It’s time once again for an annual “best of” post. Again this year I have limited the gallery to a dozen of my favorite images and I added a few comments about each shot for some backstory. I hope you enjoy them.
They’re arranged roughly chronologically and clicking on a photo will take you to the full gallery with many other favorites from 2016 that didn’t quite make it into this post.
Posting my personal favorites from the past twelve months is a new tradition I look forward to at the end of each year.
For one thing, it reminds me of all the fascinating places I’ve been and wonderful wild things I’ve seen in the past twelve months. For another, it gives me a chance to share some backstories, and to explain why certain images are special to me.
I’ve cut back the selection this year to thirteen images. But if you do want to see further highlights from the year, including additional foxes, wolves, grizzlies, owls, albino deer, (and even a couple of landscapes!) please check out the full “Best of 2015” gallery by clickinghere.I’m proud of all 48 images in that gallery, so please take a look.
And, of course, I would truly appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends and families.
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.
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.
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.
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.
All images Copyright 2015 Keith R. Crowley. All rights reserved.
As a wildlife photographer I have a real love/hate relationship with radio telemetry collars.
All photographers live in a world of aesthetics, and most wildlife photographers try capture natural animal behavior in natural settings with as little apparent human influence as possible. Even something as ephemeral as a jet’s vapor trail in the sky can destroy a wild image. The permanence of collars (and ear tags, too) placed by human hands on wild animals is impossible to ignore.
Given that we have altered virtually every square foot of the earth, it may be that true wilderness is an illusion, but it is an illusion some of us strive for. Try as we might, however, nothing takes the “wild” out of the wilderness quicker than a man-made object physically attached to an animal – especially an animal as quintessentially “wild” as a gray wolf.
Telemetry collars are becoming truly common in places like our national parks. Right now, nearly half the wolves in the northern range of Yellowstone National Park are wearing either radio or GPS collars. Wolves aren’t the only Yellowstone animals collared either; bears, bison, elk, sheep, deer, antelope, and virtually every other critter big enough to wear a collar has been fitted with telemetry at one time or another.
Dr. Doug Smith, lead biologist of Yellowstone’s wolf project says that the long-term goal is to have at least 25%, or no fewer than two members of each recognized Yellowstone wolf pack wearing the collars. But packs come together and disband with amazing regularity. Individual wolves leave the greater Yellowstone area completely, and of course, wolves die. The fact is, because of this constant state of flux, it’s almost impossible to maintain that 25% collaring ratio, so Smith and his fellow biologists collar as many wolves as they can afford to (with much of the funding coming from private donations.) And this annoys a lot of people.
For my part, I think are few truly valid reasons not to collar wolves in Yellowstone. But there is also one really good one, and in the interest of open discussion, some points are worth exploring:
From a digital photographer’s perspective, things like radio collars and ear tags can, of course, be removed in photographic post-processing. But the photojournalist in me cringes at the thought of cloning out things I don’t want to see. Simply put, in editorial photography cloning is unethical and strictly forbidden, and it’s time consuming and imperfect for fine art prints — so I prefer to avoid the clone brush.
But lord those collars are ugly. They make a magnificent wild wolf look like the neighbor’s Shepherd/Husky mix.
There is also the question of just how traumatized animals are as they are being collared and/or tagged. Certainly, it can’t be a pleasant experience for the animal. And I have personally seen evidence of animals (bears, primarily) trying to remove the collars on their own.
But since a typical wild predator’s life consists of innumerable traumatic events, many of which are incredibly brutal and daunting, the collaring procedure is probably little more than one bad morning in the short term, and hopefully only a slight distraction in the long run.
And we know that plenty of domestic animals, especially canines, wear tracking and electronic collars with no apparent discomfort, so why should it be overwhelmingly annoying for the much tougher wild wolf?
It’s worth noting, too, that biologists are continually trying to improve the process to minimize the affect collaring has on the animals. New sedation drugs, new capture methods, and new collar designs are continually tried and tested.
And I will add that every wildlife biologist I know cares deeply about the animals they choose to study. The thought of harming a study animal is just as distressing to them as it is to those who oppose collaring.
Those against telemetry collars will also suggest that hunters use those same telemetry signals to track wolves to kill. This theory has been floating around for a couple years now, but I have yet to hear of even one definitive case where hunters used telemetry to locate a specific animal to kill. There are lots of rumors tossed around, of course, but no hard evidence. Until something concrete comes to light, further comment is not only pointless, it’s counterproductive.
