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Yellowstone Up Close and Personal

28 March 2009 Trip Report

Wolf Sighting ~ Trip Report ~ by Frank Smith

Yellowstone Wolf ~ NPS Photo

~ March 2009 ~

Saturday - 28 March

Three of us skied the Barronette trail on Saturday, which was in outstanding late season shape.

On the way out there, we stopped at Slough Creek, where one of the seasonal wolf study teams was monitoring the Druid Peak pack. The wolves were bedded in the trees across the Lamar River, in the general vicinity of the former Crystal Creek / Bench acclimation pen. The researchers told us there were Mollie's wolves on the other side of Lamar Canyon. We continued on, noticed several vehicles at the Fisherman's pullout, and took a look back to the west, high on the ridge, where the old trail makes its way to First Meadow. We spotted 4 Mollie's wolves, but given their behavior and the terrain, I would not be surprised if there were more out of view, behind a berm. The mere fact that the Mollie's were in Druid territory was unsettling, particularly given the proximity of the two packs to each other. They couldn't have more than a few miles separating them.

It was later on, while skiing, that the thought occurred to me that it was unusual to see a wolf pack that far from its home range so close to denning season. The alpha females (and any other expectant females) should be giving birth in the next week or two. Ordinarily, as the time nears, those females become "den-centric". I thought back to the drama that played out in the Slough Creek area two years ago, when the "Unknowns" traveled down Slough Creek from the north, and laid seige to the Slough Creek wolves' den site. The result of that interaction was the decimation of the Slough Creek pack males, and neither pack producing pups.

We have a major snowstorm in the area at present, and Cooke City could easily receive 2 feet or more of new snow before it is over. The leading edge of that storm was moving in as we drove home Saturday evening. The falling snow and late day light was combining to obscure our vision of the area between Lamar Canyon and the Slough Creek area. The few remaining observers (researchers and the other regulars) were scattered between the western mouth of the canyon and the Slough Creek pullout. I doubt they could see much at that point, but the fact that they were positioned where they were leads me to believe that at least one or both packs were somewhere on the far side of the Lamar River.

I'm hoping the Mollie's wolves were just out hunting, and their expectant females stayed in Pelican Valley. If they are intent on denning somewhere in Lamar Valley, Little America, or Slough Creek, there will likely be fireworks.

I would not be so concerned if overall wolf numbers in the park weren't as low as they are, in the wake of distemper, mange, and inter-pack conflict.

As our winters return to more normal snowfall, after close to a decade of drought, wolves may find it too difficult to make a living in the interior, particularly the east and central portions, thus forcing them to move north into occupied territories. We have seen more wolf activity in close proximity to Mammoth and Gardiner this winter than I remember since reintroduction. That could be another symptom of this larger problem.

I didn't take my camera out the entire day. The Mollie's wolves were a long ways off, probably a mile or more. I ski the Barronette trail so often, that I only bring the camera occasionally. Actually, Auwingwalker got some nice shots from the area. I can barely see our tracks going up the initial incline behind the sign, and the sign definitely has quite a bit more snow around/on it.

It is really difficult to peg a snow depth. The trees on south-facing slopes down near the Soda Butte Picnic Area actually have bare ground around their base, but along the Barronette ski trail, I saw several tree wells that were 5-10 feet deep. I suspect that we were skiing on top of 3 or 4 feet of snow, bare minimum most of the way.

We were anxious to see griz, or at least, griz sign, but were skunked in that regard.

Auwingwalker must have caught that midday gap in yesterday's storm. It was dumping copious amounts of snow late Saturday night, early Sunday morning, and then again late in the day, Sunday. Today's Bozeman Chronicle says the area got between 4 inches and a foot of new snow, and that is not looking at the mountain areas, which really got hammered. The Big Sky ski area is reporting 15-18 inches over the past 24 hours! With the wind blowing this stuff around, there should be some might drifts here and there.

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