Changing Times for Yellowstone’s Wolves

Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, January 2012:

Things are a bit unusual in northwest Wyoming this winter. For starters, there is a lot less snow than in recent years. The average temperatures have stayed much warmer as well. And this was supposed to be a La Nina year.

An Agate pack female crosses through the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park.

The wolf packs of Yellowstone National Park are different too. Wolf pack dynamics are, of course, ever-changing. Every year, wolves grow old, or diseased, or injured, and die. Some will disperse to find new mates and found new packs. Some will simply vanish to fates unknown. Suffice to say, change is the one constant for wolves. But this year things are changing more quickly than usual for the parks wolves.

Four different wolf packs–the Mollies, the Lamar Canyons, the Agates, and the Blacktails are all using portions of the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone this winter.

While the Blacktails, Lamar Canyons, and Agates are frequent winter users of this particular valley, the Mollies are newcomers. Their usual home range lies further south in the Yellowstone. Since wolves are highly territorial, the arrival of the Mollies has upset the status quo. It has also has resulted in some lethal conflicts.

Just days before I arrived, the Mollies killed a member of the Blacktail pack. The Mollies frequent appearances on Specimen Ridge has also resulted in a barrage of howling  and several less-than-lethal clashes  with the usual Lamar wolves,.

It’s worth noting the Mollies are significantly larger, both in physical size and in numbers, than the other packs currently in Yellowstone. Only the now-defunct Druid Peak pack had more members, numbering in the thirties.

The Mollies have spent the last 15 or so years in the park’s interior bulking up to handle their favorite prey–the Bison. The rest of Yellowstone’s wolves prefer elk and deer.

With physical and numerical advantage (there are 19 Mollies,) there is real concern the Mollies may decimate the other packs in Lamar. Time will tell.

This close concentration of competing wolves led to lots of sightings, lots of howling, and lots of wolf-to-wolf confrontations.

I went to Lamar to photograph the changing conditions, and the wolves if I could. With fresh snow and all the wolf activity in Lamar, spotting the wolves wasn’t particularly difficult. But with continually threatening weather, poor lighting conditions, and limited mobility due to the photo gear needed, photographing them was more of a challenge.

In the gathering dusk and blowing snow, the Blacktail pack howls at the Mollies across the Lamar Valley.

Occasionally both the wolves and the weather cooperated. One frigid, clear morning, a young female wolf from the Agate pack howled for nearly twenty minutes from atop a rock near Peregrine Hills.

Agate pack female wolf howling from atop a rock in the Lamar Valley, in Yellowstone National Park.
Members of the Blacktail pack howl at the Mollies, which they can see near the top of Specimen Ridge.

Clicking on any of the images above will take you to a larger gallery of Yellowstone wolf images.

Words and images are subject to U.S. copyright law.

Copyright 2012 Keith R. Crowley, all rights reserved.

 
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