So, what is the one valid reason to stop collaring Yellowstone’s wolves? Well, this is the only good one I can think of:
Strictly speaking, the collaring of Yellowstone’s wildlife goes against the guiding study which makes Yellowstone the wildlife watching Mecca it is today. That study, known as the Leopold Reportoccurred in 1963.
Recognizing that park usage would continue to change throughout the ensuing decades, a committee led by Starker Leopold (son of the famous naturalist, Aldo Leopold) concluded that one of the goals of the park service should be to minimize any visible sign of human activity in the park. According to the report, “observable artificiality in any form must be minimized and obscured in every possible way.”
For the most part, Yellowstone has been managed by the Leopold principles since the report was published, but telemetry collars certainly fly in the face of the “observable artificiality” recommendation.
So, those are some of the “cons.” Here are the “pros.”
It’s important to understand just how valuable these collars, and the data they provide, are to the biologists who are tasked with studying and preserving these species.
What we know about 870F (above) we know in large part because of that ugly collar around her neck.
Formerly of the Junction Butte pack, she now lives mostly on her own having recently lost her status in the pack. She was born in the spring of 2008 and was the Alpha female of the Junctions for several years until a series of injuries and clashes with other wolf packs saw her lose that dominant position. We know where she has denned and we know how many pups she has raised. We know some of the diseases that have plagued her and her pack mates. We know the territory she favors and how she interacts with the members of her former pack since losing her Alpha status. And when the time comes, we will learn where, and likely how, she dies — all because of the collar.
Telemetry collars allow biologists to determine mortality causes for wolves, and they help determine which prey animals wolves target. They allow scientists to determine pack territories and to determine the dispersal patterns of lone wolves. Without telemetry the now-famous wolf OR-7, and its extensive travels through Oregon and California, would still be a mystery.
Even the wolf spotted near the Grand Canyon last November was wearing a telemetry collar. Not much was known about the animal initially because the collar was non-functional, but when the wolf was later mistakenly shot in Utah, and the collar recovered, it was learned that this was an animal originally added to the database in January 2014, near Cody, Wyoming, proving once again that lone wolves are amazing travelers.
For anyone who has spent time following the wolf story inside Yellowstone, it quickly becomes apparent that the ever-changing pack dynamics would be virtually impossible to understand, or record for future analysis, without telemetry.
As mentioned earlier, it’s not just about wolves. Telemetry collars provide opportunity for scientists around the world. Polar bear biologists, elephant biologists, big cat biologists, wolverine biologists, and so on, all use telemetry to better understand the animals they are trying to help. In many of those cases, telemetry is the only practical way to gather data.
Take the case of Black-footed ferrets… Once considered extinct, these native ferrets live out the majority of their lives underground, and when they do appear on the surface it is almost always at night. One of the few studieswhich have been done on the mortality of these highly endangered animals was only possible because of telemetry. There is simply no other way to find them without the collars.
In the end, radio telemetry is a staple of the science of wildlife and if you can think of a better way to track animals in real-time, I know lots of people who would love to hear about it.
The Wolf Project technicians you see in Yellowstone watching the northern packs through spotting scopes and taking meticulous notes, often only know where to begin looking for wolves because of those collars.
If you can’t locate the animals, it’s much more difficult to study them. If you can’t study the animals, you also can’t educate the park visitors who have come to learn about them. If you can’t teach the public about the animals, you can’t build any good will toward them.
Yellowstone is a unique place for educating the public about a great many things, wolves being one of them. People who would never have the opportunity to see a wild wolf anywhere else, can see them there with some consistency. But only because of those collars.
Most recently, I’ve heard many people — people from both sides of the wolf issue — state that there is no good reason to collar wolves anymore because we know what we need to know about them. They view the collars as a boondoggle, allowing scientists to justify their own existence. That is the most galling argument to me personally.
The first point that needs to be made is that the Greater Yellowstone wolves have only been studied since their return to the ecosystem 20 years ago. 20 years is nothing more than a blip in time when it comes to wildlife studies. The Isle Royale Wolf/Moose study is in its 57th year and has just begun to scratch the surface of wolf biology in this Great Lakes ecosystem. Scientists make new discoveries every year about wolves on the island, and the predator/prey population dynamics are just now being understood there.
Who knows what remains to be learned from Isle Royal’s wolves, and who knows what remains to be learned from Yellowstone’s wolves?
