Archive for Yellowstone National Park

Wildlife: The time to be in Yellowstone? It’s spring, baby

A Yellowstone bison newborn nurses at the teat of her collared mother, a research cow. Bison calves can run with the herd just a few hours after birth.

It was one of those gee-whiz spring days in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park where I wished my head was on a swivel.

In short, typical.

In the foreground, like an image of an old cowboys-and-Indians western, hundreds of bison milled around the floor of the valley, weary cows keeping a wary eye on frisky rust-colored bison. Moving in and out of aspens and pine at the valley’s edge, a grizzly boar sauntered seemingly aimlessly through a small cluster of the bison, eventually eliciting a defiant pose from a few that had finally decided he was close enough. Keeping an eye on the entire scene: A smattering of pronghorns, ready to put their unmatched speed to the test in case the nearby coyotes got too cocky.

Behind us, high on exposed rounded hills to the north, a grizzly sow with two butterball cubs at her heels nosed through the sagebrush and some hearty grasses in search of some grub.

Magpies screeched, eagles soared, and geese honked.

And most surreal of all: the silhouette of a lone wolf atop Specimen Ridge to the south, as if to say “I am the top of the food chain — and I am back.”

Witnesses to this annual marvel were a dozen or so members of a Greater Yellowstone Coalition spring wildlife trip, sometimes known as “the babies trip” — for reasons that are readily apparent.

After all, spring in Yellowstone means babies. Rust-colored bison. Frisky wolf pups. Playoff bear cubs. Pronghorn and deer fawns. And, last but not least, elk calves.

The babies are what separates spring from Yellowstone’s other magnificent seasons. Best of all, they are readily visible because most wildlife remain at lower elevations, waiting for snow to melt and grasses to green in the high country.

The aforementioned scene was from May 2008, an uncommonly good year because wolf numbers were at their highest (pushing 170) and frequenting the valley. The old Slough Creek pack had denned in a draw within easy spotting-scope and even binocular viewing from a variety of angles not far from the road.

The playfulness of pups was so entrancing that the emergence of a large grizzly male, appearing at the top of a nearby hillside and headed for the Slough Creek Campground, evoked little more than a shrug. The line of wolf watchers lifted their heads from their scopes in unison, watched the grizzly for a few seconds, then squinted back into their viewfinders at the pups.

The bear inched closer until it realized there were people in the campground, whereby it stood on its hind legs, sniffed the air briefly, whirled and sprinted back up the hill with speed and grace that would’ve left Usain Bolt in the dust.

Babies evoke some strong maternal instincts, including from humans.

On one excursion into the Lamar, a crowd had gathered on a sage bench next to the road, their binoculars and scopes aimed about 100 yards to the east. In the other direction, cars were stopped along the road a respectful distance from a dense sage thicket where an elk fawn lay bleeding but mobile — its panicked mother bleating from across the road.

Three yipping coyotes circled from both sides of the road, salivating at the prospect of an easy meal flummoxed by the uncomfortable proximity of cars. As they grew closer, a minivan approached and stopped a few feet from where the elk lay.

The calf emerged from the sage and found safety alongside the van. As the coyotes ventured closer, a man and a woman exited the van. He scanned the shoulder for small rocks, gathered a handful and began targeting the coyotes, which niftily dodged each missile.

A crowd of dozens watched, their reaction an instant snapshot of human nature. Half, especially women, wanted to intervene on behalf of the calf, a la the tourists in the van. The other half demanded that nature take its course.

The latter side prevailed. Soon a ranger happened along and sent the couple in the van down the road. They parked and stepped out of the van, the woman passenger screaming at the male driver for not having the backbone to stand up to the ranger.

How the incident concluded remains a mystery. Darkness fell and the crowds dispersed, leaving nature to determine order.

By the next day, the episode was largely forgotten. Wolf pups playing outside dens, bison calves chasing their tails, and grizzly cubs sauntering behind their moms provided a sensory overload.

Such is spring in Yellowstone, where the only thing missing is a swivel for our heads.

Wildlife: Ho hum, just another grizzly bear

From the driver’s seat of his Yellowstone Association bus, our guide John scanned a limited horizon through a set of powerful binoculars and abruptly stopped.

