Editor's note: This is the second in a series of stories about watching wildlife in Yellowstone National Park with Belton resident Waldo Montgomery.
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — It was the first full day of wolf-watching for this long-time Southerner and I was getting cold feet — literally.
A lesson for Yellowstone visitors — always take at least one more layer than you think you’ll need, and don’t judge the conditions in town to what it’s going to be like in the mountains.
Belton resident Waldo Montgomery, a seasoned wolf-watcher, spent several days in snow and cold rain during his “spring” trip this year. He’s obviously tougher than me. He actually prefers the winter visits because there’s fewer people in the park.
The bamboo-charcoal socks I ordered to avoid scratchy wool on skin were quite warm at home and in the hotel, but I was feeling like a cool fool as we stood in the darkness and the twilight.
Experienced wolf-watchers were expecting some to be bedded down in the Lamar Valley. One man was present at 8 the previous night to see a kill. There was a dead bison — aka buffalo — clearly visible to all the regulars that took me minutes to find with a rented spotting scope. Also on the menu were remains of two “red dogs” — bison calves — in gullies that prevented us from seeing the bodies from our vantage point beside the road, above the valley.
“Follow the ravens” was part of Waldo’s expert advice and there were a lot of dark black birds clustered on all three kills.
But it was not the ravens I focused on early — it was the frigid feet.
Fortunately for my search efforts, the regular wolf watchers are a jovial and friendly bunch — in part I’m sure because of my being there with Waldo, whose Facebook posts are well known, appreciated and watched by thousands.
Craig Chynoweth was particularly helpful. As we waited, I learned he was expecting to become a millionaire through a startup company he was involved in, SynSel, that would make fuel out of natural products. Yet he was out there, watching wolves, willing to get up at dark-thirty to see the canine cousins of man’s best friend.
He and Waldo helped me to finally spot the ravens.
As the day dawned, there was more — eagles feasting on the carcass. There were eventually six eagles — something regular observers said was a record for them at one location. At first they were identified as five golden eagles and a bald eagle, but later comments on Waldo’s Facebook post said that they were all bald eagles, with most of them not old enough yet to get the distinctive white plumage of our national emblem.
Usually, Craig said, if there were as many as three eagles they were fighting. But this time food triumphed over fighting. Perhaps the bigger birds didn’t want to tangle with the wolves they knew would be returning.
The ravens weren’t as threatened by the wolves, except much later in the afternoon when one of the yearlings — a favorite of Waldo’s — gave them a playful chase, for fun, not for food.
Bison in the valley seemed unconcerned for the most part, at one point having a small group stroll directly over a carcass site.
When the wolves finally appeared, the watchers lit up, with some announcing locations. Myra from Indiana was particularly good. When Waldo checked out her 25-plus-year-old binoculars, he was impressed — it was light, compact and had excellent optics. She had tried to find the same type online and had been unsuccessful.
Which brings up a point for potential wildlife watchers — get the right equipment or you may be groping for locations of the animals or dependent on the kindness of others to give you a look.
Even with my rented spotting scope, which retails at $2,000, and a 400mm camera lens with a 2x extender, it was slow learning.
The right equipment
You need a steady tripod, Waldo told me in preparation. When the wind blew hard it took a while keeping things focused. A lack of regular usage by me of the equipment probably didn’t help, as I was trying to learn while I did things.
But the wolf sightings — two adults and two yearlings — was, as Waldo later said, an adrenaline rush that warmed you up, like the weather did eventually.
The male adult eventually chowed down, mostly out of sight, on a calf he had reportedly finished off the day before when one of the yearlings didn’t appear ready to. One observer said the calf, already severely wounded, returned to the wolf to be killed. Some called it naïve.
While some are invariably feeling sorry for the dead calf at this point, wolf watchers point out that the herd is strengthened by the predators’ presence.
Without the removal of ill animals that wolves spot long before it is visible to human beings, disease spreads. Elks were laying waste — in more ways than one — to areas to the point there was erosion on rivers and bark being eaten off many of the trees. More species are thriving in Yellowstone after the return of the wolves, as the balance of nature is returning. The recovery of aspen in the area was documented by Luke Painter, a wildlife ecologist at Oregon State University.
Just as Yellowstone recovered from serious fires in 1988, the wolves help control the elk population, which still has to be culled — killed by humans.
The wolves return also finally brought a predator that sometimes can bring down adult bison, the heaviest land animal in the North American ecology. Park staff doesn’t like to talk about the fact that they had to cull the bison herds to keep them from overgrazing.
We’d heard the four wolves howling a morning greeting as they gathered near the buffalo carcass. It was a moving sound, as the watchers quieted down to hear the wolves call. (See related video.)
Hours later came another surprise — howling from up the hill, from behind the road where the watchers gathered in pullout areas. Attention diverted from the valley to the hill, as more of the Junction Butte pack were spotted.
The Wolf Spotter
Rick McIntyre, the Wolf Spotter, strolled down toward the howlers, looked up the hill and quickly announced there were eight wolves. I did some mental gymnastics. Eight plus the four in the valley equaled 12 — but the Buttes were a pack of 11. A new addition?
And if Rick said there were eight wolves, there were. All of the wolf watchers held him in reverence — he is the Yellowstone wolf expert, having watched them daily since their return to the park.
Some of the howling may have been a ruse.
“Unseen by the wolf watchers,” Waldo said, “the four wolves in the valley somehow managed to slip through or around the human barrier and joined the newcomers on the slope behind us.”
The watchers tried to follow the wolves through the sage and the gullies, a tough task. The animals naturally blended into the background and foreground and … well, pretty much everything except for clear areas. But the experienced watchers, particularly Rick, were able to keep up with them for a while.
Wolves and bison often travel in single file — perhaps to distort numbers for anything trying to track them.
It seemed to me that subterfuge was a part of the wolves’ habits.
More waiting ensued.
Finally, Waldo was wondering if we should head to another location in hopes of seeing more. I always followed my faithful guide’s advice. We loaded up.
As we headed slowly down the road, Waldo’s seat belt alarm was going off, so he slowed to attach it.
Then we saw something he’d never seen in all of his trips to watch wolves.
‘There’s a wolf!’
One darted from behind an indentation that would have made the animals virtually impossible to see, going across the road in front of us back to the valley. He exclaimed, “There’s a wolf!”
We both grabbed cameras in hopes of seeing more and weren’t disappointed. Four more wolves followed.
“I’m not sure I got it,” I exclaimed as I had to put the camera out the window and shoot “blind” without using the viewfinder.
Waldo noted that he’d never seen wolves so close and crossing the road like that.
The long lineup of wolf watchers had led us to think they would not cross nearby. I guess having a meal down in the valley brought them back.
We returned to our previous location on the Lamar Valley road jubilant with what Waldo calls a “wolf high.”
I treasure that day among few others. Eight wolves seen, including five up close and personal crossing the road. Seven that I could see in photos I took.
A beautiful spring day of about perfect temperature … after the sun came out, at least. And to think it started off with cold feet.
Next: One bear shares, but others don’t.