Monday, March 19, 2007

Adventures of a Wolf Watcher

Observing the Oxbow Pack, Yellowstone National Park, February, 2007

Our first few days in the park were spent in and around the Lamar Valley in the northeastern corner of the park. We stayed in a comfortable motel in Cooke City, a tiny end-of-the-road town just outside the park, altitude around 8,000 feet. I called it "Testosterone City," because it is a snowmobiler's haven, with people coming from all over creation to ride their motorized sleds through the mountains outside the park boundaries. Sadly, days before we arrived, 5 of them had been killed in a backcountry avalanche, conditions no doubt exacerbated by the noisy vibrations of their machines. Mornings and evenings in town reverberate with the sound of revving engines as strapping men, outfitted in cold weather garb, prepare for fast paced tours through some the world's most exquisite landscapes.

As "wolf watchers," our days started at 5 AM, with breakfast at 6:15, in the van and on the road by 7 or so. We had brought clothing to keep us warm at temperatures well below zero, but like the rest of the country, Yellowstone was suffering from "crazy weather syndrome." The mornings were cold with temps in the teens but by midday it was well up into the thirties and at lower elevations in the forties.

Our guides, Scott and Paul, both highly qualified biologists, know their subjects well, having been involved in research projects involving the park's wolf population. As I sit here at my computer, Scott is somewhere out in the backcountry tracking the wolves through their daily rounds, recording data that will further our knowledge of wolf behavior. Some members in each of the individual packs wear radio collars and on this trip we were guided daily to locations by other scientists picking up signals from the collared wolves. Once in the targeted area, the skilled eyes of Scott and Paul honed in on our subjects.

The first day out we spent the morning observing the Druid Pack, waiting off in the distance, to feed on an elk they had killed just before dawn. Unfortunately, the kill was almost in the road and when we arrived photographers with giant telephoto lenses and other wolf watchers like us, lined the road, waiting for an opportunity to watch the wolves feeding. The group that I was with moved off down the road to another location where we observed the same pack across the Lamar River, basking in the sun, waiting for the crowd of gawkers to leave. Later in the morning park rangers moved the carcass away from the road, but still the wolves hung back. Coyotes, ravens, magpies and eagles were not shy and feasted most of the day.

A member of the Druid Pack waiting to feed, February, 2007

Years ago when I was working in photography, I carried multiple cameras, big lenses, tripods and the rest of the gear neeeded for excellent photo making. These days that gear remains sitting in a closet while I go armed only with a digital point and shoot camera, prefering not to lug lots of equipment around. I also find that if I'm not trying to figure out how to get the best shot, I can experience whatever the subject is, whether it's a wolf or flower, in all of its glory without missing a thing. This photo was taken with that camera through a spotting scope that the guides provided for us. The pack was probably a half to a full mile away and all the observing we did, like bird watching, was done through the scopes and binoculars.


Becca said...

What an amazing sight, being able to observe these animals in their natural habitat, especially with the contrast of the modern world just around the corner (i.e., the snowmobil-er's!).

You mentioned the different wolf packs by name~the Druid pack~and I wondered how the wolf watchers decided to name them, and how they know which wolves belong to which pack.

I'm bet it's great not having to carry around all that heavy camera equipment, and still be able to get marvelous photos!

jzr said...


The packs are often named after the locations where they were originally found. I think the Druids were named for a mountain. The Slough Creek Pack which we also observed hang out around Slough Creek. There are also packs named for people who were instrumental in getting wolves reintroduced in Yellowstone. The Leopold Pack, which we did not see, was named for the late Aldo Leopold, noted conservationist and author of A Sand County Almanac.

The packs live in groups or packs and have their own territories. Those that are collared are numbered and are identified with a their pack. Also, through tracking the wolves since their reintroduction in 1995, they are easily recognized by the biologists working the wolf project in Yellowstone.

paris parfait said...

Sounds like such a fascinating trip! Must have been amazing seeing those wolves - and annoying hearing all those snowmobiles revving up.