Pack Mentality

Our small group of wildlife watchers is on dawn patrol in Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar Valley, searching for that charismatic carnivore, the wolf. We unsheathe our binoculars and start looking near the juncture of the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek, an area frequented by the Druid Peak wolf pack. Large snowflakes are falling, and the ribbon of gray and black cottonwoods that defines the Lamar River falls in and out of sight as snow squalls pass by.

Soon someone catches a brief glimpse of wolves in an aspen grove, but a small rise thwarts a good view. We quickly scramble uphill in search of a better vantage point, post-holing through knee-deep snow until we find a bluff overlooking the valley.

Once we get our powerful spotting scopes set up, it’s like peering right into the wolves’ dining room. A crimson splotch in the snow with a ragged antler thrusting skyward comes sharply into focus. The Druids have killed a bull elk, and a spider web of tracks, like the spokes of a wheel, lead to the carcass. Eight wolves crouch around the elk, all feeding actively as ravens wheel about and a golden eagle perches on a nearby stump. Five of the wolves are black, three gray. One of the wolves is so light it is almost white. The blood on its face is visible from three quarters of a mile away.

We watch the wolves feed for more than a half-hour. One by one the pack members tear off chunks of meat and bone and retreat to the base of a tree to chew on their dinner. One black pup remains at the carcass and for 15 minutes makes it his mission to keep the ravens from feeding.

Finally all the wolves are at least 15 yards from the elk carcass and the ravens waddle in to consume their fill. I watch through the spotting scope as the eagle bounces off its stump and begins wading through the snow to the carcass, its huge brown and white wings partially unfolded. But the snow is soft and the ten-pound bird’s legs sink deep in the snow with each step. I can’t help but think the eagle might be in trouble if a wolf comes after it.

No sooner had the thought crossed my mind when one of the wolves leaps up and bounds through the snow toward the eagle. The eagle takes a hop to get airborne but only settles deeper in the powdery snow. The wolf charges forward in big bounds, gobbling up distance with its long legs. The eagle takes a second hop but still can’t get aloft. Then, as the wolf hits deeper snow and slows itself, the eagle takes one more hop and finally clears the ground in slow motion. The wolf snaps at the eagle’s tail as the giant raptor flies away.

It’s now been almost ten years since the first wolves were restored to Yellowstone. The 31 brought from Canada in 1995 and 1996 have expanded into approximately 34 packs or groups and more than 300 individuals (not counting pups born in 2004). While much already has been learned about Yellowstone’s wolves, the essential ecological question remains: Has this bitterly contested reintroduction fundamentally influenced the entire Yellowstone ecosystem, or have wolves slipped into the world’s most famous park with insignificant impact?

Many leading scientists believe that the major impacts on our natural world originate at the top of food chains rather than at the bottom. World-recognized ecologist Dr. John Terborgh calls large predators “the big things that run the world.” He believes that large carnivores have a disproportionate impact on the structure and function of natural systems, and that the impacts caused by the species ripple through the entire ecosystem. To the extent that Yellowstone serves as a testing ground for Terborgh’s hypothesis, the early conclusions of Yellowstone scientists are unequivocal: Yellowstone’s wolves are having an extensive influence on the ecosystem, affecting everything from grizzly bears to beetles.

The most obvious impact of wolves—though not necessarily the most important—is that they kill other animals. In Yellowstone, 98% of the wolf’s diet is elk. The wolves’ kills attract scavengers, including grizzly bears, ravens, magpies, coyotes, and eagles. They also attract insects—nearly 450 beetle species are known to use carcasses in Yellowstone. One Yellowstone researcher asks the question, “How much biodiversity would vanish if Yellowstone Park lost its great herds of megafauna? The herds themselves are composed primarily of fewer than five species. However, I can name 57 beetle species that might be greatly affected by such a loss.”

The indirect impacts of wolf predation are everywhere. A raven takes a piece of meat and caches it in a tree. There it’s found by a pine marten or a bluebird or a Stellar’s jay. Yellowstone wolf researcher Dr. Douglas Smith calls it “the trickle-down effect of wolves.” While we typically only look at impacts to grazing mammals or scavengers, the effects on other creatures are remarkable. A 50-percent reduction in coyotes (which has been noted since wolf reintroduction) could lead to a significant increase in small mammals such as ground squirrels or pocket gophers. That in turn could lead to an increase in hawks, owls, and eagles.

