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The wonder of wolf watching in Yellowstone
Travel » The animals have made a tourist-friendly return.


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While it’s possible to see wolves in other places - Jackson Hole, Wyo., about 70 miles south, has several companies offering winter wildlife tours and about half a dozen wolf packs - "Yellowstone is still the best place in the world to view wild wolves, especially in winter," says Doug Smith, a senior wildlife biologist in the park.

This is in large part because Yellowstone’s wolves are among the most tracked and studied in the world. And the people tracking and studying them - both biologists working for the park and educational institutions and zealous non-professionals - are friendly and willing to share their knowledge.

At a glance

WHERE TO STAY

— Chico Hot Springs Resort, Pray, Mont.

www.chicohotsprings.com

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

www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com

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

www.yellowstoneassociation.org

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.

www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/nmammoth.htm

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.

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Numerous outfitters and guide services offer wolf-watching trips in the park. It’s also possible to head out on your own, armed with only binoculars, a spotting scope and an inclination to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger whose license plate might read "WLFR." More often than not, you’ll still get a fabulous day of wolf-watching.

- - -

Watch for watchers

You’ll know that there are wolves around when you see a jumble of SUVs parked on the side of the one road in the northeast section of the park that’s open in the winter. (Winter is the best season for wolf-watching, because the animals stand out against the snow.) The SUVs will be outnumbered only by the spotting scopes and the SLR cameras with lenses the size of small children. A frenzy of biologists and John Q. Public will be walking around, animatedly pointing and nodding their heads. Radios will be crackling. (Cellphone coverage in much of the park is spotty at best.)

"Private wolf-watchers - they are super-avid wolf fanatics," says Taylor Phillips, a Jackson-based lead naturalist guide and owner of Eco Tour Adventures, and they’re "incredibly passionate and informed and helpful with advice."

Phillips says that some wolf-watchers have moved to towns such as Bozeman and Livingston "so they can be close to Lamar Valley and their passion." They might miss only a day or two of wolf-watching a week.

Some of these wolf-watchers have founded the Web site YellowstoneReports.com. For an annual fee of $20, the site offers detailed naturalist reports on the whereabouts of wolves and other wildlife in the park.

Both scientists and hobbyists benefit from the fact that a number of wolves in the park are fitted with radio collars, which track them without interfering with their movements.


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And they help true amateurs like me get to know the various wolves.

- - -

On my first wolf-watching trip, wolfers shared the histories of individual animals and of the Druid Peak Pack. Concentrating on the animals they pointed out to me, I learned that the lightest-colored pup would be the one to work the other pups into a frenzy and then spearhead the pounce onto their dad. The biggest pup loved chasing its tail.

Some people follow sports teams. But Wyoming, where I’ve lived for 16 years, doesn’t have a single major professional sports team. The Druid Peak Pack became my football team.

On that initial trip, I also met wolf 302M (all tracked wolves get numbers rather than names). A junior member of the Druids, he wasn’t as interesting as the alpha male or the pups. Still, perhaps because he was all black, he stayed in my mind. And as I followed him online afterward and saw him on subsequent trips to the valley, he grew into my favorite.

And not my favorite alone. He was interesting enough that a film was made of his life, "The Rise of Black Wolf." His nickname was "Casanova."

In addition to being a favorite with breeding females, 302M was also popular with both amateur wolfers and wolf biologists. He had the rare - in the lupine world - ability to travel solo and between packs. Wolf packs are highly territorial, and wolves out on their own often don’t live long.

Wolf 302M was born into the Leopold Pack but bred with several females in the Druid Peak Pack at age 3. For some time after that, he traveled between the Leopolds and the Druids. I think that when I first saw him on the Conservation Alliance trip, he had recently committed to the Druids full-time.

When 302M joined, the Druids were no longer 37 wolves strong, as in 2001. (Rick McIntyre, a biologist with the park’s wolf restoration project, surmised that the 2001 Druids were possibly the largest wolf pack ever recorded in the world; 15 is a more usual pack size.)

Shortly before the Druids collapsed in late 2009 and early 2010 - the pack’s demise makes a Greek tragedy look dull and uncomplicated; Ajax and Antigone never had to deal with an infestation of mange, a disease that doesn’t kill but does severely weaken the infected - 302M left the pack along with several yearlings. They joined with three females from the Agate Creek Pack to form the Blacktail Deer Plateau Pack, and 302M was its alpha from the start. His alpha female was the svelte, tawny 693F.

I saw 302M as an alpha three times, sadly never doing much besides eating and sleeping. One of the meals I shared with him was of a bison, a 2,000-some-pound carcass. He ripped into it ferociously.

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