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High drama

Nature is full of drama, usually of the life and death kind.

On a rare warm, windless, beautiful day, I loaded up with the dog and headed for a hike down the unplowed part of the main road.   Just over the crest of the flats, I saw about 600 elk corralled within the ‘elk fence’, nervous and jittery.  It was almost 11:00 and these elk should have been resting in the trees.  Besides, you never see elk inside this fence.

Elk stuck inside fence and can't get to safety

I’ve heard two stories about this fences’ beginnings from two different neighbors.  When this ranch was owned by a wealthy man named Bugas in the 70’s, so the first story goes, the county conservation services re-graded and drained the field so he could put his cattle here, or at least more cattle.  Then to keep the elk out of the grazing pasture, the county paid for the fence.  Your tax dollars at work!

The second story isn’t too different from the first but with some variation, yet still with cattle in mind.  In the hard winter of ’77-’78, when the snows were so deep you couldn’t see the tops of the fence posts, Bugas’ cattle were struggling and starving.  The elk were eating the feed that was set out for them.  So a temporary fence was erected for that winter only.

Since that time the property was sold to Earl Holdings, one of the wealthiest men in the world, the fence remains, and the elk can’t move through or over.  So to see the elk inside was very unusual and probably spelled trouble.  The fence borders the creek.  On the other side of the creek is the game preserve where the elk have been gathering every evening and morning to eat.  One gate to the ranch property is open from the creek side, which is how these elk got in.   And that is how they would need to get out of this very large enclosed pasture.

But why they were there was solved when I saw some birds circling in their winter pasture across the creek.  There was a kill over there. These elk were trying to get across the private pasture and into the forest beyond but were being prevented by the fence.  Now they were sitting ducks for the wolves.  The road is between the fence and the forest where they wanted to head but were prevented.  They were hanging around the fence line by the road and every time a car went bye, they stressed, running this way and that, confused, not conserving their energy, unable to head in any safe direction.

 

Golden eagle resting after feeding on carcass

Needless to say, I’ve hated this fence ever since I’ve been here, and here was more proof why it should go.  When I saw the kill I went back to get my scope,  On the return I ran into Ron.  He’s a citizen ‘Wolfman Jack’.  He does a great service by being totally obsessed with wolves and following them.  He knows more what’s happening with the packs around here than anyone, including the Wildlife Services folks.  He relayed the drama that had unfolded this morning.

The Sunlight Pack made a kill.  The Sunlight pack is about 10 strong , almost all young wolves.  While they were on the kill, Ron heard some barking.  At first he thought it was the ranch dogs nearby, but then here come the Absaroka Pack, mature wolves 7 strong. They pushed the Sunlight pack off the kill.  While we were talking a black wolf from the Absaroka pack came checking things out.

Ron told me that between the Sunlight Pack, the Absaroka Pack which seems to come around here as well, and the Hoodoo pack of 10 wolves up around Crandall (but they frequent the valley here as well), AND the Beartooth pack of now 10, there is more going on in this area than the whole of the Northern Range.  We’ve got a lot of wolves running around this valley.

Wolves are such social animals and their interactions and orders are constantly changing.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist, Scott Becker, told me that they have few collared wolves at this point.  The dynamics are constantly changing and hard to keep track of.

When Abby was doing her wolf study here several years ago, there were only 2 or 3 wolves in the so-called Beartooth pack.  That pack is located across the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone, where there are very few elk.  It didn’t seem like a very hospitable place, especially in winter.  Scott told me they must eat a lot of deer up there.

I continued on down the road and began my hike.  Resting in the pasture, I saw 3 wolves–2 blacks and a grey.  When they saw me, the grey hightailed it out of there, but I was able to get some good video of these blacks.

Wolf etiquette in the backcountry

The local wolf pack has been starting to get into bits of trouble.  I saw the ranch hand from the dude ranch down the way.  His cows have been calving.  They only keep about 30 cows around in the winter, but this morning, early, one of them calved and they got to it just about 10 seconds before two wolves did.  They fired a shot and scared them away. 

Just a few days ago, the wolves killed an elk right at the pasture line where the cows hang.  And the students told me they saw the small black female hanging near the cow pasture on the bridge yesterday.

Where all good dogs come from. Black female wolf

The Sunlight Pack has gotten into trouble almost every summer.  In a few weeks, the rancher that owns most of the valley floor will be bringing his cattle up here, maybe over 500 head or more.  They overwinter down near Powell and calf down there.  Last year it was almost all yearlings up here.  Yearlings aren’t too seasoned and are too curious.  Not a good combo for wolf country.

I’m worried for the pack.  This is good wolf country and cattle really shouldn’t be up here anymore.  The open range leases should be retired; ranches for tax write off purposes should be retired as well.  My eternal fantasy is to win the lottery and buy the big ranch.  Then put Bison back on it and don’t worry if the wolves and bears get a few.   Bison belong here.  They used to be here.

