Yellowstone National Park is quite a spectacular place in winter. Pearly white snow covers the vast lands, reflecting the brilliant sunlight from above and creating a dazzling effect. But it’s cold. During this time of year, the highest temperature rises above freezing once in a blue moon.
It doesn’t bother me though. I bundled myself in an obscene amount of winter clothing this morning before heading out. I wasn’t about to let shivering affect my work. And what a wonderful work it is. As a biologist for the Park, I observe the wolves go about their lives and collect information about them. My specific job is to observe the predator-prey relationships between the wolves and their food sources and evaluate the balance of the Park’s fragile ecosystem. Every winter and spring my colleagues and I conduct 30 day study periods, and this winter I was assigned to observe the 8-Mile Pack. I’ve grown to love this pack over the past few weeks. Led by a large black male and a reddish-gray female (dubbed by myself as Blackberry and Strawberry for how their den is situated near wild berry bushes), the 8-Mile pack means business. Especially right now. My heart beat faster with exhilaration as I took in the scene before me from my vantage point on a hill above the field. The wolves were on the hunt.
An immense elk herd was making its way south through the small valley, their large hooves leaving deep imprints in the snow. Little did the beasts know that they were being followed by hungry wolves. There were six wolves strong for hunting today, with the seventh wolf, Strawberry, in the den nursing her three pups. It was not the largest of packs in the park, but it certainly was not one to be contended with. I whipped my binoculars out to get a closer look. I spotted Blackberry on the prowl immediately, his underlings scattered strategically behind him as they scoped out the elk herd.
Wolves are not generally stalk-and-kill predators. They identify the weakest members of a herd and single them out from the rest for an easy meal. Instead of surprise ambushes, they utilize their extraordinary stamina to run down their prey until exhaustion. Then, they go for the jugular and swiftly end the prey’s life. Today would be no different. From all the hunts I had seen from the 8-Mile pack, successful or otherwise, they would use that strategy.
I quickly grabbed my notebook and pen out of my backpack in order to take notes on the mission. I had been tracking the 8-Milers for three days now, and their hunting day had finally arrived. Watching closely, I observed Blackberry leading his group quietly to the back of the herd. From my vantage point I could easily see the elk he was after. A large male was pitifully limping in the back of the herd, hardly keeping up. His back leg appeared to be broken–a surefire way to be picked off by predators. In his prime, the elk must have been quite an impressive specimen. Now, however, there was no way he could survive.
Suddenly, the wolves began to charge, Blackberry in the lead. The herd immediately scattered, the target elk trying his best to keep up. He was no match for Blackberry’s speed or physical prowess. A wolf’s top speed can be up to 40 miles per hour, and Blackberry was no exception. Engrossed by the scene, I watched in awe as Blackberry set himself apart from the rest of his pack and gained on the elk in seconds. He circled out in front of his prey, stopping its desperate escape and allowing for his pack members to catch up and attack. The kill was over in minutes and scavenging hawks were already beginning to glide over the scene.
I methodically took notes on the encounter, approximating the amount of elk in the herd, the age of the elk that had been downed, and the circumstances of the kill. The excited yips and barks of the wolves as they tore into their meal was audible even at my height above them. I smiled and brought my binoculars to my face again to have a magnified view.
The black alpha licked his chops expectantly, looking down at the meal he and his pack had just taken down. He was of large stature and an imposing personality–a clear leader. I watched as he shooed the rest of his pack away from the kill and then took the first bite for himself, as was his privilege. The others tore into it after him, filling their empty stomachs. Occasionally one of them would charge at a scavenger hawk who had hopped a little too close for comfort to their meal. The bird would swiftly fly away only to land again beside the kill, anxious to pick up scraps.
After several more minutes of observing, I decided to pack up for the day and make the long trek back to the research facility. It was starting to snow and evening was fast approaching so calling it a day would be the wise thing to do. As I trudged through the snow down the hill, lost in my thoughts, it didn’t even occur to me how close I was to the 8-Milers den. So it came as a frightening surprise to me when I randomly looked to my right and hidden among the trees was all six wolves staring at me, their golden eyes wide and the blood from the elk still stained on their jaws.
Gasping, I stumbled back a step in fear and Blackberry emitted a warning low growl. He was standing at the front, holding the haunch of an elk between his sharp teeth. Behind my astonishment, I knew in the back of my mind that he was bringing food back to the den for his mate. He slowly creeped closer to me, peering at me suspiciously with his large eyes and his snout wrinkled up in a fierce snarl. Despite the danger of the situation, all I could think of was how jaw-droppingly incredible it was that I was finally seeing him up close. Through all my long hours of tracking and observing this pack, I had never seen been this near to the 8-Milers and it was the most breathtaking experience of my life.
After a second of deer-caught-in-the-headlights-staring, I finally came to my senses. I had to show them that I was not a threat. I slowly crouched down to my knees, lowered my chin, and averted my eyes. It was wolf speak for deference and submission. My heart beat wildly in my chest and I felt as if it was so loud the wolves could hear it from where they were curiously regarding me a mere fifteen feet away. I spared a glance back up at Blackberry. He had his head cocked to the side now with an expression that was so confused it was almost comical. His dark fur billowed slightly and his nose twitched as the breeze took to him a clear extract of my scent. I don’t think he had ever seen or smelt a human up close before either.
A tense minute passed where it was so quiet in that part of the forest that I could hear the wolves breathing. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Blackberry apparently came to the conclusion that I was not a threat. He huffed and trotted on through the trees, giving me one last look before he went. The other five wolves followed closely behind him, leaving me quivering in the snow with excitement at what had just occurred. After the last glimpse of their snow covered tails disappeared from my vision I hastily sprang up and rushed back to civilization. I pulled out my cell phone immediately and called up my fellow researcher and best friend Bill. He picked up after two rings.
“Amy! How are the 8-Milers?” He said amicably.
“Bill,” I paused, the sound of the 8-Milers howling from their den interrupting my thoughts and sending a shiver down my spine. “Bill, you’ll never guess what just happened.”