collaring wolves, collaring wolves with mange, controversy, danger to wolves, disease, grey wolves, injury, mange, mating season, national park, nature, observations, research, wildlife, winter, wolf hunting, wolf project, wolf watchers, wolves, Yellowstone National Park
On February 3, 2013, I watched as a plane circled around and around a mangy wolf pup in the Hellroaring area of Yellowstone National Park. Only a short time before this, I had overheard Rick McIntyre, a Biological Technician for the Yellowstone Wolf Project, informing the wolf collaring team that he had spotted a pup, a member of the Junction Butte pack, from the Petrified Tree pullout.
Thinking that the process would be fascinating, I wanted to witness, and possibly photograph, the wolf collaring process. Off I went to the Hellroaring pullout that stands far above the valley below, to view what was going on with the plane and the Junction Butte pack. The reception that day, at the pullout, was non-existent, icy and hateful, as people stared intently into their scopes. No one would speak. And so, after only a few moments, I left and found a more friendly spot all to myself at Twin Turnouts. Yellowstone has a closed wolf society that is extremely secretive about the wolves, even though they are in a national park that belongs to everyone.
The plane circled and circled as I watched through my scope, getting lower and lower to the ground. What kept going through my mind was wondering how this was not interfering with the animals. And I couldn’t help but think what it must be like to be in the vast forest of nothing but the sounds of nature, only to have that sanctuary burst wide open by a noisy plane circling around and around. I actually watched for a while, left, returned and watched some more. After quite some time I discovered that I did not have the stomach for watching this process. To me it felt like a violation to the animals – just like raising elk in a peaceful national wildlife refuge for years and years and then suddenly, one day, letting the men come in with their loud rifles and kill them.
I left and drove home. Boy did I miss a lot of action that day.
When all was said and done and from reports from others who were able to watch the collaring of wolves that day, several had been collared. Mating season was in full force for the wolves and amongst those collared on the Northern Range were two alpha females that were just getting ready to breed.
One of them was the brand new mate to 755M, the alpha male that had lost his mate in December, the famous ’06, Rock Star, or whatever people called her. 755 and his new gal had barely begun hanging out together when the plane and helicopter descended and put a new collar on her (759F had previously been collared). Reports from people who witnessed the collaring said that she lay still for a long time afterwards. No one ever saw the two breed, or tie, but they presume that they did. And I have yet to get an answer about what effects the drugs and the collaring might have upon her, particularly if she had already been pregnant.
The other alpha female (of those that I am aware of) that was collared that day, on February 3, was the leader of the Junction Butte pack – a mighty new force on the northern range that is made up of wolves from different packs. Reports vary as to what happened as a result of this collaring and so I will do my best to reconstruct events based on witness and written reports. The following day, Monday, February 4, I was told that the alpha female had not yet gotten up after being collared and people were semi-worried about her but also said that some wolves react differently to the drugs. How I wish to have witnessed this all myself! The Wolf Project says that she got up and was seen leading the pack, doing fine, during the next three days, until she tied with the alpha male. My notes, reports from witnesses and written reports say that the two tied the day following the collaring and that she did not get up afterwards. I was told that there was a lot of blood. I was also told that the rest of the family got excited when the breeding began and came up to join in and that the tie might have been broken but they ended up going at it again a short time later. The following day, witnesses said that the two bred again, while the female was still down – this would have been on February 5. More than one person reported that the newly collared alpha female did not get up for 48 hours.
In the weeks since the collaring of the Junction Butte alpha female, the wolves were rarely seen but it soon became clear that she was severely injured and unable to lift her head. At about this time, people began to report that she had been injured during the tie. The wolf project says that she probably sustained a neck injury when the family tried to join in. The alpha male, nicknamed, Puff, subsequently tied with other females in the pack that he is not related to and the original alpha female has now lost her status. When I saw her, just yesterday, she appeared to have also lost her pack, while lying on a faraway hill all by herself.
No one involved with watching the wolves in the park, an army of volunteers, or self-appointed wolf followers, who follow the wolves from sun up to sun down, spoke about the collaring, but reports from others soon began to flow in that suggested that many of them were not happy with the process. I do not know if their unhappiness is because of the recent killings of collared wolves, because of the timing at breeding season, because of the alpha female’s injury or because the project collared a miserable mangy pup from the Junction Butte pack that is rarely involved in pack activities and is often seen lagging behind.
The pup that the wolf plane was circling was the mangy pup and he now has a collar, much like the one on the mangy coyote pictured above. If you look carefully, the coyote has no fur under that heavy leather collar and I can only imagine how miserable it must feel. The pup is still rarely seen with the pack.
Because the ex-alpha female and the mangy pup, the only two collared members of the Junction Butte pack, are rarely with the others, the Winter Wolf Project, which began 2/1/2013, are still having difficulties locating them for the study and so plans are in the works for the collaring of two more members. Those plans may have been carried out today, as I saw the plane over the Junction Butte area before leaving the park early this afternoon.
