Editor’s note: This is the final story of a series on watching wolves and other wildlife in Yellowstone National Park with Belton resident Waldo Montgomery. The entire series, with videos and photos, is available on www.tdtnews.com. Click on the Wolf Watching in Yellowstone logo to see the series.
By JERRY PRICKETT
TELEGRAM STAFF WRITER
WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. — If you can’t see wolves, grizzlies or eagles in the wild while visiting Yellowstone National Park, your best bet is the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center.
John Heine, who has worked there 23 years, said he just loves being around animals and showing them to people.
The center has presentations scheduled throughout the day, ranging from how bears act, to stories on returning wolves to the park, to information on some of the rescued birds at the facility.
“We tell some things they never knew,” Heine said, giving visitors a greater appreciation of the wildlife.
The grizzlies at the center were either orphaned or deemed unsafe after too many interactions with people. Relocation is tried to start with, and taking the animals into the shelter often is a last resort to keep the animals from being killed.
Heine said the wolves have all been in captivity and wouldn’t adjust to the wild. But people visiting can still get a picture of how socially cohesive the animals are, he said.
Attacks from wolves in the wild are extremely rare, Heine said, and almost always come when they have been habituated — become used to being around people and seeing them as a source of food — or if they feel cornered or are in bad shape physically.
He noted a lot more people are attacked by bison, particularly at the park.
Among the presentations at the center was a video on the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone. Doug Smith, the head of the recovery program, said on the video he never dreamed he would be in that position, and it truly was a labor of love.
Tut Fuentevilla, a center employee, spoke on wolves on a spring Friday. He said the center’s wolves, like those in the wild, are more active around dawn and dusk.
Feeding at the center, Fuentevilla said, tries to not give the animals the meals directly as we do pets, but get them to locate it, simulating more natural activities and stimulating them.
A typical pack is made up of about 10 wolves, Fuentevilla said, with adults weighing between 100 and 135 pounds. “They’re big animals,” he said, but not nearly as big as their prey. Elks are usually from 500 to 700 pounds, he said.
Predators don’t always win
He noted that the wolves don’t always get the better of the bigger animals either. The elk is as fast as the wolf, so catching one can require a great expenditure of energy, Fuentevilla said. A kick from a fleeing elk can crush a wolf’s skull or break a femur, incapacitating the predator.
He said 15 percent of wolves are killed by their prey. Wolves are intensely territorial, with an estimated 65 percent of the deaths in Yellowstone coming from other wolves in conflict over territory, Fuentevilla said.
A grizzly — bigger and more powerful — is “much more able to kill an elk” on its own, but often don’t have to as they take over carcasses of animals killed by wolves, he said.
Wolves work to manipulate the hunt to their advantage, Fuentevilla said. They use terrain features, getting part of the landscape where elks are less likely to kick. The wolves pass up on “poor opportunities,” he said and learn to hunt better as they age.
They are “taught behavior by older members of the pack,” he said.He said that adults cooperate with their siblings.
In the wild wolves eat two or three meals a week, Fuentevilla said, noting that they can eat huge meals up to a quarter of their body weight. “They eat as much as they can as quick as they can,” he said, because at any moment a bear could charge in and get on the carcass — making it much harder for the wolf pack to dine.
“Every wolf pack hunts in a slightly different way,” he said, noting that the hunting of bison has grown as members that left one pack for mating purposes taught other packs how to hunt the larger creatures, which can weigh 2,000 pounds. Even smaller bison females can be twice the size of an elk.
“The Mollies Pack adapted to hunt bison,” Fuentevilla said, using unique strategies to isolate individual animals from the herd. “From a (animal) management perspective it would be ideal for more wolves to hunt bison.”
Without predators culling the herds, they can grow to be more than what the park can support.
Fuentevilla said that when park staff have to cull bison, it’s random. “Wolves cull the weakest ones. When hunting removes the fittest animals — that’s not good.”
Also not good, he said, is when the alphas — the leaders — of a wolf pack are killed. They are sometimes targeted by human hunters.
There’s also an issue of bison migrating out of the park, which puts them in competition with domestic herds and brings concerns of disease spreading. There is some killing of bison that get too far out of the park.
One of the biggest concerns of Belton resident and wolf watcher Waldo Montgomery is about chronic wasting disease, which affects deer, elk and moose. He sees wolves as the best defense against the disease spreading and possibly infecting other animals.
Grizzly, raptor programs
The center also has programs on grizzly bears and predatory birds.
They do research on things like “bear-safe” containers — which hopefully helps campers be less attractive to wild bears. They also give advice on how to act around bears and avoid being attacked.
The birds on display from May through November include several bald eagles, a golden eagle, horned owls, a peregrine falcon, rough-legged hawks, a northern saw-whet owl and a turkey vulture.
About the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center
The center features live bears and wolves 365 days a year, with raptors on display in a seasonal outdoor exhibit area from May through November. The planned North American River Otter Riparian Exhibit is a complex system of ponds, streams and terrain. The center also has inside exhibits — for information, go to www.grizzlydiscoveryctr.org.