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An Evening with Wolves

What a treat! Last night we joined the Grand Teton National Park Foundation for a ranger-led wildlife talk about wolves, and a potential viewing opportunity in an area of the park new to us. The drive took us out a deeply rutted dirt road that crossed a few active irrigation ditches, requiring a high clearance vehicle — so we gave a ride to a couple of the other attendees.

The sky glowed a soft pastel orange as the ruby red sunlight filtered through the smoke in the valley, leaving the Tetons ghosted behind a pale veil. Two swans, a few coots, and a couple of other ducks paddled in the water at our feet. It was nice to see water where the Canada Geese had not chased all of the waterfowl away. We had the place to ourselves.

Our hosts park biologist John, and Molly and Chris of the Foundation, assembled several spotting scopes for us while we settled in for John’s talk. We were on a hill overlooking a beautiful area used by wolves likely for many decades, even before the area became part of the park. What a stage for a presentation!

how do you describe where to look!?

Four to five wolf packs, numbering between forty to fifty wolves, use the park as part of their territory. A couple packs use den sites within the boundary of the park, and we were perched across (nearly a kilometer across!) from a currently active den. Within each pack, the park tries to have a few adults fitted with tracking collars to help with their study of the packs. John said the the GPS maps at this time of year look like wagon wheels, with wolves going off in all directions as far as ten miles hunting, but always returning to the same area, the hub.

the brass colored tabs on this wolf collar help keep the pups from chewing the collar off

The park study counts the wolves several times a year. In the early spring, when the pups are born, the pack numbers are at the maximum for the year. The final and official count is made on 31 December, at the ebb of pack numbers. During the year, adults (previous year pups) may leave to search out their own mates and territories. Pups may not survive. Adults may die. The average life span of a wolf in the wild is five to eight years, eight being “very old” according to John.

Maybe most fascinating was to learn of the dramatic stories regarding the fates of the packs moving in and out of this den site over the years. It all began back in 1995 when wolves from Canada were relocated into Yellowstone, and as that pack grew, it was not long before wolves appeared within the borders of Grand Teton. It started with a breeding pair, known as alphas, and their pups. One year they had 14 pups(!) bringing the pack to 22 members. However, within a year, they had disbanded and were gone. That many puppies proved a strain on the resources and social stability of the pack. A pack from Yellowstone discovered the den and took over the territory. One year the larger pack known as Buffalo Pack from an adjoining territory pushed a smaller pack out of this area. Another year disaster befell the pack when the alpha male was shot outside the park boundary, another adult was hit by a car in the park, and they were vulnerable when another pack arrived and killed the lone alpha female.

While we were engrossed in the retelling of these events, Molly was diligently scanning the hillside with her awesome binoculars for movement on the far hill. Her exclamation, “I got them!” brought us all to our feet. Once all the spotting scopes were aligned on the right clump of trees and grass we all took turns seeing what we might see.

Apparently the wolves have many small den-like holes near their main den site. The pups were in one of these mini dens, and we could just catch the movement of their heads when they popped up above the grass and sage shrubs. It was amazingly challenging to locate the spot the scopes were sighted on with our naked eye. I brought my biggest lens, an 800mm, but it could not begin to cover the distance that we were at. Having said that, here are a few ‘I was there and I saw them photos for the record’. 🙂

one of the pack adults with a collar — the best my camera lens could do!

Over the next hour, we caught glimpses of a few adults. A white wolf and a gray wolf, both with a collar. It was amazing how quickly they would appear out of no where and disappear back into the vegetation. But I did get to see through a scope two pups tumble around and then lay down — poof!, gone!

I even tried putting the cell phone next to the scope for a photo …

The sun was quickly disappearing, so it was time for us to make our way off the steep hill and back to the cars. As we packed up, Molly and John froze. The wolves were howling. I could not hear them, but Dave did! What a perfect note [pun intended] to end the evening on!

This park really has an embarrassment of riches, and we are blessed that there are generous and knowledgeable people to lead us to the treasure caches. We’ll do our best to share too.