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The Cost of the Wild

Restoring an ecosystem to primitive grandeur is no simple matter in a complex world

Pat Shipman

It was a National Geographic day that I never thought I’d experience. I was in Yellowstone National Park on a course run jointly by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the Yellowstone Association looking at controversies surrounding the park. I expected it would be great, but I never expected what happened on our fourth day.

Some of us diehard naturalists decided to abandon our “day off” to go back to Lamar Valley in the northeast corner of Yellowstone hoping to see the grizzlies and wolves that had so far been elusive. With only about 100 wolves in the park, seeing one was a matter of good luck and knowledge. One of our excellent instructors, Brad Bulin, knew that a bison had been killed in the valley the day before and hoped we would find wolves at the carcass.

When we arrived, the wolf researchers who were already there told us that the Lamar Canyon Pack was on the carcass near dawn. They had chased off a grizzly and then killed a wolf from another pack that dared to eat from their carcass. The wolf’s body was out of sight from the road but not far away. The pack was back on the carcass, strutting and gorging, and generally feeling their power and their full bellies.

2012-11MargShipmanFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThe wolves were beautiful—some gray with black and bits of brown, a few pure black, one nearly white. Brad told us it was a strong pack formed a few years earlier by the alpha female and a pair of brothers she had teamed up with. Now they were eight strong, with at least four pups in a nearby den. The two- and three-year-old youngsters were already good hunters. They were a powerful group.

They finished eating for the moment and strolled down the slope to the river. Two young black wolves jumped into the water and others pounced on each other and played, while their elders lapped genteelly at the cool water and found comfortable places to nap.

After watching them for about half an hour, I glanced back up at the carcass, where ravens were enjoying the abundant leftovers. I focused my binoculars on something gray: a wolf. I refocused on the pack and counted: one-two-three … yes, all eight were down on the river flats. “There’s another wolf on the carcass,” I said.

One of my companions answered, “No, all eight are by the river.”

“No, look,” I said. They looked.

Somebody asked Brad if it could be a coyote. He said, “If that’s a coyote, it’s the biggest one in history. That’s a wolf.”

Nine wolves were in sight. As we speculated on what the appearance of another wolf meant, the pack sat up, looked around and sniffed the air. They knew the ninth wolf was there.

The alpha female stood up and started to lead the pack up the slope to where the carcass lay. When the ninth wolf came into their sight, the pack broke into a run. The ninth wolf took off at top speed. Soon the pack was flat out after the stranger. It was a long chase and they moved incredibly swiftly across the slope. At one point the strange wolf had a considerable lead, and I thought it might escape. Then one of the younger pack wolves took over the role of main pursuer and slowly narrowed the gap. As he closed on the lone wolf and bit it on the rear, the drama moved to an area where the leaves of a cottonwood tree shielded the details from our view. We saw each pursuing wolf literally jump into the fray. Fur flew. Tails went up in the air. The lone wolf never came out and probably died.

Dancing and jumping, the pack celebrated its third triumph of the day. Since dawn, they had defended their kill and territory against two wolves, most likely from the adjacent Mollie’s Pack. Brad speculated that, if these loners were both from Mollie’s, losing two adults in one day might be the end of that pack as a cohesive entity. The Lamar Canyon Pack wolves returned to the bison carcass exuberantly, ate some more, and later settled down at the river’s edge to snore and rest. Life was very very good for them.

We humans were overwhelmed by what we had seen. This was the kind of event—a high-speed chase of at least ¾ mile, a pack defending its prey and its territory, a lone wolf running for its life—that casual visitors never get to see.

We watched for another half hour and thought about leaving to go to another area. Our heads were full of images and new understanding of the beauty and harshness of a wolf’s life. Watching wolves pursue and kill another wolf gave us a more realistic idea of what being a wolf means. They are more than majestic, strong, beautiful creatures, reminders of the wildness that is all too rare in our country. We were forced to face the fact that wolves not only prey on other species, they also kill their own kind, mercilessly. The reality of life is that, if they do not kill intruders, they and their pups may starve. Even in Yellowstone’s abundant ecosystem—full of bison, elk, deer, pronghorn and moose—there are not enough ungulates to allow other wolves in your territory.

Knowing how predators live and seeing it are two different things. We were quiet for a while, thinking about what we had seen.

“There’s a grizzly!” Brad cried. Probably a mile or two to the northwest, clearly visible against the green meadow, was a very large, very black grizzly bear. It was making straight for the carcass. Flicking our attention back and forth from grizzly to carcass to wolf pack, we saw the Lamar Pack sense, yet again, that an intruder was moving in. They sat up, sniffed and stared in the direction of the grizzly. The alpha female again led her pack up the hill and toward the grizzly, increasing their speed to a run. The grizzly moved relentlessly and faster toward the pack.

Who would lose or back down? Though grizzlies are usually dominant to wolves, a pack of eight was a serious opponent. Grizzly and wolves came closer and closer to each other. After a brief skirmish, the grizzly was in the middle, four wolves behind and four wolves closer to the carcass. Abruptly, the wolves decided they needed to return to their napping place by the river. The confrontation was over.

The bear loped to the carcass and spent several minutes rolling all over it, wiggling its feet in the air in a manner that can only be described as silly. It was a means of marking the carcass as his (or hers), of course. After chasing off a few impudent ravens—who returned almost immediately—the bear settled down for a meal, pulling and tugging at the dead bison. The wolves rested, their eyes closed or focused in another direction. After a surprisingly short snack, the bear walked off to rest in the shade of the trees up the hill from the carcass. It looked almost as if the main point of the bear’s visit was not to satiate hunger but to demonstrate dominance over the wolves. This might have been the very same grizzly the Lamar Pack had chased off earlier in the day.

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