The Wolf Project once told me that all of the information that they collect about the wolves, with the exception of that which is derived from the GPS collars, is public and I was invited to stop by and call with any questions. One of the questions that had been on my mind for an entire month was, why did they collar the grey mangy pup.
I was told that they believed that they were following the black pup and that they had no intention of collaring the grey one as it was not an ideal situation. When it came down to it, and they had the mangy pup, they made a decision to go ahead and collar, in part because there is a mange study going on in the park. I wanted so badly to ask if they at least treated the poor thing for the mange because is seems as if it would be unconscionable to not do so. But, I did not ask, partly because all throughout the 2011 annual wolf report, it says that their policy is to leave nature alone. Unfortunately, throughout the same report, it also mentions that several wolves have been lost because of the mange.
Which brings me to a curious point. Most people have told me that the mange won’t kill the animals – and they won’t freeze to death – and that many recover if they are able to get good enough nutrition to fight the mites. Believe me, I have asked this question over and over again. But the report clearly states that this is not the case, lives have been lost due to the mites and other diseases, such as parvo and distemper. Though I do know of wolves that are reported to have completely recovered from mange.
Yellowstone began the winter season with about 90 some wolves (pups are not counted until after the first of the year) and 9 known YNP, and 3 suspected YNP, wolves are known to have been killed legally (we do not know about illegal kills for some reason), one pack, ten wolves, moved out of the park after their leader was killed and I have heard of another two that are missing. With the legal hunting season now over in Montana, the Wolf Projects says that there are between 68 and 70 wolves remaining in the park.
The other thing about the timing for the collaring on Feb. 3, is that there was still nearly a month of legal hunting time in Montana. Why put a target on their backs? I find it interesting to note that there was a string of wolf killings until all GPS collared wolves in Yellowstone were killed by hunters, after which the rate of loss appeared to slow down. Of those affiliated with the park, nine wolves with YNP collars, including four that had moved out of the park, were killed during the hunting season, while 7 uncollared wolves were killed. I honestly would have thought that they would have postponed any more collaring until after hunting season, at least, if not until issues are resolved with the states surrounding Yellowstone.
The Wolf Project has admitted that the collaring issue is a sensitive one and that many people do not agree with them continuing to collar wolves but say that it is still necessary for the continuing of their research. They cited one wolf that they have been following for its entire life, that may need a new collar. I can certainly understand how continued research on this animal would be critical.
I am not against the wolf research and the researchers learning all they can about the wolves because I think that the information is vital if we are to protect them from nearing extinction again. I do believe that this research and all information, except that which is gained from the GPS collars, should be transparent and available to the public. I believe that if they are going to follow wolves in Yellowstone and certain tourists can know where they are, that all of us should know where they are, but that is a discussion for my next post.
I applaud the work that the wolf project has done and does, during their two month long Winter studies, when they collect important information about kills, such as the age and health of the prey. The lineage information about the wolves is fascinating and probably also necessary. As is information about diseases.
Who am I to be making these observations? I came to Yellowstone on October 7, 2012 to spend the Winter learning the truth about the wolves, which has been difficult for many more reasons, besides the wolves being killed. I was not accepted by the citizens who watch the wolves, except for a short time during some of the coldest days of winter when I was allowed to stand out there with the others and observe the wolves. But, I was kicked out of the fold when one woman accused me of somehow knowing that the wolves were going to cross the road in the pre-dawn and that with this telepathic information I made the decision to drive into their path so that I could get photos. Afterwards, I overheard a transmission on the “Rick” radio about it being necessary to keep me from knowing where the wolves were, even though they were a few miles away on top of Norris.
As devastating as this development was, my being shunned from the inner wolf groupie circle, it turned out to be a blessing because I have been given the gift of observation, which has always been one of my strong suits. That separation has allowed me to be impartial on matters pertaining to the wolves, because there is no one else’s feelings, secrets or anything else to consider. I needed to take a step back and begin to ask the question; what is best for the wolves and are we doing what we can to keep them safe? I am not affiliated with any animal groups, though there are some that I admire, and do not derive any financial benefit from the wolves – therefore I have no vested interest in anything other than their safety and continued survival.
I then had to ask myself if I was willing to be shunned even more because of writing about my observations. True answer, not really, I don’t like being disliked and talked poorly about. After much thought, the right answer is yes. For some reason I was placed into the unique position of spending an entire Winter in Yellowstone without affiliation to anyone and without financial gain, all of which makes me a credible witness to events. My only concern here is the safety of the wolves and that should be the same for all who profess concern for their safety. I postponed all writing about this topic until the Montana wolf hunting season was over with, in order to avoid any chance of putting an extra target on the wolves – that hunt ended 2/28//2013.
Ask yourself these same questions. And ask yourself, what do I gain from the wolves? Is it financial and/or emotional, and would I be willing to give that up if it would help the wolves stay safe? These are important questions to consider because I fear that financial gain has become more important than the animal’s safety.
Article on a mange study in YNP: http://nrmsc.usgs.gov/research/mange_wolvesYNP
Here are a couple of photos of more healthy wolves (the one on the right has a patch of mange on her side) and a very healthy coyote.