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Wolf Watching

O'Gara is a Wyoming-based freelance writer and TV documentary producer

The spotting scope is aimed like a compact machine gun at the northern slopes of the Lamar Valley, and I, the hapless gunner, am swiveling it around. Trying to find a focus on anything, I wave it back and forth in ever-widening arcs, a full 90 degrees. My companions duck.

What’s that I see? A wolf?

No, it’s the flecked hat of an obstetrician from Salt Lake City. She’s one of about a dozen of us on an organized wolf hunt through the wilderness. There can be no guarantee of what we’ll see--the wolves are wild and show up when they feel like it--but for my money, it’s worth the chance. At worst, I’ll have to settle for merely seeing shaggy bison, coyotes, bald eagles and elk in the wild, pine-fringed Lamar valley.

Wolves were once commonplace in and around Yellowstone, but from the 1880s on, settlers, hunters and even tourists considered them a nuisance. They were systematically eliminated, not just by ranchers but also by a federal program favoring livestock. A 1978 study concluded that despite occasional reports of wolf sightings, the species, canis lupus, had actually been absent from Yellowstone since the 1920s.

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But in 1995, after a 20-year campaign to restore what wildlife advocates claimed was an essential predator to the Yellowstone ecosystem, 14 Canadian wolves were transplanted to pens in the park and, after an acclimation period, released. In January 1996, 11 more transplants joined them. Local ranchers complained that the wolves were certain to wander out of the park into areas where sheep and cattle would be a convenient and compliant form of fast food. And they were right--the wolves have indeed toured non-park areas of Montana, dining now and then on leg of lamb--but the protests failed to stop the introduction. Packs are now roaming the Yellowstone wilds, and at least four wolf dens are reported to have had new litters this spring. Park officials estimate that, despite a small number of wolf fatalities, there are now 40 or more wolves in Yellowstone, a total difficult to confirm given the elusive nature of the animal.

Even with the apparently successful wolf reintroduction in progress, wolves are not nearly as commonplace in the Northern Rockies as they were 80 years ago; nor will the shy creatures probably ever stroll down the road like Yellowstone’s lackadaisical bison. My companions and I have improved our chances of seeing the wolves by taking the Yellowstone Institute course “Yellowstone’s Wolves” from Jim Halfpenny, a biologist of renowned tracking skills, but he’s making no promises. For a few months last summer, wolves put on a show every day just across the Lamar River, and tourists could pull their Chevys over and watch. But we’re not having that kind of luck today.

Now, in early spring, it’s harder to find them, and we’re squinting at specks on distant knolls, shifting shapes among the trees. We’re lined up along the Lamar Valley road like a spotting scope firing squad, trying to get a glimpse of a pack that is rumored to be in this area.

No one was surprised last year when wolf T-shirts began selling in park stores like ice cream in August. Wolf reintroduction had been hashed over in magazines and newspapers nationwide, and the animal had become a symbol of wildness resurgent, like the grizzly bear. Also like grizzlies, the wolves were not expected to make public appearances. They would likely disappear, biologists said, into the deep wilderness of the Yellowstone plateau, into wild country that sees only a handful of the 3 million visitors who come to the park each year. That suited the biologists just fine. They hoped the furor in the ranching community would quiet down, and the furry Canadian immigrants could begin making new lives out of sight in the back country.

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As it turned out, that’s not exactly what happened.

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The Lamar Valley is in the northeast corner of Yellowstone, with a river running through it and a little-used road that runs out of the park to the small mountain towns of Red Lodge and Cooke City, Mont. The valley is wide and long, with grassy bottoms and forested edges running east to west. A bison herd grazes on the south side, across the river from the road. Elk wander about. Eagles fly, coyotes amble. Bighorn sheep sometimes show up on the crags.

Last summer, when the wolves emerged from the woods on the south side of the valley, most of the other wildlife reacted indifferently. The exception was the coyotes, who moved from being the No. 1 elk predator to being No. 2, and now must defer to the wolves, according to biologist Bob Crabtree. There was some hunting by the wolves, but more cavorting. “The predominant behavior we saw was play,” said Rick McIntyre, a National Park Service ranger. “The yearlings were chasing each other, ambushing, having a good time.”