The biggest impact of wolves? “Without wolves,” says Smith, “we have a food chain that’s heavy on elk. With wolves, we see faster cycling on nutrients because the elk don’t live as long. Instead of a pulse of carrion in the spring as a consequence of winter kill, there is a steady trickle of nutrition all year long that really enriches the entire ecosystem.”

Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould has suggested that natural history is largely a tale of how species adapt to avoid being eaten. Anyone who watches the wolves in Yellowstone can’t help but reflect on the incredible complexities created by predation. It’s an inexhaustible game of “what ifs” and “maybes”. What if wolves reduced elk to the point where willows and aspens grew vigorously along the Lamar River (as they are starting to do)? Perhaps there would be more beaver and songbirds. What if wolves completely eliminated coyotes? Perhaps raptor numbers would explode. What if wolves started preying aggressively on bison?

This endless evolutionary drama between wolves and their prey has been rehearsed on the slopes of Yellowstone for thousands of years. In this play the prey grows ever more difficult to catch and find while the predator becomes ever more skillful at searching and capturing. It’s a rhythm from a song as old as time, temporarily interrupted in Yellowstone, but now restored.

Wolf-Watching Etiquette
1.Do not pursue or attempt to approach wolves on foot. You will disturb the wolves and ruin the viewing for everyone else.

2.Don’t maneuver your car in such a way that it prevents wolves from crossing the highway.

3.Honor area closures.

4.Don’t howl at the wolves. It’s illegal in Yellowstone Park and distracting to other visitors.

5.Use pull-outs so you don’t block traffic.

6.Turn off lights and car engines, and close doors quietly when you get out of your car.

7.Talk quietly when you are out of your car, as loud noises will alarm wolves even at a distance.

Where to Look for Wolves in Yellowstone Park

Druid Peak Pack
For the first ten years since reintroduction, the Druids have been the park’s most visible wolf pack, seen by over 150,000 park visitors. They typically ranged from approximately Slough Creek to the Soda Butte cone, but during the last year, the larger Slough Creek Pack has been usurping their territory. They are now most commonly seen between the Yellowstone Institute (also known as the Buffalo Ranch) and the Soda Butte cone.

Slough Creek Pack
This pack, with 15 members as of November 2005, is the new boss of Lamar Valley. The hill at Slough Creek is a good place to look for them, although they now range all the way up to the Druids’ old den site east of the Yellowstone Institute.

Swan Lake Pack
This pack in past years has frequently been seen in the Swan Lake Flats area, just a few miles from Mammoth. The pack lost its leaders to an attack by a rival wolf pack this year, and numbers are down. Swan Lake is a great bird watching spot if the wolves aren’t around.

Agate Pack
This relatively new pack has been spotted with increasing frequency. They are most often seen in the Antelope Creek drainage which is on the east side of the road heading up to Mount Washburn. This used to be THE spot in Yellowstone to see grizzlies, and it’s still good for bears as well as wolves.

Leopold Pack
This longtime Yellowstone Pack roams the Blacktail Plateau about midway between Mammoth and Tower. The best strategy is to climb one of the hills overlooking the plateau (the area near the Children’s Fire Trail is good) and use your binoculars or spotting scope. In early 2005 this pack had more than 25 members, but it has since split. About 8-10 wolves are using the Blacktail territory.

Hank Fischer was closely involved with Yellowstone wolf restoration and wrote a book about it entitled Wolf Wars. He currently works for the National Wildlife Federation and with his wife Carol, operates a business ( leading wildlife viewing trips to Yellowstone, Glacier, Africa, and other locations. They’ll be leading a winter wolf trip to Yellowstone this February and a summer trip in June.

