In the northeast corner of Yellowstone Park where the Lamar River flows, is a bison-studded valley of rolling hills and grassy plains. We ventured here, the most likely area in Yellowstone to see the gray wolf, with high hopes of seeing one.
For over a decade I’d been watching nature specials on TV about the wolf packs in Lamar Valley; alphas, families, and their ups and downs. Our vacation included Yellowstone and the Tetons, and while visiting Grand Teton National Park earlier, we met a wildlife enthusiast who was headed next to the Lamar Valley. He was knowledgeable of the wolf packs. Although he’s a visitor, four times a year he spends six weeks at a time in Lamar observing the wolves. He talked about the wolf packs by name, and distinguished the wolves by individual numbers. In his loquacious accounts, he said things like “I heard F428 has been back again.”
Our new friend Ron told us where we could see wolves in the Lamar Valley. He referred often to “the wolf people” and their current wolf findings. These people live full-time in the vicinity and observe, follow, and note the activities and behaviors of the grey wolf packs. I took notes as his gravelly voice kindly described where to see the wolves.
Days later we went to the Slough Creek area of the Valley as instructed, spent two days there. We found the wolf people (and Ron), and set up our scope. A storm had come in. Snow was whipping horizontally, obliterating views. I was wearing everything I owned, but the brutal winds were driving right through me. Ron’s wife sat cozily in her car and read a book.
A man with binoculars and a face as red as an apple also sat in his car, enjoying a respite. He told us he had seen a wolf about a half hour earlier, and pointed to the den that he was “watching.” I looked out that way. About six miles in the distance, from where we stood the den was the size of a pea. It was at this point that I realized these people were all nuts.
They love their wolves with avid appreciation and devotion, and follow the packs as if they were family. Birders can be nuts too, so we stayed out there for an hour watching. Some of the folks were excited about a bison carcass a few miles away that might attract the wolves. We went there too, but saw no wolves. Alas, the fact: as of 2013 there are only approximately 95 wolf individuals in the 3,500 square miles that comprise Yellowstone.
The topic of wolves in Yellowstone (and across the world) is extremely controversial. Canis lupus were extirpated from this region by 1926. With the Endangered Species Act in 1973, and the valiant efforts of biologists, conservationists, and others over the ensuing decades, gray wolf re-introduction began. For more about the gray wolf, click here.
In 1995 and 1996, gray wolves were re-introduced in northern Yellowstone (from Canada), after a 60+ year absence; and have been heavily documented, followed, studied ever since. Wolves occasionally kill livestock and pets, and they prey on other mammals coveted by hunters. Like in many parts of the U.S., there is a war between the wolf lovers and the wolf haters. Unfortunately, the gray wolf is no longer on the Endangered Species List, and outside of the Park boundaries it is still legal to kill them. To learn more about the wolf population in Yellowstone, click here.
My lovely days in the Lamar Valley were punctuated by awesome vistas and hundreds of bison. But we never did hear or see a single wolf. We kept ourselves interested in the bison and birds, and I found the human mammals of Yellowstone truly fascinating.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander