Over the years since the gray wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone – the winter of 1995, thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of encounters have occurred with photographers. I have seen many amazing images and always get a tad jealous of those who live close to the park and are able to put in enough days to be rewarded with great wolf images. In the 23 years between then and now I’ve seen the wolves at least a hundred times, usually at an unphotographable distance. But occasionally, just occasionally – they come into range. For us wildlife photographers those moments are gold – an instant adrenaline rush that causes us, or at least me, to immediately leave the road, park the vehicle, exit and shoot – in one blur of motion.
Here is my anchor image for this article – it comes from my very first quality wolf encounter in March of 2005. This black male wolf and it’s very pregnant gray female partner (not in image) were kept from an antlerless bull elk that the black wolf had killed in Soda Butte Creek. During the night 6 coyotes moved onto the elk carcass and would not give it up. Had the female not been pregnant then the odds would have favored the wolves reclaiming the elk, but in this image two of the coyotes kept up a harassing action and the wolves left unfed.
My very first encounter was during the winter of 1996. I was in Lamar Valley chasing river otters when the first echoes of wolves howling reached my ears. It was a sound the mountains in Yellowstone had not heard in about 80 years, but I’m sure they had never forgotten. As I faced east at the far west end of Lamar Valley, just outside Lamar Canyon, the Druid Pack was running the ridge to my left, coming west – while down along the Lamar River the Rose Creek Pack was running east. In one broad panoramic I could see more than a dozen wolves, from two different packs, heading in opposite directions.
Scanned from a 35mm slide, this was about the best image I got of that first encounter. Over the years from 1996 to 2005 I had other encounters, but none close, and none produced the kind of images I wanted. Wildlife photography is a fickle thing – one day serving up encounters that simply stun us with their beauty, while leaving us barren for years (unfortunately) with just a hope for an encounter. Some photographers are on a quest to shoot certain species, and some have a bucket list of species that they can only gaze at longingly. I’m just lucky – you spend enough hours in the field and you get lucky. Skill comes into play during those lucky moments – testing our ability to remain calm, shoot with a purpose, make the right exposure moves, trust the equipment, and endure until the encounter rightfully ends.
In late May 2006, I had another good wolf encounter along the banks of the Yellowstone River in Hayden Valley. A pack of wolves were spread out along the far bank of the river but traveling in my direction. Snow had fallen that night and blanketed the river’s shoreline giving the images a wintry look, though snow was gone by 1pm and the green grass of spring was evident. I saw them at enough distance to race to a spot, park, and get down to the bank of the river on my side in order to give myself at least a chance at some good images.
More encounters followed until September 2008 when I had an encounter that finally added some behavior/interaction images that I had long sought. My safari group was traveling south from Swan Flats, close to North Twin Lake, when we encountered a pack of wolves feasting on an elk that had evidently been killed earlier that morning. The road was somewhat elevated above the meadow and the ranger kept us fairly close, standing on the forested hillside indicating the line we couldn’t cross – so we shot through tiny gaps between pine branches down to the meadow. All I know is somehow it worked.
There were about 5-6 wolves working the carcass and moving around, sometimes out of view, dissecting parts of the elk to eat at leisure somewhere off in the tall autumn grass. They were wandering around, eating and resting, when the Alpha female and her 5 month old puppy paused for only a moment next to each other. It was a striking image. While the Alpha male had a collar, the female did not – her size and strength apparent in every step.
Over the next five years I had about two dozen other encounters – some defending carcasses in rivers, some following other wolves through valleys or up hillsides, a couple of wolf in far meadow kind of moments – but nothing close and nothing that really was a story-telling encounter. In June 2012 my safari group and I were returning to the park from Cooke City and breakfast when, about 300 yards from the Soda Butte picnic site and bathroom we encountered a lone gray wolf, standing in the willows by Soda Butte Creek. Standing only 25 yards away, across the river from us, it seemed oddly lackadaisical – giving us not much more than a glance. Later that day we saw the wolf in the meadow opposite the picnic site, but across the river.
About a month after this safari I saw an article about the death of a Yellowstone wolf. It stated that wolf 271M had died of natural causes in early June, 2012 – one of the first wolves to die that way, and not from inter-pack disputes. It had a photo of the wolf, this wolf, 271M and easily identified by the fur color around his eyes.
The dates is wrong it was taken June 6, 2012 – this wolf’s last full day on earth, dying in the spring grass and sagebrush, under a warm sun, in an area that had always been his home. It was the kind of story-telling image I had always hoped for. BRP