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By Ilona Popper

It was a cold February day near the Slough Creek Road in Yellowstone National Park. A group of us was watching wolves hunting—two different hunts. We could see the Slough Creek pack to the north, testing a herd of elk, but I trained my spotting scope on 527’s group. The three wolves were attacking a bull elk on the south side of the road, a half mile from where I stood.

The animals were deep in snow. A black adult, informally called The Dark Female, bit and held on to one back leg. 527F, the leader of this group, a sturdy black 5-year-old female wolf that had been radio-collared and numbered by the Yellowstone Wolf Project, closed her jaws on the middle of the bull’s throat. The bull dropped to his knees. After a second or two, he hauled himself to standing. As he did, 527 was lifted off her feet, hanging from the elk by her teeth.

Wolves’ teeth cannot always shear muscle. Instead they mash, bruise and hemorrhage tissue. Hanging on to the throat is a different strategy: crushing the airway and suffocating the animal. 527 held on even as the bull rose up with her and held on when he collapsed, but she couldn’t keep her jaw-grip when he lifted and battered her against his shoulders. The third wolf, a yearling gray male, stood in the rear, taking in the scenery.

At least three times the bull elk got to his feet and flung off 527. He had a full rack and to me, he seemed tall and strong compared to the three wolves at his side.

Once when the bull fell, the female wolves let go and just sat where each had been holding him, as if to catch their breaths. They seemed to float on the crust of the snow, nearly leaning up against the bull, who was sunk in to his chest. The animals—the two wolves and the bull elk—panted together, breaths steaming, like athletic teammates sharing a break.

After a bit, the bull stood and the wolves resumed trying to kill him.

At one point, the young Gray Male joined The Dark Female at the bull’s back legs. Repeatedly, the bull rose from his knees and shook free of the wolves. The wolves trailed him, still winded, but when he stumbled in snow up to his neck, the two female wolves bit and held on again. The bull was bleeding from his rectum.

It was eye-opening to watch this hunt. Until I came to Yellowstone and watched wild wolves, I’d never pictured that it might be exhausting and difficult for them to kill their prey. I knew wolves chose “the weak.” “Survival of the fittest”—people bat around this phrase a lot. But what does that really look like?

If I’d thought about it at all, I’d have assumed that once they’d settled on their “weaker” prey, predators found killing pretty easy. But to my eyes, 527 and the Dark Female threw everything they had at killing this elk—and still they struggled. They were apex predators, but they were the ones who looked vulnerable.

Wolves can appear strong, athletic, tough, focused and driven. Wolves of all ages can be playful, goofy and unstintingly caring with their young.

Our image of predatory animals is often demonic. They have no fear, but instill fear in their prey—and in us. They walk the earth troll-like, confident of their power, full of malice or even sadism. Wolves kill for fun, some say. We use the word predator to describe a type of human monster: sexual predator; financial predator. Serial killers are predators. These concepts equate prey with victimhood and predators with evil and death. With that logic, we assume that prey animals are at a disadvantage, even innocent.  Far from it.

Elk and other prey have evolved to give wolves a run for their lives. Literally. Wolves get prey like elk running, partly to assess fitness and to stay clear of front-hoof strikes; elk run close together, making it harder to get picked off. Yet, wolves succeed on average in 5 to 15 percent of their attempts to take down prey…

To read the rest of this article in International Wolf Magazine become a member of the International Wolf Center!  Visit http://www.wolf.org/  to learn more about the Center’s programs and ambassador wolves:

Wolves are a vital part of our ecosystem.  But many people don’t have the accurate, science-based facts they need in order to make the most informed decisions about wolves. Being a member of the International Wolf Center helps provide people with those facts! Your membership helps us to educate thousands of people each year through our website, webinars, WolfLink Videoconferencing, quarterly International Wolf Magazine, and our stunning interpretive center in Ely, Minnesota.

I wrote the scripts for this two DVD set about Yellowstone’s rare white wolves.  Disc 1 tells the story of the white Hadyen pack alpha female, who colonized Hayden Valley with her mate, and who faced fierce attacks from a rival pack.  Disc 2 follows her daughter, also a white wolf, as she founds the Canyon pack and thrives in Hayden valley.  She raised many generations of wolves and, along with her mate, was one of the oldest wolves in the park. The film ends with footage of the Canyon wolf’s daughter, the third white wolf in the line, who still heads the Wapiti pack.

