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Wolves, the Winds, and a Spotter Plane

I now have zero tolerance for mosquitos, and my annual visits to the Wind River Mountains for the last several years always come after labor day. Almost every September trip I can remember comes with at least one day of snow but not this year. Although a few nights were in the 20s, the days were warm enough for shorts. But along with warm weather came limited visibility from the fires in Montana, (and throughout the West) meant the craggy flanks of the Continental Divide mountains were barely visible.

This year I picked out a small area where I’d never been–Bald Mountain and Chain Lakes. My other choice was Sweetwater Gap, where I went last year with limited time to explore. Bald Mountain has the easier access via a paved eleven mile road outside of Pinedale to the Elkhart Park trailhead. With the easy access, I arrived at 3pm and hiked five miles to Sweeny Lake. Everyone was pouring out from the Labor Day weekend, most probably coming from popular Titcomb Basin. The trail up Elkhart takes you along a wooded ridge for five miles before it splits to either Titcomb or Pole Creek. An otherwise non-descript trek except for the evidence of beetle-kill. Large pockets of whitebark pines dead–a sad scene in one of the last strongholds for these trees in the Greater Yellowstone.

Sweeny and Miller lakes are in a bowl below the ridgeline and add only an extra 1/2 mile, well worth it especially since there’s no water for five miles till Elklund lake–a popular campsite destination. Sweeny is a gem with no one around and some good camping spots. The full moon rose orange from all the smoke and only a bugling elk broke the early morning silence. These lakes have been hit hard with beetle kill.

Sweeny Lake

Sweeny Lake in the Winds

My base camp destination was Chain Lakes, about another seven miles. The trail is rocky but easy, passing through granite knolls till it reaches the crossing at Pole Creek. Before the crossing I sat down for a snack when a deer suddenly burst down the trail headed for the river crossing, obviously spooked by something. When the deer saw me it did a quick 90 degree turn towards the brush. An outfitter appeared with two mules a few moments later, bound for his wall tent camp to pick up supplies. He’d be the last person I’d see for three days.

Setting up camp on a small rise between the larger upper Chain Lake and the lower, I found that no one had camped anywhere in this valley. There were no fire rings. I believe people see it as a pass through while either hiking further south on the highline trail, or venture into the Bald Mountain areas.

Chain Lake Wind River

Upper Chain Lake from my campsite. Smokey mountains in far back

The following morning I had a wonderful, yet strange and confusing experience. While making breakfast, wolves began howling directly across from my campsite, around 200 yards away on a wooded hillside above where the upper and lower lakes converge. A muddy rock hop stream divides the two lakes which I’d noticed was full of elk and wolf tracks. I ate my oatmeal breakfast on a rocky prominence and listened to the wolves singing, signaling an end to their night hunt. I’ve heard wolves in the Winds before, but never so close and their presence made me happy, signaling the return of the wilds in an area of Wilderness.

Pinedale area is right on the border of the Predator Zone (wolves were just delisted this spring) and I wasn’t sure if I was in a Trophy or Predator area, but knew I was borderline close. Hunting is legal in a wilderness area, and hunting for wolves in the predator zones is legal 365/24/7.

Still basking in the glow of ‘true wilderness’ calls, and the fact that I was the solitary human presence in this valley, twenty minutes after hearing the wolves, I hear another sound–a spotter plane coming into the valley, headed directly for the knoll where these wolves were howling. The plane comes closer and closer, finally to tightly circle over six times directly above the tree tops where I’d heard my wolves howling. I know Game and Fish spotter planes as they collar wolves in January in my home valley. This plane was white, unmarked, single engine with long wings. Who were these people then? The pilot was obviously trying to flush the wolves out of the trees, and also he had to have the GPS coordinates of a collared wolf in order to arrive just a few minutes after I’d heard their presence.

Wolf hillside

Small knoll where wolves were howling

After jumping up and down and yelling at that plane, they left after six tight passes only 50′ above the tree tops. Later that day I headed up the knoll to explore. A few nice small meadows indicated good elk food, lots of stock evidence of grazing of outfitter horses and mules, and…a dead mule about a month old, reduced to bones. This confluence of events confused me even more.

