by Rick Lamplugh
Jan. 27, 2016
(Note: I took only one photograph during the spectacle this article describes. So I have no slideshow. However. at the end of this article you’ll find a link to the video that Mary produced. It’s much better than any slideshow I would have made.)
As we drive toward home, spent from a day of cross-country skiing, we notice a swarm of cars crammed into a pullout near the Lamar Buffalo Ranch.
“What do we have here?” Mary asks and slows our car.
“I wonder if the Mollie’s are here again today,”
Mary maneuvers our car into the pullout’s last available spot and cuts the engine. In the fresh quiet, we hear the excited chatter of some of the many visitors in the park for the long Martin Luther King weekend.
“Hmm, let’s see what’s happening,” Mary says. She reaches across and into the glove box for binoculars, brings them to her eyes, and focuses. “Holy smokes! It’s the Mollie’s! And they look like pointers.”
I grab my camera and zoom in on the large pack, mostly black wolves and a few grays. Each crouches, tails down, one behind the next, in a long line facing west. I pan in the direction they stare and soon a bison herd fills my viewfinder. “Whoa! We’re going to get to see them hunt bison!”
“I don’t believe it!” Mary says. She tosses the binos onto the dashboard, opens the door, and hurries away to set up her spotting scope.
I step out and watch the pack as they move forward, first in a walk, then a trot, then a lope. “They’re running!” I call to Mary, as I swing the camera to the west. “And so are the bison!”
“Oh, I’ll never get this thing set up in time,” Mary mutters, wrestling the legs of the tripod.
“Take your time. I think this could last a while.” I follow the chase: the bison, tails up, their bodies rocking up and down from their stiff-legged gait; the wolves, tails straight out, their bodies arching and flowing as their legs fully extend to the front and rear. Then one of the Lamar Valley’s tall and famous cottonwoods, naked in winter, comes between me and the wolves. I grunt and yank the camera from my eye.
These wolves that fascinate us, these Mollie’s, once called the Lamar Valley home. The pack—one of the first released into Yellowstone in 1995—was then named the Crystal Creek pack. While they denned near here in April of 1996, the just released Druid Peak pack attacked and killed the Crystal Creek’s alpha male and every pup. The two surviving Crystal Creek wolves fled south to Pelican Valley, about 20 miles away. Their pack grew and in 2000 was renamed to honor Mollie Beattie, the late director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, who had been instrumental in the return of wolves to Yellowstone. This year the pack contains sixteen wolves.
I turn and look farther west and spot a place where I think I can video without the cottonwoods. I look over at Mary; she has the scope set up and wears a frown of concentration as she attaches her iPhone to the eyepiece. Not wanting to disturb her, I leave without a word, walking past the parked cars, past other excited watchers at scopes and cameras, and onto the edge of the road. In the distance, the wolves and bison are still running. And now, so am I.
A few hundred yards later I step off the road and into the snow berm. The snow chills through my thin socks; in my rush to action, I neglected to put on the insulated boots that are warm and dry in the back of the car. I’m now postholing in knee-deep snow in low-cut shoes. I look back at the pullout, down at my snow-covered feet, and out at the wolves. I shrug and put the camera back to my eye. The Mollie’s have sprinted past the bison they first chased and are near another herd of about twenty adults, yearlings, and calves-of-the-year. The viewfinder scene rises and falls with my labored breathing, and I chant aloud to myself, “Slow down. Breathe. Relax.” The image stabilizes, and I settle into this spectacle.
The bison raise their tails, their flags denoting danger, and start to run en masse. As they gallop through snow that almost brushes their stomachs, their hooves kick up a snow cloud that hangs in the air behind them, like exhaust from traffic on a cold morning. Some of the Mollie’s run just behind the herd, disappearing into and reappearing out of the contrail. Other wolves lope beside the herd, which has become an elongated cluster, with no stragglers and little space between the animals. If a careless wolf breached that herd, it could be kicked, trampled, or gored. But the Mollie’s know what they’re doing. These experienced predators are sifting and sorting, looking and listening and smelling for anything out of the ordinary, for any sign that reveals a vulnerable bison, a possible meal.
Bison are a part of, but not all of, this pack’s diet, since prey varies seasonally in their Pelican Valley home. The Mollie’s bring down elk when they are available: from June through early November up to 80% of the pack’s diet is elk. Once winter arrives and elk leave, the pack has two choices, according to a Yellowstone Wolf Project annual report.
First, they can go where the elk are. That’s why they return to the Lamar Valley each December staying longer during some years than during others. In 2012, for example, when they began the year as the largest pack in Yellowstone, they lingered here for much of winter and spring.
The second option is to switch to bison. Bringing down a bison—an animal at least ten times heavier and armed with sharp horns and deadly hooves—is dangerous and may take days. To improve their odds of success, the pack, as they are doing now, sorts and sifts, seeking a vulnerable animal. Bison are most vulnerable during winter, and from January through April at least 80% of the Mollie’s diet is bison.
