DREAMSCAPES SPRIG/SUMMER 2022
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IN THE LAND OF THE WOLF WATCHERS
 
(2022 - Spring/Summer Issue)

Writer: CAROL PATTERSON



Each spring in Yellowstone National Park where wolves flourish, vehicles bearing licence plates from across the U.S. and Canada arrive long before sunrise. These people are the core of a loose band of wolf watchers obsessed with Yellowstone’s canids. Many are on vacation, some are retired—yet all are keen—returning annually to record wolf activity that is shared in a regular newsletter read even when they return home. My alarm chirped at 4:50 a.m.—late for many of the park’s wolf watchers—but I wanted to avoid a moose collision on my daybreak drive into the park. My host greeted me with coffee before leading our group into the lush, wide meadow of Lamar Valley, an area sometimes compared to the Serengeti because of its easy-to-spot wildlife.

Lining the road where wolves are often seen sat vehicles, fleece-clad adventurers huddled near spotting scopes, sharing stories and cookies.

Inside Offer

For two spring days I was invited to slip into this wolf-crazy culture, snuggling into a warm parka befitting a wolf fangirl. I lugged a borrowed spotting scope to a small rise where grey heads bent over high-powered optics scanning ridges most likely to conceal a wolf.

Icy wind lashed my face. Tears streamed down my cold cheeks as people milled about. Some wolf fans sported paw-shaped pins on their lapels; others donned wolf-emblazoned sweatshirts peeking out from under down layers.

Yellowstone Diversity

Nearly 100 years ago wolves vanished from Yellowstone’s landscape. Back then, farmers felt it was necessary to protect nearby livestock. The last pack was killed in 1926. But in 1995 events changed. Packs of grey wolves from western Canada were relocated with a realization that wolves were important to the park’s ecosystem. Their presence started a cascade of positive ecological change, and ever since there has been a tourism boon.

Today, the park is renowned as having the most beloved wolves in the world.

And there I was—one lucky Canadian plunked into a Mother Nature show that pre-COVID annually attracted four million people to Yellowstone National Park. With eight wolf packs now sharing Yellowstone’s valleys and mountain plateaus and bringing balance back to land overgrazed by elk, I noticed people tended to pick a favourite pack much the way teenagers pick a beloved sports team. The Junction Butte pack are good at hunting bison as are the Mollie pack—named for Mollie Beattie, Director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service who carried in one of the original wolves for release while battling brain cancer.

Way to Watch

I was in Junction Butte territory and although I was a neophyte wolf stalker, I’d spent hours watching birds and knew to look for any motion.

Suddenly in plain view—at least to me—was a chocolate-brown-coloured wolf. I studied it carefully lest I commit the beginner’s sin of misidentifying a coyote, before murmuring, “There’s a wolf out there.” With no reaction, I kept my head down and now shouted loudly, “There’s a wolf!”

People ran to their scopes. With calls of “Where’s the wolf?” ringing across the meadow, I described the location as the shaggy canine dog-paddled a swift-moving river towards a drowned elk. Glancing furtively about, the carnivore slunk up to the carcass, gnashing tendons and bones and gulping down meat as ravens attacked from above.

Success

A hand-held radio crackled nearby, a tinny voice querying if anyone had seen wolves. A confirmation sparked a flurry of movement as people hurried to the scene. Two curious motorists also stopped and were invited to peer through a scope. “You got first wolf of the day!” my friend exclaimed, presenting me with a pin of a silver paw print, “You’re now one of us!”

I smiled as I watched the wolf trot bravely through a bison herd, the sun glinting off my new jewellery, cementing my kinship to Yellowstone’s wolf watcher culture.

An Uncertain Future 

Scientists credit wolves with restoring balance to Yellowstone’s ecosystem, reducing elk populations and allowing aspen and willows to recover from overgrazing. Now more beaver and songbirds are seen. Wolf packs have also created economic benefits for tourism operators with some of the U.S.’s most visible wolf populations but not everyone is a fan.

When wolves in the lower 48 states were stripped of Endangered Species Act protection in 2020 and hunting quotas near the national park were removed, mortality increased to levels not seen since the reintroduction. In the most recent season, 20 per cent of Yellowstone’s wolf population were killed when animals wandered outside the park. The Phantom Lake Pack has been completely eliminated and wolf lovers are rallying for wolf protection. There are only roughly 95 wolves that now call the park home.

Travel Planner

Yellowstone National Park nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/index.htm

Stay in Cooke City, Colter Pass or Silver Gate near the wolves of Lamar Valley cookecitychamber.org

Rent a spotting scope – Optics Yellowstone in Gardiner opticsyellowstone.com or Silver Gate Lodging General Store silvergatelodging.com/swarovski-spotting-scopes-for-rent

Subscribe to Yellowstone Reports for wolf sighting locations yellowstonereports.com

 
 
 
 
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