Yellowstone Reports

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Witnessing the Clash

A newly collared 06 leads her pack into battle
by Dr. Nathan Varley

Feb. 11, 2012

This week I was again visiting the Buffalo Ranch in Lamar Valley with guests.  I don’t think any of us will ever forget some of the events we witnessed.  Our winter wolf retreat is always relaxing and fun, and consistently we are treated to thrilling sightings, year after year.

Quick views of the Mollies Pack early in the week led to several more of the Lamar Canyon Pack.  The great views of wolves opened it up for us to spread our search to include other opportunities that paid off with several instances of spectacular wildlife behavior.

At greater than 9000’ a few shaggy mountain goats mined vegetation from underneath a blanket of deep powder.  The goats hung from the nose of The Thunderer above our valley far below.

Further down, rams tested one another on colored cliffs.  One younger ram attempted several times to climb higher and drop down on his rival, but to no avail.  The bigger ram always held higher ground and at one point slammed his rival with a massive head-butt that sent him ricocheting down a chimney, ending with an athletic 20’ leap to loose stones below.  At almost the same moment a golden eagle glided to a perch on the rocks, whizzing by at head level, so close that it felt like it flew over my shoulder.  I wondered if it thought it might engage itself in tipping the scales should anything dire transpire between the two combatants.

But it would be the wolves that finished the week in dramatic fashion.  First, Yellowstone Reports contributors Laurie Lyman and Doug McLaughlin confirmed that one of the wolves captured several days before was, in fact, Lamar Canyon’s popular leader, the ’06 female.  Evading capture for many years, she had been darted and fitted with a research collar.  Her collar is one of the fancy GPS varieties that will generate incredible data.

Anyone who follows Yellowstone wolves knows ‘06 is an amazing individual wolf.  She captures the fascination of just about anyone who has heard of her.  While it seems a great accomplishment to be able to track and learn from such a study subject, the capturing of ’06 was an honest mistake.  She had not been targeted.

In the spirit of making honest mistakes, I admit that while being a guide who should know his wolves, over the last year, ’06 has been consistently tough for me to pick out of the line-up.  Many older wolves I have known through the years have been distinct in appearance as to be obvious for identification.  It’s almost never hard to pick out the 6-year olds from yearlings in a pack, in my 17 years of experience.  But ’06 just doesn’t have that many striking features, and even in her middle age, looks very similar to her gray yearling offspring.

I wasn’t surprised at all to hear the capture team had mistakenly darted her for the yearling they were after.  I was a little surprised that, upon inspection, her teeth looked great, clean, sharp and all fully intact.  On inspection, her exceptional health and fitness had passed her for a yearling.  We can add that to her list of amazing attributes now, too.  Wearing a collar is no handicap for her or any wolf, as a wolf is very resilient.

A day later, the newly collared ’06 female, also going by the new moniker “Wolf 832F,” led her pack into a direct attack on the Mollies pack.  The Mollies had been pushing every pack around since their initial invasion of the northern range back in December.  That day in Crystal Creek, it was the Lamar’s time to settle the issue.

Our group gasped as the howling of the Lamars below led to a near instant charge by the Mollies.  They galloped down the ridge with their tales flying like flags.  The Lamars in no less of a show of strength amassed and raced toward the Mollies. It was two formidable forces charging head-long into each other.  Tree-tops obscured our view of the melee, but other watchers filled in the blanks for us of what ensued.  The Lamars were crushed, driven before a superior force that scattered its opponents in chaos.  The injured pup would run by us just minutes after the Mollies returned to the initial battlefield; apparently, he was swarmed the first time, and fled successfully the second.

It is not uncommon for wolves to die in these battles.  Indeed, it is the primary force that limits their population growth.  The respective pack members seemed to have walked away from this one, though the pup may not be considered ‘out-of-the-woods’ at this point.

With the fury with which these two big wolf packs clashed, I felt like there would be few survivors!  Yet, they are as always, resilient animals.


View slide show

Lamar Pack

Bighorn Ram

The Lamar Canyon Pack

Moments before the clash