Yellowstone, May 2005

by Christine Baleshta

This spring in Yellowstone is grey and wet and quiet. Swan Lake is still almost completely covered by a layer of ice. The flats are lush and green while Electric Peak is capped with snow. Two Trumpeter Swans dive at the edge of the shore. Elk are everywhere shedding the past winter, tufts of brown fur sticking out of smooth beige coats. The bulls have begun to grow antlers again. Some resemble little bones and some are quite impressive. All are covered with velvet.

Bison, too, are everywhere. Their new-born calves are the first sign of spring in Yellowstone for me. Little bursts of red-brown energy with dark brown eyes and noses race in circles around their mothers and each other discovering what four legs can do. I roll down the car window and listen to the bison snorting and huffing, watching their breath disappear into the cold air. A lost and confused calf finds its mother and starts to nurse. Just watching brings me a strange contentment and comfort.

There are other babies this year. At the edge of Little America the Slough Creek Pack has dug four dens into a slope with a main den site beneath them. Wolf watchers crowd Dave’s hill, their scopes pointed at the large mound surrounded by sage and fallen aspen. Recently they watched four different “mothers” carry 15 pups from den to den, finally depositing them all in the main den. Multiple litters in packs are becoming more common, but leave no certainty as to which females produced litters or how many pups in each litter. Slough Creek is a large pack led by 490M, the alpha male and a still uncollared all black female.*

From a distance of approximately 1.7 miles, the Slough Creek pups are very tiny. Black and grey furry balls spill out of the den and waddle between the sage, crawl over logs, and lick the faces of their adult babysitters. They are very active and hard to keep track of — I count 10 this time, six black and four grey. Four or five adult wolves are always hidden in the sage ready to play or protect the pups from curious onlookers. A bull elk and his harem share the same slope and are often grazing while the pups play. Late one afternoon we arrive just in time to watch a grey wolf escorting a grizzly from the area, following at the bear’s heels, weaving down the rocky slope, step by by step, until they both disappear in the grass and trees.

Down the road, the Lamar Valley stretches out, silent and peaceful. A grizzly forages on Amethyst Bench. I search the hills for wolves hoping to see at least one of the remaining Druid Pack. Faced with increasing threats from the Slough Creek Pack, they have denned far up Cache Creek and make infrequent trips to the Lamar. Daylight is fading now and a light rain sprinkles the valley, so we continue east to Cooke City as the evening shadows fall.

One morning later in the week we see the Druids from Hikers Bridge. They are relaxing in the grass on the other side of Soda Butte Creek, a carcass hidden nearby in a grassy dip. 255F is not there, supposedly back at the den with the pups, but we do see 480M, the new alpha male, and 302M, as well as 286F, the alpha female, and two pups from last year, a grey and a black. The wolves are losing their winter coats also and some of the black wolves have a rich brown tint to their fur, much like chocolate labs.

302M looks great. He has a very black face right now and a small white patch on his chest. 286F reminds me of 21M as he grew older, very grey with a black/charcoal mask. I remember her being much darker last year and now I mistake her for 255F. The two pups are charcoal grey and a lighter grey. They must be the last offspring of 21M, a sobering thought. They are beautiful, playful, energetic. Together with 286F, who always likes a good game, they roll on their backs on a triangular patch of snow and ice and slide down on their sides. They discover a small object, maybe a pine cone, and are totally absorbed. They toss it up in the air and catch it in their mouths, chew it and swat it back and forth like a hockey puck.

480 M seems to be a very calm, content wolf. A big, black/brown wolf, he remains bedded on a slope, getting up only once to sniff at the snow patch and check on the yearlings. It’s a great relief to see the Druids. After the deaths of 42F and 21M, the pack seemed to struggle in the void left by the alpha pair’s leadership. 253M (affectionately named “Limpy” by some), the beta male, disappeared from the valley for a while and it was thought that 302M, who fathered some of the younger Druids, would become alpha male. Now 253M has his own pack in the Tetons and 302M seems to be content to let 480M lead. The pack is much smaller now. Both 255F and 286F had litters totaling six pups, so they are 12. I look at the “new” Druids and think back to when there were 37 wolves in the pack, remembering all the Druids I knew by sight and who I will miss seeing so much.