It was just what tourists want to see. Cars began to stop along the road; a few at first, and then word got around. Soon there were hundreds. The park had no plan, and no funding, for managing wolf-watchers, but the tourists handled themselves well. “There seemed to be an ethical sense among them. If someone left the main group to walk closer, they would get yelled at,” said McIntyre, who volunteered to keep an eye on things.

Late in July, the wolves began departing Lamar, heading into the mountains in search of food, trailing an elk herd’s seasonal migration.

“Wolves are, plain and simple, killers,” said Doug Smith, the biologist who oversees the park’s wolf program. Smith was talking to my group in the headquarters of the Yellowstone Institute, a three-room building in the northeast corner of the park, where guests meet and talk. An active pack, for example, may kill about one elk a day. It might also kill an occasional coyote. Yellowstone’s wolves have never been known to attack people, but this is also the land of bison and grizzlies, which can be aggressive when humans enter their space. So if you leave well-traveled areas, consult park rangers about dangers and precautions.

For biologists, this is an unprecedented opportunity, watching a species learn how to survive in a new habitat. There are plenty of surprises as the wolves shift about, form new packs and kill off excess elk. Just last week, a wolf died from injuries caused in an attack by another wolf pack, possibly over a territorial dispute, according to rangers. Whenever the weather allows, biologists track the various wolf groups from an airplane. (Some of the wolves also wear unobtrusive radio collars).

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The Rose Creek Pack, deemed most likely to appear in our spotting scopes, has an interesting history. Released in 1995, a group of three (two females and a male) moved north, out of the park toward Red Lodge. The younger female went off on her own and the other female became pregnant. Just before the eight pups were born, the male was found shot dead, and the female gave birth out in the open, instead of in a den.

Biologists, who had vowed not to intervene, decided to. They brought the female and her brood back to the park, and the pups started life in an acclimation pen. After their release, one was hit and killed by a delivery truck, but the others have grown up to form a very active pack, killing about one elk a day, Halfpenny said.

Yellowstone Institute program participants sleep in a cluster of old cabins tucked to one side of the Lamar Valley, miles away from the crowds that line up to see Old Faithful’s performances. It’s a bit spartan, but this is a hardy group, quite knowledgeable and ready to brave the elements. During our three-day visit, my group and I had lessons in tracking from Halfpenny, a lecture by Smith and treks around the valley in search of wolves.

Not surprisingly, the $115 wolf classes are among the most popular items in the institute catalog, which offers dozens of classes and tours--everything from bird sound identification to the history of Yellowstone exploration.

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Later, we were back at the institute, where Halfpenny put on a demonstration of coyote and wolf gaits more acrobatic than a between-the-legs dribble. It was almost enough to make me forget that I hadn’t seen a wolf.

Almost, but not quite, certainly not with my 11-year-old son along to remind me with the tactlessness of youth that the whole point of this trip was to see a wolf. Earlier in the day, a woman in the group had described her most thrilling adventure in the wild when she stumbled on an elk carcass marked with signs of a grizzly bear attack. She described how the grizzly must have taken down the elk, and added, with an expression both dazzled and befuddled, “It was the greatest thing I almost saw.” My son rolled his eyes.

Several different vendors in Yellowstone offer guided journeys into wolf country. Most of the organized tours are booked up for the summer (call for cancellations, just in case), but winter tours are offered and it is possible to spot wolves on your own. To help increase the odds, rangers recommend calling the park’s wolf hotline ([307] 344-2240) for the latest wolf-sighting information. In June 1996, wolves were appearing to dozens of viewers on the slopes north of the Lamar River, along Slough Creek (ask a ranger for directions or look for a crowd of spotting scopes). Wolves usually rest or sunbathe in the afternoon; the best viewing times for action are usually early morning or evening twilight.

