Yellowstone, October 2006

by Christine Baleshta

The horse stands outside the barbed wire fence, swishing a tail that brushes the ground, staring intently at a group of horses scattered in the pasture on the other side. He is black, but when sunlight shines on him, a deep brown glows from his coat. He waits, patient, staring, looking in as if he wants to join the other horses.

We are on the Wild Horse Range that stretches along this road for more than 10 miles through the Big Horn Canyon National Recreation Area and extends acres and acres to the west. The black horse is a wild horse, but I am not sure about the others, even though their coloring and markings are similar to wild horses.

Six miles up the road at Mustang Flats, another black horse stands motionless in a gully surrounded by sagebrush and stillness. I watch him for a long time, just standing, not moving at all except for a very occasional swish of his tail, dragging along the sandy, rocky ground, or blink of his eyes. He is a dusty black except for a brown vertical stripe on the inside of his front left foreleg and a white patch on his nose.

Settled on a flat rock about 100 yards away, I sink into the silence and morning light of the high desert and think about the horse. I could watch him for hours, so quiet, motionless. The sun is warm this first day of October and the sky a clear, brilliant blue. In this moment I cannot tell that the snows of winter are not far away. I never see the horse move in this spot deep in the gully, but two and a half hours later, after driving up and down the road, he is gone.

Across the road a grey horse with a black mane grazes high on the hillside among the junipers. He is difficult to see in the faded green of the brush, even with his light coloring. His black tail and mane are a striking contrast to his grey coat and white blaze. This horse, too, is alone, a bachelor.

Yesterday we arrived in Billings on one of the last warm days of fall and headed straight for the Pryor Mountains. Farms and ranches stretch south of Billings and the land gets dryer and dryer, an unfamiliar terrain. A hand-painted sign announces “Apples.” Rolling hills are brown and red, dotted with juniper trees and sage. Because of severe drought, there is little vegetation. Red rocky outcrops rise from the hills.

The road into the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range is rocky, winding and rough. There are ruts, dips, holes, rocks everywhere. Tough work, even for a jeep. It seemed like the longest drive I have ever taken. We stop at Sykes Coulee Enclosure, an old wooden corral, and go no farther. We don’t find any wild horses, but see hoof prints leading down a trail overlooking a narrow canyon. It is silent here at the beginning of the ridge. A baby rattlesnake curls almost hidden in some rocks, his tongue tasting the air in a hiss too soft to hear.

The drive back to paved road is just as bad. Some domestic horses graze among cattle that look like they could be part mustang. One in particular has very beautiful and unusual markings and coloring. He is a pale grey, almost white, with a black face. The black extends down his neck to his withers where it fades out. He has a jet black mane, black socks and a black tail. Gorgeous. There is also a palomino that is the palest of yellows, the color of butter mints. At a bend in the road, mule deer graze in front of a ranch house. In the middle of the herd stands one white doe – an albino deer! It looks just like the other deer except for its ivory color.

Still looking for wild horses we drive north on Highway 37 again into the Big Horn Recreation Area and the Montana Wild Horse Range. Several horses can be seen from the road grazing in a distant pasture near a watering hole. I count 14, including a little black one. It is almost dark now, the beautiful sunset casting mysterious shadows, and we head to Lovell for the night.

The Pryor Mountains straddle the Montana-Wyoming border and are home to some 153 wild horses said to be descendants of horses introduced by the Spanish. These horses are small and stout and have adapted to their environment with thick, strong legs and bones. They are characterized by a kaleidoscope of coloring, including duns, blacks, grullos, palominos and red and blue roans with primitive markings (such as the leg bars on the black horse in the gully), dorsal stripes, and shoulder stripes.

As we entered the range that first morning in October we were blocked by a herd of goats being driven down the road by two border collies and their herders. Three Great Pyrenees frolicked through knee high grass on the other side of the road, totally enjoying themselves and neglecting their responsibilities. Multi-colored goats swarmed across the road and alongside the jeep, followed by their smiling and apologetic managers who told us the goats were part of a state weed control program.

Big horn sheep graze along a short, winding road that leads to a lookout into the canyon and dark water of the Big Horn River. My eyes follow a raptor as it dips into the deep red walls and glides along the water. It is still very quiet. Maybe if we had gone farther up Sykes Ridge Road we would have found more horses. Maybe we should have hiked in closer to the grey horse on the mountainside. Second guessing does no good.

Driving to Yellowstone past sprawling ranches, the Chief Joseph Highway is as beautiful as ever. Somehow it feels like I’m seeing it for the first time. In the warm glow of early evening the forest shines. Grass, pine, aspens — the mix of colors is hypnotizing. Mule deer and black cattle graze on the hillsides and along the road. We pass Clark’s Fork, a red mesa rises in the distance. We reach Silver Gate by early evening and I feel like I am home.

