As the sunrise begins to diminish the darkness of night, shapes appear. I squint trying to make them out. A grizzly bear is taking his last bites of a bison carcass before the daylight, and the people scare him off. He was here yesterday morning, too. I am among a hushed crowd of photographers and onlookers at the edge of the road, 50 feet up a steep hill from where the bison carcass sits. This is a winter-kill bison which is an important food source for grizzly bear as they awaken from hibernation hungry. The bison fell through the ice here sometime last winter and has been preserved in the cold. Only the grizzly has the strength to pull this massive body out of the water in the early spring melt. And once that happens, everybody wants a piece. A family of three coyotes is not far from us, restlessly keeping their distance, waiting for their opportunity to approach to feed.
At the far edge of the ice, across the pond in the distance, stands a lone black wolf with piercing yellow eyes. We think she is a one-year-old from the Eight-Mile Pack. Like most wolves, she is suspicious of people. And as a single, young wolf, she is also wary of the bear and the small pack of coyotes.
The black wolf trotted in after the bear left, slowly but with a little less trepidation than the day before. With surprising strength, she quickly pulled off a big piece of meat and bone and retreated a safe distance to eat it.
The ravens hung around her preferring the scraps she has torn rather than having to do the hard work at the carcass themselves. They are indeed smart birds.
The coyotes sometimes took their turn feasting at the carcass and sometimes tried to steal what the wolf had. They would nip at the heels of the wolf who kept her tail tucked to avoid it being a target as well. They know she’s young and alone so they can harass her without much risk. They wouldn’t get this close to an established adult or any gathering of wolves as wolves are known to kill coyotes.
Occasionally, the young wolf would turn and shoo them off. It was mostly posturing though sometimes bordering on playfulness. The interactions went on for hours as I stood enthralled in the cold early morning light. When the wolf eventually retreated with a full belly to the base of Mount Everts, the coyote pair escorted her off as if they were the reason for her departure. Meanwhile, the third, younger coyote trotted off across with a good chunk of bison spine and ribs.
The next morning unfolded in much the same manner until members of the Prospect Peak wolf pack showed up. We had heard them howling far in the distance earlier. They appeared along the base of Mt. Everts at a distance requiring a spotting scope to watch their interactions. There were three new wolves: the white alpha female (821F) of the pack, a radio-collared yearling male (996M), and another black wolf. There was some quiet interaction between our similarly-aged 8-Mile black and 996M, with “our wolf” showing deferential displays. Then our wolf loped off eastward disappearing across the ice.
The three Prospect wolves hung around a bit showing absolutely no interest in the carcass (probably because of the proximity of the people) before they trotted up Mt. Everts and disappeared. They stayed far, far away, hard to see with the naked eye, highlighting the extraordinary experience of having our young wolf so close.
For three mornings in early April, we watched the drama unfold between the coyotes, the wolf, and the ravens at blacktail ponds in Yellowstone National Park. There wasn’t any solid speculation among the experts as to why this 8-Mile yearling wasn’t with her pack. Because she was on her own it seemed worth the risk for her to approach so closely to people to get some food. It’s pretty rare to have a wolf feeding so close to the road and rarer yet that the park service didn’t close the area to allow the bear and wolf to eat without the stress of the fanfare. It was a spectacular 3 days.