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Destination: Yellowstone National Park

Wolf Watching

June 30, 1996|GEOFFREY O'GARA | O'Gara is a Wyoming-based freelance writer and TV documentary producer

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — 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.

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.

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

*

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."

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