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Wolves are “just like us”!

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YT174 copy

Yellowstone’s wolves are always in the news. Back in late 2012 the Obama administration lifted federal protection for wolves in Wyoming. In the year following, trophy hunters killed 62 wolves. An unknown number were shot or trapped. Then, on September 13 of this year, federal judge Amy Berman Jackson returned Wyoming wolves to Endangered Species Act protection. Wyoming’s congressional delegation has now pledged to go to Congress in an effort to get wolves again delisted in the state.

As the legislative ping-pong game continues, Doug Smith, Yellowstone wildlife biologist and leader of the Yellowstone Gray Wolf Restoration Project, has fascinating things to say in a 23-minute Iowa Public Radio interview about the history of wolf re-introduction in the park and the present state of wolves.

Tempting you to listen to this excellent interview, I’ll mention a couple of highlights of Doug’s remarks.

Although the next official count will take place in mid winter, current Yellowstone wolf numbers are at approximately 130 wolves in 11 packs.

In discussing the ongoing argument about Canadian wolves being introduced, thus bringing in a different subspecies from those that historically lived in and around Wyoming, Doug explains that over the decades when no wolves lived there, no exchange of genes could take place due to geographic isolation. He states that there are now 5 subspecies in North America, not the many more claimed by some people.

Doug points out that Yellowstone is now returning to “ecological functionality”—big words for the balance achieved in the environment by returning wolves to the park.

He completely empathizes with the ranchers in the ring of land that circles the Greater Yellowstone public land, where wolves now live. Unavoidably, preying on their livestock is a big problem, but ideas to cope with this are multiplying.

Replying to a listener’s question about attacks on humans, he stresses that wolves are afraid of humans and/or “can’t figure us out because we walk on two legs.” He suggests that the big, bad wolf stories may be based on some historical attacks but could well have been referring to rabid wolves.

Doug will be giving a talk at Iowa State University’s Memorial Union, 8:00 pm on Monday, November 3. In his interview he lists an impressive list of human traits found in wolves: they are monogamous, good parents, territorial, and communicate by body postures and many quiet vocalizations—as well as howling. And he concludes, “They’re just like us!”

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Why not plan a fall trip to the park?

Categories: Flora and Fauna, Trip planning, Wildlife
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aspens in autumn

Aspens turn golden in the fall.

Does it make sense to visit Yellowstone in the autumn months? Of course! Fall is short but wonderful in Yellowstone National Park. The month of September and part of October make up Yellowstone’s autumn; because of the high altitude, after about mid October there are likely to be more snowy days than warm ones.

Autumn is when the bull elk are bugling their unearthly sounds to assert their dominance over the area (and over the cows), bears are coming to the lower altitudes to forage for the foods they need to gorge on before hibernation, and the aspen trees are turning golden. Best of all, the visitors have thinned out remarkably.

Planned road construction

But this year you really need to take two road closures into account when you plan your trip. It helps to look at the maps I link to at the bottom of this post to see how much of a detour you may need to take.

Road closure no. 1

The road linking Old Faithful with West Thumb and Grant Village will be closed for the season starting 6 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 2, so the bridge at Isa Lake can be removed and replaced.

This road closure will require visitors traveling between the South Entrance and Old Faithful or West Yellowstone to detour through Fishing Bridge Junction and Canyon, increasing the travel time by approximately two hours.

Despite the closure, visitors will still be able to drive south from Old Faithful as far as the trailhead to Lone Star Geyser and north from West Thumb Junction to access the DeLacy Creek trailhead.

Road closure no. 2

In addition, the road from Mammoth Hot Springs to Norris will be closed due to construction from 11 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 14, until 7 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 30.

During this closure, travel between Mammoth Hot Springs and Norris will require a detour through Tower Junction and Canyon, a drive of approximately 90 minutes. Visitors traveling between Mammoth Hot Springs and West Yellowstone should plan on the trip taking approximately two and a half hours.

See “Construction Work to Result in Yellowstone Road Closures after Labor Day” on the National Park Service website for more.
—Editor Beth

CREDIT: The photo is by Leslie Kilduff.

