind leg. Of course we’ll never know the truth, but I like to believe that this injured coyote is the same coyote we saw chased by the wolf, and that he managed to escape. The wolf does not return.
We are at the same site around 5:30 that evening. No wolves. Waiting and watching, a large grizzly appears. He has been lying in a corner of the meadow, hidden by the sage. It looks like the bear we saw on our hike the previous afternoon having the same light body and chocolate brown markings. We watch him amble lazily along. He stops every now and then, sits down and rocks on his haunches while playing with his feet. Once at the carcass though he loses no time pulling its hindquarters out of the water. Through my spotting scope I see his long, ivory claws tear at the meat and fur destroying his panda image for me.
We return to the same turnout the next morning at 6:00 a.m. Tire tracks reveal someone has already come and gone. Cold and foggy, visibility is very poor. We wait and watch as others show up and give up. Finally, what appears to be a young wolf shows up to feed. We had heard a wolf had been chased off by the others the previous day - perhaps it’s the omega of this pack. We watch him for about 30 minutes until another visitor moves forward for some better pictures, and the wolf runs off. A man nearby softly remarks, “It seems our friend has scared the wolf off.”
Leaving Mammoth later that morning for the Hayden Valley and the southern part of the park, we stop briefly near the carcass site, but all is quiet. Two coyotes show up, probably from the same pack as the day before. They approach the carcass cautiously and then run back across the road and through the meadow. The carcass has been there several days now and there is probably not much left. Reluctantly, we get in the car and continue our drive south. We are very attached to this particular place and it’s very difficult for us to leave.
Our wolf luck runs out quickly as we drive towards the Hayden Valley and Yellowstone Lake. The rest of the trip is a blur of frozen rivers and lakes and steaming geysers. The next morning we head toward West Yellowstone and spot a bald eagle perched on top of a burned pine, guarding its nest. There is no stopping allowed on the road here to protect the nesting bird, so we carry its memory with us along with those of the wolves, bears and coyotes as we leave the park behind until next time.