Friday, May 18, 2012

Wolves and the Battle for Territory in the Lamar Valley

It has been a difficult year for the wolves of Yellowstone National Park. There is a general rule that mild winters favor prey species at the expense of predator species. We don't know if this year's mild winter was the cause, but only two of the wolf packs in Yellowstone have denned this year. The result will most likely be a decline in the wolf population within the park.

The two wolf packs within the park with pups are busy doing what wolves do: hunting prey and delivering as much as possible back to the puppies during the period of their most demanding energetic needs. The wolf packs without pups are probably confused as to their true purpose. For a wolf, the annual cycle is defined by the breeding season and the following nine months of leading the puppies to adulthood.

At least one of the Yellowstone wolf packs have decided to use their time without pups to seek out new territory. The Mollie's pack have moved from the Pelican Valley in the southern part of the park into the prime habitat of the Lamar Valley in the north. Providing the Mollie's pack with additional advantage in this endeavor is their number, currently 14 wolves, their size, the largest wolves in the park, and their ferocity. The Mollie's have killed wolves in nearly every pack they have encountered. As the only pack in the park that regularly take bison, the Mollie's definitely know how to throw their weight around.

The Lamar Valley was once the domain of the famous Druid Peak wolf pack of which many nature TV programs were created. Until recently it was the domain of the Lamar Canyon wolf pack which conveniently moved into the Druid Peak den site after the Druid pack dissolved. The Lamar Canyon pack consists of nine or ten wolves trying to feed an unknown number of pups.

Lamar Canyon Alpha Female. Yellowstone National Park.
Lamar Canyon Alpha Female. Yellowstone National Park.

The Lamar Canyon pack may just lay claim to the best wolf territory in the lower 48 states. Apparently the richness of this valley has not gone unnoticed as the Mollie's wolf pack, after roaming many parts of the park, appear to have settled here for good. As mentioned, they are a formidable group always on the prowl and appear to always be in a hunting formation. The Mollie's were heading east...

Mollie's Wolf Pack - 13 of the 14 wolves. Yellowstone National Park.

The next morning we were watching the Lamar Canyon pack on an old bison kill. The kill had been taken over by two grizzly bears. The Lamar's were trying to take it back without success. In fact one of the bears appeared to be sleeping on the carcass! We received word that the Mollie's were on the move in our direction. I usually try not to take sides, but I had to root for the Lamar Canyon pack as they were desperately trying to raise the next generation. I also wasn't sure a fight to the death was high on my list of things to observe.

There were six Lamar wolves present. Upon seeing the Mollie's, two yearling Lamar wolves took off, leaving the four adults to defend the territory and their honor. At first it appeared that the Mollies would pass on by, about a half mile away. But the Lamar wolves couldn't have it. They ran toward the invaders. About half way there they apparently saw the size and number of their foes as their chase turned into a retreat for their lives. Four wolves ran at their fastest speed, two to our left and two to our right, being chased by 14 Mollie's. Wow.

Lamar Canyon pack on the run.
Lamar Canyon pack on the run.
Lamar Canyon pack on the run.

I am not sure why the Mollie's stopped the chase, but they quickly circled and celebrated, tails in the air. Maybe they weren't in the killing mood today or maybe it was the hundreds of people and cars lining the road they would have to cross. The Mollies are less accustomed to people, whereas the Lamar's must cross the road every day from their den site to the core of the valley. Anyway, the fight was over for now, but something tells me that this is far from settled.

Mollie's wolves celebrating the chase.

Even the grizzly bear on the carcass took note, although the 14 wolves could not take the carcass from him! That is commitment.

Mollie's wolves disturbing a grizzly bear on a carcass.

One of the Lamar Canyon wolves that swam to our right took up position on the hillside near us to howl and howl in distress. For more than 20 minutes.

Lamar Canyon wolf howling in distress.

We moved over a small ridge to decrease the pressure on the wolf. After another ten minutes of howling, he/she once again came toward us, crossing just above. He/she occasionally stopped to howl again. Interesting the wolf was within 50 meters and never actually looked directly at us. He/she looked at the invaders, back to the den, and back to the invaders. A little while later it crossed over the ridge and out of sight.

Lamar Canyon wolf howling in distress.
Lamar Canyon wolf howling in distress.

Later that day, while we were off hiking, there was yet another conflict. The alpha female was in deep, deep trouble forcing her to bail off a cliff into the river. Later in the day she appeared to be ok. The next day the Lamar wolves were observed hunting north of their den and the Mollie's had retreated back to the west. The situation was averted for now.

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