And that’s the point. I don’t believe we can ever know enough about wolves — or about the rest of the universe. Quite simply, we don’t know what we don’t know. Science is a perpetual journey.
So, as much as I hate how the collars, (and ear tags, and dye marks, and a variety of other wildlife management tools) look, and what they occasionally do to the individual animals, I also understand the necessity of continuing research, whether it’s wolves or any other species.
Like anything else, they can be over-used and I’m not sure how many wolves in each pack need to be collared. But wolf researchers are caught between a rock and a hard place; too many collars and visitors to the park miss the “wilderness experience” they came looking for, and the photographers, like me, are up in arms. Too few collars and it’s easy to lose track of a pack as individual animals disperse or die. Continuity is a key factor in research.
I should also point out that scientists like Dr. Smith are well aware that these collars are unpopular with photographers and park visitors. Smith says he has regularly passed on collaring certain individual wolves entirely because they are “crowd favorites.”
In the end I may complain about the collars, but I’ll complain quietly. I will be glad that there are people out there who have devoted their professional lives to the science of wildlife — so I have wild things to photograph.
The irruption of Snowy owls in the eastern United States this winter has photographers and birders at each other’s throats over the issue of baiting owls.
For the uninitiated, baiting means luring the owls with store bought mice in order to get dramatic, close-up views of the birds. I know photographers who do it, I know birders who do it, and I know farmers in rural Wisconsin who do it.
This year isn’t unique. Owls of all sorts are baited every winter when their natural food supply, usually rodents, becomes scarcer.
Like everyone involved with this issue, I have an opinion on the subject; an opinion I hope is fairly moderate. High emotions tend to bubble to the surface with topics like this, so please read it all the way through before you call me an idiot and close the tab.
I will tell you that baiting owls is so common that last year, the winter of 2012-13, a mouse shortage developed in North America. I can’t say that the shortage was solely the result of baiting, but laboratories, animal rehab centers and pet owners that use the mice for their own purposes ran low last winter, yet the owl baiters I observed were out in force with a seemingly unending supply of mice.
In short, for some people, feeding pet store mice to wild owls is a common and acceptable practice.
For others, people pursuing essentially the same goal of close-up views and dramatic photos, baiting is unethical and potentially injurious to the birds. They will point out a host of reasons that it’s a bad idea to feed wild owls.
Most of those reasons are completely accurate in my opinion. Baiting is not my way.
So now you know my slant. I am not an owl baiter. I have been accused of it, as have other wildlife photographers I know who do not bait, but I don’t do it. Usually just I shrug off the accusations.
But this year I was able to witness both sides of the issue in late January in person at an internationally known birding area in northeast Minnesota called Sax-Zim Bog.
A half-dozen species of owls and a multitude of other species regularly appear in the bog, and people literally come from around the world to search for birds on their “life list.” This coming weekend they are having their International Birding Festival.
Sax-Zim is a beautiful, wild place. And for the most part it’s very peaceful.
I went there several days in January, and one day while I was photographing a Northern hawk owl in the bog, a situation unfolded which finally inspired this story. And it has me re-examining my own definition of baiting.
My previous contact with owl baiters had always been a long-distance affair. In other words, when I saw them coming I left. But this year I decided that I’m simply not going to leave a great photo op because I don’t agree with other people’s methods, especially when I’ve driven hundreds of miles to get there and I have limited time to shoot. I will not stop where baiting is already in progress because I don’t wish to get my photos that way, but neither will I leave if I was there first.
Owls and other raptors will fly toward the camera without the use of bait. Like every other type of wildlife photography it takes a lot of preparation and patience, but it does happen. (See the Snowy owl photo below, taken the same day as the hawk owl photos.) That’s the kind of photo I was attempting to get in Sax-Zim that day with the hawk owl.
As I was photographing the hawk owl, three vehicles pulled up and parked on the opposite side of the road from my vehicle. And something peculiar happened. The owl which had been about 40 yards away from me on the west side of the road, flew directly over my head, over the three new vehicles, and perched on a brushy limb about 20 yards away from the newcomers on the east side. I soon found out that the owl and the newcomers were not strangers. As the photographers set up cameras and lenses and tripods, the owl watched them intently, even hovering directly over them. Clearly this was a habituated owl.
Then they broke out the mice.