The chase continues away from where I stand and dwindles in the viewfinder. I step back onto the road and start jogging west. There is no traffic from either direction, but four cars have parked illegally in the middle of the west-bound lane, flashers blinking, windows down, optics protruding. I jog past and keep running until I run out of breath. Luckily, I have reached a spot with an unobstructed view. I look into the camera, self-talk my breathing down, try to contain my excitement, and push the record button.
Behind me, I hear a car slow and stop. Then Mary’s excited voice: “Oh, there you are. I wondered where you got to.” She chuckles. “Is this incredible or what?”
“I can’t believe we’re seeing this,” I pant.
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to stay here for a bit. Why don’t you go to the next pullout?”
With no reply, Mary drives away. I smile at how we are both focused on watching every possible moment of this action.
A moment later the bison stop and tighten their formation. Their collective breath creates a cloud above their massive backs. The closest wolves stop too, awaiting other pack members. They greet some arrivals with a lick or a bump.
As hunters and hunted catch their breath, I look down the road for my pack mate. She’s probably at the next pullout, about three quarters of a mile away. Joining her would put me closer to this scene and provide a better angle. I start jogging again, passing more cars idling in the road. At the head of another illegal line, a man and woman have climbed out of their truck. She is setting up a spotting scope in the middle of the lane between the truck and the next parked car. I slow to a walk and duck my head as I pass in front of her scope. Her partner looks at me, chuckles, and asks, “Did you get left behind?” I shake my head and, breathless, point toward the pullout.
When I glance again at the wolves, they have encircled the herd; the next act is about to begin. I pick up my pace and my panting, and as I close in on the pullout, I spot our car but not Mary. I jog past the pullout and there she is: alone, well off the road, hunched over her scope in snow almost to her knees.
When I reach her, she flashes me a smile that usually appears only in Yellowstone, her I’m-so-excited-I-can-hardly-stand-it smile. Then she signals me to silence and returns to videoing. I move a few feet away, tramp down a circle in the snow, squat, and rest my left elbow on my left knee to steady the camera. I return to the wild drama.
The bison have crowded together, big heads and sharp horns pointing outward, creating a prickly perimeter. The wolves stand, panting and looking at the bison and one another. The standoff continues until a big female steps away from the herd and toward four wolves. Three of them immediately back away, but one stands its ground. The bison approaches until predator and prey are inches apart, noses nearly touching. They stand statue still, eyes locked. Who will blink first? I wonder. The wolf’s mouth opens and closes, and a moment later the predator turns to its left and backs away, tail down. With no hesitation, the bison takes four steps forward, head down, horns ready. Then, as if on cue, she and the wolf stop. Each has made their point; neither needs to waste more energy.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the herd, six blacks and two grays have separated and surrounded a big, collared female. The white box on her collar moves up and down with the aggressive bobbing of her head. She charges a gray and then the half-ton ballerina spins to face two charging blacks. From somewhere to the east drifts high-pitched wolf howls, a surreal soundtrack to this deadly dance.
“Oh my god, this could be it,” Mary whispers in awe.
I don’t reply; I’m too engrossed with watching the collared bison spin this way and that way, keeping wolves at bay. Yet for all this action, I don’t see the wolves biting, don’t see the bison goring or kicking.
Then the rest of the herd, the big adults, the mid-sized yearlings, and the smaller calves-of-the-year walk to the collared bison’s aid. They engulf her. and the wolves retreat to a safe distance outside the herd. This is another way in which hunting bison is more dangerous for wolves than hunting elk. In an elk herd attacked by wolves, it’s every animal for itself. Bison protect their own.
The bison continue lunging at the wolves, until, one by one, the wolves, heads down, following in each other’s steps, climb a nearby rise. All that is except one, who has yet to disengage. It walks through the herd until a bison charges and chases. Then the holdout hustles to the safety of the pack. The herd watches the pack retreat.
At the top of the snow-covered rise, the Mollie’s stop in a long line, heads up, ears perked. They appear to be waiting for an order. Then the pack moves single file down the far side of the rise and out of sight.
Mary and I step away from our optics and tap knuckles. We can’t know whether the Mollie’s have given up or whether their reconnaissance was productive and they will return with darkness, hungry and ready for the hard work of making dinner. As we pack away our gear and head for the car, all we know is that we have been lucky to watch these skilled wolves in action. I would consider myself even luckier if I had seen the Mollie’s bring down a bison. Not because I’m bloodthirsty. But because that animal’s death would be a natural part of the cycle, important to the survival of the wolves, and a meal for so many other mouths.
To watch Mary’s excellent video of the Mollie’s sorting and sifting the bison herd:
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.
As always, I welcome your comments and feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org