To order, go to https://trailwoodfilms.com/videos/white-wolf/

We saw the wolves about a mile below us. They had killed an elk at the base of a long drainage and were eating at the carcass: the black breeding female; the gray breeding male, 685M; and several of their pups, only a month away from their first birthday. Soon, their mother would whelp a new litter.

It was a snowy March morning in 2009, and I had joined two crew members of the Yellowstone Wolf Project, Hilary and Josh, who were following the Everts wolf pack for the Wolf Project’s winter study. We had hiked into the Gallatin National Forest and set up our scopes high along a steep ravine that cut sharply down to the Yellowstone River. Across the river was Yellowstone National Park, where flats and hills rose up to Mount Everts.

The wolves tugged and chewed, side by side at the carcass.

“Wow,” Hilary exclaimed. “Can you believe that!?”

“Is he taking that to her?” asked Josh.

“Yes!”

Lifting my head, I shifted my scope in the direction the two were looking, higher up on Everts. I saw two wolves; one was the graying-black Old Everts Female (OEF), lying sphinxlike on an overlook above the carcass. I caught sight of her just after 685M, the breeding male, dropped an elk leg onto her forepaws. 685M had pulled the leg from the carcass, climbed the hill to where the old female lay, and brought her the meat.

“What a mensch!” Josh said.

“I knew he was a prince,” said Hilary.

685M stood looking down at the old wolf. The OEF was about 9 years old. When she was about 4 years old, her shoulder joint had been so badly injured that, for most of her life, she held that leg straight in front of her when she traveled.

Now the old wolf remained still, perhaps to make sure 685M had truly released the food. Then she grabbed the leg in her jaws, stood and began hopping up the mountain.

But the breeding male raced ahead of her and angled his body to block her way. She paused, faced his flank and stepped past him. Again, 685M ran ahead of her and turned to stand obliquely. What was he up to? He didn’t take back the leg, but he kept halting her.

The OEF held the leg tightly and wouldn’t lay it down to take a bite. I wondered why she was so bent on traveling up the mountain. After a couple rounds of this mute conversation, the male finally gave up and trotted back to the carcass below.

Wild wolves carry food and regurgitate to pups, but they don’t usually carry food to other adult wolves, with these exceptions: all pack members bring food to the nursing mother, who mostly stays in the den for the first week or so of the pups’ lives, warming and suckling them. (Usually this is the breeding female, but if there is good hunting, packs may support additional litters.) Rising hormones like oxytocin prime all the members of the pack to focus on raising pups, and this accounts for the other exception: before “denning up,” pregnant female wolves may solicit and receive food from their mates, as if to jump-start those nurturing hormones.

So, why was 685M bringing food to the OEF? The pups were grown, they weren’t even hers, and she wasn’t pregnant. And why didn’t she eat alongside the rest of the pack? The carcass was in plain view. What exactly was the OEF’s role in this pack?

No one was certain of her bloodlines. The OEF was never fitted with a radio-collar, and after her death her body was too decomposed for the Wolf Project to get a DNA sample. When she was younger, the old wolf had kept company with Leopold pack wolves without being chased off. She might have been born a Leopold; after her injury, perhaps they fed her. She joined the Oxbow pack briefly, which was founded by Leopold females. Then for some years she drifted in and out of sight.

Somehow the OEF survived to join the Everts pack in her old age. The breeding female of the Everts pack had been born an Oxbow pack wolf, so researchers speculated she may have been the great-niece of the OEF.

The old wolf was seen babysitting the young Everts pups. But being a babysitter seldom rates a meal delivery. Often, wolves that have been babysitting at a den must travel back to a carcass to eat, even though the returning pack regurgitates to the pups. If wolves feed a babysitter, most commonly it’s a yearling. [1] Wolves burn precious calories ferrying meat over miles to feed pups too young and weak to travel. An adult wolf, even lame, must run for her supper. And in this case, the near-yearlings had long outgrown the need for babysitters. Yet 685M had carried food to the OEF!

Clasping the leg in her jaws, the OEF hobbled ever higher. Finally, nearly three-quarters of the way up the mountain, she lowered the leg, and herself, to the ground. After looking around, she began chewing. Within seconds, one of the large male pups bounded up to her. He dwarfed the old wolf, standing with his nose near her prize. She angled away from him, like a person screening her food at a table. He sidled around her, which prompted another skooch away from him. He edged in and lay at her elbow. She stopped gnawing. I wondered if the old female growled, because the pup froze, though he didn’t retreat.

