Monday, June 18, 2012

Notes From Yellowstone, Part The Second


June 12, 2012

In the park before seven, we saw a long line of cars stopped by the road, and people peering through spotting scopes and speaking in whispers, as if they were in church.

The Mollie Pack—named after Mollie Beattie, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who was instrumental in bringing wolves back to Yellowstone—had killed a bison cow during the night. There were two meadows bisected by the Lamar River between us and the wolves, so we had to use optical aids to see them well.

I counted eight to ten wolves around the carcass. Three of them were flung flat on the ground, looking exactly like Wolfie when he comes back exhausted (in a good way) from his stay at the B&B. But these wolves were not tired. They were full of bison, dozing off like fat uncles after a Thanksgiving meal. The others were ripping out huge slabs of meat, carrying them off, and returning for seconds. (Fact: a wolf feeding on a carcass consumes over two pounds of meat a minute.)

It takes a lot of energy to eat a bison. The wolves would dive into its entrails, and every once in a while you could see the great head lift off the ground or a hind leg jerk towards the sky as the pack struggled to tear off the meat.

Most of the wolves were “black,” which is actually a dark reddish brown, a relatively rare color except in Yellowstone wolves. The other Mollies had the typical German Shepherd black/gray/white coat pattern. The German Shepherd illusion was completed by the tracking collars that all the wolves wore around their necks. Their muzzles and ruffs and forelegs were covered in blood.

We stood watching for almost three hours. The meadow was like a stage, and the frieze of wolves around the carcass like a troupe of actors improvising on a familiar plot. A troupe of ravens waited in the wings for their turn at the dead cow.

There was a herd of bison nearby—there is always a herd of bison nearby in the park—grazing and apparently unconcerned about the Mollies. But gradually three bulls made their way towards the carcass, and  we watched in disbelief as the biggest one put his muzzle into the remains of his dead relative. For a while, it looked as if he were eating right alongside the wolves. Then he stood over the carcass, and the wolves had to dart under his belly and between his legs to get at the meat.

The first bison moved off and the other two took their turns, sniffing and pawing the carcass and trying to lift parts of it with their heads. Then the biggest bison returned to the kill and, goat-like, butted the wolves away. This was the ravens' cue, and quickly the carcass disappeared under their oscillating black forms.

The bison eventually moved off; the wolves returned; the ravens fled. We stood transfixed. What had we just seen? Bison grief?

Wary of anthropomorphizing, the next day we casually mentioned the scene to a park ranger. “That was a bison funeral,” he told us. “They do it whenever one of the herd is killed.”

Wolves do not often kill bison: bulls weigh 2,000 pounds and wolves a maximum of 140. It takes wolves a while to learn to kill bison, and for some reason the Mollie Pack has become especially adept at it. The ranger said that the adult Mollies are all females, accompanied by a few juvenile males. They need an alpha male, he said. But from what we saw, the Mollies are doing o.k.

I won't list all the other animals we saw during the rest of our stay. But I must mention the trio of black bears we ran into disporting themselves in somebody's backyard near our lodge. The mother must have had a recessive gene for coat color, because in the setting sun she was a luminous gold all over. Her infants were black, big-headed and clumsy, toddling around and trying to climb the guy wire of the utility pole.

There's only so long you can stand and watch these scenes. Then you either have to go eat breakfast, or you have to walk back to the lodge because it's getting dark. Or you can fly back to Vermont and sell all you have and move to Yellowstone and spend the rest of your life following the Mollies and the bison around the Lamar Valley until your time comes and you become another carcass on the meadow.

(Note:  for some reason, Blogger is letting me post, but not respond to comments.  Don't feel I'm ignoring you!)

5 comments :

  1. Wow. Wow wow wow.

    And your inclination to sell all you have and move to Yellowstone reminds me very much of how I felt after my South Africa safari.

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  2. That is such an incredible tale. I read your blog to Wolfie and Bisou. They thought so too! Alas, we only have the coyotes here - who were celebrating something last night at great length very close to my fence line.

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  3. What an amazing experience.

    (I bet Mollie knows my buddy Paul.)

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  4. Indigo, unfortunately, "knew" is the more accurate word. I understand she died young, of a rare form of brain cancer. But yes, she was a Vermonter.

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