We started the morning off with another visit by Rick McIntyre. The Junction Butte wolves were once again bedded down across from the Buffalo Ranch, and he was setting up scopes for those who wanted to observe. Many of us had woken up to the wolves howling throughout the night, with a far-off coyote yip here and there. We were surrounded by an abundance of wildlife at the ranch and enjoyed every moment.
Today we’d be joining George Bumann in the field to follow some mountain lion tracks that would lead to an elk carcass recently killed by the cougar. There was one rule: don’t step in the wildlife tracks!
We started just off the main road, below a bridge, where the first set of cougar tracks were located. We surprised an ermine under the bridge, and watched this small but mighty creature scurry across the path and out of sight.
We walked out onto the frozen portion of the river and continued to follow alongside the perfectly preserved tracks in the ice. George was leading us up to the top of a hill, and along the way we encountered a small herd of bison. He instructed us to stop moving, remain quiet, and avoid direct eye contact with the animals. Once the bison felt comfortable, they continued on their way, keeping tabs on this strange group of humans. One animal that we thought might be the matriarch of the group stopped and monitored us until the rest of the herd was well on its way. We were a safe distance away from the bison, but hadn’t had the opportunity to observe the animals like this before.
When we reached the top of the hill, Bumann asked us to split into groups determine how many were in the group as a whole, how many were male vs. female, and how many were adults vs. sub-adults vs. calves. These numbers would be useful for the park’s citizen science efforts. A handful of the other students went along with Joshua Theurer and Dr. Lambert to collect fecal samples.
We collected our data and continued on the path of the cougar. George gave us some general information about where the carcass was located, and then sent the students off to find it themselves. There were many other tracks in the area, and we were certain wolves and coyotes had also come in to feed on the carcass. Everyone split up into smaller groups, and after 20 minutes Hannah shouted that she had found something. We all ran over and saw ungulate hair scattered around the area, and found other remains nearby. George had trained the students well!
After lunch we decided to head back outside for another excursion. It was our last full day at the ranch; tomorrow we would be moving to the Overlook campus in Gardiner, and we wanted to take full advantage of our remaining time inside the park. The students’ faces glowed with excitement when Joshua informed them that we’d be hiking out along Rose Creek, and up to the last remaining wolf acclimation pen from the 1995 reintroduction. All the other pens had been taken down years ago, so we were excited for this opportunity to visit a space where history had been made over 20 years ago.
It began to snow as we started the two-mile trek up to the pen. Along the way we stopped to examine an elk skull next to the path, and a red fox carcass underneath a downed tree. The fox looked so peaceful, as if in a deep slumber. Its aged coat told us it lived a good, long life, and found a comfortable final resting place.
A couple miles later, we arrived at the pen. Everyone was in awe to see this sacred space where wolves made their return to Yellowstone. The class silently walked around the pen, which had held three wolves: one extremely bold adult male, one very timid, cautious mother, and her daughter. Joshua explained the Yellowstone biologists held many concerns with having such a bold male wolf around the other two. They were very hesitant about releasing all the wolves together in the same pen, and worried for the safety of the two females. This male reportedly had a very powerful gaze; it was so strong that it made people uncomfortable. Doug Smith, head biologist for the Yellowstone Wolf Restoration Project, remembers locking eyes with the wolf, only to have to break away as he felt uneasy with the strong gaze pointed in his direction.
Ultimately, the restoration team decided they had no other options but to release the male into the pen where the two females were already roaming. Their concerns were valid: the male immediately attacked the mother quite seriously, but did not kill her. He was asserting his dominance. After the mother recovered, the team began to notice the male and older female were bedding closer and closer together, until they observed the mother displaying denning behavior. The pair mated, and it was time to release the animals into the wilderness so they could return to their wild roots. The male immediately ran out, but the older female was too timid and avoided the area she associated with human activity. To encourage the wolf to leave, the restoration team took a panel out of the fencing, and she finally went out.
The pair almost immediately left the park, and the male was shot and killed right away. After many tries, they were able to capture the female and bring her back to the park, where she successfully raised her pups. This was the beginning of the Rose Creek pack. This mother, wolf 009F was one of the most successful wolves in the park and almost all wolf packs have the blood of this family, including legendary wolf 21M.
The students then embarked on a discussion about what should happen with this remaining acclimation pen. It’s the last one left of the original three. Throughout the years, trees have fallen down, crushing the sides of the fence, but almost everything else is still there. So what should happen: should the pen be taken down? Some people view it as an eye sore in a pristine area. Others consider it a sacred site. The students’ opinions varied: all agreed it’s a sacred place and should stay up as a memorial. Many shared concerns about it becoming a tourist attraction that brings high volumes of visitors in, potentially degrading the land. By the end of the discussion, many of us agreed it should be made into a memorial that would create a strong connection to and support for the wolves.