From my perspective this was a great opportunity to talk to these guys and to photograph them setting up their well-oiled routine. I walked over and introduced myself. I took a few photos of the owl perched in a willow near their vehicle, and then, when they starting using the mice, I switched from a long lens to a shorter lens and took the baiting photos used here.
This story has been in the back of my mind for some time, and here was my chance to get an inside look. We talked off and on as I photographed them running through the baiting process three times. I found out who they were, where they were from, and how often they did this. They were cordial, and they were insistent that they “feed,” they don’t “bait.” Semantics aside, they were pleasant enough guys who were just doing something I didn’t want to do. . . something I won’t do.
Vehicles came and went. Some people got out and watched the proceedings. Some stayed in their cars. Some took their own photos.
Then, as I was taking the photo to the right, a person positioned behind the group loudly announced that we were all “pathetic!”
Suddenly I was one of “them.”
But since I didn’t get any of those amazing in-your-face shots as the owl grabbed mouse after mouse, I didn’t feel even a little pathetic. In fact, I was feeling pretty good about the opportunity to get the information and the photos I wanted without pissing off anyone.
And the photos I wanted were not the same ones the baiters wanted. The baiters even offered to let me place a remote camera next to the mouse to get the great shots they were getting; an offer I politely declined.
Had the Anonymous Insulter bothered to ask, I might have told him what I was doing. He did not. He assumed the worst of everyone, told us all what he thought and then hurried away. But the Insulter actually did me a favor – more on that in a bit.
The situation devolved further when another vehicle pulled up.
A birding expert from the area arrived and began taking photographs of vehicles, license plates, and people there, including the “innocent bystanders.” He then got into a shouting match with one of the four baiters. The egos of both men were on prominent display as they recited their résumés to each other. But I have to say, the expert did himself no favors with his behavior, and with some false accusations he directed at the baiting crew.
Had the expert actually talked politely to the people there, baiters and non-baiters alike, he would have learned some interesting things that he might have used later to further his cause; something that might have helped him argue against baiting. Instead he learned nothing. It’s a shame.
However, despite disagreeing with his manner, I agree with the expert on the baiting issue.
I don’t believe it helps wildlife to receive supplemental food from people, no matter how well-meaning that feeding may be. I have felt this way for a long time.
I don’t think that feeding white-tailed deer to help them through a tough northern winter is biologically sound. Likewise, I don’t think trucking tons of hay to the elk in Grand Teton National Park every year is smart. I don’t think giving a black bear a sandwich from a picnic basket is cute. And I don’t think giving mice to owls is the right thing to do. So I don’t do it.
But – and this is important- it’s not illegal to give mice to owls. (Edit: at the time of this writing, it is not illegal to feed owls in Minnesota where this scene took place.)
To me, that means I have no reason to impose my beliefs on other people who are doing something that is their legal right. To escalate a situation through insults and by photographing license plates as if you are conducting a criminal investigation, to paint everyone present with the same broad brush, and to avoid constructive conversation in favor of loud accusations is counterproductive.
I can only choose not to participate in those legal activities I disagree with. And if I feel strongly enough about a topic, I can try to have the law amended. That is the only way to end the practice – make it illegal. That will drive some practitioners underground, of course, but most people will just stop baiting.
For now, however, the practice is legal in most places. So, I won’t bait owls, but I won’t try to stop you from doing it either. I won’t curse you, insult you, and I certainly won’t steal your box of mice and speed away (something I witnessed last year over the same issue, but in a different locale.)
But, too, I won’t leave if I was already there when someone shows up with a bucket of mice. I just won’t shoot an owl taking the bait.
In the end, unless it is being used for editorial purposes (like the one at the top of this story,) the only photo of mine you will ever see featuring a raptor coming at the camera, will be from a natural hunt with no bait present. If you ever see me with a mouse in my hand, it will be a dead one I’m removing from my house – and there won’t be any owls present.
While we’re on the topic, I don’t photograph captive animals and pass them off as wild either. I don’t digitally move animals from one scene into another and call it real, and I don’t do “nature photography” like this coming out of Indonesia.
There are many wildlife photographers who do these things, but it’s not against the law, so I grit my teeth and bear it. I grit them harder every time one wins a photo contest, but I don’t run the contests either.
Now back to the Anonymous Insulter. I didn’t know it at the time, but I have since become aware that he is a well-known bird photographer, and that many of his shots are taken at his feeders near his home. That gave me the direction I needed for this writing.