“Bear,” he said.

A gray wolf from Yellowstone’s Junction Butte Pack ambles across the floor of the Lamar Valley after feeding on a bison carcass.

His intonation was matter-of-fact, as if announcing that the sky is blue and the forest green. It was Day 2 of GYC’s annual May wildlife-watching trip in Yellowstone National Park, and his modest enthusiasm was telling.

Only 24 hours earlier, not far from the same place in the Lamar Valley, John had looked through the same binoculars and halted equally abruptly.

“Bear!” he had exclaimed then, and our group of 15 scrambled excitedly for spotting scopes packed neatly into the back of the bus. Within minutes we were watching a male Yellowstone grizzly amble across a distant grassy hillside, with no apparent destination in mind.

But that was then — one day and a dozen bears ago.

This time, a few of our guests shuffled out of the bus and watched yet another male griz paw the ground for grubs or other delectable spring cuisine. Most stayed put.

Ho hum, just another Yellowstone grizzly bear. By this time, this group was searching for the proverbial bigger prey — the suddenly elusive gray wolf.

That the vaunted grizzly bear — king of Greater Yellowstone and symbol of our region’s wildness — was eliciting a collective yawn was at once striking and reassuring. After all, only a human generation earlier the grizzly bear was on the brink of extinction in Yellowstone and a sighting — any sighting was cause for celebration.

Today, thanks to the dogged efforts of GYC and other conservation groups, along with the support of our members, the Yellowstone grizzly bear is recovered. They have filled much of the suitable habitat in Greater Yellowstone and they are expanding into regions they haven’t been seen in a century or more.

Over two days, grizzly and black bear sightings were common. One couple who came early to the wildlife trip saw 15 before their arrival at the Log Cabin Cafe in Silver Gate, Mont.

It wasn’t that seeing a grizzly in the wild wasn’t exciting; now they wanted to see a wolf.

This hasn’t been as easy as it once was. The population is half of what it once was, about 75, because of a reduction in the once vastly over-sized elk herd. Nature has been working its magic.

The loss of collared wolves due to hunting outside the park also had thrown some of the most visible packs into disarray and made tracking nearly impossible. Only by sheer luck had our January wildlife-watching group seen the newly formed Junction Butte Pack at Slough Creek.

Alas, it wasn’t to be — at least not for the majority of our guests, who were nevertheless thrilled at the prevalence of Yellowstone bison and their rust-colored young, elk on seemingly every hillside (apparently a mirage or the work of Photoshop, given that wolves are said to have eaten every last one), and the sight of a coyote in futile pursuit of a pronghorn.

Small matter. Good company in magnificent country never disappoints.

And sure enough, for those of us who had fortuitous timing, we saw a young black wolf trotting west to east in the Lamar Valley on get-away Sunday, headed toward a den and pups after feasting on a bison carcass along the river.

We watched for many minutes and several miles as the wolf moved closer to the road and eventually crossed before disappearing up a sage-covered hillside.

Upon our return, we saw movement at the bison carcass. We peered through our binoculars.

Oh.

Just another grizzly.

Voices: Thank you, James Watt

Of all the names synonymous with American conservation — Leopold, Muir, Stegner, Abbey, and Teddy Roosevelt, among others — one towers oddly above the rest in Greater Yellowstone as a signature force behind a generation of astonishing accomplishments.

James Watt.

Yes, that James Watt.

The same James Watt who as U.S. Secretary of the Interior from 1981-83 quintupled leases for coal mining and boasted about opening more than a billion acres of coastal waters for oil and gas development. The same James Watt who believed the only good tree was a dead tree stacked in a sawmill lumberyard. The same James Watt who sought to de-authorize many national parks.

Oh, and the same James Watt who once said, half-jokingly (I think), “If the troubles from environmentalists cannot be solved in the jury box or at the ballot box, perhaps the cartridge box should be used.”

All of which explains why, as a conservationist, I owe a lot to Mr. Watt — my employment with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition included.

Hearken back to 1980. Greater Yellowstone’s conservation community had a scant few full-time staffers patrolling the region. The term “ecosystem” had yet to come from the lips of anyone in any official capacity. GYC wasn’t a glint in even the greenest of eyes.

