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Photography In The National Parks: A Winter Watching Wolves In Yellowstone National Park
I woke up one morning thinking about wolves and realized that wolf packs function as families. Everyone has a role, and if you act within the parameters of your role, the whole pack succeeds, and when that falls apart, so does the pack. -- Jodi Picoult
Not long after sunrise on a cold Saturday morning, when coats of frost still clung on the bisons' thick fur as they trudged down the road to their next snow covered feeding ground, I drove into Lamar Valley where fog hovered low on the valley's floor, leaving the tops of cottonwood trees dancing in the air.
As on every foray into the park for the past nine weeks, my heart and eyes are searching for the yellow glow of the narrowly set, piercing eyes of 820F a yearling female of the Lamar Canyon Pack, which has not been seen in the park for quite some time. Only once since their mother, the famous '06, was shot and killed by a Wyoming hunter on December 6, 2012, had the remaining pack members returned to the park as a family and they were here only a short time before leaving again. And then, one more time, around the holidays, the alpha male and two of his daughters returned without the rest, and then left about nine weeks ago, which is when I saw 820's eyes.
The male eventually returned alone and was, until last week, living in the valley with a new mate. For months now a nation of visitors to Yellowstone, who know these wolves and their stories, have been anxiously awaiting the return of the "Lamar Canyons," as this pack is called, or good news about their welfare.
Days have been long and boring in Yellowstone because the wolves that remained on the Northern range during, and now finally after, the wolf hunts in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho have been far and few between with only 13 regular souls remaining and occasional visits from two other packs.
Nearly every day I drive into the park and see nothing new - the beautiful bison are crowding the road and snorting at the cars, a few elk on the hills, some big horns in Gardiner and Lamar, coyotes in proliferation and then none, and, if lucky, some bull moose at Pebble Creek. In six months time these sightings have become everyday, mundane and frustrating. I came to see wolves and to learn the truth about them but that plan was not working out for many reasons. If not for a fox every 3 or 4 weeks and those cute little otters that came out recently, the explosion of images on my hard drives would be drying up.
Despite days when I wanted to give up, I could not. Optimism drove me out every day - I would see those yellow eyes once again. I thought about taking some landscapes, while driving through foggy Lamar Valley, but an urgency drove me onward and when I rounded the curve at the confluence and saw the light reflecting off of several cars at the Hitching Post pullout, my spirits soared. People were lined up with scopes and looking towards the hill on the north - the den site of the Lamar Canyon pack. And, there were cameras out, which gave me hope that I might actually see more than a wolf dot three miles away. None of the regulars who come out and watch wolves everyday were there, just a couple of tours and some people visiting for a day or two.
The gentleman closest to me looked friendly enough and so I approached for a glance in his scope.
"What do you have," I asked.
"A wolf," he told me.
"Do you know which wolf?" I lingered with questions, nearly afraid to look. My eye to the scope, she lifted her head. "That is a Lamar," I nearly shouted. "She has a collar."
Even though I was looking at those same yellow eyes, I felt unsure because Wyoming had collared two of the wolves and it was difficult to say which two those were. The female, possibly pregnant now, lingered in the snow on a hillside, beneath a tree in the den area where she was raised. She howled often and for the most part was not answered but, after awhile there were two answers, some time apart, though, despite a lot of looking, we never could find another wolf.
A yellow plane swooped in while we were watching the wolf and I remembered it spooking her out of the valley floor on that December day when she returned with her sister and father. Why can't they leave her alone? And then I realized that they did not even know that she was there - they were looking for two other wolves.
The plane announced 820F's return to the wolf watchers, and soon some of them arrived and were able to see her for a short time before she disappeared. This was an exciting day for everyone and the relief was palpable.
Open Season On Wolves
We lost a lot of wolves this year. Wolves began to disappear from Yellowstone soon after the wolf hunts began in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. Hunters on the borders of Yellowstone appeared to be targeting the collared wolves, killing five park wolves and four that had been collared by Yellowstone but that had left the park. Four known park wolves without collars were killed, while 3 others that are suspected to be from the park were also killed.
These numbers reflect legal kills only. For some reason, illegal kills are not counted. Most of the wolves were killed near Gardiner, Montana, just on the other side of the national park boundary, while three were taken in Idaho and three in Wyoming.
It is hard to know the dates that most of the wolves were killed because that information is not on public sites, but from an outsider's perspective, it appeared as though the wolf killings slowed down once all of the wolves that had GPS collars were gone.
