Monday, December 31, 2012

The Lone Black Wolf - Yellowstone Reflections

A lone black wolf crosses the Lamar Valley
It starts as a black spot. No, actually, it starts as a bunch of cars on the side of the road in Yellowstone National Park and people looking through binoculars and scopes over the open Lamar Valley. So we stop, of course. And look. And shyly ask. With scraps of information shared in hushed tones and magnified glances, the black spot gradually turns into a wolf with four legs slowly moving across the wide river plain. A black wolf following its sharp nose, stopping, looking around, then moving on.

It starts as a black dot.

The black wolf has a story. The wolf watchers behind the binoculars and scopes and radios say it is Female 779 of Mollie's Pack. When I peer through one of their scopes, I think I see a collar on this distant figure as it searches the river bank. Mollie's Pack is a large pack of 19 wolves with one of the largest wolf territories in the park. Black wolf 779 is alone although the congregation reports there is an uncollared gray wolf over the ridge and out of view. How they knew any of this, I do not know although the radios and the whip antennas on some of the vehicles suggest connections.

A silver dog streaks across the gravel bar away from the wolf, probably a coyote running for its life.

The black wolf continues to cross Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park.
Mollie's Pack is breaking up or so we hear from the wolf watchers gathered at high points in Lamar Valley and Soda Butte Creek in early morning and at dusk. A crowd of regulars and curious visitors murmuring confusion. It is difficult to sort out facts from interpreted observation. One person tells another that there is a wolf den above the tree and to the right of the cross-shaped rock. And that message gets passed in some form to the next curious person until the woman with the big scope on her shoulder and long radio antenna on her Subaru snorts as she walks by, "No, the den is over a mile away; you can't see it from here." And I'm thinking, "The Lion Hunter can see a prairie falcon on a rock from a mile away." But mostly we listen and watch in hushed anticipation. Meanwhile, Female 779 walks past the rocky outcropping and the Canada geese, still searching, still patrolling, and we are just chattering dots in her territory.

Although she pauses and often looks around, female wolf 779 continues westward.
The black wolf disappears behind a rise and the watchers get in their cars and drive westerly to another wolf destination. The Lion Hunter says, "Stay." In the new quiet, we scan the river valley and watch the ravens. Eventually, Female 779 shows up on a rocky outcropping still heading west.

Since our arrival at Yellowstone, I had been reading reports at the Visitors Centers, talking to rangers and reading wolf news on wildlife blogs. What I'd been able to piece together is that last fall Mollie's Pack lost its alpha male. Found by his radio collar, a necropsy determined he was probably killed from the kicks of an ungulate. Over the subsequent winter, the alpha female also disappeared and was replaced by another female, and Mollie's Pack moved north into other wolf territories. With its large size, Mollie's Pack bullied the other packs, killed the alpha male of the Mary Mountain Pack which was then taken over by a young male from the Mollie's Pack. After reading about all these wolf battles, I am fascinated to see the black wolf confidently cover so much ground, but 779's steady pace to the west is seeming a little ominous.

For another perspective on wolf 779 and pack dynamics, consider Kathie Lynch's description of the Mollie's Pack on The Wildlife News blog: "The pack's large size, oversupply of females, lack of leadership, and inability to find a new alpha male contributed to the pack splitting into several often-changing subgroups." Lynch and others observed a small cohort of young females from Mollie's Pack consorting in the February 2012 breeding season with two male wolves which had dispersed from the Blacktail Pack, and the secret rendezvous continued through the spring and summer. Would a new pack form out of the splintering pack?

Meanwhile, a larger subgroup of the Mollie's Pack continued fighting with other packs. Made up of the new alpha female and several older wolves including the same black Female 779 we were watching a few weeks later, they discover the dalliances of the young females and track down and kill one of the outside flirting males, 777M. Lynch concludes, "Seven seventy-seven lived and died a wolf in the wild, making the most of his chances and risking consequences." After describing the murderous affairs of the pack, she speculates that 777's genes may be infiltrating the Mollie's Pack as pups of the surviving young females.

After a short reversal of direction in the sagebrush, wolf 779F disappears over Specimen Ridge.
We finally lose sight of black wolf 779 and drive westerly to a pullout that has a good view of Specimen Ridge where we think the wolf was heading. A small plane flies overhead, possibly radio-tracking 779 or other wolves, it circles and then continues south over Specimen Ridge and also disappears.

For such a small black dot, Female 779 keeps circling back to me in reports and rumors and dreams. "What a mess," I am thinking until I remember that these wolves are the progeny of 31 original wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and 1996 after a seventy-year absence and we are still learning about them. A newly posted summary table at the National Park's website states that Mollie's Pack consisted of only 5 adults as of 12/14/12 and no end-of-the year pups are reported. What happened to the 19 wolves in Mollie's Pack a year ago? Did Mollie's pack break up into several new packs, did individuals disperse and join other packs or disappear outside of the research range, or did many individuals die perhaps in conflicts with other wolf packs? Which adults remain in the pack which is named after Mollie Beattie who was the Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service at the time of the wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone and a strong supporter of the politically-charged effort? I am looking forward to the 2012 Annual Report of the Yellowstone Wolf Project to learn more about what happened to Mollie's Pack.

This is part of a series of posts on wildlife observed in Yellowstone National Park in September 2012. To see more posts, select "Yellowstone" in the Sightings box in the right column.

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