Enter Mr. Watt.

Citing divine inspiration and obligation, the bald, bespeckled Reagan appointee from Lusk, Wyo., earned instant notoriety for promising, “We will mine more, drill more, cut more.” Leaving few lands and waters un-coveted even in his home state, Watt revealed plans to drill on 350,000 acres in the rugged Washakie Wilderness adjacent to Yellowstone National Park.

Alarm bells rang from sea to still-shining sea.

“It was a scary time,” remembers Rick Reese of Bozeman, Mont., a GYC co-founder. “(Watt) was only secretary for a couple of years, but he came out with both barrels blazing. And he was just getting started.”

As unfathomable as opening wilderness to industry seemed, even more ominous was realizing that such activities would put Yellowstone itself at grave risk. The park’s health, we were beginning to fully understand, is inextricably linked to the health of lands adjacent.

That GYC was formed in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in the final year of Watt’s brief, ultra-controversial reign is no coincidence.

At the time, the grim future of the grizzly bear — imperiled symbol of America’s rapidly vanishing wildness — was of immediate concern. But it was quickly evident to our founders that preserving the park required protecting a larger landscape, and GYC has been America’s voice for a Greater Yellowstone ever since.

Meanwhile, conservation achievements in the region since Watt exited in disgrace in 1983 have been astounding.

Grizzly bears have more than tripled in numbers and roam places they’ve been absent for generations. With wolves restored, Greater Yellowstone is one of the last largely intact temperate ecosystems on the planet. Wyoming and Montana have since added wilderness.

“Ecosystem” is now part of our everyday lexicon, and at least 200 conservation-oriented non-profit groups have fingers in the 20-million-acre Greater Yellowstone pie.

As GYC celebrates our 30th anniversary this fall, the region arguably is healthier ecologically and economically than at any time since the park’s creation in 1872.

These accomplishments bode well for our future, too. A comprehensive study by Bozeman’s Headwaters Economics suggests that prosperity in the West will increasingly hinge on immediate proximity to public lands with strong protections.

Many visionaries and their supporters merit a robust “thank you” for the incomparable quality of life we cherish today in Greater Yellowstone. Leopold, Muir, Stegner, Abbey and Teddy Roosevelt would no doubt approve.

But there is something to be said for the man whose visions of an industrial juggernaut galvanized millions and birthed an entire generation of conservationists.

“If you talk to anybody who was in American conservation at the time, they would tell you Watt did us a huge favor,” Reese says. “There was an explosive growth in organizational capacity, and that was in direct response to Jim Watt.”

Indeed, with enemies like that, who needed friends?

 

Wildlife: In the eyes of Yellowstone bison

Do the eyes have it? Or don’t they?

Darkness has fallen on Gardiner, Mont., as our burly Sequoia turns north on U.S. 89. With it, a sense of trepidation.

“This,” says Sheamus, one of four passengers on a Cycle Greater Yellowstone route tour, “is the worst time to be on this road.”

The 56 miles north of Yellowstone National Park are a wildlife menagerie — and minefield. Elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn and other critters routinely graze and linger along and on two lanes of asphalt.

And in mid-spring, an even more ominous obstacle looms, at least in the Gardiner Basin above Yankee Jim Canyon: Yellowstone bison. Many are still finding nourishment in the greening grasses of the basin, biding their time before joining the rest of the herds back in the park.

They are as dark as the night itself.

“Bison are especially dangerous,” I said, “because their eyes don’t reflect headlights.”

I’d heard this many times, and indeed eased past the giant shadows of Yellowstone bison in the park many times without the slightest hint of a bison-in-the-headlight look. Somebody even explained it to me scientifically, though the details have escaped my memory.

So informed, we left the brightly lit outskirts of Gardiner and past a flashing sign cautioning us of wildlife on the highway ahead — which was a little like letting us know there’s water in the river. My passengers leaned forward, ever alert.

Within minutes we saw our first eyes: Elk. Then deer. And sheep.

Soon we saw more reflections, unlike any I’d ever experienced. Dozens of them.

“Can’t be bison,” I said.

Soon the outlines of giant, shaggy beasts filled our field of vision. Sure enough: Dozens of Yellowstone bison, glaring at us through the darkness, some on the road.

