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       Day 7 May 25th, 2016

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016
Mammoth Hot Springs, Montana

    I look at the wolf chart for 2016 that Jim Halfpenny turns out each year, and I'm struck by the brevity. It is a stark picture of wolf packs shrinking and disappearing. Twin (992M, alpha male of the Lamar Canyon Pack) gone; 970F (alpha female of the Junction Butte Pack) gone. The Lamar Canyon Pack is down to four - 926F, 993M, Little T and 965M. The Lamar Canyons lost all of last years pups, which is heartbreaking. I worry about this pack. The adults still suffer from mange and can't seem to shake it. Although 926F and Little T are often seen in the den area, no puppies have been sighted.
   We didn't see any of the Lamar Canyon Pack this May. Why? At the end of last year, the Mollies came to town on their usual winter visit, wreaking some havoc with the packs in the northern range. Some of the Mollies returned to Pelican Valley while some remained in Lamar Valley. The Lamar Canyons often travel up Cache Creek, most likely avoiding contact with the Mollies.
   The Mollies are a curious bunch. Large at 16 wolves, they lost their alpha male sometime last summer or fall. It is not known if the alpha female, 779F, found another alpha male, but she did den in Pelican Valley. There is some speculation that they have a den in the northern range. By all accounts they are magnificent looking wolves - big, strong, healthy, beautiful.
   The Junction Butte Pack now has 10 adults, including yearlings. Last October they numbered 19, including 12 pups, so they lost nine, 10 if that includes 970F. The Prospect Peak Pack has ten wolves, not including 965M, who is back with the Lamar Canyon Pack now. We did not see any of the Prospect Peak Pack at all this trip, but they seem to be holding steady. Their den must be deep in the Blacktail Deer Plateau, safe from conflicts with other packs.
   755F is still with his alpha female and often seen with a female yearling, so the Wapiti Lake Pack must have lost pups last year, too. The alphas of the Canyon Pack are 11 now, quite an old age for a wolf. They have two pups and a yearling. I can't believe the pups were born last spring; they were so large when we saw them last October, they looked like yearlings.
   The morning of our last day Swan Lake Flats is fogged in. Quad Mom and her two cubs, if they are there, are hidden by clouds enveloping the mountains; only the empty grassy meadows that stretch to the foothills are visible.
   In Little America, the Junction Butte adults are hunting. They've crossed the road to the south, and are harassing a herd of bison and calves. Moving west, the wolves run out of the trees into a clearing where bison cows surround their calves. There are one, maybe two blacks and three or four gray wolves facing the bison, circling the calves. Later it turns out there are actually 4 blacks and 5 grays, 907F among them. The bison defend their calves, facing off against the wolves. The Junctions give up, traveling west, following a trail into the trees.
   The Junction Butte den is a long view this morning with little activity. Two pups emerge, a gray and a black, swatting each other. Slough Creek is packed with visitors, especially tour groups of every kind - hikingyellowstone.com, offthebeatenpath.com, Teton Science School. We abandon the crowds and retreat to Lamar Valley. Pebble Creek is a quiet oasis - no one there, just peaceful green meadows and only the sound of birds. Driving back through the valley, we pass a coyote hunting across from Soda Butte Cone. It looks like he swam the creek. His coat blends from pale gray to dark gray to red brown.
   On our way back to Mammoth we drive through a few bison and bear jams. The bears are out of sight, deep in gullies off the road. It's rained on and off all morning, but when we reach Mammoth, it begins to pour. One last trip to Swan Lake Flats and we're on our way to Bozeman. And the sun finally comes out.

Author - Christine Baleshta
Photography - Tim Springer

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Yellowstone Experiences 2016