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A Different Take on Yellowstone Wolves

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Here’s a newspaper story from Twin Falls, Idaho, that was not what I expected but was fun to read.

And the picture reminds me that in 16 more days I will get to join the wolf-watchers in Lamar Valley!

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Lake trout in Yellowstone Lake now less menacing to native wildlife

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lake trout cutthroat trout

Trout comparison (NPS Photo)

Back in 1994 someone must have purposely and illegally stocked Yellowstone Lake with lake trout. Before it could be proven that these non-native fish had spread throughout the lake, they began adversely affecting the much smaller native cutthroat trout.

Many Yellowstone animals depend on the native fish as an important part of their diet but cannot catch the big lake trout. For example, grizzly bears and pelicans eat cutthroat from the lake, particularly in early summer.

Now, with major help from sources such as the Yellowstone Foundation and the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust Board, more and more lake trout are being removed every year— up to 300,000 in 2013 alone. At the same time many more juvenile cutthroat trout are surviving than in the early years of this century.

Three commercial boats and one National Park Service boat regularly net the lake trout with gill and trap nets and also use electroshocking. In addition they use telemetry by tagging some fish to locate lake trout spawning sites, and the movement of those fish toward spawning beds in the fall can now be tracked. A volunteer from Trout Unlimited said recently, “These patterns indicated at least three areas of suspected spawning activity: just off West Thumb Geyser Basin; off Solution Creek; and in the Plover Point, Frank Island triangle. Because these were suspected spawning grounds, arrays of receivers along with reference signals were placed in these three areas in early September in an effort to pinpoint any spawning beds in these areas.”

Meanwhile, anglers again this summer must kill all lake trout and either eat them or puncture the air bladder and dispose of the carcass in deep water. And cutthroat trout must be returned to the water immediately.

See the book excerpt about fish and fishing if you’d like to know more about the subject.

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Montana’s wolves on National Public Radio

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Since wolves were delisted from the Endangered Species list in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, all three states have developed plans to drastically cut back their wolf populations. Idaho wants to eliminate 60% of theirs, and the other states have large quotas, too.

Last Saturday I heard a short segment on Weekend Edition, where the voices and the scenes described took me back to my Montana childhood—even though I always lived in town. It began with the news that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claims the scientific research is insufficient to make a national decision about wolf delisting. Take a listen and note a great idea near the end. Can you really teach cattle to herd or group up like bison?

I have one small complaint: the Native American Indian name still used for the beautiful mountain range to the east of Yellowstone should be pronounced ab-SAR-o-kas, not ab-sa-ROKE-as.

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Yellowstone wolf interview with the number one expert

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As the New Year rolls out I am researching topics that interest me a lot to write about in posts for my blog and for one or two new nuggets of Yellowstone information for this website. This all takes a lot of time, so I don’t know just when I’ll be able to post these original articles.

In the meantime I found something about Yellowstone’s wolves that more people should read, so I’ll pass along the link. Doug Smith has been the number one guy who knows about and helps to manage the park’s wolves and has been on site since they were first introduced in 1995. Here are his very balanced answers to a Montana Pioneer interviewer’s questions.

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The Yellowstone grizzly bear’s chances for survival

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The question of whether or not the grizzly bear should be removed from the Endangered Species List is still being studied. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team will present its report December 11 in Missoula, MT. Grizzlies may not really be at risk, their report says, since the bears do not depend greatly on the now-relatively-scarce whitebark pine nuts for late-season food preparing them for hibernation, as many knowledgeable people have asserted. Instead, they are turning more to meat and foraging at lower elevations than previously. “A 75 percent reduction in whitebark numbers since 2002 isn’t cause for worry,” states the study’s report.

But other bear experts disagree that the grizzly population is out of danger. A retired bear biologist stated that three of the bears’ four main sources of food have declined recently: “We’ve got catastrophic loss of whitebark pine, catastrophic loss of cutthroat trout, and major declines in numbers of elk. [Only] army cutworm moths are hanging in there,” he told the Jackson (WY) News and Guide.