The Insulter baits birds to get them super-close for his photos, yet somehow manages to be outraged when others bait birds for their own purposes.
I won’t condemn him for taking his photos because I also take photos of songbirds at my feeders. But here’s the real difference:
The hypocrisy of my feeding songbirds at home while being generally against feeding owls prevents me from shouting insults at strangers.
Tolerance and moderation are in short supply these days, and obviously bird enthusiasts and photographers aren’t immune to blanket indictments and indignation.
“Do it my way, or you’re just plain wrong!” is a sadly prevalent perspective, and it’s not helpful wherever you find it – even in a bog in northern Minnesota.
I’ve recently read several attempted explanations as to why backyard bird feeders are not the same as baiting. Usually the argument is that the birds come and go at will from the feeders. That way they are somehow “wilder” than habituated owls. But that doesn’t hold up to any kind of real scrutiny.
Of course feeding backyard birds is baiting birds. Whether they are finches or owls, you and I are using food as a positive reinforcement to alter the bird’s behavior; to get them to do what we want them to do, where and when we want them to do it. It’s a time-tested way to train animals, straight from B.F. Skinner. The Anonymous Insulter knows that too and he takes songbird photos with that knowledge.
If you want to prove to yourself that your birds are conditioned too, put your feeders out at the same time everyday, then take them in at night, and see how long it takes for the little wild birds to figure out your schedule. Hell, I know several people, including a professional naturalist, who hand feed chickadees. There’s your conditioned response.
At my own house the bluebirds gather in the branches over my head every time I bring out the bag of mealworms – it’s absolutely classic behavioral conditioning.
Actually, it’s kind of neat that they are waiting for me, but the image of the hawk owl hovering over the cars at Sax-Zim is now what comes to mind when it happens. It’s unsettling. I am a bluebird baiter.
We put up feeders to satisfy our own wishes. We want to see the birds. We want to photograph the birds. If we really only did it to help the birds, we would scatter our bird feeders all over the countryside, in out-of-the-way spots where the birds could feed unmolested. And we would make sure those feeders stayed stocked at all times. And then we would go there occasionally to get our bird photos. (There are a couple places like that at Sax-Zim, by the way.)
But having them just outside the kitchen window is so much more fun.
One of the best arguments against feeding any wild creatures is that it causes them to become dependent on that food source. And that’s absolutely true. Once you start feeding, in winter particularly, you have to keep it up as long as the weather is cold and the birds stay. That’s an unspoken pact we enter into with the birds. And it’s as true in the black-oil sunflower seeds/chickadees equation as it is for mice and owls. But the fact is, occasionally feeders run dry.
Even if you do make the commitment to continual feeding, you and I are potentially causing harm to the birds in other ways by bringing them to our feeders.
Raise your hand if you feed birds at home and have NOT had one smash into a window and land motionless below. That happens frequently, but most songbird enthusiasts don’t like to talk about it. I hate to think how many birds have died in my yard from window strikes over the years, despite actively trying to prevent the collisions using every trick I can. It also happens at the brand-spanking-new Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center, which has windows large and small throughout the little building, all looking out upon well-stocked bird feeders. I stopped one morning and was in the building for less than five minutes when an American goldfinch crashed headlong into one of the large bird-viewing windows there.
Don’t get me wrong, the Friends of the Sax-Zim Bog group does wonderful educational work, and most of them have been exceedingly nice to me, but even their feeders have a cost.
The corollary to that when it comes to the baiting of owls is that feeding the owls makes them less wary of humans, and it puts them in close proximity to roads. You already know that birds and automobiles don’t mix any better than birds and glass windows do.
It seems when we get involved with feeding, birds die.
And then there’s the issue of disease. The fervent anti-baiters will also tell you that domestic mice can introduce disease into the wild owls. That’s possible, but not very likely. Mice sold in pet stores are raised in controlled facilities and bred to feed to other domestic animals. Disease is the last thing anyone wants there – it’s not profitable.
The disease issue is much more prevalent at wild bird feeding stations and there are reams of information available at the click of a mouse. The long and short of it is… Anytime you congregate many animals into a small area by feeding, the chance of disease spreading disastrously through the population, and across populations, is magnified immensely.
Salmonella is the most frequent feeding station disease among birds. There are Salmonella outbreaks every year and every year thousands of songbirds die because of it. Mold kills backyard birds too. We try to keep immaculate feeders, disinfecting them regularly, but we don’t always succeed, and then we put the birds at risk.
