Encounter at Slough Creek

Dennis Deck

Over the hill they came. Nine dark shapes passed swiftly in the waning light. These were perfectly designed running machines, effortlessly covering a dozen feet with each powerful bound. They ran with efficiency and purpose. There was no mistaking it—this was the Druid Peak wolf pack on the move! The alpha male in the lead would occasionally stop momentarily to scan the meadows below and then look back to check on the nearly full-grown pups bringing up the rear, their tails streamed out behind them. Some wolves were shades of gray but most were black as a moonless night.

Exhilarated, my wife, Ginny, and I took turns at the spotting scope watching the show. After years of searching (even two weeks in the area around Denali National Park in Alaska did not produce wolves), we were finally viewing these magnificent animals. It was late September and most of the facilities in Yellowstone National Park were closing down in preparation for the heavy winter snows, a good time to observe wildlife without the summer crowds. We had stopped at the Slough Creek Campground access road that evening to check out the lay of the land since we planned to return early the next morning to this area. I had been researching the Druid Creek pack in preparation for this trip and Slough Creek was often mentioned. Noticing a man with a spotting scope beside the road, we stopped to ask if wolves had been spotted recently. It turned out that he was an off-duty park ranger and had spotted them that morning in the Lamar Valley, the first sighting in several weeks. He was anticipating that the pack would head this way for the evening’s hunt. Sure enough, five minutes after setting up our scope we spotted them coming through the pass into the Slough Creek area.

A crowd gathered quickly as cars driving by noted our excitement. The pack moved so fast that it was hard to keep pace with the scope. We followed the pack as long as we could from that position and then jumped in the car to give chase. At one point the pack came a stones throw from the road but then melted into the darkness.

The next morning at first light I returned to find a number of wolf watchers beside the road watching the Druids. During the night the pack killed an elk and was still at the carcass. They alternated feeding, resting, and socializing for the next two hours. From time to time one of the wolves would throw back its head and howl. Immediately the others would jump up and join in the chorus. It was clearly an important pack behavior and the wolves seemed to delight in the act. Finally the pack disappeared into the heavy timber, leaving the rest of the carcass to the ravens.

That night we camped at Slough Creek to be close to the action. Staggering out in the early morning light I found that perhaps twenty wolf watchers and researchers were already positioned on a hill overlooking the valley. Following the direction of their scopes I could make out a lone wolf resting near another kill. As we waited for further activity around the kill, we were distracted by the sudden cry of magpies. Turning our scopes in the opposite direction we discovered a second wolf pack on a kill right below us! Apparently the seldom seen Rose Creek pack had moved into the area and taken down an elk during the night. Though close to the road, the kill was in the middle of Slough Creek and could only be seen from our vantage point on the hill. The alpha male was feeding on the carcass with a gallery of ravens and magpies watching from the bushes along the stream. Two more wolves sat nearby, waiting for the alpha male to finish. Further scanning revealed more wolves resting part way up the hill opposite us. Eventually the alpha male had his fill and started off with the stragglers close at his heels. As he approached their resting place, the rest of the pack jumped up and ran down to greet him. It was a joyous occasion with much tail wagging, vocalizations, and physical contact. This was textbook pack behavior and I felt so honored to be able to observe it. We counted nine wolves in all, only about a third of the Rose Creek pack. Three females had pups last spring bringing the pack to nearly 30 members. We speculated that the pack may have split since wolf packs rarely get that large except where bison are the primary prey.

As the wolves climbed up the hill towards heavy timber, our attention returned to the kill. Over the next hour there was a procession of scavengers at the site: magpies, ravens, bald eagles, and two coyotes. Biologists believe that all these wolf kills, distributed across the park and occurring all year long, are having a dramatic impact on the ecosystem. For example, grizzlies are benefiting since the white pine cone crop has been poor in recent years and a couple of elk carcasses add much needed protein and fat in preparation for winter. In fact, a study nicknamed "Food for the Masses" is currently documenting the scavenger activity around each kill.

With extensive tracts of wilderness and a high concentration of elk and other prey species, Yellowstone is ideal wolf habitat. The original gray wolf population was exterminated in 1926. However, during 1995 and 1996, wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone. A total of 31 wolves were trapped in Canada and brought to holding pens in several locations to acclimatize before release. By May of 1999, the wolf population had already expanded to 110 despite 68 fatalities. Clearly the program has been very successful, much to the chagrin of area ranchers. Although park officials and groups supporting the reintroduction have done a remarkable job of minimizing conflicts, area residents are still quite divided on the issue. Supporters are anxiously awaiting the results of an appeal to overturn a recent legal decision that calls for removal of the wolves.

For information about Yellowstone’s wolf population, there are several web sites documenting the reintroduction or providing the history of each pack (e.g., see www.nps.gov/yell/nature/animals.wolf, www.gomontana.com/bearman/wolves.html, and www.poky.srv.net/~jjmrm/wpages/yell-o.htm). There are a number of good books on wolves that you will find in the bookstores within the park, including one by our friend James Halfpenny.

The Druid Creek pack is usually seen in the Lamar Valley during the winter and spring since this is an important winter range for hoofed mammals and the alpha female dens near the confluence with Soda Butte Creek. The pack stays relatively close to the den to help feed and care for the new pups born each spring. The Slough Creek area is often good since the ranges of the Druid Peak pack and Rose Creek pack overlap there. During the summer and fall, the wolves are not tied to the den and will follow the elk herds to higher country and thus are harder to observe.

If you want to see wolves, plan to arrive early in the area where wolves have been active recently. Most wolf sightings are made within the first two hours after first light. Wolves typically bed down during the daylight hours and are seldom seen midday. Return to the area about an hour before dark since the pack is active again or may return to a previous kill. Watch the behavior of elk and bison for signs of wariness or flight that might signal wolf activity. Look for ravens, magpies, bald eagles, and other scavengers that are attracted to wolf kills. Scan knolls where the wolves might position themselves. A spotting scope is very helpful since sightings are often at a distance. Check out cars stopped by the road since there are usually other wolf watchers around, some of them have developed an intimate knowledge of the Yellowstone packs. In particular learn to identify any researchers studying the pack as they may have the equipment to help locate the wolves with radio collars. Park officials have nurtured a wolf-watching etiquette to protect both wolf and visitor. They would like us to stay next to the road and resist the temptation to press forward for a closer look. Although the wolves ignored us while we stood beside the road, I observed that they were extremely wary of anyone off road.