We had seen wolves up close and personal at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center a few days ago in West Yellowstone, but we were eager to see wolves in the wild.
George Bumann, a naturalist and sculptor who works as a guide and educator with the Yellowstone Association Institute, greeted us. He handed out our boxed breakfasts, piled us into his van, and proceeded to drive us in the dark along a snow-packed road to the Lamar Valley, where wolves are known to howl and appear to those willing to brave the pre-dawn cold. (Although we were visiting during the winter, guided tours and wolf-sighting opportunities are available year-round.)
As we ate our oranges and yogurt, Bumann shared a wealth of information. The Yellowstone Institute, in partnership with the National Park Service, embraces a motto of “inspire, educate and preserve.” Founded in 1933, the non-profit association offers more than 400 courses, seminars and guided educational trips every year, and works in partnership with Xanterra, the concessionaire for lodging, restaurants and gift shops at Yellowstone.
We stopped first at the Hell Roaring Overlook pullout, where a researcher held up a GPS tracking device while attempting to locate mountain lion movement as part of a seven-year study. We looked and listened for wolves, but, finding none, moved on.
Our next sighting was an elk carcass beside the road with its entire skeletal spine bare and visible. It was covered in ravens. In corporate and political investigations, the mantra is “follow the money.” In wolf country, if you want to find wolves, follow the ravens. They will signal a recent kill by picking the bones dry. Wolves cannot be far away.
We next pulled off at a wide spot in the road with vast meadows of snow-covered vistas on either side. After clambering out of our warm coach, we stood quietly and listened. Listening is key. So is looking. Talking is not. Light was beginning to show.
After hearing wolf cries and howls on both sides of the road, our guide dug into the back of our van and came up with a multitude of spotting scopes. He sensed that this morning we had come upon the mother lode of wolf packs, and he used his communication system to notify others where we were.
Slowly, many other “wolfies” (enthusiasts who follow the packs and share their experiences and knowledge) gathered at our pullout.
We were so excited we chatted about what was pending. Rick MacIntyre, who had just driven up, (his moniker is “Wolfie #1”) told us in no uncertain terms to shut up and listen so he (and we) could hear the howling.
To make a long story short, we saw and/or heard four wolf packs that morning. They howled, communicated with each other, stood their ground, and even triangulated an elk, which is one of the food mainstays for wolves. (Bison is another.) Interesting factoid: a wolf’s jaw has 1,500 pounds per square inch of pressure and it can take down a large ungulate by the throat in no time.
This unsuspecting elk was slowly surrounded by a huge wolf pack. The dynamics were fascinating. The elk never moved a muscle for at least an hour. The wolves, having taken down a kill the day before (according to our guide), were not especially hungry and just made the whole event into a dramatic standoff. Eventually, the elk and the wolves went their own ways.
The spotting scopes afforded a remarkable view of this soap opera, which was taking place three-quarters of a mile away. The scopes took us right into this unforgettable drama that, in memory, would last a lifetime.
Lynn Rosen and Steve Giordano are travel writers based in Bellingham, Washington.