Ever toss bread to the ducks and geese at the local park? Then you are definitely endangering the bird’s welfare by inducing them to gather in dense flocks. Botulism is a major waterfowl killer and can wipe out ducks by the hundreds in one location.
And there is tuberculosis, and conjunctivitis, and avian pox, etc., etc.
In the end, there are lot’s of reasons not to feed wild animals anywhere – unless you are willing to accept some collateral damage.
Rationalizing those reasons away is disingenuous and I won’t do it – my hypocrisy has limits.
I bait birds – I just do it with sunflower seeds, suet and mealworms, not mice.
It’s that time of year again. I’ve put together some of my favorite images from 2013, just like I did in2012. (As always, you can see more of my work at Lodgetrail.com)
As you scroll through the 31 images, you will probably notice that it was a good Grizzly bear year. After many years of Griz frustration, it all came together in 2013.
Wolves were much harder to come by, but the few I did find and photograph were beautiful animals.
Then there were the Black-footed ferrets. It took three multi-day trips to the Conata Basin in South Dakota, and many over-night searches to finally get the shots I was looking for of the endangered, nocturnal predator; but it finally happened. One glorious August morning, just after sun-up, I had some of these ultra-rare mammals all to myself in the middle of a Prairie dog town.
And Moose! Like the Grizzlies, it was a long time coming, but the autumn of 2013 was very good for big bulls.
All-in-all, 2013 was my best year ever for achieving personal goals. Here are a few of my favorites from the year in roughly chronological order. Clicking on an image will take you to a high-res version:
I don’t usually lament the death of a wild animal, largely because they are wild animals. Individual elk die every single day, all across the West.
But Old No. 10 was different. I, and many others, got used to seeing him roaming the hills and draws ofYellowstone National Park.He was an institution, and when he died sometime in the early hours of April 20, an international favorite passed into time.
Named for the tag number in his ear, as bull elk go, No. 10 was big…big of stature and big of repute. He was also old–at least 16, probably older. That’s ancient for a wild bull elk.
The reason his age was known, approximately anyway, is that in 2001 he got tangled up in some playground netting at the school in Mammoth Hot Springs. To extricate him, park officials had to sedate him, remove his antlers, and ear tag him. Naturally, they also gave him the once-over physically, and determined he was at least three years old at the time, probably closer to five.
Certainly, living in national park aided him in his longevity, but of equal import was his tenacity. He was bigger and stronger than most of the competition, but he did have frequent protracted, violent battles with another famous elk, Number 6. Together, those two bulls ruled the park, from the Blacktail Plateau to Mammoth.
Old Number 10 was able to gather and maintain large harems of cows on the crowded streets of Mammoth, and in the surrounding hills, for the better part of the last decade. When No 6 died several years ago, No. 10 took to chasing people and vehicles.
He also became a celebrity elk when the BBC filmed a documentary in Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain National Parks called Showdown in Elk Town. The TV show highlighted the potential hazards of living in close proximity to elk, especially during the autumn mating season–the rut.
Only recently did No 10. start to show his age. He lost some body mass, and his impressive headgear, while still massive, started to lose some size as well. But last September, he was out there again, wandering the hillsides near Mammoth, bugling his heart out. Tenaciously looking for love to the end.
Over the last couple winters, visitors familiar with Old No. 10 began to fret for his health. Something of a death watch happened this past February when he looked especially gaunt and listless.
People swore he wouldn’t last until the spring green-up. Turns out they were right, but it wasn’t his failing health that doomed him. Strike that, yes it was. Wolves finally got him.
But reports of his demise were confused and in flux for most of the last week. The first report I heard, on April 20, ultimately turned out to be the accurate one. In the meantime, several people claimed he was hit by a vehicle.Some said it was one of the heavy trucks currently zooming around the north end of the park, where road repair is underway.
But, some forensic work, a’ la CSI: Yellowstone, determined that his injuries, and the cause of death, was wolf pack.
The Canyon wolf pack, minus the two alpha wolves, which were back at the den sight in the Hayden Valley, caught up with Old Number 10 near the Wraith Falls pull-out.
After the brutal Yellowstone winter, No. 10 just didn’t have it in him to fend off the pack.
I’ll miss watching him chase vehicles on the streets of Mammoth, and I’ll miss seeing him lounging in the snow around Wraith Falls deep into January.