For decades, wolves have been but a distant memory in the forests of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. As man trekked their way across west, we abided by the Predator Eradication Program, which told them to wipe out any threat that would affect their new way of life. This included the killing of thousands of grizzly and black bears, mountain lions, coyotes, lynx, and of course the grey wolf. In the 1800’s there were as many as 2.8 million wolves living in the continental United States and by the turn of the century, there were maybe around 100-150 left across all the forty eight states. Over time, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem saw a rapid rise in the amount of prey species, such as elk and bison, which led to a massive over grazing problem across the land. Park biologist knew they had to do something and that’s when they turned to the wolf. In 1995 they introduced a pack of fifteen wolves they captured in the Canadian Rockies and set them free in the famous Lamar Valley, located in Northeast Yellowstone National Park. Now, 20 years later, they have spread across the mountains, meadows, and forests and number around 475 and on this particular day, I was lucky enough to be in the midst of a pack of them, by myself.
I woke up early on the morning of April 7th to a dark sky outside. I had a little less than an hour drive to get to the northern end of Grand Teton National Park where grizzly bears have been prowling around as they have just woken from their hibernation. As I arrived the sun was just starting to crest over the eastern Gros Ventre range and at first sight, there was no bear in sight. The only thing I could see were the headlights of other wildlife enthusiasts who were looking for the same thing. As I waited by the Snake River, I began talking to a friend who told me there was an elk carcass up a nearby dirt road. As I looked around, I realized all the other photographers were gone and she told me they all went up to check out the scene. I drove just a couple minutes and found about 10 photographers parked along the road looking at the ground. I stepped out of my car and realized they were not looking at the carcass, which I actually passed a half-mile down the road, but were looking at wolf racks. We were standing around for awhile and eventually a sound caught everyone’s ear. Over a forested hill we were able to clearly hear the sounds of a wolf howl, no more than a half-mile away. It was close, very close and excitement rushed through everyone’s veins. Most people jumped in their cars and headed back to the main road and I was left alone standing with the legendary nature photographer, Thomas Mangelsen and two other friends of ours. We all listened for a few minutes more and then without a reason why, all of them left, right in the middle of this haunting song. I stayed. I was not about to leave a random symphony created by nature to maybe catch them around another bend. I knew the way the hills worked and how the sounds were carrying that the wolves weren’t going anywhere. For 15 minutes I waited in a snow covered meadow listening to now what was four separate wolves howling. I was completely mesmerized and not paying attention to my surroundings, which proved to almost be a bad mistake. As I sat there, I caught something out of the corner of my right eye. Out of the trees on the opposite side of the road from the howls, two wolves came running out of the tree line and came right across the road, no more than forty feet from where I was sitting. I was completely dumbfounded and couldn’t believe that I was watching two wolves run towards the calls of their family, this close.
Most of the wolf watching I have done and most people do is from thousands of feet to even a couple miles away through scopes and binoculars. But not here! I could see into the eyes and hear the pads of their feet as they kicked up the snow. The one older black wolf, who was a male, looked my way as he ran and went straight up the hill away from me. The other wolf, who was a younger cream-colored female, ran right in front of me across the meadow blanketed in snow. Across her face and chest was a sign of a great feast and before that, maybe a great battle, as her white fur was drenched in red blood. It’s as though she was coming straight out of a European folk tale playing the role of the big bad wolf. As she ran across the meadow, I lifted my camera and snapped as many pictures as I could before she got to the tree line. As she distanced herself, I put down the camera as I saw her look my way. For the last few seconds, she slowed down and looked right into my eyes. I looked right back into hers. There I was, alone in the forests of the Rockies, staring into the eyes of the most apex predator of the mountains. As she vanished, I knew both were making their way up the hill through the thick forest towards the rest of their pack. A couple minutes passed, and the howling ceased, and I knew the pack had reunited just on the other side of the hill. Although the encounter lasted less than a measly minute, it is a memory that will last in my mind for decades. I will never forget my first true encounter with the two wolves that decided to drain my jar of nature luck in one quick swoop. It’s okay though, I will wait years for it to refill if I ever could be that fortunate again.
Since the encounter, I have not seen another wolf as they have remained concealed in the forest with the northward elk migration, but many other animals have taken their place. Within the same vicinity, I have seen grizzly and black bears, river otters, moose, elk, and many different varieties of birds. I will keep looking and listening for the wolves, but it is impossible to say where and when they will reemerge.