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Back in the Saddle at the Buffalo Ranch

Thoughts on the Future of the Wolves
by Dr. Nathan Varley

Jan. 23, 2012

A year ago I would not have seen all of the sage brush pushing up through the snowpack.  If this were a tale of 2 winters it would surely be one of drawing stark contrast.  I stopped at a high eminence in the Lamar and gazed across the valley.  It was warm and windy, the road covered with ice, and dingy snow underneath the brush.  It seemed like April, not January.

After a hiatus from the park during the holidays I was at last returning to my occupation and the workplace of Yellowstone’s northern range.  The Buffalo Ranch was just ahead and I pulled in as it was getting dark.  That evening I began teaching The Living History of Yellowstone’s Wolves, a field seminar with the Yellowstone Institute.  I told the story of the wolf population from its illustrious beginning to its magnanimous peak to its subsequent decline.  The trajectory of the population was illustrated through the stories of the packs and individuals who lived and died through each of these interesting phases.  Where was it at now?  Where was it going from here?  As a typical ecologist, I could only shrug and say that it depends.  On what?  On a great many factors, such as the nature of winters.  Whether last winter’s character or this winter’s character predominates in the future will have a lot to do with it.

On the whole, a bad winter is good for wolves.  Conversely, a mild winter is bad for wolves.  The recent invasion by the Mollies Pack gives us a good example.  For many winters they have been content to roam the high mountain valleys and thermal areas of Yellowstone’s high plateau.  Early this mild winter, they appeared on Specimen Ridge and in Slough Creek leaving devastation in their wake—the Agate Creek Pack who normally reside in these areas are all but non-existent after the Mollies marched north, killing their alpha male (ironically a former Mollies wolf).  An older male in the Blacktail Pack met his end recently after the two packs squared off.

Why the shift?  Ecologists suggest the low snow levels hamper the wolves’ ability to take bison, the Mollies Pack’s usual winter prey, and therefore they come north to find elk, an easier alternative.  Are there other explanations?  Sure, perhaps many.  The most astute observers of the pack noted that the leader is a female, 686F, without a mate.  Could she simply be searching for a suitable male among the packs to the north, with 17 younger tag-alongs?  Getting in the way seems vastly understated when it refers to the afore-mentioned killing of a potential mate in the Blacktail Pack.

In any event, I was happy to be back, back in the saddle.  As if to welcome me back, I was awakened at 4:30 AM from a deep dream by howling outside my cabin.  At first I thought it was the dogs at home, but they wake me up with barking, not howling.  Then I remembered I was in Lamar, and leaped out of my sleeping bag, slid the window open and held my iPhone outside to record a “memo.”  Complete silence reigned, other than the wolves dictating to my smartphone.

Later, I was surprised to find few of the students heard the howling.  I thought the wolves had come through in a ‘clutch’ manner, as they had the week before when I guided Dan Boyce of Montana Public Radio for a fun story about the joys and quarks of our wolf watching business.  Still needing a culminating moment (preferably something that confers well on radio), the story was capped by an extraordinary howl from over a dozen wolves of the Mollies Pack.  Dan managed to give the thumbs up while holding his microphone.  The moment elevated the story to the national stage of NPR.

After being at the doorstep before dawn, the wolves disappeared and eluded us all morning.  Luckily, that afternoon, Laurie Lyman showed us our first glimpse of the Lamar Canyon Pack, who we would see a few more times before the end of the class.  Later, folks were delighted to watch the pack on an old elk carcass.  Several times, the popular matriarch “06” pinned what I assumed was one of the yearling females.  It was about as dominate as I had ever seen her behave.  I pointed it out and the class fell into quizzical contemplation.

One characteristic of a population under stress, or in decline, seems to be increased intolerance shown by the leaders to their close rivals.  Was this the beginning of 06 driving a female from the pack, as her sister 693F in Blacktail has done with her rivals?  Did she see little room for her daughter given the prey available?  Hard to say.  It could have been situational, antagonism existing only for the moment.

The population count, year-end, was around 100—virtually no increase or decline.  For now the wolf numbers are stable.  The individuals out there look good in terms of no mange or malnutrition or other signs of population-level stress.  While it’s tempting to be pacified by these indications, I reminded myself several times in my first big wolf program of this year (with several more to come) that situations rarely stay the same.  The only constant is change.  Darkness fell across Lamar and the half-frozen class packed scopes to head in.

I’ve since listened to the wolves’ memo repeatedly, thinking it will somehow be revealing of some great insight.  I’ve shared the memo widely, too (linked here as "Howling at the Ranch," an m4a file for download, best accessed by right click and 'save link as' command), hoping it may provide others with some needed answers.   Mostly, though, the mysteries persist and I’ve found little utility in searching for clues to the future in the voices of an animal that lives firmly in the present.

(Thanks to Peter Murray and Steve Dolberg for images)


View slide show

Returning to the Pack

Lamenting the Loss

Returning to the Pack 2

Lamar Pack on the Carcass

Lamar Pack on the Carcass 2