National Geographic : 2010 Mar
Smith, leader of the Yellowstone Wolf Project, recorded the fewest breeding pairs since 2000. "We have a declining wolf population," he says. "Numbers never got as high as we expected based on the availability of prey. is suggests that once wolves reach a certain density, you start to get social regulation of their numbers." Clashes with humans are by no means the only wolf wars under way. Yellowstone's Druid Peak pack established its territory in 1996 and has held it ever since. In all probability they have been the most watched group of wolves in the world: e wide-open country they claim on both sides of Wyoming's Lamar River Valley is bisected by one of the park's main roads. On a late October morning the tem- perature is reading 4°F. Hoarfrost coats the noses of bison below one of the Druids' favorite ren- dezvous sites. Scattered elk graze the same slope, and two coyotes are picking over the remains of an elk calf on the river's shore. I spy no wolves, but Laurie Lyman, a former teacher who moved from California to be near Yellowstone's wolves and has watched them almost daily for several years, lowers her binoculars to tell me about the ones she saw yesterday. Two Druids---a female labeled Number 571 and her younger brother, called Triangle Blaze, for his white chest patch---were traveling by the river when three invaders from the new Hurri- cane Mesa pack appeared. e groups exchanged howls and then ran at each other. Outnumbered, the Druid pair gave way rst, but the Hurricanes caught up to 571. Four times they pulled her down onto her back. e nal time two held her on either end while the third---and largest--- bit into her chest, shaking and tearing with its teeth. " at's when Triangle Blaze jumped in," Lyman recalls. "He came to her rescue, ghting o the Hurricanes. ey started chasing him, but not before 571 got in a bite on one's rear. She escaped across the river. When her brother nally rejoined her, he was limping, and she was bleeding from her wounds." During 2008, Yellowstone saw twice as many wolves killed by other wolves as in any previ- ous year. Distemper claimed a record share too, a er hitting the population in 1999, 2000, and 2005 as well. Parvovirus, another deadly canine disease, has been detected in the area. And like many packs, the Druids are su ering serious hair loss from an epidemic of mange. Loss of superabundant prey is another is- sue, Smith says. ere are still close to 10,000 elk wintering in Yellowstone and perhaps double that number summering in the park. "But wolves are very selective hunters," Smith says. "What counts for them is the amount of vulnerable prey." Much as experience with wolves can trans- form cattle into not-so-domestic animals, pack- hunted elk turn into less vulnerable quarry. They become more vigilant and keep on the move more. In the wol ess era, herds practi- cally camped at favorite winter dining spots, foraging on young aspen, willow, and cotton- wood until the stems grew clubbed and stunted like bonsai plants. Released from such grazing pressure, saplings now shoot up to form lush young groves. More songbirds nd nesting hab- itat within their leafy shade. Along waterways, vigorous willow and cottonwood growth helps stabilize stream banks. More insects fall from overhanging stems to feed fish and amphib- ians. Beavers nd enough nutritious twigs and branches to support new colonies. Surveying the huge northern range, where most of the park's elk winter, Doug Smith turned up just one beaver colony in 1996---the lowest tally in decades. By 2009, he recorded 12. Along Crystal Creek I nd another recent bea- ver dam storing water, releasing a more con- stant ow for riparian (Continued on page 54) When the new wolves in Yellowstone rst came calling, the area's elk and moose stood their ground. Bad plan.