Friday, June 15, 2012
Silver Gate, Montana

    The Mollies have killed an elk calf, far across the river below Amethyst Bench. The cow, herself injured by the wolves, sniffs through the sage looking for her baby. I cannot watch her suffering, so we take off to sit at Hellroaring and look for pika. The morning sun warms the day slowly. Sitting on a log under the pines, diligently searching the rocks gives my mind something else to do. The pika are hiding, but a fat marmot runs up the hill at the edge of the landslide. On the way back we look for black bears with cubs at Tower and Yellowstone Picnic Area without success. Black bears used to be so easy. Sows with coy or one-year olds would appear reliably each day at the edge of the road or in one of the grassy meadows near Calcite. This year the mothers are not so outgoing. Maybe they are tired of the crowds.
    Back in Lamar Valley, 820F of the Lamar Canyon Pack looks for scraps at the old carcass in the Cottonwoods when a young,
black Mollie wolf appears. 820F cautiously approaches him and both wolves circle each other, tails between their legs. The young wolves rub noses and the black jumps away. 820F acts like she wants to play, running around the black, trying to get him to chase her. The black wolf doesn't seem to know what to do, though he doesn't discourage her. He slowly circles and backs off, as if afraid. The two wolves dance around each other until the black wolf escapes 820F's advances and swims across the river as 820F watches him. The slender light gray wolf sniffs around the carcass, weaving in between bison, and works her way through the sage, eventually crossing the road and heading toward the Lamar Canyon den.
    It's another day of cruising back and forth looking for wildlife. A black bear is on the deer carcass next to the road at Floating Island Lake, maybe the same bear we saw ambling in the meadow nearby yesterday morning. Tearing at the carcass, it ignores a long line of vehicles slowly passing by. A ranger waives the cars on, not letting anyone leave their vehicles or open their windows. The carcass and bear are too close to the road and later in the day the carcass is gone, moved to a safer place by rangers.
    Passing through Lamar Valley with no wolves in sight at the moment, we drive east to see if the cinnamon bear is out. Pebble Creek campground has finally opened for the year after some renovations. Cinnamon bear is gone, but yesterday's moose lies deep in the trees where we saw her last night. Only her ears show above the tall grasses, her calf not visible at all. Mountain Goats jump from rock to rock on Barronette Peak, tiny white spots easily confused with patches of snow. The sky turns gray with clouds as we debate hiking plans. Blacktail Deer Plateau? Swan Lake Flats? Beaver Ponds? Sheepeaters? Our opportunities fade as the wind kicks up, so we head towards Mammoth hoping the sun will come out.
    Facing the tree with the great horned owl nest stands another pine tree tall and thick. The tree stands next to another residence in Mammoth, a great horned owlet perched on a branch about 20 feet from the ground. The owlet is huge, about 15 inches tall and a gray so pale it is almost white. Except for its fuzzy feathers, I would believe it was an adult. Occasionally it rotates its head from side to side. It lets out a soft cry, perhaps frightened by all the people standing below him.
    A gray sky and wind threaten rain on and off.
Packing our raingear, we head up the trail from Swan Lake Flats to Mammoth. The path is a gradual climb through woods and deadfall leading to an overlook of Swan Lake Flats and Bunson Peak. From there it descends along grassy slopes into the Hoodoos. The trail is narrow at times and can be slippery. We have hiked it before and forgot the "narrow, slippery" part. In the Hoodoos the rain begins to fall, a light, steady rain, and we take shelter under tall rocks leaning together and wait for the rain to stop. The sun returns, but it continues to rain on and off lightly while we look for pika. Once again we hear that chirp as a little mouse-rabbit hops from rock to rock. Now we have seen pika in three different places in the Park.
    Before heading back towards Silver Gate, we stop at Sheepeaters to look for the blonde bear. Under a blue sky, we walk along the trail that borders the creek, glad that we didn't hike here. The trail which travels along the creek is covered by logs criss-crossing the path and proves to be a lot of work. The end of the path (which we skipped) snakes through grass about 5 feet high. I would not want to find a bear at the end of that maze.
    In Lamar Valley, the coyotes are chasing wolves again who run chaotically in all directions. Two grays head east toward the Confluence while two young blacks dodge across the road. It's hard for wolf watchers to keep their eyes on all of them. I pick one gray, who I think is Middle Gray from the Lamar Canyon pack and keep my scope on her as she weaves through the grass, down into ravines, and back into an island of trees. It seems like these are all Lamar Canyon wolves, though the past week everyone is confused about which pack wolves belong to. With the Mollies split up and traveling in small groups and so many wolves uncollared it's hard to tell. The blacks we see tonight, who we believe are yearlings with the Lamar Canyon pack, have beautiful black faces and chocolate brown bodies - their summer coats. I think of 375F, 302M's daughter. I remember her standing in the middle of the road near Pebble Creek many years ago staring at me and Tim - she looked like that.

Author - Christine Baleshta
Photography - Tim Springer

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Yellowstone Experiences 2012