As I panned downslope, a black wolf darted through my field of view; the breeding female was storming up the hill to the OEF and the big gray pup. The breeding female “stood over” the OEF, her four paws partly caging her, tail raised and rocking, a classic assertion of dominance. The old wolf remained on the ground, but she did not roll over as some subordinate females might. For a moment nothing happened.

Then something shifted:  the pup wriggled under his mother’s legs and slid under the old wolf. Suddenly he stood, with the elk leg in his mouth. Then he ran off, leaving the OEF with nothing to eat.

Drop It!

Had I just seen a wolf make another wolf drop food? In 14 years of observing Yellowstone wolves,  I had never seen one wolf dominate another with food already in its jaws, let alone force it to relinquish food to a third wolf. When subordinate wolves hold food in their mouths, it seems untouchable. I once watched a young wolf refuse food to her father, who followed and stared pointedly at a bone she was carrying. No dice.

Do wolves display consciousness? At the very least, there were signs that the four wolves in this drama had made choices. It seemed as if each had been heading-off, imposing on or gambling on outcomes.

If the old wolf was her great-aunt, the Everts breeding female may have decided that between two relatives, her offspring should eat first. This doesn’t seem a stretch. In the biological worldview, raising offspring to adulthood is a top priority—above that of keeping a great aunt alive. In a few weeks the breeding female would deliver pups. Perhaps she was simply worried about having enough food for pups and yearlings.

In the wild, pack members usually eat side by side at a carcass, whether they participated in the hunt or not, whether they are blood relatives or not. In certain situations, there may be a show of teeth, making a wolf move or wait to eat. (Druid pack’s breeder, 832F, was famously tough about this with her mate and his brother until they matured into better hunters.) Yet Josh had mentioned that the Everts breeding female made the OEF wait until the pack had fed. Breeders, female and male, do kick wolves out of their packs. Perhaps the breeding female was considering an ouster?

The OEF seemed to know that the highest-ranking female might deprive her of food. That might have been why the OEF carried her leg so far away to eat, insisting on climbing even when the breeding male tried to stop her.

The breeding male might also have been aware of what his mate might do if she caught sight of the OEF with a big chunk of meat. Did he block the OEF from traveling away with the meat, as if to say, eat it here, so he could guard her?

Could the male have been aware of advantages in having this older wolf in his pack? Kira Cassidy, a Wolf Project researcher who studies wolf-on-wolf aggression, has found that, “In conflicts between packs, a pack with even one older wolf, male or female, can have an advantage over a pack that outnumbers them. [2]”

Still wolf biologist L. David Mech says, “I have never seen nor heard of a wolf carrying food to an unrelated wolf other than a breeding male feeding his mate.” Yet the breeding female, who took food from the OEF, was the wolf that may have been kin. And her mate, 685, fed the unrelated, lame, old wolf. Is there an in-law status in packs? Certainly, packs include non-offspring members who are related to the breeders (brothers, sisters). Yet rejection is also common: Lamar Canyon 925M drove off his father-in-law when they met.

Is it possible a wolf may value a pack member, not out of kinship, but because of what she has or does to contribute—nurturing pups or hunting well? Is it possible that a wolf might feed another wolf out of gratitude?

# # #

 

Ilona wishes to acknowledge L. David Mech and the Yellowstone Wolf Project—especially Kira Cassidy, Dan Stahler, Hilary Zaranek Anderson, Josh Irving and Doug Smith.

Notes:

1 “Regurgitive Food Transfer Among Wild Wolves,” Mech, Wolf, Packer, Canadian Journal of Zoology, 1999.

2 “Group composition effects on aggressive interpack interactions of gray wolves in

Yellowstone National Park, Cassidy, MacNulty, Stahler, Smith, and Mech, Behavioral Ecology, 2015.

This article appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of International Wolf.

Become a member of the International Wolf Center!  Visit http://www.wolf.org/  to learn more about the Center’s programs and ambassador wolves:

Wolves are a vital part of our ecosystem.  But many people don’t have the accurate, science-based facts they need in order to make the most informed decisions about wolves. Being a member of the International Wolf Center helps provide people with those facts! Your membership helps us to educate thousands of people each year through our website, webinars, WolfLink Videoconferencing, quarterly International Wolf Magazine, and our stunning interpretive center in Ely, Minnesota.

