The wonder of wolf watching in Yellowstone
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's recovery goal for the population was met in 2002. Since then, the removal of gray wolves from the endangered species list has been one of the Northern Rockies' biggest wildlife controversies. In September 2012, Wyoming's wolf population was the last to be removed from the list, meaning that if they ventured outside a perimeter established around Yellowstone National Park, wolves could be shot on sight. (Idaho and Montana had previously allowed this.)
"The issue of wolves and the management of wolves is a very hot political issue," says Ken Voorhis, director of education for the Yellowstone Association, the park's official nonprofit education partner. "There are people on both sides. Some feel that the hunting of wolves is not appropriate, and others feel like they need to be managed because of the growth of the population."
Wherever you are on the politics, Yellowstone's mission now "is the preservation of wolves within the park," Voorhis says. "They are still out there, and we still see them regularly. The park's population is still a healthy population."
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.
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.
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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.
And they help true amateurs like me get to know the various wolves.
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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.