We do not see any cubs of the year this spring. Last year was a very successful year for cubs, both black bears and grizzlies, and typically, bears keep their cubs with them for two years. Tower is still closed, so we hike up the gradually sloping road late one morning, past empty, grassy meadows, and find a black bear sow with last year’s cub napping at the base of a large tree across the road. She looks like a black cat, curled up. The cub rests its head on it’s mother’s sleeping body and looks up at us every now and then. We do not want to disturb them so we continue up the hill.

The road curves along the steep Yellowstone River Canyon where we find three osprey nests built on top of tall, rocky spires. All are occupied with at least one osprey visible. We don’t see any eggs, but watch as the birds fidget with twigs and leaves, putting their homes together. On another day, while hiking on the other side of the river, a male osprey flies in towards a nest with a fish in his mouth. We watch him perch on a high branch of a dead tree and eat the fish while his mate squawks at him from their nest below.

Returning down the road, the cub and the sow are up and foraging in the meadow near the pond. Their reflections shine on the water’s glassy surface. For a while the cub stops and plays with something in the grass and then the bears works their way down the meadow. At one point the sow looks like she wants to cross the road, looking back at her cub, who isn’t paying attention. She crosses the road, but the cub stays where he is. The sow then crosses back and the two continued feeding until the cub decides it’s okay to cross. A puddle in the middle of the road distracts him and he starts to drink. The sow joins him when a Park vehicle comes barreling down the road, chasing the cub straight toward us. We back down the hill as fast as we can leaving the bears still running down the road behind us.

Almost every day we’ve seen two young black bears near Petrified Tree, a cinnamon colored and a black. Always together and affectionate and playful with one another, they rub heads, chase and paw each other. They must be siblings. We surprise them once at Tower Junction as we rush round a bend in the road, retreating from a very wet hike along the Yellowstone River. They are feeding contentedly on something in the meadow until they catch our scent and both startled bears take off like a shot, loping across the road and up a hill. The black bear hides in the trees while the cinnamon turns and sits back on its hind legs, looking like a big dog as he watches us hurry by.

We see lots of moose, frequently foraging alone in meadows filled with spring’s new grass or wading in Soda Butte Creek. They seem to like the woods near the Northeast entrance, thick with pine trees and creeks. More than one morning we are greeted near Round Prairie by a cow standing in the middle of the road. Defiant, ears pinned back, her long, gangly legs planted on the asphalt, she refuses to move, waiting for us to inch forward before she jumps off the road into the meadow. Her back legs are white – I never noticed that before. For such a large gangly animal she seems very delicate.

Each day we stop near Soda Butte Cone where a coyote family has made its den. A light grey coyote with a brown mask travels through the tall, swaying grass from the west. Standing in the sage is a darker coyote, a combination of grey, reddish brown and tan with five reddish brown balls of fur glued beneath her, nursing. They rush to the male and climb all over him. They are clumsy at this age, stumbling around in the sage, standing on hind legs and swatting each other.

The adults play with the puppies after the greeting and then begin to trot east to their den, a hole in the side of the hill similar to the Sloughs’. Looking back, they try to convince the pups to follow. The pups continue rolling in the sage and don’t seem to want to give up their play time, so the adults return and lie down at the rendezvous site of sorts. After a short while, the female trots off, heading over the hill, maybe to hunt or just take a break from motherhood, while the male rests his head on his paws and baby-sits the puppies. Later in the day we see a third adult, a darker grey with more brown in its face, hunting in the meadow near the den. The pups have learned well about sounds and smells. Once we stopped to get a closer look at the female and pups, but by the time we set the scope up, the family was gone!

Our last morning in the Park is cold and clear with a beautiful blue sky, the best weather we’ve had all week. There are no coyote puppies at the den site this morning. The adults are west of the den running toward it at first and then uphill. They trot very quickly, almost loping, as if disturbed by something, perhaps the bison snorting and stamping on the hill. But they do not approach the den, just keep running up the hill.