From the Lamar Canyon pack, the two favorite wolves were "harvested," as they like to say, the beta male, 754 and the alpha female, 832, or '06, or Rock Star, the most famous wolf in Yellowstone. When '06 was killed the outcry could be heard from near and far.
When Montana extended its hunting season into February, or breeding season, and would also allow trapping, people called and wrote letters from all over the world, saying that the Yellowstone wolves needed to be protected, and if they were not, then people threatened to boycott Montana and Yellowstone.
Montana Fish and Wildlife responded with a cease fire in two hunting units that bordered Yellowstone and wolf advocates sighed with relief. Before long, hunters filed a lawsuit and a judge overturned the ceasefire and re-opened the borders of Yellowstone to the slaughter of the wolves.
It can hardly be called hunting when you lure a wolf that is habituated to humans across an invisible line and then kill it. Sort of like shooting a dog.
Afterwards the governor signed away Montana Fish and Wildlife's right to close an area to hunting unless quotas had been met, as well as allowing the hunters to use various methods to lure the animals across that line.
The areas north and west of Gardiner have no quotas. Fear for the safety of the park's wolf packs was renewed and the most difficult part to understand was that hatred was behind many of the killings.
Men in trucks, tearing through Yellowstone, would yell out, "Take a good look because that is the last wolf that you are going to see." Others sent hate mail and threats to those who supported the wolves.
Yellowstone wolves are not known for predation on livestock, but they do kill the elk that the hunters could, at one time, easily find and kill when the animal stepped over the park boundary and onto national forest land. The hunters want their elk back, so that they can kill them.
Once again people cried out against Montana and vowed to not spend money in the state if they did not create a buffer zone and stop the wolf killings, or to visit Yellowstone if they continued to put collars on the wolves, which, they believed put a target on the animal's necks. Many people cancelled plans and reservations for trips that were planned for this summer.
Wolf watching is big business and it brings in a lot of money to the gateway communities, as well as to the park and its partners. Unfortunately, because they are angry and there are few wolves to watch, many have decided to spend their money elsewhere. It is hard to say yet if there will be financial hardships in the area because of the loss of these wolves, only time will tell.
For many, though, it is the emotional investment of seeing wolves in Yellowstone, learning their names and their histories and coming to care for them, only to lose an animal that thousands, maybe millions of people, cared about, to one man's bullet. I did not come to Yellowstone to become involved in the politics of wolves. Because of a family member who hates wolves, I wanted to learn the truth about them and make my own decisions based upon my discoveries.
Not that I could ever imagine myself hating an animal, but in this case, since there was a lot at stake, I wanted to see things through my own eyes before making a decision. And, of course, I had big dreams of taking outstanding wolf photos.
Nothing could have prepared me for how difficult it would be to see the wolves, learn about them, or to get photographs of them.
Wolf Watching And Photography
The wolf world in Yellowstone is basically made up of three types of people, the short-term visitor who hopes to see a wolf, the photographer visitor, and the wolf-watching visitor, all of whom spend a great deal of time and money to be in the park. Very few people watch wolves for any period of time, with the goal of photographing them.
Personally, I do enjoy spending small chunks of time watching the wolves through a scope, if they are not too far away, because I find their behaviors fascinating, but I am a photographer at heart. The goals of the watchers and the photographers are not in sync, with the watchers wanting to spend hours observing wolves and because they have powerful scopes, don't mind if they are a long way's away.
While the photographer's dream is to capture an image that shows the light in the wolf's eye, or interaction with the pack and the landscape, that is close enough to show the details. And, so, the disconnect comes when the watchers accuse the photographers, and the other visitors, of spooking the wolves and the photographers accuse the watchers of preventing them from seeing the animals.
This is not a pretty world, at times, particularly now, after the wolf populations have taken a big hit from the hunting season. One thing is sure, people are hungry to see wolves!
I fell out of favor with the wolf watchers when one of them perceived that I somehow knew that the wolves were getting ready to cross the road, despite the fact that it was still dark and they could not be seen through my equipment, and left to intersect them. The truth is, it was an awful feeling for me, starting to leave and suddenly seeing three wolves come out of the darkness, heading towards the road. This should have been the wonderful moment that I had dreamed about, wolves crossing in front of me, but I knew that judgment would be upon me and that was not a good feeling.
Ironically, though, this was also the moment that sealed my fate for being an independent advocate for the wolves because, when they finally crossed and I could continue on, 820F stopped a short ways from the road and turned to look at me.
Startled to my core, I slowed, looked, grabbed the camera from the seat beside me and snapped a couple of shots while still rolling by, not taking the time to check my settings.
Those eyes got me and have kept me coming back, time after time, into the wolf world.