Wolves in the Park

Wolves surround a bison in Yellowstone National Park in 2005.

The long, howling cries of wolves broke the silence of a cold morning inside snowy Yellowstone National Park on Monday.

A group of people gathered on the side of a park road heard the calls. One of them was Doug Smith, a senior wildlife biologist at the park and leader of its wolf project.

“The best way to experience wolves is to hear them,” he said.

Smith was checking in with a crew that’s spent the last month observing the Blacktail wolf pack, which is one of about a dozen in the park. Each year in early winter and in March, crews spend 30 consecutive days tracking, observing and counting wolves.

“It’s a real data engine for us,” Smith said. “It’s one of the most important things we do to understand wolves.”

The early winter study ends Wednesday, and with its conclusion will come new information on wolves, including how many there are, what they’ve hunted, where they’ve lived and how they’ve interacted with other wildlife.

The on-the-ground crews search for wolves with scopes, inspect any recent kills and even cross-country ski to observe wolves in their territory. A bush pilot and biologist fly above wolves each day, letting crews know wolves’ locations via radio.

Colby Anton, a biologist technician on one crew, spent Monday morning with three others hauling a cow elk carcass off a park road. A wolf pack had killed the animal in the middle of a road, which created a dangerous situation for the animals and for people.

So the crew cut the elk into several large pieces and hauled it by rope down the road and to the top of a nearby hill – a difficult task considering the animal’s live weight was probably about 500 pounds. Wolves had already consumed the elk’s organs but would likely return to feed on its bones and marrow.

looking at the elk’s teeth and jawbone, biologists estimated it was between 22 and 25 years old.

Wolves were restored to the park in 1995, and since then, controversy has surrounded their perceived effect on elk.

Since elk have co-existed with wolves, their population has decreased, Smith said. And yes, wolves have played a role in that — but they are only one factor.

“Everybody thinks that everything that happened after wolves (were reintroduced) happened because of them,” Smith said.

In reality, a combination of wolves, human management and climate changes, such as a 10-year drought and last year’s harsh winter, have led to today’s reduced number of elk. Also, Yellowstone is now home to more predators than there have been in 100 years — including species like cougars and bears.

Fewer elk doesn’t have to be a bad thing, Smith said. The environment is now more balanced. Woody vegetation is growing better, which has resulted in more beavers and songbirds.

Monday, another crew had a scope out to spot members of the Agate Creek wolf pack. The pack tends to stay away from the road, so crew members often ski out to observe them.

“Tracking them the old-fashioned way,” said biologist technician Josh Irving.

Irving described how he’d watched the pack dwindle in size after five of its members died, including its alpha female. The wolf died after being attacked by another pack.

Biologists said violent interactions between packs occur as they spar over territory or kills. Inside the park, Smith said most wolves’ deaths are caused by other wolves. Outside the park, humans cause the most deaths.

After the pack’s alpha female died, another moved in to take its place: wolf 471F, as the biologists know her.

That wolf, Irving said, was born in the Agate Creek pack, but moved to found another pack before returning recently.

“All the packs are definitely unique and have their own personality,” Irving said.

Laurie Lyman, a retired schoolteacher from San Diego, was standing roadside Monday and had her scope on a female wolf traveling across a hillside. Lyman doesn’t work for the park, but loves to observe the packs.

“The wolves brought me to Yellowstone,” she said.

Carly Flandro may be reached at 582-2638 or cflandro@dailychronicle.com.