For my money, it looks like this bear population of Greater Yellowstone, which is variously stated as between 600 and 700-plus individuals, is not out of danger yet. The entire article by Mike Koshmrl is called “Pine Decline OK for Grizzly.”

No posts from me next week, since I’ll be attending the American Geophysical Union annual meeting to learn more about new research pertaining to Yellowstone.

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Head count for lovers of Yellowstone’s charismatic megafauna

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In case the expression “charismatic megafauna” is not in your everyday vocabulary—it refers to the big wild animals that attract many people to Yellowstone.

Late summer is a good time to take stock of what lives in the park, so I’ve dug around a bit and found some recent head counts for the biggest and most interesting wild animals.

Curiously, the bison—that iconic beast that was nearly wiped out by hide-hunters by the beginning of the 1900s and again slaughtered by the hundreds in recent years for different reasons—in late 2013 probably has more hooves-on-the-ground than the elk. This in spite of elk numbers being up around the high 30,000s when I began paying attention (in 1995). This year’s count of bison is around 4,600, while elk are estimated at about 4,000.

Grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone area are estimated at 718 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, while in the same area wolves may number about 500, but with only about 80 in the park proper. A large factor in the present small number of wolves has been their delisting and subsequent hunting in 2012-13: 203 killed in Idaho, 179 in Montana, and 73 in Wyoming (which had a shorter hunting season).

You’ll find related posts about elk and wolves in my June 7 and June 13 posts this past summer.

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Late Season Visits to Yellowstone Park, 2013

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You can count on fewer people on the roads and at all the major features in Yellowstone now that most schools have begun. Here’s what a mid summer eruption of Old Faithful Geyser looked like from Observation Point— a delightful short hike above Upper Geyser Basin. From now until the park closes for its autumn break, you won’t find those tremendous crowds, even around the world’s most famous geyser. (Click on the picture to see the crowds circling the geyser.)

Old Faithful from Observation Point

Bears are now fattening for their winter hibernation, bull elk are rounding up their harems and bugling to show their dominance, and bison are in their rutting season. Nights are already beginning to be colder, and it could snow at any time. Remember, Yellowstone’s minimum elevation is about 6,200 feet (1,900 m).

All park roads and most facilities are open into early November every year (barring a possible closure due to fire). Road closure dates have not yet been announced as of late August.

Campgrounds close between September 2 and November 3, hotels and cabins between Sept. 22 and Oct. 20.

For NPS-operated campgrounds, see:
http://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/camping-in-yellowstone.htm.

For Xanterra-operated campgrounds, hotels, and cabins, see the Xanterra website or call 307-344-7311.

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Decrease in elk numbers

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Heading to Yellowstone myself in a few days [June 2013], I was very interested to learn that blaming the wolves for the huge decrease in elk numbers in Yellowstone is a big over-simplification. The numbers are unquestionably way down since I began taking notice in the mid 1990s.

When I was researching for Yellowstone Treasures’ first edition (2002), I found that about 35,000 elk were summering in the park. The new fourth edition (August, 2013) will say that on the order of 4,000 elk can be found on the northern Yellowstone range, and there are a few more in the rest of the park. This is a reduction of more than 80 percent.

A majority of the park’s wolf packs since reintroduction in 1995 have primarily preyed on elk. Thus, it has been easy to assume that wolves are to blame for this huge reduction in numbers. But a recent article in the latest issue of the journal Ecology reveals that the situation is much more complicated.

Migratory elk are struggling, while their resident counterparts thrive in the foothills, recent studies have found. The 4,500-member Clarks Fork elk herd, which migrates between the Absaroka Mountains and the upper Lamar River area, finds less forage because of extended drought.

In contrast, another researcher found that those elk living northwest of Cody, WY who do not migrate produce more calves, and more of them survive. They stay in the area because they find irrigated croplands. In addition, in settled areas many preying wolves and bears are removed by hunters and ranchers.

Grizzly bears and poor summer forage conditions caused by several years of drought have a bigger effect on elk health than do wolves, the researchers concluded.

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