Yellowstone highlights: 16 of 16 – Wolves (at last!)

13 to 18 September 2018 inclusive; total miles touring Yellowstone over 5 days: 557 miles

The reintroduction

Although the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 was a revolutionary initiative – Yellowstone is the oldest national park in the USA, and quite possibly the whole world – the early Park administrators were far from enlightened. Their view of wildlife was extremely simplistic: they divided wildlife into ‘good’ animals and ‘bad’ animals, and argued that the best thing to do with ‘bad’ animals was to eradicate them. Inevitably the wolf, as a predator, was consigned to the latter category, and a campaign of trapping, shooting and poisoning followed until the last wolves were killed in the 1920s.

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The hero of our story.  Photo credit: By Gary Kramer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Few tears were shed at the time: wolves have always evoked strong emotions. Ranchers hate them because they are a perceived threat to livestock, hunters loathe them because they can impact on the numbers of elk, deer and other quarry species, and your ordinary man-in-the-street fears them because of their fierce reputation. It was, therefore, an extraordinarily bold decision of a more enlightened generation of Park managers in the 1990s to reintroduce the wolf to Yellowstone.

The good news is that the wolves are doing quite well inside the Park, with the population up at around 100 animals. My previous post describes how wolfie’s return has impacted on elk numbers and behaviour, resulting in an increase in the number of beavers in the Park, which in turn is having other beneficial environmental effects.  The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone is without doubt one of the USA’s most significant and successful conservation projects.

However, any wolves that stray across the Park borders are in big trouble. The surrounding States of Montana and Wyoming are reintroducing wolf hunting, while ranchers will readily shoot any that they encounter on the basis that the only good wolf is a dead one.

Mrs P strikes lucky

In five previous visits to Yellowstone stretching back over more than 20 years we’ve never seen a wolf. To be fair, we’ve never deliberately set out to see them, and have simply hoped for the best while out and about doing other stuff. This time, however, we’ve decided we’ll do whatever it takes to meet up with wolfie.

The area of the Park where wolves are most easily seen is the Lamar Valley. This is where most wolf-spotters gather, and one morning we drive out to join them. We stop when we see a group of people with telescopes trained on the slopes across the wide valley, and ask if they’ve seen any. Yes, we’re told, but it’s getting late (around 10am), and the wolves don’t normally show at this late hour.

We’re disappointed though not surprised, but we scan the far side of the river anyway. Suddenly a lady yells excitedly “wolf, wolf.” We can still see nothing. She lets Mrs P use her scope. Mrs P sees a lone, black individual run across the slope, then disappear up into the tree line. It doesn’t show itself again. Unfortunately, I see nothing.

Mrs P doesn’t know whether to be thrilled for herself, or disappointed for me. There’s only one thing for it, we decide: we’ll have to come back tomorrow and try again …

Crying “wolf”

We know that our only chance is to get to Lamar Valley early, to give ourselves as much time as possible before the wolves retire for the day. So we get up at 6am, and are on the road by 6.50. We promise ourselves that we won’t be distracted by anything else, today is all about the wolves. We’re therefore gutted to see three mule deer close by the roadside, bathed in beautiful, warm early morning light. Normally we’d stop and admire them, and Mrs P’s camera would go into overdrive. But we stick to our plan, and wave them a sad goodbye as I put my foot down (within the Park’s speed limit, of course!) and head on to the Lamar Valley.

But even the best laid plans can be scuppered. We get caught up in a bison jam. A big male is wandering down the middle of the road, taking his time, lost in thought. He has right of way, and cars are backed up in either direction. It seems like an eternity before he moves aside and lets the traffic pass.

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Small group of wolf-spotters, clothed-up against the early morning chill

Finally, we get to Lamar Valley. The parking areas are all rammed with vehicles, and there are dozens of people on the road side with telescopes, binoculars and big-lens cameras, all scanning the hillside. Eventually, I find a spot to pull over. There’s another car already parked there. The driver says there were three wolves showing well a little while ago, but now they’ve disappeared. We scan hopefully, but to no avail.

A vehicle pulls up beside us. The driver tells us that a little further up the road they’ve got the wolves in sight. We leap into our car, and scoot off to check out the tip.  Within a couple of minutes we’ve joined the throng of eager spotters. Yes, we’re told, there were wolves, but they’ve just disappeared from view. It looks like it’s not going to be our day.

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Two wolves, at the top of the line of pale brown meadow grass, both facing to the left

But luckily some of these people are professional wolf-spotters, leading small tour groups. They’re in touch by radio with colleagues up and down the valley, sharing information. Finally, the message comes through: wolves are heading our way. Everyone is scanning the hillside, hoping to see them. Excitement and anticipation is high, and anxiety too. Everyone’s drawing a blank. At last, after what seems like an eternity of waiting, we hear a man crying “wolf”.

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Lone wolf, standing in front of boulder at centre of the photo, facing to the left

And there they are, tiny specks on a hillside, close to half a mile away but clearly visible through the binoculars. There are three of them, two black and one grey, and they move around in the pale brown meadow grass for maybe 20 minutes. It’s a wonderful, moving sight and everyone watching is thrilled. Even though they are so far off, they’re unmistakable.

Wolfie’s back in town, strutting his stuff and putting on a show for us. At last, after 20 years and five previous visits to the Park, we’ve achieved one of our big wildlife-watching ambitions.

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