The wonder of wolf watching in Yellowstone
Despite the down jacket I'm wearing, puffier than any of the low clouds scudding across the sky, I'm shivering. Or perhaps the shivering is from the scene framed by my spotting scope: a pack of wolves tearing into an elk carcass. The face of a dun-colored wolf is stained with blood.
I can't believe that I ever thought wolf-watching was boring.
The first time I went wolf-watching in Yellowstone National Park, in 2006 with the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, I was ready to call it quits on the first afternoon.
Yes, seeing wolves - once hunted and poisoned to extinction in the Lower 48 - free and in the wild was cool. But for the first hour, the animals that our naturalist guide trained our spotting scopes and binoculars on did little more than sleep.
The idea of three more days of watching wolves comfortably slumber while I froze didn't exactly excite me. The idea of soaking in the 104-degree natural hot springs pool waiting at our hotel did.
Still, I didn't call it quits.
And over those next three days, the wolves' Druid Peak Pack rewarded my resolve. Through the four spotting scopes and the two pairs of binoculars that our group of six shared, I saw pups playing, the pack feeding on an unidentified carcass and even the alpha pair mating.
I was most enthralled watching the pack at play. The pups ran at each other, colliding in a tangle of fuzzy legs and freakishly large paws. Tiring of each other and still seeing the pack's alpha male as Dad rather than dominator, they pounced on him three times as he lay resting. As two pups wrestled around and on top of him, he barely lifted his head.
By the time we headed back to Jackson, I was addicted.
Since then I've been back to the Lamar Valley, the park's most consistent wolf-watching destination, about half a dozen times for the express purpose of spotting wolves. Friends have taken me. I've taken friends. I've gone by myself. Once, driving from Bozeman to Billings, Mont., I detoured more than 100 miles (each way!) to see whether I could spot some wolves. (I did.)
Everyday wolf-watching is interesting. But what's fascinating is following individual wolves and packs over days or years, coming to know their differing personalities - and even to care for them.
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As recently as 20 years ago, there was no wolf-watching in Yellowstone. Because there were no wolves in Yellowstone.
Shortly after Yellowstone's designation as a national park (the first in the world) in 1872, the government, prodded by ranchers and farmers, took the view that wolves were vermin. Their habit of killing prey such as elk and deer, and of sometimes going after livestock, was deemed "wanton destruction."
So in the late 1800s and early 1900s, canislupus was poisoned and hunted. By the 1940s, wolf packs were rarely sighted in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which includes Yellowstone National Park as well as the Gallatin, Custer, Caribou-Targhee, Bridger-Teton and Shoshone national forests, the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway, the National Elk Refuge and Grand Teton National Park. In 1974, gray wolves were listed as an endangered species in the Lower 48 and Mexico.
Pressure to reinstate them arose soon after, but it wasn't until 1995 that 14 wolves captured in Canada were reintroduced into Yellowstone. In 1996, another 17, also from Canada, were released. Biologists had predicted that five years of reintroductions would be needed, but those two releases were so successful that no more were done.
There are now about 500 wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. About 80 wolves still live on Yellowstone National Park's 2.2 million acres.
WHERE TO STAY
— Chico Hot Springs Resort, Pray, Mont.
Historic hotel and hot springs pool about 35 miles from Yellowstone’s Gardiner entrance. Rooms with shared bath in the original hotel building from $59. Newer rooms with private baths from $134.
— Mammoth Hot Springs & Cabins, Yellowstone National Park
Rooms with a shared bath $87, rooms with private baths $123.
WHERE TO EAT
— Chico Dining Room
Using produce and herbs grown in its own greenhouse, the dining room at Chico Hot Springs Resort does dinner nightly, breakfast Monday through Saturday, and what may be the state’s best Sunday brunch. Entrees start at $20.
— Mammoth Hotel Dining Room
Get past the dated teal color scheme and enjoy house-made fresh bread and a menu that highlights locally sourced ingredients and also offers small plates. Entrees from $13.25
WHAT TO DO
— Winter Wolf Discovery
This three-day/four-night trip is all about wolves and includes snowshoeing and lodging at Mammoth. Trips through Feb. 23. $719/double and $899/single.
— Boiling River
Between the park’s Gardiner entrance and Mammoth Hot Springs.
A short drive from Mammoth, a six-foot-wide stream of hot water from the Boiling River plunges over travertine rocks into a 150-foot-long band of thermal soaking pools along the Gardner River. It’s a half-mile hike from the parking lot. Open during daylight hours. Free once you pay park admission, which is $25 per car, $20 per snowmobile and $12 per person on foot for a seven-day permit.