Yellowstone Wolves: Chasing the pack in the Lamar Valley
When he was younger, Jon Trapp spent a lot of time in dens, not as a Cub Scout but conducting research as a wolf biologist. Several of the dens were occupied by the startled litter and their mother, the alpha female who constructs the canine nursery with her four paws. Crawling through the 24-inch opening, bellying along the 18-inch-wide tunnel into the denning chamber, Trapp developed a deep understanding and respect for the wolf, arguably the most misunderstood animal in North America.
Trapp, a former Air Force intelligence officer and now tour operator located in Red Lodge who divides his time between wolf study and work as a fire management expert, accompanied my trip with Travel Montana. This was my opportunity to observe this magnificent species in the wild, as anyone who travels to Lamar Valley, with or without a guide, stands an excellent chance of spotting a wolf. The reason for this extraordinary success is because at least one member of each pack is collared with GPS telemetry. This technology has made these Lamar Valley wolves among the most studied in the world.
Lamar Valley wolves
Wildlife stalls are as common in Yellowstone National Park as geysers and bison, but the buzz surrounding wolf sightings creates a special aura. To catch sight of a wolf-watching posse keep your eyes peeled for spotting scopes, handheld antennae and especially the yellow Nissan truck of Rick McIntyre, the legendary Wolfman of Lamar Valley. Like every wolf watcher here, we went in search of McIntyre early one morning when we saw another biologist holding a directional antenna high above her head in a parking lot along U.S. Route 212.
The antenna holder was Maddy Jackson, a wildlife research technician for the Yellowstone Wolf Project. Wolf watching is contagious, especially when the drama unfolds as it did on this morning. Using radio telemetry, Jackson located a pack of about a dozen wolves circling a herd of 100 elk. You don’t have to be a wildlife biologist to realize you’ve lucked out when you arrive at one of the world’s most spectacular predator-prey duets, no Puccini overtures required.
On the lookout
Wolves are so like humans in their family dynamics and opportunism that it’s hard not to anthropomorphize their behavior, especially as they encircle this elk herd on a Yellowstone slope about a mile away. Every member of the elk herd looked nervous when I focused upon them through the 60 times magnification of the spotting scope. These hypervigilant herbivores have few defenses other than bursts of speed and the protection of the herd.
Unlike this encircled herd, the wolf pack appears eerily calm until, in a blink, it springs to action with the acuity of one collective brain, dividing the herd within seconds. The protection of the herd hasn’t disappeared completely but rather is scattered upon smaller “islands.” Nor can the elk coalesce again because of the strategic positioning of their potential vanquishers.
This culling continues until, inevitably, a lone juvenile elk misses her group’s collective sprint to the left and finds herself stranded and alone. The textbook definition of pack mentality appears on full display, as black, gray and brown streaks vacate their holding positions to zero in and take down the isolated quarry.
The pack took a second elk 25 minutes later, a somewhat rare feat according to Jackson, who, ignoring the three moose huddled in a shady draw nearby, was gathering her equipment to move farther into Lamar Valley. She’d been radioed that the Junction Butte Pack was on the move down valley, and so was she.
“What you saw just now is something regular wolf spotters might not witness for years, if ever,” she says before heading east on “Wolf Alley” in search of the yellow Nissan. We watched the moose forage in the shadows for a few minutes until, with knowing glances, we too hustled into the van eager to see more wolves.
We were far from alone in our collective nascent obsession. Yellowstone is visited each year by more than 4 million people who, with few exceptions, place Yellowstone wolves on top of their must-see lists. Far from fretting about these visitors, McIntyre would be happy to speak with every one of them, be it a first-time visitor from New York City or, as I witnessed, a Wyoming child. The former National Park ranger, widely considered the world’s expert on Yellowstone wolves, is well aware that building public relations takes care of itself when a visitor observes a pair of young wolves wrestling in the wild, as we now did. Wolf tourism in Montana generates millions of dollars annually.
And, unlike this former biology major, McIntyre readily describes wolf social dynamics in human terms. “‘Romeo and Juliet’ formed today’s powerful Molly Pack when a member of the historic Crystal Creek Pack mated with a member of the Druid Pack,” he said. “The Crystal Creek and Druid packs had been historic enemies, the Druids having killed the Crystal Creek alpha male, murder that led to the abandonment by the suddenly vulnerable alpha female abandoning her young pups in their den.”
Listening to McIntyre, who once observed Yellowstone wolves for 15 years without missing a single day, one quickly learns that wolf gossip trumps any reality show; “Survivor” meets “The Bachelorette.” Even in a protected habitat like Yellowstone, an individual’s average lifespan is under four years. And, like Bachelor Nation, the pack is driven by females, a fact, McIntyre says, that was once widely ignored by mammologists.
“Male researchers refused for decades to accept the matriarchal structure of wolf packs,” he says.
Like his seasoned colleague, Trapp is still surprised by the species he first studied decades ago, and estimates that he’s studied at least 30 dens. The research provided key information when advising the wolf reintroduction programs in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. He remains intensely focused on denning behavior, taking us to a historic den that was unusually close to the road, a proximity he believes led to its demise.
“When people discovered this den, they lined up in twos and threes all day long to watch,” he says. “This pressure, well-intentioned as it may have been, severely reduced the wolves’ territory so the female abandoned it.”
We looked at the mounding, peered in through the corset-taut entrance and tried to imagine a single wolf digging out a chamber that can reach 18 feet in length. Never a habitat to disappoint, we encountered a gorgeous badger as we made our way back to the van, to a person eager to find more wolves.
—Written by Crai S. Bower
—Top photo is of wolves at play in Yellowstone National Park. By Thomas Weber/Alamy
—This article appears in the 2022 Fall Edition of AAA Washington’s member magazine, Journey.
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