Yellowstone, May 2006

by Christine Baleshta


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.