The Best Laid Plans…

One day last week I watched the Canyon wolf pack hunt a bull elk in Yellowstone National Park. It was something I have always hoped to see, and although it didn’t end exactly the way the wolves planned it (it often doesn’t), it was wonderful to witness.

Of course, calling the Canyons a “pack” may be a bit of a stretch since they are currently down to just three wolves. When I last saw them in January 2014, there were seven wolves, and all looked fit and healthy. But as the young Canyon wolves matured, many of them dispersed to find their own territories and start their own packs.

Currently the Canyon pack consists of just the two alphas, both ten years old, and one of their female offspring, now nearly two years old.

Ten is very old for a wild wolf, and both the black-turning-to-silver male and the all-white alpha female are showing their age. The female in particular is contending with a distinct limp she acquired during a hunt last May, but the male, called 712M by researchers and wearing a telemetry collar, is also slowing down considerably.

The Canyon alpha female, just prior to the chase.
Canyon Alpha Male 712M, sizing up the elk hunting situation.

Fortunately for them, the one remaining pup, a gray, is hitting the prime of life and is probably keeping the older wolves alive with her hunting skill.

The two year old Canyon gray female, just prior to the elk chase.

But no matter how skilled wolves are, sometimes things go awry.

In this case, the Canyons attempted to catch a bull elk very near the town of Mammoth, inside Yellowstone.

The elk, which no longer carried his proud and wonderfully defensive antlers, wanted no part of the plan, and as soon as it realized it was surrounded it decided offense was a far better option than defense.

The elk immediately turned on the nearest wolf, which happened to be 712M. While the old wolf didn’t look terribly quick as he approached the elk, he certainly turned on the jets when the elk came at him.

712M begins the chase.
As 712M approaches, the bull elk, sans antlers, decides offense is better than defense.
As 712M is well aware, flailing elk hooves are responsible for many serious injuries to wolves.
With the elk now fully on offense, 712M quickly accelerates out of harms way.
Safely out of reach of those sharp hooves, 712M slows, and the elk turns toward safety near the road where people are watching the drama unfold.
712M continues to follow the elk until he determines he cannot catch the bull before it reaches the road.
712M (bottom center) and the two year old gray (top center) stop the pursuit and watch as the elk escapes.

The whole thing lasted just a few moments. With no water handy, the elk quickly and wisely decided that the safest place to go was up near the road.

It worked as the wolves soon broke off the chase and stood watching as the elk trotted off with head held high. They, too, soon went on their way, no doubt hungry and unhappy.

Following the unsuccessful hunt, 712M (left) and the two year old female wait for the white alpha female to catch up with them before heading south.

All images Copyright 2015 Keith R. Crowley. All rights reserved.

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