I braked, perplexed and wary at the same time. But, but …

“I’ve got some research to do,” I said as we eased past.

Turns out that Yellowstone bison eyes DO reflect light. Where they got their reputation is in their utter disregard for passing vehicles. While elk and deer in particular are prone to looking at oncoming lights, bison usually go about their business.

Many of these just happened to be looking our way: Thankfully.

It was a lesson learned, fortunately not the hard way — and a reminder to be extra cautious when driving in Greater Yellowstone in the spring, when so much wildlife is still in the low country, filling up on the first green-up.

30 for 30

We were 150 miles south of the official starting point, and yet the location — a small room at the Teton Science Schools in Jackson — seemed so appropriate.

For it was in just such a room, at the Teton Science Schools’ old Kelly Campus, that the Greater Yellowstone Coalition was launched 30 years ago.

On this Wednesday night in mid-March, the event was yet another ground-breaking moment: The launching of Cycle Greater Yellowstone, the latest out-of-the-box effort to educate and inspire the world about the incomparable wonders of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The week-long, fully supported event is the first of its kind, both for the region and for a conservation advocacy group, but why not? For it was here in 1872 that the world was introduced to the idea of a national park. And it was here in the early 1980s that the concept of an ecosystem was birthed.

That the launching of Cycle Greater Yellowstone took place at the Teton Science Schools’ new, modernized Jackson Campus seemed fitting as well. After all, the August bicycle tour from West Yellowstone to Red Lodge, Mont., is in its own right a modern form of conservation advocacy.

The theory is this: Bring 1,000 cyclists from around the globe to Greater Yellowstone, along with their families and a supporting cast of more than 100. Let them discover the region’s magnificence from the saddle of a bicycle. Inspire them with positive messages about the successes and challenges facing the ecosystem.

And then invite them to participate in the protection of Greater Yellowstone’s lands, waters, wildlife and quality of life.

Along the way, the cyclists, communities and GYC forge a bond and start a dialogue that enables all of us to bridge our differences. By bringing diverse cultures together, we will discover that we all love this place — and that we aren’t so different in our values after all. We just need to find a more productive way to resolve our differences.

Cycling creates a positive energy that’s difficult to match. That was evident on March 20 in Jackson, when more than 40 people showed up despite a classic early-spring snowstorm. We answered questions, showed slides from our smoky

September pre-ride, and brainstormed about the 2014 ride coming to Jackson.

For many, it was also the first exposure to GYC — America’s Voice For A Greater Yellowstone for the past 30 years. They learned about the remarkable achievements of the conservation community in just one generation, and that by participating in Cycle Greater Yellowstone they are supporting the protection of one of the last largely intact temperate ecosystems on the planet.

If all goes as we anticipate, it won’t be the last time they attend a CGY function.

Or invest in GYC.

 

And the loser is …

Answer: Yellowstone bison.

Question: Longest-running unsettled Yellowstone National Park issue.

Well, not officially. But in the battles of Yellowstone issues that would never end, it appears at long last that one finally is.

Winter use.

For two decades it’s seemed as if two contentious topics would linger like a bad cough: Yellowstone bison and winter use.

Both have been the conservation equivalent of a five-overtime basketball game, with the lead changing as often as the seasons. Snowmobiles … snowmobiles not. Bison … bison not. Snowmobiles … snowmobiles not. Bison … bison not.

Now, after Friday’s announcement establishing a flawed-but-workable winter-use plan for Yellowstone, we are at long last the cusp of putting this issue to bed.

The Park Service’s new plan, which calls for a limited number of “transportation events” during the winter season, isn’t perfect. For example, it allows for the continued use of howitzers at avalanche-prone Sylvan Pass above the East Entrance, a dangerous and expensive undertaking that runs counter to the park’s mission and serves only to preserve a precious few special interests.

Nevertheless, the plan shows just how far we’ve come from the days when the whine of snowmobiles speeding willy-nilly across the park, pinballing with Yellowstone bison and leaving noxious fumes in their wake, echoed off the mountains. Images of park employees wearing gas masks at the West Entrance heightened awareness of a challenge that even the most ardent snowmobiles in West Yellowstone acknowledged as a problem.

