This is part two of a three part series. I suggest you read part one first if you haven't already.
Normally a wolf pack has one alpha male, one alpha female and one den … and other members of the pack help hunt for the group and even baby sit. Yellowstone’s reintroduction provided an unusual situation: lots of prey and not a lot of wolves. In the spring of 2000 it was suspected that M21 sired three litters. The F40’s den (the alpha female’s den) was out of sight, somewhere near ‘The Confluence.’ F106’s den, if she had one, was probably in the Round Prairie area, and F42’s den was across from the Buffalo Ranch, where we could peer between the trees on the far, forested slope and catch glimpses of wolves. Eventually we even knew the exact location of the den, at the base of a tall Douglas fir. We had to carefully align our scopes in order to see the den entrance.
May 6, 2000: Today is puppy day. We saw glimpses of one or more puppies yesterday. Today four little fat black butterballs totter out of the den, while at least one, a grey, stays in the den entrance. Both their black mother, F42, and ‘Saddleback,’a grey yearling, hang out with the puppies. So gentle. How I wish I could be much closer.
May 8, 2000: There is a light drizzle of tiny snowflakes. A murky yellow sun glows through layers of gray, wintery clouds. Spring’s clock has been pushed back. The slight blush of green in the aspen grove looks out of place against the wintry background.
A lot of communication goes on between the few people in the Lamar valley. First we hear a collared coyote lies dying somewhere in the valley. Then we hear it is the alpha female of the Chief Joseph Pack. It didn’t hurt so much when we thought it was the Chief Joseph wolf, a wolf we don’t know, but now we hear it is F40, the alpha female of the Druids, mother of an unknown number of puppies. We drove by before park staff moved her, but I didn’t look. The reports were graphic enough: throat torn open, hind quarters bleeding, puddle of blood, dazed, barely able to stand when she managed to get up. She was netted and rushed to a veterinarian, but it was too late. That beautiful wolf died on the way to Livingston.
We hear that last night F40 was seen harassing F42 and F105 down hear The Confluence. She has picked on F42 for a long time.
Later in the day: The Buffalo Ranch puppies are O.K.! Meanwhile F106 is in the valley. We’re told it’s the first time since her suspected denning. She appears to be on an inspection tour.
May 9, 2000: Will the park rescue F40’s pups? They know where they are. In general the philosophy is to take a hands-off approach unless human interference created the problem in the first place. Let nature take its course. Eventually we learn that F40 was killed by wolves, almost certainly by the females in her own pack, the females she has harassed for years. We are all feeling rather gloomy.
May 12, 2000: Hooray!
Yesterday M21 (the alpha male) was seen escorting F42 to The Confluence den. Sara just told us F42 was seen earlier this morning carrying a pup from her den to F40’s den. Now, late morning, she is trotting briskly towards her own den. Turn around time is short. F42 heads back to The Confluence carrying a black puppy. She is accompanied by F105, who also carries a puppy. The little guys hang limp. Well out in the valley, F42 pauses and both put their pups down for a rest. A good share of the four mile trek is visible from the road. When they get near The Confluence den they have to cross the Lamar River and the road. The Park will stop traffic to ensure an uneventful road crossing.
They travel quickly and soon reach The Confluence and are out of sight. Telemetry tells us that F42 crossed and was joined by M21 …. But no F105. Finally we spot her heading back to the den, still carrying a puppy. She had traveled most of the distance, but maybe was unsure about crossing the river. It must be hard to hold the puppy’s head high enough while crossing. Or, she could have been spooked by some bison researchers who are out there.
May 13, 2000: Are there any puppies left at the Buffalo Ranch den? Sure enough, about 11 AM F42 heads towards the Buffalo Ranch den. She stays less than a minute and comes out carrying a pup. I want to watch her swim the river this time (from a slope on the far side, a long way from the actual crossing). Dale drives me down the valley and drops me off near The Confluence. I scramble up the steep slope like a hyperventilating jackrabbit. The slope is full of rock chunks just waiting to take my footing away. A duck got plucked up here recently, probably a Barrows goldeneye.
I climb high enough and set up my scope. F42 reaches the lower terrace and makes her way to the Lamar River. The river flattens at The Confluence and breaks into multiple silvery threads winding between gravel bars and cottonwood islands. She drops down the cut bank and wades into the river. First part is easy. She just walks to the first island, trots through the cottonwoods and enters the water again. This section is also shallow enough to wade across. She knows exactly where to go. I can’t see her all the time, but her upper body still looks dry when she reaches the far shore of the Lamar. Rick McIntyre says she did have to do some swimming on an earlier crossing. Head high, she can swim and hold the pup’s head above water.
F42 still has Soda Butte Creek to cross. She climbs up the Lamar River cut bank and starts across the sage covered bench to Soda Butte Creek. Hikers far off. She puts the pup down in the sage and lies down to watch and wait. Two ravens came near. No problem. She shoos them off. She waits. After ten minutes the hikers are no longer in her traveling path. F42 picks up the puppy and continues on to the den site. Once again traffic has been halted for her.
May 15, 2000: Telemetry tells us that F106, the female who denned somewhere Round Prairie has been making repeated trips to the Druid den. Fabulous. The pack has come together at one den site and might be caring for F40’s puppies. Only time will tell. Tonight F106 was seen with M21 and two black females when they made a kill in the valley.
The moon is close to full tonight, high and bright. With happy hearts we slowly make our way back to Gardiner.