Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Druid Wolf Pack, Part 3 of 3

Note: Part 1 and Part 2 are already posted. If you haven’t read them, I suggest starting there.

M21, the well known alpha male of the Druids for many years. We first knew him as a black wolf. Over the years he became very distinctive with a sliver belly and face; and darker back and nose. He wears a telemetry color.

Sept. 24, 2000:

The Lamar Valley is freshly dusted with snow. A whole passel of Druid wolf pups are spread out on the valley floor. What a bunch of shenanigans! Most of the pups are black, a few grays. Rick McIntyre tells us 20 our of 21 puppies have survived and are all out there with one adult. Some are vole hunting, some are rough-housing. They look quite big. At first glance I don’t know if I would have realized it was a bunch of pups.

A large grizzly has come out of the far woods. He stands, then wanders over to the pups and right into their midst. We hold our breath, but all is well. No confrontation. The pups know enough to harass from a distance. Deep pink tops the snow capped mountains to the east as a clear, cool dusk takes over the valley. At last light the grizzly is still out there.

April 27, 2001, 5:25 PM:
Luke and Maleah have just pointed out a bison cow and calf being harassed by many wolves. They counted 18 at one point. It’s the Druids. All is quiet when we arrive. We can see the cow and calf but no wolves.

One wolf and then another pops up above the sage. Tail up the cow turns to face the wolves. They back off. Now three approach cautiously. With her calf behind her, the cow shoos one to the left and one to the right. She sticks tight to her calf and the calf sticks tight to her. If she can just get back to her herd, her little calf will be all right. But where is the herd?

Time passes slowly. The wolves just test and retest …. And seem to get bored. The cow and calf start to move off, but that suddenly brings ten wolves out of the sage. The people who arrived first have already been watching for an hour. Dale thinks if the wolves were serious, something would have happened by now.

7:09 PM: Dale and I have now been watching for an hour and a half. Most of the time the wolves just disappear into the sage and wait. We wait. The cow even grazes a little, but as soon as she tries to walk off, the wolves approach.

7:35PM: M21, the alpha male of the Druids, arrives on the scene. If body language could speak, it was obvious M21 said to his kids, “Com’on guys. Quit picking on the neighbors and lets go hunting!” Leading his pack of mostly yearling wolves, he trots off with the youngsters strung out behind him. We are comfortable the calf will live to see another day. At this point the only bison calf the Druids have been known to kill was one that got separated from its mother.

It was dusk by the time the encounter ended. We stay out in Little America, talking to a hiker. A crescent moon hangs high in the star studded sky.

9:32 PM: The wolves are howling! Many wolves. High voices, medium voices, and one particularly deep one, probably M21.

Feb 20, 2003.
My heart sings. My fingers burn. The Druids have been resting on a ridge but now M21 and F42 are coming down the valley. Fine blowing snow softens the cottonwoods and grays the valley. Over the years both M21 and F42 have become quite grey. Hard to believe they were once black wolves. They behave as if they are ready to hunt, but the snow and approaching darkness will keep this hunt private. I close my eyes and I can still see them disappearing into the blowing snow and grayness.

Note: Sketches were done on location; paintings from our photos.


About a year later F42 was killed by wolves, and not long after M21 went missing and was eventually found on top of Specimen Ridge. Both died natural wolf deaths and had lived a long life in wolf years. The pack held together because first F42 was replaced with a new alpha female, and then, when M21 died, a new alpha male stepped into his position. The new alphas tended to keep their pack farther from the road, not so visible, not quite so dear to me. Still, it saddens me to think the Druids are now down to one wolf. But their genes live on in many other wolf packs. Their era really hasn’t come to an end.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Druid Wolf Pack, Part 2 of 3

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.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Druid Wolf Pack, Part 1 of 3

INTRODUCTION: Normally I plan to blog on current happenings. Occasionally I plan to let some old history slip in such as this three part series. All three parts should be posted within the next few days.

Our local newspaper, The News Review, carried an item last week that brought back a flood of memories: “Famed Wolf Pack Down to 1 Member.” It’s an article about the Druids, a wolf pack I’ve known since they came to Yellowstone as part of the second year of the wolf reintroduction. My journals are full of references to the Druids.

Sept. 29, 1996: The sun is just rising in the Lamar Valley. Frost sparkles on the meadow and golden steam rises off the Lamar River. It is a crisp, still morning. Mergansers are feeding in the shallow waters. The river moves gently, almost stands still.

7:25 AM. Wolves howl! All five members of the Druid Pack are lying near the river. Their howling disturbs about fifty ravens, sending the birds up from behind the river bank and into the sky. The ravens circle overhead until the wolves quiet. The gathering of ravens tells us the wolves have a fresh kill just out of sight.

As the sun gradually inches towards the resting wolf pack, one of the grays stands and takes a couple of steps. He limps. It is obviously an injured wolf. Now a black stands and stretches. All settle down again. Once again the Druids are howling, a chorus in unison. Lovely mellow howls drift across the frosted meadow.

Soon we spot six coyotes making a beeline towards the resting wolves. Seven Coyotes. As they near, the wolves raise their heads. Time to rethink. Coyotes draw back and mingle anxiously. It doesn’t take long for the coyotes to leave.

8:30 AM: The wolf pack rises and heads south across the valley bottom towards the forest on the far side. The lame wolf keeps up reasonable well. He carries his left leg. It doesn’t dangle. When he pauses, he lets it rest on the ground. That is a good sign. Probably isn’t broken.

The pack travels slowly. Their bellies are full and they keep pace with the injured one. A grey, tail high, scents (pees) on a bush. The next wolf, also a grey, scents the same spot --typical alpha male and alpha female behavior. We lose the wolves in the woods about 8:50 AM.

After the wolves left, ‘official’ wolf watchers hiked in to the kill site. Later that afternoon I hiked in for my own look – something I wouldn’t do today. I now know that there is always a possibility that the wolves will return to their kill. Since the site had already been disturbed by humans and since there wasn’t any food left on the elk carcass, I probably didn’t do any harm. My notes next to my sketch say it well, “5 PM I hiked in to the kill site. Found 2 nice prints in the mud and not enough meat on the carcass for a vegetarian stir fry.”

Nov. 23, 1997: Bummer! I just signed up for internet. I have been looking forward to accessing Yellowstone wolf updates. The first posting I find has rotten news: two wolves have been shot illegally outside the Park. The Druids have lost both their alpha male and their beta male. It is almost surely a quick end for the pack.

Feb 1998: Wonderful news! Bob Landis, a dedicated Yellowstone filmmaker filmed a fascinating event. A male wolf, M 21, from the Rose Creek Pack, has succeeded in becoming the new alpha male of the Druids. M21 is a black wolf, who came to Yellowstone with the Rose Creek Pack in 1995.

Note: All sketches in Part 1 are taken from my journal, i.e. drawn on location.