Both 302M and 480M are at the confluence, both difficult to see in the mix of cottonwoods, aspen, tall grasses and deadfall. Across the Lamar River in the distance, a grizzly forages. West of Hitching Post we can see both black wolves bedded down near the creek. They don’t stay bedded long, but move west, quickly, and before long they are on the opposite side of the River in the area of the Druid rendezvous site. Because they are both black and large we can see them even with the naked eye, which is a relief from the week of straining to see the Slough Creek pups.

A pair of Canadian geese waddles along a quiet sandbar followed by four fluffy yellow goslings marked by black stripes down their back. The little ones are at their mother’s heels, almost underneath her, and mimic her every step. The confluence is much quieter than the fast and furious waters of the Gardiner River where we surprised another pair of geese with young. Separated by the creek from hikers, the sandbar is a peaceful oasis to raise a family.

We decide to hike up the steep, muddy trail to Trout Lake one last time. The trail circles the little lake, a mirror of water at 8:30 a.m. The footbridge made of logs was washed away by heavy spring rains, so one needs to circle back around the lake to return. Half of the lake is surrounded by pine trees. In the hollow at the top of one burned out tree, we see a long white neck leaning out, accented by black. At first we can’t quite make it out. It looks a little like a snake, but it’s actually a goose, obviously nesting at the top of the tree. It’s a strange sight, even stranger than the goose in the osprey’s nest near Lamar Canyon.

A coyote is also walking the trail. She trots the edge of the Lake, sometimes backtracking, looking intently at the water. A goose gliding in the lake honks and honks. The coyote approaches the water, trying to find a good place to enter. We think she is after the goose, or eggs in a nest. She dips a paw gingerly into the water and steps back, looks around for another place, and does it again. She walks into the water and starts swimming, her body almost totally submerged, her head and nose in the air, steadily gliding forward, hardly disturbing the water. She swims toward a muddy mass of something in the water, maybe a dead fish, bites at it and turns around, swims toward shore and gets out. She still has her eyes on the floating mass and plunges in again, swims with the same smooth movement, and again fails to retrieve it.

She gets out of the water and shakes off and lies down, washing herself. We can see she is a nursing mother. She seems very calm and not concerned about our presence. She closes her yellow eyes, opening them once in a while, checking to see if we are still there. We do not want to interrupt a mother’s much needed rest away from the puppies for a while, so instead of continuing on the trail, we go back. Glancing toward the water I see the mass has legs and hooves.

We stop at Swan Lake Flats to do some final packing and watch a ground squirrel carry grass back and forth to his nest. He scurries away from his hole into the sage and returns with his mouth stuffed with grass. While the chiseler distracts me, Tim sees an eagle dive into Swan Lake and fly away with a duck! I don’t know how I missed that!

It has rained almost every day, resulting in some very wet hikes and more time spent driving the Park. My thoughts fade into the familiar landscape. I remember my first visit and the years flood back to me in a blur of wolves and elk, coyotes, bison and bear. As their images take their place in my memory, I think of all the brief encounters that remain special to me. I remember the first wolves I saw in the Park and try to keep individual stories straight as their lives cross over each other. It is impossible for me. Before I traveled to this place, I took the order of life for granted. Here the it stretches out before me, draws me in, keeps me coming back. By the time we leave the Park the sky is filling with clouds and a strong, cold wind is sweeping through Swan Lake Flats. Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins have just opened for the season, but the Park is still uncrowded and peaceful, making it even more difficult to leave.

*Note: Only three out of the fifteen Slough Creek pups have survived to date. Pup mortality can be very high. (I read somewhere that 1/2 of the pup population survives on average.) It takes a lot of effort on the part of the pack to keep 15 pups fed and cared for since they require a lot of food and are not able to hunt yet. A canine disease like parvovirus can have a devastating effect on and there has been some speculation that this could be the cause of the loss of so many of the Slough Creek pups. Additionally, the alpha female disappeared around June 15 and was not seen again. Her assumed death most likely also contributed to this sad result. The new alpha female is 380F.


Copyright-Christine Baleshta 2005