Wolf-Watching Guides and Trips

Safari Yellowstone
This outfitter offers half, single, or multi-day wolf-watching safaris, and their success rate of spotting wolves is one hundred-percent since 2000. Half-day trips include transportation, activities, snacks, binoculars or other viewing devices and hiking equipment. A full-day trip entitles the wolf-watcher to the above amenities plus complimentary travel to and from a central location, ski and snowshoe equipment, and lunch. Multi-day trips feature full-day conveniences as well as accommodations and meals. Half-day rates are $85 for adults / $60 for children ages 5-12; full-day rates are $160/$95. A two-day, one-night package runs $495/$365, while three days and two nights costs $875/$680. Group and family rates are available.

Yellowstone Safari
Yellowstone Safari offers full-day and two-day wolf safaris led by professional guides. Single-day trips run from November to April, and costs $515 for one to two people. For parties of three, the price is $575, and for each additional person, $100 more. The two-day “Winter Wolf and Wildlife” safari takes place on Yellowstone’s Northern Range, and offers a flexible schedule that may allow for additional backcountry activities. These safaris are available from December through mid-April. Prices are as follows: two people - $980; three $1090; four $1210; five $1395; six $1575; seven $1755. Overnight accommodations are not included. On all safaris, binoculars, snacks, and lunch are provided (and breakfast on day two of the two-day trip), as well as transportation from West Yellowstone, Gardiner, or Bozeman. Safari itineraries are unique to the goals of the participants.

Yellowstone Association Institute
The Institute offers a “Winter Wolf Discovery” program from late December to late February. Led by an Institute naturalist guide, activities include wildlife watching and snowshoeing in the Northern Range, an early morning trip to look for wolves, and programs on the ecology and management of Yellowstone wolves. A two-day program (Tues-Thurs), including 2 nights at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, costs $299/double occupancy, $366/single. The three-day package (Thurs-Sun) costs $429/double, $530/single. Rates do not include taxes, and prices for members are slightly lower. Lodging with private bath, hot-tub rental, snowshoe rentals, in-park transportation, breakfasts, and box lunches are included. Programs are capped at twelve people. For reservations, contact Yellowstone National Park Lodges at 307-344-5566.

”Yellowstone’s Wolves,” a three-day program running from January 18-20, combines wolf ecology, biology and management in weaving the story of Yellowstone’s canines. The course combines classroom time focusing on wolf science and management with fieldwork and observation. James Halfpenny, Ph.D., ecologist, educator and Institute expert, will instruct the course. Rates are $185/person, ($175 for members) and the enrollment limit is nineteen.

The Institute will also offer a course entitled “Scavenger Hunt: Wolf-Scavenger Relationships” from February 16-18. Participants will explore the subject by looking for wolves and other animals interacting at carcass sites, and learning about the feeding strategies of the animals. Dan Stahler, M.S., the project biologist for the Yellowstone Wolf Project, will direct the study. The course requires moderate snowshoeing/skiing with climbs or off-trail hiking. The cost is $170/person ($160 for members) and enrollment is capped at twelve.

The International Wolf Center
In partnership with the Yellowstone Association Institute, the Minnesota-based center offers the “Wolves of Yellowstone,” a six-day guided excursion into Yellowstone, from February 11-16. The program is based out of the historic Lamar Buffalo Ranch in the
Park. Two wildlife experts will lead a small group on daily observations that begin before dawn, and guest speakers are scheduled. The program includes room and board, as well as shuttle service to and from the Bozeman airport. Hiking or snowshoeing is required. The cost is $1295/person, with a $400 deposit.

Fischer Outdoor Discoveries
Hank Fischer, former Northern Rockies Director of Defenders of Wildlife, leads a guided wolf-watching tour of Yellowstone over Valentine’s Day weekend. The “Yellowstone Winter Wolf Adventure” runs from Feb 12-15 (4 days/3 nights) and includes snowshoeing, a photography seminar from Dan Hartman, the wisdom of Dr. Jim Halfpenny, and of course, wolf-watching. The fee of $1495 (double occupancy) also includes a romantic dinner at the four-star Chico Hot Springs and the choice of a massage or dog-sled ride.

Betsy Robinson and Steve Gehman, local guides who work with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, are offering a six day/five night wolf-watching and tracking tour from February 14-19. Gourmet accommodations are provided at the B-Bar Ranch, located north of Gardiner. The price of the trip is $1575/person, and includes meals and lodging. For more information, e-mail [email protected]

-Mike St. Thomas