Studying Wolves in Yellowstone 2018

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Mollie’s Pack in January 2018.  A large pack of big wolves that winters in the park interior feeding on bison. Photo by friend and NPS wolf biologist Dan Stahler.

Something looked different as we drove into Yellowstone National Park on February 23rd…there was snow everywhere, lots of snow! We have not had much snow out here over the past three years (last good snow was winter of 2011) especially at the elevations we typically work at, between 5,500 and 7,500 feet, so it was a very welcome sight. It meant that we could travel more easily and efficiently over the expansive Yellowstone landscape to perform our work. We were very excited to say the least!


Yellowstone’s Northeast entrance.  While closed in the winter, people still pass through here to access Silvergate and Cooke City located outside the park.


Lisa and Phoebe on Republic Creek Trail. The sign is usually head-high!

We met for a day of training for the March 2018 Winter Study on February 28th to review the details of the wolf/elk predation study we have been a part of for the last 10 years, and to meet all the new crew members. Fourteen of us would be working daily on the observation and GPS cluster crews for the month of March. In addition, an air crew would take to the sky in a Piper Super Cub every day weather permitted to locate packs and their kills.  Three observation crews of three technicians each would be observing the three study wolf packs – 8-Mile (14 wolves), Junction Butte (8 wolves), and the 1108M Group (a four wolf subgroup of the 8-mile pack that has been separate since December). Our cluster crew consisted of myself, Lisa, Brenna Cassidy (an Illinois native and a full-time wolf and bird project technician, who is headed to graduate school in the fall at the University of Montana), Nels Christensen (an Alaskan timber framer and fisherman originally from Rangeley, ME), and Elise Loggers (from Washington and an interpretive ranger, cougar project technician, and second time wolf project volunteer). Our crew is incredibly competent and experienced and all have solid back country travel and skiing skills!


One of our first days in the field with a ground crew and a couple of visitors up slope from Roosevelt Arch, the northern entrance to Yellowstone in Gardiner, MT.


Cluster crew members: Ky, Brenna, Lisa and Elise at the Hellroaring suspension bridge.


Winter faeries Brenna and Elise coming out of the back country after a long day in Upper Oxbow and Elk Creeks. 


Nels and I in Little America.  Nels is a fun field partner and accomplished skier.  During a period of four days, we took 3 trips that averaged over 30 km each.

The main objective of the study is to quantify the total predation rate for the month – this means how many prey animals each wolf pack kills – and to do this, we use a statistical analysis called the triple count method to estimate the number of kills per month. We do this by combining the efforts of three methods of observing wolf packs on kills – observation crews, an aerial crew and the GPS cluster crew (that’s us!) who search wolf locations that have been transmitted every hour via satellite from radio collared wolves. Our cluster crew is following six individual wolves from three different packs this month and our goal is to find kills that the observation and air crews don’t find and to conduct necropsies on any kills we do find. Every four days, Lisa receives GPS collar download information from Matt Metz (long-time wolf project predation expert) and converts the data into points on a map that we can all navigate to and search for kills. This has been a relatively difficult winter for the Park’s ungulates and we are finding a number of winter-killed elk and bison this year. Just the other day, we also found two bison killed by an avalanche earlier this winter.

The highlight of the month was Lisa’s and my 28 km day surveying from the Hellroaring trail suspension bridge, downstream along the Yellowstone River, and then up the Blacktailed Deer Creek trail to the Mary Mar cabin parking area.  Not only was the scenery beautiful, the adventure epic in that we reached our truck well after dark, but we also had a very close encounter with the 8-mile wolf pack.  It was beginning to get dark at ~6:15 as we ascended up the trail along the steep banks of Blacktail Creek.  Above us we saw movement and then two wolves ran past us at 50 meters as they continued down the creek drainage. We didn’t think it was more than a chance sighting until we saw the rest of the pack, 14 wolves in all, running straight towards us down the trail above.  A large sagebrush bush and a bulge in the hillside prevented us from seeing around the corner in front of us and momentarily obscured our view of the wolves. We thought they had seen us and left the trail and vanished up the slope to our right. All of a sudden there they all were in front of us only 6 ski lengths away, still running at a good clip.  The first wolf to come into view was a large gray-colored wolf with a radio collar and it was definitely as surprised to see us as we were to see it!  It bailed off the trail down the steep slope to our left and disappeared into the creek drainage.  After that it was like a car pile-up on the highway with wolves seemingly skidding to a stop with others right on their tails, some running up slope and others running down.  Still more were stopped behind the leaders, not sure of what to do and whining with trepidation and uncertainty.  And still more came until 14 wolves in all passed before us, four grays and 10 blacks.  We stayed still and watched as the wolves regrouped further up the trail and quietly made their way up the steep slope towards Blacktail Plateau.  They looked over their shoulders from time to time and then they were gone.  We stood still for a few more moments listening for howls but they moved away silently.  The next day, remotely gathered GPS locations revealed that the 1108M Group was in that same location at the same time as the 8-mile group and were likely being chased by them.  The fact that they were running supported this theory.  Perhaps our unintentional roadblock  interrupted a potentially fatal interaction between the two groups.

