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Looking for Wolves in Yellowstone

You can see wolves in Yellowstone without a guide easily enough–but it’ll take some work and tolerance for long-distance viewing. The re-introduction of gray wolves back into the park in 1995 has changed the typical Yellowstone tourist from a bear maniac to at least a dual purpose animal watcher. Now the second most popular question for rangers is where they can see wolves.

The answer–for anyone who hasn’t seen the thousands of PBS wolf documentaries or print stories–is Lamar Valley. Visitors used to skip the road out of Roosevelt Lodge into the northeast quadrant of the park. But since wolves were brought back in 1995–over the loud objections of the farm bureau and ranchers–they’ve been a huge attraction. They’ve had a bigger impact on the ecosystem and visitors’ experience than most would have predicted. They’re still shy and there are probably less than 100 in the park, but researchers, wolf fanatics and just regular visitors can see them from the roadside.

“Honestly, we were blindsided—none of us ever thought the wolves would be visible,”  Doug Smith, wolf project leader at Yellowstone National Park, told Scott Kirkwood in a 2006 National Parks Conservation Association article. “I worked on Isle Royale National Park for 13 years and if I saw one wolf a summer, I was thrilled, but here in Yellowstone, people now expect to see wolves and a lot of them do.”

We knew to drive in Lamar Valley at dusk and dawn and to look for the people with the giant spotting scopes. Spotting scopes still confer seriousness, but they have proliferated so not everyone who has one is a pro. Then we got a tip to check out the Slough (pronounced slew) Creek campground road for a den across the ridge. Sure enough, there was a big wolf jam, with everyone sitting roadside trying to get a speck of a wolf in sight. As my husband David said, “it’s like a tailgate party and nobody knows whose playing.” More people kept showing up, asking what everyone was seeing.

The densite is quite convenient with a road full of distant lookouts across the valley, enough to accommodate the 75-100 people. People tend to be competitive about the size of their lens, but also generous with allowing non-spotting scope holders to take a peak. Wolf viewing turned into a team sport. Even with powerful spotting scopes, the wolves were just hazy shapes that easily got lost in the sage brush. So wolf-watching became a team sport: as soon as anyone spotted the black male (known by the serious watchers as 755M), a pup or the lighter female, we’d call out the location. The landscape on the opposite hill has several landmarks against which all wolves are places: the three dead aspen, the rock, the row of pines and the two trees amidst a patch of very green grass. The den was off to the right. One couple from Pennsylvania shared a laminated flier they found in one general store that explained who was who.

It is hard to know who’s playing out here. Ralph Maughan’s Wildlife News had a post from Kathie Lynch earlier this year explaining that the female is: “the alpha of 755M’s Group, the infamous “’06 Female,” (originally an Agate and lately of the Lava Creek pack).”  Bill Hamblin at Yellowstone Up Close and Personal has a great discussion of the various males seen in the area. I’m still unclear if the black male we saw roaming around the hillside was 755M or his probable brother 754M or 174M of the silver pack.

Inconveniently for wolf watchers, pack dynamics are really dynamic. National Geographic had a fantastic cover story, Wolf Wars, just a few months back that had a really cool interactive map, though the data was from 2008. The Parks Service has a 2009 map  of wolf pack locations, but even that is dated.

If you look at the video you might think, sheesh, was that all you got to see? Actually, it’s just the highlight reel, the really exciting bits. Of all the animals, we probably put in the most time trying to see wolves and they were the ones we saw from the greatest distance. My biggest wolf watching achievement and probably best picture was the wolf scat–both fresh and a few days old!–I found near Trout Lake. But everyone there was pretty excited to see the wolves. The Pennsylvania guy said “I’m not sure why I’m so excited to see that black dot,” but we all were. Wolves are, for whatever reason, special.

If I had to do it again I’d:

Where to Go Look for Wolves

Wildlife Watching in Yellowstone

Yellowstone Wolf Pack Map

Yellowstone Wolf Pack Map

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