YELLOWSTONE REVISTED

June 13, 2002 11:00 pm
Bison grazes in Blacktail Deer Plateau in Yellowstone. ().
Bison grazes in Blacktail Deer Plateau in Yellowstone. ().

By BILL LUNDQUIST

YELLOWSTONE, Wyo. – Snow-clad peaks, carved hundreds of thousands of years ago by glaciers, beckoned us on.

The last place I expected to be on the late afternoon of May 10 was the Lamar Valley in the north part of Yellowstone National Park.

My son had signed up for another tour of duty at Yellowstone Lake Hotel. We had left Eugene late, but made up enough time on the road to spend one afternoon in the park before my son had to report for duty the next morning at company headquarters in Gardiner, Mont.

We first headed south to Mammoth Hot Springs, but the travertine terraces were strangely dry and decaying.

Some of the mineral-bearing water was flowing on the edge of the formations, creating new deposits in the forest, but not enough to hold our interest for long.

We decided to head east instead, across the Blacktail Deer Plateau to Tower Fall.

We didn't see any blacktail deer on the plateau, but there were pronghorn antelope, plenty of bison and the prairie was positively lousy with elk.

The southern part of the park, at about 8,000 feet, was still locked in winter. The northern part, with protected valleys more than 1,000 feet lower, was clear of snow and showing signs of spring growth.

Most of the grazing animals in the park spend their winters here. Not coincidently, so do Yellowstone's recently reintroduced wolves.

My son mentioned that the Lamar Valley, where 14 wolves had been introduced from Alberta in 1995, was the one part of the park he'd never seen.

I had driven through it that fateful year, when Ted Turner and Jane Fonda turned out every morning to watch the new wolves, and throngs of people turned out to watch Ted and Jane.

It had been raining that day, however. I had seen no wolves or mountains, only one soggy-looking bison.

This, however, was a gloriously clear afternoon. The light was golden and all thoughts of Tower Fall were forgotten as we set out in search of the elusive wolf.

We were not alone. The road is cruised every morning and evening by packs of regular wolf-spotters, equipped with campers, coolers, lawn chairs, and high-powered telescopes, binoculars and camera lenses.

Every turnout on the road was filled with spectators. They wait patiently for hours at a time for the site of a wolf trotting lazily along a ridge.

Sometimes they see one clamp onto the neck of an elk five times its size and bring it down in a few seconds. Wolves are what dogs and coyotes would like to be if they ever got serious.

Hastily-erected signs on one part of the road read, "No stopping or walking next mile."

That meant there was a new den nearby. New pups would soon join their 216 brethren in the park. We were so close we could taste it.

I was primed for a wolf sighting. I had just been reading "The Return of the Wolf to Yellowstone," by Thomas McNamee.

What sounds and looks like a boring textbook is actually written by one of the most gifted and entertaining writers in the world.

Curry County has its own small towns, ranchers and wild animals, so I think most people here would enjoy the book.

McNamee sometimes glorifies ranchers and vilifies environmentalists, and sometimes it's the other way around.

He is able to see the human-ness in wolves, and the wolf-ness in humans. An unapologetic romantic, McNamee admits we probably want wolves in Yellowstone more than we need them.

According to the book and the park newspaper, however, wolves have turned out to be helpful to the whole ecosystem.

The popular misconception is that packs of wolves lie in wait, spring on an unsuspecting herd of elk, which stampedes madly, then separate a hapless cow elk from the herd and tear her to shreds.

Actually, it works more like that old Warner Brothers cartoon where the sheep dog and the coyote clock in at work together, best buddies, then spend the rest of the day trying to outwit each other.

In reality, the wolves and elk are usually in close company. The wolves know each member of the herd intimately, and use every sense, plus memory, to judge whether or not an individual might be easy pickin's that day. Wolves waste no effort.

If they have good reason to believe an animal may be vulnerable, they may chase it a bit to test it. Any sign of weakness may result in a quick kill.

The pack sometimes strips its prey to the bone. Wolves may also bring food back to the den and regurgitate it for the pups.

They may just have a quick snack and move on to the next likely victim. Grizzly bears and bald eagles appreciate that. Both have done better since the wolves came back to Yellowstone.

The tens of thousands of elk in the two national parks and six national forests that make up the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem haven't been impacted much.

They stand a better chance of starving to death than getting eaten by one of the 216 wolves.

What about domestic animals? Don't they get eaten too, as ranchers feared all along?

Well yes. A few. In eight years, Yellowstone wolves have destroyed a total of 282 sheep, 46 cows, 20 assorted geese, chickens, turkeys and one guard dog.

In compensation, a private foundation paid ranchers $76,033. This is in an area the size of Eastern Oregon, over eight years.

Tourists are flocking to see the wolves. The herds and other carnivores are healthier than ever, and no rancher has gone out of business.

Time, humans and other wolves have destroyed all but three of the original 14 wolves in McNamee's book.

Wolf 9 gave birth to the first litter of pups born in Yellowstone, after her mate was the first to be killed by a poacher.

According to a park newspaper on the wolves, Wolf 9 found a new mate and had four more litters.

She is related to 70 percent of the pups in Yellowstone. She is also nine or 10, about as old as a wild wolf gets.

One of her daughters, Wolf 7, joined with Wolf 2, who was introduced to the park in 1995 as a hapless, shy pup who kept losing his pack. They are the alpha (top) pair in the first pack formed in the park after reintroduction.

We, however, saw no wolves that night, though we did spot the spine and skull of an elk, probably wolf-killed.

We stopped and took a picture of Soda Butte, an old hot spring cone that gave its name to Soda Butte Creek, and to the first wolf pack to leave its pen in 1995 to hunt the Lamar Valley.

We followed the creek uphill and north past the Thunderer, Barronette Peak, and Abiathar Peak, as high as Oregon's Three Sisters.

Our lack of wolf-sightings was made up for by a cow moose munching in a soggy meadow near the side of the road.

I later learned that my son didn't really know how to work my camera, but no matter, I'll have the memory forever.

The road was blocked by snow at Cooke City, Mont., where we stopped at the Soda Butte Lodge for chicken-fried steaks big enough to feed a wolf.

We'll also never forget the abundance of elk and bison along, and on, the road during our drive back through the north part of the park at dusk.

The herds take full advantage of the new shoots, which grow better near the warm asphalt of the road.

It was too dark for pictures. Besides, I didn't dare take my eyes off the road, or my hands off the wheel, for a second.

Even so, I nearly collected one massive elk. My vehicle was also challenged briefly by one bison, out of a group of six, after I'd already passed him.

I delivered my son safely to Yellowstone Lake the next day. I had just left the lake and was driving up the pass toward Old Faithful when I noticed about two dozen cars pulled over on both sides of the road.

Proving that some folks on vacation leave their brains at home, a man was standing in the middle of the highway, tossing meat from a cooler to a mangy-looking coyote near the guardrail. He was trying to coax the coyote out into the road.

He probably didn't know he was killing the coyote. Park information handed out at every gate clearly states that carnivores fed by humans get used to human food and have to be shot.

It also dawned on me that two dozen cars wouldn't have stopped for a coyote, a mere prairie rat. Their hopes and imaginations had turned the scrawny mutt into a wolf.

Sorry folks, but no wild wolf would ever come that close to a human being, or accept scraps.

I knew that if they, or I, ever witnessed the power and nobility of a true wolf, we would never mistake it for anything else.