A year-long membership includes:

  • A subscription to the beautiful and informative quarterly International Wolf magazine
  • Unlimited free admission to the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota
  • Discounts on Learning Adventures, webinars and Wolf Den Store purchases, and more…

Wednesday, April 26, 2017
7:00pm – 9:00pm
Doors open at 5pm

 

Free performance, presented in partnership with Elk River Books.

The reading will be about an hour, including Q&A.

Unearthing Paradise

Elk River Press’s anthology Unearthing Paradise: Montana Writers in Defense of Greater Yellowstone is now available. A portion of all sales of this book goes directly to Park County Environmental Council for use in their efforts to protect Paradise Valley and Jardine, MT from gold mining and other assaults on the Greater Yellowstone area. I am honored to be a contributor, among many great Montana writers.

You may order online here: https://unearthingparadise.org/

or at Elk River Books here:   (406) 333-2330        120 N. Main St. (PO Box 2212) Livingston, MT 59047

A Moose Story

1

A couple of weeks ago, as I drove a friend into Yellowstone, I saw a cow moose jogging alongside our car. She trotted slowly in an arc in the snow, traveling in the opposite direction from us. I glimpsed the heads of cow elk behind her, looking alert, even alarmed, as the moose careened by. The elk remained immobile, focusing on the moose, and possibly on what or who was chasing her.

Years ago a grad student, Stewart, studied elk in Yellowstone. He showed that elk are nervous eaters, popping their heads up and down as they browse, scanning for predators. If they spot wolves, elk bunch together, all looking in the same direction. Then they run. Yet, as soon as wolves take down one of their number, the surviving elk make the most of the opportunity and eat without looking up. They’ve learned that chances are good they have nothing to worry about, for a little while anyway. (Elk also may turn and face down or even strike out at wolves. Elk that face wolves often survive, in part because wolves are coursing hunters. Wolves seem to prefer prey to run away from them, possibly to offset the size advantage that prey have. A sign of this advantage is that wolves kill only 15 % of the elk they attempt to kill.)

Of course, I have seen cow elk distraught and pacing after wolves have killed their calves. The cow will watch, circle, and hang around for a while, but stand back from the carcass as wolves eat.  Eventually, she’ll give up and return to her herd.

This came to mind when I saw the cow moose: didn’t this one have a calf with her? The last time I’d seen this cow, she stood with her calf, eating willows by the creek, a few yards east of here. Both animals looked up at me warily and steadily, as I drove slowly above them on the road. Cow moose have a reputation for being very aggressive about anyone near their young, so I kept a distance when I pulled my car over and stepped out to get a better look.

Snow had piled into miles of hills and mountains, the whiteness only relieved where snow had drifted off the tops of sagebrush and where willow bushes ran along the creeks. The two moose nearly disappeared against the dark maroon willow stands, their forms picked out by patches of sunny snow behind the bushy branches. The calf was nearly 2/3 the size of its mother and both animals stood vibrant, with glossy coats, their breaths steaming.

Now, the cow moose was alone, running through the plateau. I looked for wolves, but couldn’t see anything following her. I was driving slowly and the ridge rose and fell, chopping up my view.

The moose trotted then suddenly broke into a gallop. Her legs seemed to move independently beneath her massive torso, a blocky dark rectangle of muscle. She had none of the springy, rocking quality you see in fleeing elk. Her body remained level to the ground as her knees pranced high and fast.  Power, I thought.

As I slowed the car to watch, I noticed a coyote standing on the opposite side of the road. It stared, not at the fleeing moose, but away to the south. Was the coyote watching wolves tear up the carcass of this cow’s calf? Coyotes keep tabs on wolves, for their own safety and in hopes of stealing from the wolves’ kills later.

2

I began a story of how it went: probably the cow moose had just run across the road, away from the wolves that had been eating her young. She had lingered and was finally giving up and leaving, but she was still agitated and that’s why she was trotting off like that. But why had she sped up to a gallop?