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Like the Yellowstone food chain, there is a hierarchy of wolf tourism too. At the simplest level is a three-hour, winter wildlife bus tour offered Wednesdays by Amfac Parks & Resorts ($13 adults), the company that manages park hotels and some of the campgrounds. Guests board a bus at Mammoth Hotel for the journey into the Lamar Valley. The driver is also the guide who may offer intriguing tidbits of information, such as the fact that coyotes follow bison around in snow because bison are so heavy their hooves plunge through underground mouse trails, sending mice scurrying from their hiding places.

There is much to see, even from a bus. Coyotes tug at a bison carcass; a bald eagle sits poised on a snag along the river; elk stroll in front of the bus.

But you’ll learn a lot and spend even more time outdoors, if you take Halfpenny’s classes at the Yellowstone Institute. His wolf classes book up quickly (the first available openings are for 1997) and it’s easy to see why. He is a biologist of world renown, infused with adrenaline from this landmark reintroduction. He pursues his research projects independently, but agency scientists such as Doug Smith respect him and show up during his courses.

The institute sends a lengthy clothing list, and it’s a good thing--some of the classes are winter/spring field events and the weather can go from hot sun to blizzard in a wink. Some light hiking or skiing or snowshoeing may be involved, but there’s nothing to discourage a guest list that appears to be largely people over 40. Whatever their age, institute patrons seem to enjoy the simple, hostel-like facilities--they are an adventurous and friendly lot, and notice when someone (don’t ask me who) forgets to bring his own food.

For those who can’t admit that they’re taking a vacation, Yellowstone Ecosystem Studies out of Bozeman offers nine-day work/study programs on the canines of Yellowstone. Biologist Crabtree’s nonprofit institute has a number of ongoing studies, and he incorporates groups of students and so-called ecological adventurers into the fieldwork. In return, students pay for the privilege of data-gathering.

YES’ “Wild Dogs of Yellowstone” course ($1,295 per person) focuses on the impact reintroduced wolves have on coyotes and red foxes, their smaller cousins. Participants hike to key vantage points (or ski and snowshoe in the winter) and watch whatever the members of the dog family are up to: eating, playing, howling and courtship. The emphasis is on coyotes, but Crabtree’s researchers have made some key observations of wolf behavior; these are bona fide scientific expeditions.

Of course, no one can promise you a wolf, because wildlife doesn’t make appointments. To protect themselves, guides in Yellowstone will downplay the canines--and the park isn’t exactly stripped of attractions without them. But in a candid moment, Halfpenny admitted, “Hey, if you see the wolves, I’m off the hook, aren’t I?”

Correct, Jim. Once we’ve seen that gray, yellow-eyed creature going about his business, we could spend the rest of the weekend playing Monopoly--for all anyone cares--and still go home talking about the experience of a lifetime.

Like so many of life’s adventures, it works best to approach it with patience and without rigid expectations, knowing that there is much to see and learn even if you don’t see a wolf. Nature seems to respond to that attitude, and when wolves reveal themselves, as they did to my son and me, you feel blessed and humbled.

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GUIDEBOOK

Wolf Tracking

Getting there: Fly Delta or Alaska, connecting service only, to Bozeman, Mont. Advance-purchase, round-trip fares start at about $300. In Bozeman, rent a car for the 100-mile drive to Yellowstone National Park.

Tour operators: Amfac Parks & Resorts, 14001 E. Iliff Ave., Suite 600, Aurora, CO 80014; telephone (303) 297-2757.

The Yellowstone Institute, P.O. Box 117, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190; tel. (307) 344-2294.

Yellowstone Ecosystem Studies, P.O. Box 6640, Bozeman, MT 59771; tel. (406) 587-7758.

Where to stay: The most famous hotel in Yellowstone, the Old Faithful Inn, is just 100 yards away from Old Faithful geyser. For reservations: Amfac Parks & Resorts.

For more information: Wyoming Travel Commission, I-25 at College Drive, Cheyenne, WY 82002; tel. (800) 225-5996 or (307) 777-7777.


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