It was so bad that the Clinton administration banned snowmobiles altogether in the 1990s — only to be overturned by the Bush administration.

Today, thanks to tighter regulations pushed by GYC and other conservation groups, snowmobiles are cleaner, quieter and restricted to roadways. The popularity of snowcoaches has further reduced impacts of motorized transportation.

All in all, it’s a credible plan. We will work with the Park Service during the upcoming 60-day comment period to iron out its flaws, and soon will need your voice in the process.

On this almost all who have waged this war will agree: it’ll be good to have this issue off the books. Gateway communities can enter each winter season knowing the only unknown will be the weather. Conservation groups can focus energies and resources on such pressing topics as climate change and landscape protections.

And Yellowstone bison.

For awhile, as we opened more lands for Yellowstone bison outside the park, it appeared that winter use would be the last Yellowstone issue standing.

Thanks to Montana’s Legislature, which is intent on rolling back the clock 150 years on management of this symbol of the American West, Yellowstone bison appear destined to linger as the longest-running unsettled issue.

 

Good news for wolverines

Following is a press release regarding the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s decision to propose Endangered Species Act protections for the wolverine, which is threatened in the Greater Yellowstone region by the effects of climate change and trapping in Montana:

 

Bozeman, Mont. –The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today its proposal to list the wolverine in the lower-48 states as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). If finalized, the move will focus new resources on wolverine recovery and take steps to help the species survive the impacts of climate change. Included in the proposal are provisions to establish an experimental population in the southern Rockies that will help pave the way for possible wolverine reintroductions.

The proposal resulted from more than a decade of consistent pressure from several conservation groups, including three separate legal actions taken to secure an ESA listing.

“This proposal at long last gives the wolverine a fighting chance at survival in the lower-48 states,” said Earthjustice attorney Timothy Preso, who represented conservationists in court.  “The most immediate need is to stop the threats to the species that we can control, including direct killing of wolverines through trapping.”

Wolverines are rare, wide-ranging members of the weasel family that exist in high-altitude ‘islands’ of mountain ranges. Biologists estimate there are fewer than 300 wolverines in the contiguous United States, primarily in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and north-central Washington. A couple of lone dispersing individuals have been detected recently in Colorado and California as well. 

Wolverines are likely becoming increasingly isolated in their mountain strongholds in part due to climate change and increasing human development. Protecting wolverines from other losses such as trapping is key to allowing them to persist in their scattered habitats and helping them move safely across the landscape.

“For wolverines to survive over the long run, they need to be able to reclaim habitat they once occupied,” said Kylie Paul, Rockies and Plains Representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “Federal protection should provide resources to help ensure that wolverine populations can expand, remain connected, and are resilient enough to overcome the looming impacts of climate change as well as other threats.”

Female wolverines require deep snow that persists through mid-spring for raising their young, but wolverines may lose up to two-thirds of suitable habitat by the end of this century. Researchers estimate that the extent of areas in the western U.S. with persistent spring snowpack is likely to recede 33% by 2045 and 63% by 2099 as a result of climate change.

“We see the impacts of a changing climate all around us,” said Chris Colligan of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.  “The best buffer against these species impacts are large intact ecosystems and we see the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as being a stronghold for wolverines.”

# # # # #

Background: Today’s proposal to protect the species marks the culmination of a lengthy advocacy campaign by conservationists that spanned three presidential administrations.  That campaign began in 2000 with a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requesting a listing of the species under the Endangered Species Act.  When the Service refused to act, conservationists successfully went to federal court to put the agency on a schedule for the listing process.  Then, when the Service in 2003 issued a preliminary negative finding on the listing petition, conservationists won in court again, this time eliciting a 2005 opinion from a federal judge that the Service ignored “substantial scientific information” demonstrating threats to the species.  That ruling sent the Service back to the drawing board, but the agency returned in 2008 with yet another negative listing finding for the wolverine.  Conservationists returned to court, this time yielding a settlement by which the Service agreed to reconsider its finding. In 2010, the Service determined that wolverines warranted federal protection, but further action was delayed because of other priorities.

Turning back the clock on Yellowstone bison

Wild Yellowstone bison are deemed worthy of our national currency. They are so revered they are on the U.S. Department of the Interior’s seal. And they are the hallowed centerpiece of Wyoming’s flag.