In this ecosystem, though I had seen many wolves hunting other animals and had seen moose, I had never seen wolves actually hunt moose, so I wasn’t familiar with cow moose behavior with wolves. I know that at times, cow moose, like cow elk, chase and attack wolves. I have seen the fierceness of a cow moose protecting her young. Several years ago, I saw a cow moose charge a massive bull bison that she seemed to think was too close to her calf. The bull bison chased the cow into a lake, where she swam frantically along the shoreline, as the bison knocked down and butted the young calf. At first, the calf looked dead. But gradually it lifted its head. That evening, the cow lay next to the calf, but it couldn’t nurse without standing. The cow moose waited with the calf for days till, to my surprise, it recovered enough to walk off with her.

I turned the car around and we drove back the way we’d come and immediately my friend Cessie spotted the moose. The cow had crossed the creek and was heading back the way she’d come, only on the other side of a deep draw. Another wildlife watcher pulled up behind us and mentioned he had just seen the elk herd bunch up and then run into that same draw, which was a deep ravine. So the wolf was still out there. And the moose had gone from trotting to galloping. Perhaps the wolves had not killed the calf, but were pursuing the cow.

It’s amazing how the human brain scrambles around for meaning, for a story. This tendency intensifies when I’m in the field, even though I try to fight against closing off the narrative too soon, or imposing too many assumptions. Yet shaping an experience into a narrative seems to be human nature. I’ve seen it with my students in writing seminars, and I see it in people I encounter out here: wildlife watchers, naturalists, citizen scientists, wildlife photographers, or tourists.

Perhaps this tendency to look for the story is a survival adaptation in humans. Getting the tale straight might be part of reading other animals’ behavior right; it might help us at other times stay safe, scavenge, or hunt. Tale-telling is also a lot of fun. If a trait is adaptive it starts to feel good.  Perhaps we want to believe that stories do contain meaning and realizations, because something that feels so good and right simply must connect us to larger truths. If nothing else, shaping the story reignites my curiosity and honesty, which continually test and reopen my narrative. I may learn the most where the perfect tale falls apart.

There are times when story-telling seems to trigger the same pleasure-causing neurotransmitters that encountering a wild animal does. If I’m constructing the story as I watch wildlife, like a detective in the field, the pleasure becomes closely mixed with the thrill, the slight danger, of seeing a wild animal close by who is behaving according to the logic of her mysterious survival and experience. As an animal myself, I intuit her experience, yet as different species, she and I cannot confirm that we understand things the same way. Still, I feel as if I have hold of a thread that can lead me to some crucial understanding about existence.

3

Later in the day, Cessie and I snow shoed around the plateau area where we’d seen the animals. Within minutes, we picked up large moose tracks, near where I’d first imagined the cow had left her dead calf to the wolves. Soon we found a second track of a smaller moose: her calf. But there were no birds, no blood spots, and no signs of a carcass. Perhaps the carcass was far from here. We also found the coyote track, but no wolf tracks at all. No answers there.

The north side of the road had more surprises in store for us: the calf and her mother moose had traveled to the north side together. The tracks were fresher there, so the calf had not been left dead on the south side of the road. When I first saw the cow moose trotting, her calf was somewhere nearby, it seemed.

We followed the tracks towards the draw. Yet, before we got to the ravine, we saw the cow moose track split off and run in a different direction, to the area where we had first seen her this morning. We found a single wolf track following her! When we turned back to get to the lip of the ravine, where the elk ran down a hill of breakneck steepness, we found one smaller calf moose track plunge down, but no wolf track. We also could see the calf track climb the far hill out of the draw. Yet, after the two moose split, the wolf never followed the calf.  Why not?

Did the cow moose trot slowly in order to lure the wolf to her and switch into a gallop when the wolf neared? Perhaps the cow was trying to decoy the wolf away from her calf.   I wondered if the wolf was young, 1-2 years old. A more experienced wolf might have known not to follow the slow-seeming cow, but to stick with the calf. When we last saw the cow moose on the opposite side of the ravine, circling back east, was she trotting to reunite with her calf?  I have seen very little moose behavior, so I don’t really know.  Yet, I think this story is the one that most closely matches what I know of ungulate-wolf behaviors.

4

Five days later, I saw what looked like the same cow moose and her calf feeding again in the willows. The moose tilted their heads high up into the branches, reaching for willow tips. They looked breathtakingly healthy, but were shy of the ring of people gathered on the road, watching them. Gradually they moved off: cow first, calf following.

Copyright Ilona Popper February 2014

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