by Rick Lamplugh
June 3, 2016
We are just minutes from the trailhead when we hear wolves howling, distinct high and low notes create a captivating chord. We stop and stand, still and thrilled. With no discussion, Mary, Leo, and I head off trail toward the howling. We have a general goal for today’s meander, exploring Gardner’s Hole. But no destination is more important than listening to wolves and maybe even seeing them. As we bushwhack, the only sounds are our excited breathing and the rubbing of our pants legs against knee-high sage. Then comes the rough call of a sandhill crane from the same direction as the howls.
To my left, Leo directs Mary, “Look on the ridge, on the skyline near those three snags. There’s a black wolf.”
I follow his directions and spot one wolf, sitting. Then another, standing and staring at a sandhill crane that is near it on the ridgetop. The wolves howl again. From the south, comes a coyote alarm call, a series of barks that sound like a yell.
These wild and ancient sounds draw the three of us together. We stand, shoulders almost touching, reveling in the sounds and sights. The wolves are about a mile away on a ridge that bisects this valley. Just below the ridgeline, and traversing much of the length of the ridge, is a long narrow snowfield—still hanging on with May almost over. The wolves are heading toward the snow, and the three of us cheer them on in whispers. They’ll be so much easier to see against a white backdrop.
When the wolves reach the snow, we start counting. Four black and one gray. They walk in a long line, noses to the snow. The gray is collared and smaller than the blacks. One of the blacks is collared too. As I study the wolves more closely, I see that the gray has a rat tail, devoid of fur. I keep looking and find that three blacks have rat tails. Only one black does not. I wonder aloud if the wolves have mange. Leo thinks they do not, but we all agree that they have lost some fur.
“That’s the 8-Mile pack,” Leo says. “Or at least some of it. I’ve heard there are nine wolves in the pack this year.”
Though they weren’t born in the park—their name comes from a creek in Paradise Valley where they originated—the 8-Mile pack often travelled to and from Yellowstone. Their history, as taken from Yellowstone Wolf Project annual reports, reveals a lot about how life changes for a wolf pack.
In 2011, the pack denned in this area and produced 10 pups. By late summer many of the pups had mange, and only one survived the year, possibly because of the mange. Still, by the end of 2011, the pack had ousted the shrinking Quadrant Mountain pack from this territory. Perhaps the 8-Mile wolves chose to stay in the park to avoid the pressure of being hunted. When traveling between the park and Paradise Valley, they must pass through Montana Wolf Management Unit 313 that borders the park. Running that gauntlet, they could easily end up as trophies.
One of the blacks with a rat tail takes off, running out of the snowfield, through the sage, and to the ridgetop. Another follows. We watch them bound along the ridge, disappear down the other side, reappear on top. We can’t tell if this run is for prey or play.
We start bushwhacking in the direction they are running. Could we be lucky enough to see them bring down an elk? By the time we reach the base of the ridge, the wolves are long gone down the other side. If we want to see what they are up to, we’ll have to climb. Mary stares at the muddy and steep slope and asks, “We’re going to climb that?” Then she laughs, looks at Leo and me, and says, “Let’s go.”
Though the ridge doesn’t require dropping to all fours, there are times when I come close to doing so. At the top, we stop. Waiting to catch my breath, I turn a slow 360. In the direction we came from, distant Swan Lake reflects a gray sky. A few other unnamed ponds dot the valley floor between us and Bunsen Peak, its top shrouded in clouds. Continuing to turn, I look along the flat top of Terrace Mountain. Next comes the gentle green slope of the back side of Sepulcher Mountain. Then massive Electric Peak, rough and pointed, and slashed with snow.
By 2012, the 8-Mile pack with seven adults and three pups had settled into this territory, led by a large black male (871M) and the same reddish-gray female (909F) that we see with the pack today. The pack had as many as six pups in the summer but ended the year with only three. Two other pack members were killed by hunters just outside the park in Unit 313. Despite all the setbacks, by the end of the year they had become a dominant pack in Yellowstone’s Northern Range. They had expanded their turf onto Mount Everts and parts of the Blacktail Plateau, where they outnumbered their neighbors.
From behind binoculars, Leo asks, “I wonder where those wolves got to?”
Mary, scanning left and right, says, “They could be anywhere.”
I look down at the basin floor. The river forms a series of oxbows bordered by red, yellow, and orange willows. Farther from the river, sage abounds. Between the sagebrush, short spring grass creates a different—and vivid—green.
Then a howl. In unison, our heads turn in the direction of the sound.
“I got him,” Mary whispers. “Across the river, just below that large snow bank, in that light yellow grass. A black. He’s laying and howling.”
“Maybe he’s calling the others,” Leo says.
“It’s like he’s calling us,” Mary giggles. Then she adds in a quiet wolf-like howl, “We’re over here you three.”
Near the black, I catch a glimpse of the gray alpha female, blending like a ghost into the sage. When she steps in front of red willows, she’s obvious. Soon we have spotted all five. They look to be bedding down after a busy night. If there are nine wolves in the pack now, where are the rest? Perhaps they are back at the den with this season’s pups, though we have not heard whether the pack has pups this year.
The wolves are about a mile away. We decide to sneak to another hill that’s lower but closer. To get there we’ll keep a stand of conifers between us and them. When we climb the other rise and once again have a view of the wolves, the gray is looking right at us. So much for sneaking up on animals that make their living sneaking up on animals.