On Monday we wake up to temperatures in the 30s. We rush around the cabin, gathering camera equipment, water and a change of clothes, hoping it will warm up. A mule deer stands in the middle of the road not far past the northeast entrance and takes her time walking across. A few bison graze close to the road in a meadow near Barronette Peak, the farthest east I’ve seen bison in the Park. We were warned that bison have been walking through the cabin area in Silver Gate and near the Soda Butte Café in Cooke City.

Lamar Valley is quiet and the wolves are scattered. The Agate Pack is in Little America and the Hellroaring Pack, a spin-off from the Leopold Pack, can be seen near Elk Creek. Six black wolves – or wolf heads – make their way through the sage. They chase a bull elk and his harem down the slope and continue west. We lose them in the brush quickly when they very likely run over a ridge. Two other wolves, one from the Unknown Pack called “Parenthesis” and “Sharp Right” of the Slough Creek Pack, have been seen traveling together, but we miss them even in our racing back and forth.

In Hayden Valley we find a grizzly grubbing in a deep meadow near the road. He is a beautiful glistening silver with a dark face, ears and hindquarters. Across the river two bald eagles are fishing at the edge of the water. They fly out a short way and dive, then return to the bank, searching the water. We watch for over an hour, until the rain begins.

It rains all through the night, drops pounding on the roof, not letting up until close to 8:00 a.m. on Tuesday. A mule deer doe grazes in front of our cabin with her daughter, a curious little grey creature. She peers into the windows of the empty lodge, her little white tail wagging nervously back and forth. Such a delicate looking creature with big ears and big brown eyes, and a body too small for her long legs.

In Little America, thirteen wolves from the Agate Pack lounge on an escarpment near a carcass, probably an elk. It could have fallen from the ledge above after being chased. All the pups are there, though I can only count nine wolves at one time. Tim points out 113M, the alpha male and 472F, the alpha female. Both are very beautiful grey wolves with dark markings. 113M has a very long saddle and black tipped tail.

We hike into Blacktail Deer Plateau, up the hills into the meadows that roll on and on. A beautiful, peaceful area. This is Leopold Pack territory and it is certainly prime real estate for wolves. I cannot think of a better place for a wolf to be. There is less precipitation in this area of the Park and the forage is especially good, making it very attractive to elk and other wildlife. In the distance a bull elk protects his harem of 27 cows. Very aware of our presence, every one of them stare at us, even as far away as we are. Two other bulls graze on the other side of the hill, bugling back and forth. Another bull elk lies in the grass on a hillside and the bulls bugle back and forth.

The following day we see the Agates very briefly, racing around the slopes of Antelope Creek chasing two Slough Creek wolves. They are so far away they are like black lines on the landscape so we do not stay long. We drive back to Little America where we find the two Slough wolves running over the ridge away from the Agates. Six black wolves from the Slough Creek Pack wait at the top of Crystal Creek looking for someone. All that can be seen at times are their ears. They lift their heads, all facing west, noses tilted in the air, and howl. Such beautiful singing.

Back in Hayden Valley 540F, the alpha female, of the Hayden Pack is tucked away with two subordinate wolves in some trees across the Yellowstone River. How white she is! We are grateful, because the pack would be difficult to find otherwise, their grey coats hidden by the yellow grass and sage. It’s almost noon and the Hayden wolves are bedded down, getting up only once in a while to circle and then lie down again. We leave them to sleep while we try a new hiking trail.

The Ribbon Lake Trail runs from Artists Point parking area through meadows and forest adjacent to Hayden Valley. There are lots of wolf tracks and some bear sign and a silver grizzly grazing on a far hillside across the road. As we approach a large meadow Tim spots a chocolate brown lump rising out of the tall golden grasses. It looks like it could be a bison. Soon it lifts its head – a grizzly foraging. We back into the trees away from the trail through the meadow and right by the bear. It’s not until we are on the other side of the meadow that the bear realizes we’re there and what we are. He rises on his hind legs to sniff the air and peers around. He does not like the scent and lopes into the trees.

We continue down the trail, but decide it’s too late to finish the loop, turn back the way we came, singing all the way. The bear is gone and we are both relieved. A pair of harrier hawks fly upside down in a mating dance, diving and twirling in the sky.