Apparently they’re not fit for Montana soil.

Or so insists one John Brenden, a state senator who has introduced a bill that would exterminate any wild Yellowstone bison that stray one hoof outside of Yellowstone National Park’s boundaries. And so argues Alan Doane, a representative from eastern Montana’s Dawson County who wants to make it legal for landowners to kill any bison that wander onto their property.

If these two have their way, we’ll return to the zero-tolerance frontier days of the late 1800s, when wanton slaughter of bison reduced America’s herds from perhaps 60 million to a couple dozen in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley.

Now, if you’re familiar with Montana geography, you might be asking yourself: Why would a senator from Scobey, near the Canadian border, be inserting himself — again — in the bison issue? Or why would a representative from Dawson County, 300-plus miles from the closest wild Yellowstone bison, propose a shoot-on-sight policy?

It’s a little like a pol from Miles City trying to ban liberals from Missoula.

Well, Scobey is just north of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, which received more than 60 wild Yellowstone bison last winter. To hear Brenden and his ilk tell it, the restoration of bison to Montana’s northern Plains is the camel’s nose under the tent foretelling the arrival of $25 a gallon gas, black helicopters and blue United Nations helmets.

It would put America herself in great peril.

Doane’s bill is only slightly less draconian than Brenden’s. Wild Yellowstone can migrate into Montana, but as soon as they set foot on private property they are subject to a death sentence, depending on the mood of landowners. Imagine the serenity of the Gardiner Basin shattered by the report of rifle shots aimed at Yellowstone bison in the neighborhood simply for seeking winter forage.

Doane’s motives are a little less clear than Brenden’s. Presumably he envisions a day when rogue Yellowstone bison are roaming the streets of Glendive.

Fortunately, most landowners in the Gardiner Basin, and on Horse Butte west of the park, support having Yellowstone bison on their property. As a judge recently noted, when ruling against anti-bison forces in Montana’s Park County, living in Montana comes with a certain recognition that wildlife comes with the territory.

It’s obvious that neither Brenden nor Vincent care that such foolishness makes Montana a national laughingstock. It’s also clear that neither cares that the majority of Montanans favor free-roaming bison on appropriate landscapes.

At best, Brenden is simply coveting grass for his cattle constituents. At worst, his bill is thinly veiled racism — the suggestion being that the tribes at Fort Peck and Fort Belknap can’t manage their bison.

GYC will join thousands of other Montanans who support wild Yellowstone bison in an effort to beat back these bills. They are bad for bison and bad for Montana.

Here in the Northern Rockies, we watch the state Legislatures of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming with bemusement, often wondering which will take the lead in the race to create the nuttiest legislation.

So far, thanks in great part to these bad Yellowstone bison bills, it’s Montana in a runaway.

‘The world goes on’

A festive 40 minutes has now briefly turned somber. On a film screen in the darkened bunkhouse at Yellowstone National Park’s Buffalo Ranch, a lone gray wolf with fierce green eyes and a GPS collar howls — seemingly at the 25 viewers watching in pin-drop silence.

It is the ’06 female of the Lamar Canyon Pack, perhaps the most watched, photographed and filmed wolf since the species’ restoration to Yellowstone in 1995. In the back of the room, filmmaker Bob Landis gathers himself.

“This is the last shot of her,” he says, his voice beginning to quaver. “Not long after this she was killed, not by another wolf but by a hunter.”

He looks down and shakes his head slowly.

“The only day,” he added softly, “she left the park.”

In several decades, Landis has witnessed first-hand both the wonder and cruelty of Yellowstone while capturing it all on film with Emmy Award-winning images. Wolves kill elk and coyotes, and they kill each other. Bison drown in boggy ponds. Grizzly bears clutch elk calves in their jaws. Famous wolves die.

Landis understands the laws of nature, but him and so many others who make a living or adventure out of watching wolves, this was different.

The changing landscape for wolves in Yellowstone was a lament heard repeatedly on Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s wildlife watching trip earlier this week. Businesses reliant on wolf viewing are anxious, photographers wonder when or if they’ll get another shot, tourists’ sense that the wolves they’ve been watching are somehow in a sanctuary has been shaken.