That morning, I headed up to the Baldy Lakes that sit directly below Mt. Baldy. What a beautiful high elevation spot. A series of small lakes leads to a waterfall and a high rocky meadow where a feeder trail merges with the Fremont Trail.

Bald Mountain Basin Wind Rivers

Baldy Lakes

Bald Mountain lakes

Another view of Bald Mountain lakes

I saw a black bear print in a muddy creek crossing on the way up here. Elk, wolves, deer, and a bull moose. Never seen so much wildlife in my Wind River visits over twenty years. After spending a few more days at Chain Lakes, every evening and early morning punctuated with wolf howls, I did an early morning hike out in the moonlight. Stopping for sunrise at Photographer’s Point (still smokey so the mountains looked like a Chinese silhouette painting), I realized in that windless moment why these mountains have such a poetic name. Fremont Creek roared deep below, pouring out from the Continental Divide’s numerous lakes. It sounded like a strong wind in the valley, yet the air was still. The Wind Rivers! I love this place like no other.

After my confusing experience with wolves and a plane, I headed to Jackson to the Wyoming Game and Fish where I spoke with Dan Thompson. I was concerned about poaching (even in the predator zone wolves cannot be killed aerially), or spotting (it is illegal to plane spot for game and trophy animals after July 31 in Wyoming). It turns out that Chain Lakes is barely in the Trophy zone and Thompson later emailed me that his pilot was flying ‘locating wolves to demonstrate recovery’. OK, I understand if it’s G&F doing legal flights, but what do you think about planes low flying 50 feet above the ground, circling in Wilderness during prime hiking season? It was incredibly emotionally disturbing, ruined my own ‘wilderness’ experience which I’d just hiked fifteen miles into the back country for, and seemed so intrusive for these wild animals. In twenty years of hiking and camping in wilderness designated areas, the only other time I’ve seen a plane was a search and rescue mission.

Topping my week off, I spent time in Dubois where I bought a fishing license for the reservation and drove up Dinwoody Creek to see some amazing petroglyphs. Here’s a taste.

DSC01764DSC01759

Dinwoody Canyon is beautiful and off-limits to non-tribal members as it is a sacred area. I’ve been to the top at Goat Flat via the Glacier trail, but it is illegal to hike into the valley. Interestingly, several years ago they found a buffalo jump on the high ridge pass at 11,000 feet and speculated that on occasion, when the buffalo ran there, native peoples would spend the winter at high altitude since they couldn’t carry that much meat to the lower elevations.

Dinwoody Canyon

Looking up Dinwoody Canyon towards Goat flat

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The Cry Heard Around the World

With wolf hunts now taking place in all three states around Yellowstone, new issues are coming up.  Although Montana and Idaho had a hunt last year, this fall is Wyoming’s first wolf hunt.

At least 10 collared Yellowstone Park and Grand Teton wolves have been killed in this years’ hunt, and more than half of them occurred in Wyoming.  The last collared wolf killed was taken in my area, hunt area 2, and she was the eighth wolf and so closed the zone.  And this wolf, wolf 832F (F for female), dubbed ‘o6 by Park wolf watchers, was perhaps the most famous wolf in the world, and most loved.  She’d been highly visible in the Lamar Valley since she was born in 2006, and was the alpha female of her pack.

'06 this summer  hightails it away from Molly Pack

’06 this summer hightails it away from Molly Pack

Last spring on a May morning I went to the Lamar and watched her with her son try and scare a grizzly off a dead bison.  On the other side of the grizzly were two wolves of Molly’s Pack, a formidable pack in the Park that had been threatening to kill 06’s pups.  Another wolf from the Lamar Pack, 754, was shot in my hunt zone in November.  At least 2 collared wolves from Grand Teton have been shot, and there’s speculation that as many as 13 uncollared from GT have been taken in the hunt.

’06’s death has been highly publicized all around the world, from PRI to European newspapers.  People from all over the world watched and knew ’06.  In response to public opinion, Montana, who is about to begin their first wolf trapping season, has created a buffer zone around the Park’s northern border.  Just for this hunt/trap season only.  Next year is a different story perhaps.  Although Idaho’s wolf hunting and trapping season is almost endless, the expansive Madison Valley  sits in the way of many wolves migrating from the Park in that direction.