In 2013, the 8-Mile pack had nine pups and all survived. With 18 wolves the pack had grown from being dominant to being the largest in Yellowstone. They continued to expand their territory, taking more from neighboring packs. But they were rarely observed since they spent so much time away from park roads. That’s still the case today, and one reason our experience with them feels so special.
The 8-Mile wolves seem untroubled with us around, and we decide to slowly make our way down toward the river. We enter a conifer forest, the dark lightened by bird song. Snow covers the ground in some places. We emerge from the forest onto a small rise that overlooks three ponds. The view of the ponds, river, and mountains accompanied by the serenade of chorus frogs stops us in our tracks.
Mary breaks our silence when she says, “There’s elk out there grazing.”
Leo turns his binoculars in the direction she is pointing. A moment later he says, “There’s a black wolf near them! On the ridge to their right.”
Fascinated, we watch the elk register the 8-Mile wolf’s presence. Three of the five bulls, antlers in velvet, raise their heads and track the wolf’s progress. The wolf seems to have no interest. Perhaps the pack is coming back from a successful hunt. The wolf continues in our direction; we are downwind and it cannot catch our scent. The animal disappears from sight behind a rise. The elk resume grazing. We return to observing the rest of the pack and find the gray alpha watching us watching her. A moment later she turns and ambles behind a large boulder and out of our sight.
“There’s the black again,” Mary says. “He’s following the gray’s scent.”
The rest of the pack is sitting and laying around, still about a mile away. We continue our meander toward the river.
In early 2014, the 8-Mile pack was still the largest in northern Yellowstone. Three of the pack’s females became pregnant and produced 16 pups. But this would be the high point of the 8-Mile pack’s ascendancy. In October, the alpha male was killed by a neighboring pack. And, as often happens when an alpha is killed, the pack splintered. At least seven wolves left and formed the neighboring Prospect Peak pack. By the end of 2014, the 8-Mile pack, still led by the reddish-gray alpha female, had shrunk to seven adults and two pups. Some observers said that the new alpha male was 910M, a black 5-year old.
“Look at this,” Leo says. “It’s the skull of a bighorn sheep.”
We gather around and inspect the find. The curved horns that give bighorn sheep the name are both gone. But the bones over which they grow are still attached to the skull. The teeth show little wear; this was probably a young animal.
“What in the heck was a bighorn sheep doing out here?” Mary asks, pointing to the wide open river valley that surrounds us.
Leo points to a rocky cliff across the valley and says, “I wouldn’t be surprised to see bighorns there. Maybe the wolves found the bighorn when it came to the river to drink. Perhaps they chased it farther into the valley away from the cliffs.”
We leave the mystery and continue on, past a large pile of wolf scat. A few moments later, Leo exclaims, “Holy smokes, a bear skull.” Mary and I rush back to where he’s standing, treasure in hand. “I’ve never seen one of these in the wild,” he whispers in awe. Neither have we, and we share his feeling.
He replaces the skull gently where he found it, and we move on toward the river, passing a mule deer skull with antlers still attached. We climb another rise. This one has a grand view of the river winding through the basin. A sheep horn, a full curl, probably from the bighorn skull we found, lies in the grass. Bones and antler fragments are everywhere, but these are not pieces scattered from a single carcass. These are of different ages, and all are less than a foot long. Just the right size, I figure, for young wolves to carry here and gnaw on while the pack rests on this high ground and scans for the next meal.
By early 2015, the 8-Mile pack had not grown from the previous year and was no longer the largest in the park. At nine wolves (seven black and two gray) the pack was a bit smaller than average for Yellowstone. None of the 8-Mile wolves were infected with mange, according to the records of Yellowstone Wolf: Project Citizen Science.
We descend to near the river and decide that this is our lunch spot. I can’t believe that four hours have passed since we heard the first wolf howl. In all that time, we spent just the first few moments on trail; the rest has been a bushwhack. We have been totally in the present, aware only of what is happening around us, unaware of the passage of time or miles.
As we sit and eat, the pack rests in the grass about a mile away. They seem to tolerate our presence as long as they keep about that mile buffer. After lunch, I lay back onto the grass. As I stare up into the now blue sky, I laugh. We and the wolves are doing the same thing: resting on a fine Yellowstone spring afternoon.
A few days after our time with the wolves, I contact Kira Cassidy of the Yellowstone Wolf Project. She confirms that around April 1 of this year the 8-Mile pack consisted of nine wolves (seven black and two gray). She says that the wolves did not seem to have mange during the winter, but the Wolf Project has now seen some with odd hair-loss. On at least two it does not look like the typical mange pattern. The Wolf Project is trying to get better photos to confirm what is going on. I sent her five that I took.
She adds that 910M may never have been the alpha male. The Wolf Project thought he might be—mostly because of his age—after the last alpha was killed. But an uncollared black wolf is the alpha and has been for at least a year. She also confirms that the pack has pups this year. The first count was five.
Who knows what pups and a mysterious loss of fur mean for the future of the 8-Mile pack? Will their pack shrink and get pushed from this area by a stronger pack? Will they swell their numbers again and grab more territory? Will they stay this size and simply hold on? A wolf’s life is never long or easy and is always full of changes.
I welcome your comments and feedback. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rick Lamplugh lives near Yellowstone’s north gate and is the author of the Amazon Bestseller In the Temple of Wolves: A Winter’s Immersion in Wild Yellowstone. Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from the author.