Around 5:30 p.m. the white alpha female is still bedded down with a subordinate. It seems like they haven’t moved at all and aren’t going to. We are about to leave when we hear a faint howl in the distance. The white female picks up her head, her ears perking up. The howl comes again and she lifts her head answering. Out of the trees appear three more wolves, a mix of light and dark grey. The subordinate wolves are much darker than I remember them last May. It could be their winter coats. They are all very excited, wagging tails and licking faces. Quickly all five start traveling south along the river while we race to the next turnout to watch. We follow the Hayden Pack down the road, driving from turnout to turnout, as they continue south along the Yellowstone River until we can’t see them in the fading dusk light.

Thursday morning in the Lamar is bright and clear. The Slough Creek Pack overnighted in the Lamar and people are waiting for their re-appearance. From high on a hill, we find one black wolf, head sticking up from the sage near the eroded area of the old Druid rendezvous site. He lowers his head and we don’t see him again.

Someone said a grey wolf was spotted near Soda Butte Cone traveling east. We race to the jeep and speed down the road scanning the trees and banks along Soda Butte Creek. Our cabin neighbor stops her truck as she passes us and excitedly announces there are about “30 wolves at Round Prairie!” We couldn’t get there fast enough, reaching the meadow just in time to see what looks like a huge pack of wolves, black and grey, swarmed together at the edge of the trees. The Druid Pack. Every single one of them, four adults and 11 now large pups. They act very excited and travel quickly east along the trees, wagging tails as they run, stopping to sniff every once in a while. We follow them and watch as they weave through the trees at the edge of Round Prairie, heading toward their den site, and then they are gone.

We drive down the road and try to find them in the trees, stopping at Thunderer and Soda Butte Picnic area hoping we might catch one more glimpse, but it’s impossible. Our luck runs out at Round Prairie. Later we learn how fortunate we are. The Druids had not been seen in Lamar Valley since July.

We spend the drizzly afternoon in Mammoth where a huge bull elk stands on the hotel lawn guarding his harem of nervous looking cows. The cows alternately graze and run away from him. When a car passes by too slowly, or stops to look at him and his harem, the bull lowers his head and rams the side of the vehicle with his antlers. He struts back and forth across the road while fascinated visitors watch through the hotel windows. The bull had already punched three cars by the time we arrived and we watched while he rammed four more. Last year, rangers removed Bull No. 10’s antlers for behaving badly. This elk may be destined for the same fate.

Friday morning, the Slough Creek Pack is on the move, running east to Slough Creek river bottom. Seven wolves, six black and one grey. Parenthesis, the black female from the Unknown Pack, waits on the banks of the creek, staring in their direction. Some friendly interaction between Parenthesis and Sharp Right, a grey female in the Slough Creek Pack occurred earlier in the week, so it’s surprising to see Parenthesis run away as the Sloughs approach the creek. The limping black wolf runs as fast as she can, scrambling up the hill to escape, her tongue hanging out the side of her mouth revealing very white teeth.

The Sloughs race into the area and make themselves comfortable. A carcass lies near the creek and the wolves grab a piece and walk away to a spot by themselves where they can eat their portion without competition. One black wolf walks off, a leg dangling from its mouth. They wander back and forth, gathering on top of a low hill where Sharp Right and four blacks howl. Parenthesis, hiding out in the sage, howls back.

Sharp Right is a grey wolf who has a subordinate position in the Slough Creek Pack. She is above the yearlings, but below everyone else — the alphas and 526 and 527. She is named for the sharp angle of her tail. Sharp Right begins to walk toward the sage and south towards the road, towards Parenthesis, stopping frequently and looking back. She seems to be conflicted, walking a fair distance, stopping and looking back; then walking back towards the other wolves on the hill. The whole pack begins to move up the hillside, single file, towards their old den site.

It begins to rain this afternoon, pouring all through the night and pounding the roof of the cabin once again. It never stops. The alarm sounds at 6 a.m. and we pack the car and take a last drive in the Park. Bison line the road — they are such hardy animals — and a few deer. Otherwise, all is quiet except for the rain. A good day to leave.

It’s December now and I am thinking about the Park, the wolves. It never leaves me. Last May, the Unknown Pack terrorized the Slough Creek Pack and the Druids were out of sight, far up Cache Creek. Now the Slough Creek Pack is back in its old territory and the Unknowns, are rarely seen. The snow and promise of a cold winter have led the Druids back to the Lamar Valley, following the elk. And there are other changes — there are no longer 15 Druids. The alpha female, 529F, has not been seen for a couple of weeks and three pups are missing. The Hayden Pack travels with only four wolves. No one knows what happened. It is one of the sad realities of life in the Park and one I find most difficult to accept. We see wolves every year, every season, every day. And then they leave us, or are taken from us, and we have only their memory and the mystery of their disappearance. The grey female, the other Druid mother, has stepped into the alpha position and the pack moves ahead as wolf watchers look forward to the excitement of mating season. There will be more pups in the spring.