Eventually, you can count on the wolves picking off a few cattle.  Wildlife Services, Dept. of Agriculture, can decimate the ‘bad’  packs each year, trying to get them not to have a taste for cows.  But its not that they love cows.  Its sometimes they are handy or easy.  Really, the wolves prefer elk.   You can’t really blame those wolves for hanging around when the cows are calving.  Calves are helpless when they’re first born, and an easy meal.  It’s really a smart strategy.  Just as smart as the little chipmunk who ate a hole in my bucket full of grain for the turkeys.  Easy meal; low expenditure of energy; biology 101 really.

The Valley that Sits in the Middle of the Land

The ranch hand told me his friend went ‘horn hunting’ by horseback last weekend near the ranch in the back country with his two dogs.  The dogs ran off and haven’t been seen since. I showed him the electronic collar I keep Koda on.

“They’re bird dogs, not people dogs like yours.”  We’re both thinking the wolves probably already got them.

Last spring a young experienced hiker and his dog went backpacking up the North Fork near the Park entrance.  There’s a wolf pack up there, and although he kept his dog close, when he went to set up camp in a meadow in the rain, his dog was sniffing around and got attacked a few hundred yards away in the trees by 8 wolves.  There had been a recent human encampment there, probably with some leftovers.  The hiker ran to his dog, the wolves ran off, but the poor dog died.

That hiker didn’t really do anything wrong.  He kept his dog close at least most of the time.  When I told this to a local who hikes with her dog, her reply was telling:  “That’s a risk you take hiking around here.”

I keep Koda close.  I watch him at all times and keep him on a shock collar I got through Cabelas.  He’s a dog’s dog, not really a people dog.  He has come to like people, and he’s loyal to me especially.  When he sees a dog, I can easily control his desire to run up and play.  But his response to a coyote or a wolf is different.  Some ancient wildness overtakes him.  He recognizes the dog part, but he senses the freedom part too.  In a moment he’s off and that could be the difference between life and death for him.  That’s when the shock collar comes in super handy.  But its no guarantee.

Koda with his toy.

Yet I do have to say, those fellows who took their 2 dogs out here, in wolf country, and didn’t watch them, let them run around where ever their noses took them–that is just irresponsible with your dog and certainly you can’t blame the wolves.

However you cut it, with the wolves and grizzlies here, I still prefer that wildness.  One of the students and I were talking about New Zealand.  He did an internship last fall in Antarctica and spent time on the south Island of New Zealand for vacation.

“Compared to Antarctica, it was great to be in a place with plants and trees, lush and fertile, where we could hike.  But to tell you the truth, as a biologist, it lacked.  They have no native animals there, except for a few birds.  The scenery was beautiful, but I missed the wildlife, especially the big animals, those ones that make you aware when you’re hiking around.”

Even if Chief Seattle didn’t really say it, its worth quoting:  “What is man without the beasts?  If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit.”

Amen to that.

We love our dogs. Let's keep them safe.

The wolves have a good day

What a day!  Let’s begin with 4″ of fresh snow.  Then add 5 wolves running past my property, 4 greys and 1 black.    Throw in back tracking and tracking the wolves to explore what route they are using to come down into the valley.  And for the day’s finale, watching the wolves on two kills they’d made by the road this morning.

Lots of elk tracks too on this beautiful day

Around 1 pm, we heard the dogs barking and looked out the front window to see 4 beautiful wolves running along the nearby pastures through a herd of horses.  Those horses are used to dogs so they didn’t seem perturbed one bit.  And those wolves were ‘booking’.  They had someplace to go or a meeting to attend.  Within just a few minutes they were up on the opposite hillside and over the divide, a hike that takes me at least 45 minutes!  Then along came a limpy grey following way behind.  They all looked amazingly healthy, no mange.

Limpy wolf but seems to be doing fine

These are the new Sunlight Pack, pushed slightly south into Elk Creek because of a much larger pack of 10 wolves occupying their northern range.  Last winter I didn’t get a chance to see the Sunlight Pack as they were hanging deeper west in the valley, moving with ease back and forth (north and south) across the valley floor.  This has been their home range for several years.

There’s an elk study going on, in its fifth season, in the valley and they’ve been able to do some good collaring this year of wolves.  And so they’ve learned that the Sunlight Pack has been bullied a bit by this larger pack to the north.  In fact, all that howling I heard on Valentines’ day was the Hoodoo Pack making a kill on the northern side of the river, a side that used to belong to the Sunlight pack.

Tracks of four wolves 'booking it'

At around dusk I went up the road to get a closer look at the kills and see if there were any wolves still  on them.  The UofW crew said they processed the kills and they were two older cow elks, about 10 and 12 years old.  “How old is old for an elk?”  I asked.  “About 15.  Some can live till 20, but that’s really old. These were in pretty good shape,” they informed me.  

With some quick and dirty math, I figure that’s about 50 or 60 years in human terms.