'06 swims the Lamar river, emerges onto the road right in front of tourists.

’06 swims the Lamar river, emerges onto the road right in front of tourists.

Wyoming is another story.  Most of the Park is in WY, as is all of Grand Teton.  85% of the state has been approved by the Obama administration as a predator zone which means shoot on sight (or trap, or bait, or whatever) anytime, anywhere.  So the managed hunt zone, called the Trophy Zone, is essentially the ‘buffer’ zone around the Park.  With the loss of so many study wolves, is the era of Park research over?  And with the hoards of wolf watchers habituating these wolves to a benign human presence, is the era of wolf watching in the Park about to change?  Will it be harder to see wolves in the Park?  And will that bring in less visitors?  And should Wyoming manage their ‘buffer zone’ around the Park with Park research in mind?

I can say that my zone, hunt zone 2, had the highest quota of all the zones.  If you take zone 2 and 3 together, they make up the entire Absaroka eastern side of YNP, with a quota of 16 out of 52 wolves.  This is a rich area for genetic exchange, mostly Shoshone designated wilderness area, and wolves travel frequently in and out of the Park in this area following their prime food, elk.  Those two areas alone, which are a prime buffer zone, make up 1/3 of the state’s quota for 2012!

Hopefully ’06’s death will bring some good and highlight what is wrong with the hunts the way they are managed now.

First, the quotas of 100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs per state was set a long time ago when no one knew how wolves would adapt to the Rocky Mountains.  Although Montana is setting their own quota at 400, Idaho which has prime territory and over 70% federal lands, is in a frenzy to eliminate wolves, hunting and trapping 10 months of the year with no quotas.  Wyoming, which has few wolves outside the Park, before the hunt it was around 230, is not only mostly predator status, but is also eyeing that 100 mark as their quota.  These quotas are simply ridiculously low for the amount of good habitat and prey.  Wyoming in many areas is trying to reduce their elk counts by giving hunters numerous tags, but at the same time reducing the predator that could do that job in a better, more effective and selective manner.

This wolf, from my valley, was by the road two years ago.  With the hunts you will no longer see wolves so easily

This wolf, from my valley, was by the road two years ago. With the hunts you will no longer see wolves so easily

Second, trapping is simply anathema to the 21st century.  It is cruel and poses dangers to not only other wildlife, but to pets.  Pelts are sold mostly to the Chinese market, which enrages me more.  This is what happened with our beaver and bison in the 19th century, when European demand had hunters and trappers eradicating our wildlife for hats and coats.  Wildlife as a commodity is simply wrong, just as human trafficking is.

Third, until the predator status is changed so that all of Wyoming is designated trophy status, the Trophy zone around the Park needs to be changed.  Quotas in sensitive areas right around the Park need to be decreased, hunt zones readjusted, and hunt times changed for each area.  Instead of hunting the entire trophy zone Sept or October through December, zones near the Park need to close earlier as the elk begin to come down from the high country and the Park wolves follow.  Once Wyoming predator status is eliminated, wolf hunts should take place only in areas where there are conflicts with ranchers, not in areas with no conflict and lots of wilderness.

Finally, personally I disagree with hunting predators–wolves, coyotes, foxes, cougars, bears, martens, you name it.  Being able to shoot a predator that is eating your sheep or cattle is one thing, hunting them for sport is another.  On the other hand, just seeing a wolf or coyote passing your property doesn’t mean they’re going to cause trouble; and ranchers who are far-sighted and conscious are trying new methods for protecting their flocks and herds.  Yet that being said, for now the delisting not only calls for a hunt, but in the short run of the next ten years, it may be the only way to quiet the loud and contentious opposition to wolves.  Let’s just not undo all the good hard work that brought them here over these last 15 years.

If you want to comment and have your voice heard on the wolf situation in Wyoming, here is a link.   Wyoming wolf hunt 

Two wolves side trot down the road

Two wolves side trot down the road