Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Bullying the Bully - 3 Coyotes v. 1 Wolf

Here is the second of many posts on Karyn and my recent trip to Yellowstone National Park. Wolves are one of the primary reasons that we travel to Yellowstone each year on vacation. While we have observed wolves in Idaho, the population has been lowered to a point that regular observation is no longer feasible. Actually, the population in Yellowstone is also at its lowest level since 1999. The decline in both locations is due to human hunting, inter-pack conflicts, and changing prey dynamics. Even though hunting is not allowed in Yellowstone, many of the packs leave the park in winter and the hunting pressure just outside the park has been high (12% of Yellowstone's wolf population were killed by hunters outside of the park in 2012). Regardless, there is still a much better chance of observing wolves in Yellowstone than in Idaho.

Luck was not on our side during the first couple of days in the park. For the first time in our decade of visits, we failed to observe wolves two days in a row. All of that would change on the third day.

Two black wolves from the Junction Butte pack would entertain us on the south side of the Lamar River near Jasper Bench. They appeared to have bones from an unidentified carcass. We watched as they were harasses by coyotes and eventually climbed the hill and headed toward their home range (different coyotes than referenced below).

On the north side of the river below "Dorothy's Knoll" was an uneaten bison carcass. The carcass did not appear to have been killed by predators and laid largely intact for many days. Wolves were scarce and the grizzly's were at high elevations (we observed many up on or near the snow). The two junction butte wolves must have been just out of smell range of the carcass. After the two wolves crossed over the ridge, we expected the action was over. Wrong! Karyn looked behind us and spotted a black wolf heading our way. It would pass within 50 meters on its way to the valley floor. She was headed for the carcass!

Black wolf (possibly of Lamar Canyon Pack) - Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park.
Black wolf (possibly of Lamar Canyon Pack) - Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park.

Her path to the carcass took her right by a coyote den. Wolves are notorious for bullying coyotes. They will dig up a den and kill the puppies if they get the chance. We have personally observed this on two separate occasions, and heard of a number of similar encounters. It is estimated that the coyote population dropped in half after the introduction of wolves into the park.

Today was not the day for the wolf. With three coyotes present against one wolf, the odds were clearly stacked against her. The coyotes are quicker and had teamwork on their side. They would surround the wolf, each biting when the wolf was facing the other way. They would speed by at full speed, biting as they passed. The following sequence shows the engagement as the coyotes escorted the wolf away from their den. It wasn't about the carcass as the harassment stopped once the wolf arrived for a meal. As soon as she stepped away, the onslaught continued. This process would repeat during the week anytime a lone wolf would visit the bison carcass.

Black wolf and three coyotes - Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park.
Black wolf and three coyotes - Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park.
Black wolf and three coyotes - Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park.
Black wolf and three coyotes - Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park.
Black wolf and three coyotes - Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park.
Black wolf and three coyotes - Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park.
Black wolf and three coyotes - Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park.
Black wolf and three coyotes - Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park.
Black wolf and three coyotes - Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park.
Black wolf and three coyotes - Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park.
Black wolf and three coyotes - Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park.
Black wolf and three coyotes - Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park.

Even the bison join in the pandamonium...

Black wolf, bison and three coyotes - Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park.

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