The present reality harkened me back to a feature story I wrote on YNP wolf interpreter Rick McIntyre for Montana Quarterly magazine in 2006. I asked him why he’s out there literally every day — since 1998 now, except for the funeral of his mother.

“Because you never know which day will be the last one we see wolves,” he said.

At the time, he said it because of the possibility that wolves might disperse into the backcountry. As it turned out, humans have seen wolves in Yellowstone for more than 4,000 consecutive days, thanks largely to radio telemetry and those collars. There have been some close calls, McIntyre says, but the streak remains.

Now, they wonder — and hope Montana, Wyoming and Idaho will adopt new hunting regulations that will give Yellowstone wolves some breathing room. They are, after all, especially vulnerable, given their habituation to people.

It is especially important now that an equilibrium, of sorts, has been reached in Yellowstone. From a high of 172 wolves in the park a few years ago, now there are fewer than 80. Much of that is due to the decrease in the number of elk, which nearly everyone concedes were wildly over-populated until the wolf’s return. Fewer elk means fewer wolves.

“It’ll never be the same,” Landis said.

The images on the screen change. Now it is a collection of black and gray wolves, frolicking in the Lamar Valley. They are the offspring of 832F.

Landis is once again reminded of the marvelous conservation success story that is wolves, and that they’ll continue to live on in Yellowstone.

“Her legacy lives on through them,” he says, and then the screen fades to an incomparable Yellowstone sunset and a cacophony of howling heard only here.

 

Day 2 in the American Serengeti

Who says lightning doesn’t strike twice? On a postcard-perfect Wednesday morning, with fingers of pink reaching from behind the towering Absaroka Range to the east, we retraced our route to Slough Creek, where a day earlier we saw the nine members of the new Junction Butte wolf pack frolicking in the snow.

This time upon arrival we were greeted by Yellowstone National Park wolf interpreter Rick McIntyre and fellow guide Doug McLaughlin. Their scopes already were trained on the same carcass we watched wolves scavenge on Tuesday.

Sure enough, the entire group was back, by now fat and sassy and romping on a little hill just above the kill.

Truth be known, seeing the Junction Butte crew a second consecutive day was no fluke. Wolves typically need about two days on a carcass before turning the cleanup over to ravens, eagles, coyotes and other benefactors until all that’s left is a few bones soon to be bleached under the summer sun.

Our 17 guests on the GYC wildlife-watching trip based at the Buffalo Ranch were no less thrilled than on their first sighting a day earlier. The black and gray wolves were vivid under an increasingly bright sky. And they were friskier.

Wednesday’s bonus was a brief talk from McIntyre, who is always generous with GYC supporters. Wearing his Park Service uniform, he gathered the group in a semi-circle and gave us the history of the Junction Butte Pack, dating to the restoration of wolves to Yellowstone starting with an acclimation pen across the road in the Crystal Creek area of Little America.

McIntyre also was asked about the status of wolves and wolf research in Yellowstone — especially in the wake of the loss of the famed 832F, killed legally by a hunter in Wyoming on Dec. 6. “It was tough,” he said of a wolf he’d viewed regularly for six years, though he further noted that “the world goes on” and that 832F’s legacy lives on through other members of the Lamar Canyon Pack.

McIntyre is an even-keeled sort with a dry sense of humor, even jokingly comparing the battles between wolf packs with the competition between conservation groups. But even he gets a bit misty-eyed when he remembers the wolf known only as “21″, a powerful Alpha male of the Druid Pack that once mentored for weeks a sickly pup cast out by its brothers and sisters.

By 10 a.m., Yellowstone wolves typically lay down for the afternoon, especially on scorching 10-degree mornings like Wednesday. We boarded the bus and headed east, stopping at the confluence of the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek to watch two bighorn rams with magnificent curls being observed at close range by a golden eagle.

“You don’t this close to a golden eagle,” Yellowstone Association guide Brad Bulin said, urging measured movement as we departed the bus.

The sightings came on the heels of learning that Yellowstone’s wolf numbers are officially down into the 70s. For a group of 17 GYC guests from all over the country, seeing nine was a thrill they won’t forget.