The remainder of this blog consists of pictures portraying our work, our crew, the Yellowstone scenery and its wildlife.

For more detailed information on the wolf study, see some of our previous Yellowstone Blogs or this link to the Yellowstone Wolf Project annual reports and info. Yellowstone Wolf Project.


Large groups of bull elk often winter on high elevation wind blown ridges such as this one in upper Elk Creek.


A Rocky Mountain Bighorn rest high up on Specimen Ridge. 


The start of our epic 28 km day approaching the suspension bridge over the Yellowstone River. Skiing this part of the trail is usually sketchy at best but this year there was plenty of snow.



Lisa preparing to conduct a necropsy on a bull elk calf that died of malnutrition and was scavenged upon by the 1108M group near the Two Tom drainage above the Yellowstone River.


Lisa skiing towards Cottonwood Creek and Hell Mountain. Our encounter with the 8-Mile pack was only hours away. 


Nels and I skiied into the Cache Creek drainage to collect data from a bull elk that was killed by the Mollie’s pack. This pack of 16 wolves, led by alpha male 890M (formerly of the Junction Butte Pack), spends most of its time in the Interior but occasionally come up to the Northern Range.  


High up on the slopes of Prospect Peak at a winter-killed bull bison carcass that the 8-Mile pack fed on.  You can just see the tip of its horn sticking out of the snow.


Elise prepares to collect a metatarsus bone that helps us determine health of an animal at birth and also a femur section for marrow fat analysis from a young bull elk killed by the Junction Butte pack up the Hellroaring Creek drainage near Bull Mountain.


Freshly excavated den under a large boulder of the Junction Butte Pack.  They had used this den in the recent past.


Lisa skiing up to the Trough after crossing the frozen Lamar River just below the trolley.  .


One of the best snow days of the study was one of the last with 8-10 new inches of light snow in the upper reaches of Oxbow Creek.  Our fearless leader Doug Smith, head wolf project biologist (far right), and Matt Metz, project biologist and current University of Montana PhD student (second from right), joined in on the fun.  We always enjoy their company in the field. 


Skiing over McBride Lake on the way to upper Slough Creek. Cut-off Mountain looms in the background. 


At the bottom of an avalanche chute on the side of Specimen Ridge, we located the remains of two adult bison that had been swept down off one of the cornices.


Free of unstable snow after the avalanche, we used the slide path to access the crest of Specimen Ridge above us.  


Nels tops out on Specimen Ridge, one of our favorite places to be in the winter time.


These high elevation cornices allowed us to ski along wind swept ridges.  Here we traversed the ridge between Amethyst Creek and Specimen Ridge.


Some days we helped the cougar crew study search its GPS clusters (and other days they helped us!).  There are 6 cougars collared on the Northern range. Above, a mother cat with dirty paws sat and rested near a bedding spot.  Below, a bed beneath the root ball of a fallen lodgepole pine was recently used by this female and her year-old kitten. 




Common birds but not so common scavengers.  The Steller’s jay (above) and Clark’s Nutcracker (below) are colorful and raucous members of the Yellowstone ecosystem. 



Friend Joe Kirkland, originally from Halton, PA and now living in Billings, MT, visited for a couple of days and joined us on a few cluster crew adventures.


A ski I’ve been wanting to do for a while and the last big adventure of the month! Nels and I skied the summits of Prospect Peak (9525 ft), Folsom Peak (9326 ft), and Cook Peak (9742 ft) on a 32 km back country tour.  Cook Peak in distance to the left of the far cornice from the west flank of Folsom Peak. 


And of course, Phoebe had the time of her life and had many memorable adventures.  Skiing above Gardiner, MT in the Eagle Creek Drainage (above) and up Republic Creek (below).



Phoebe and her Yellowstone adventure partner Indy on a long, snowy ski just outside of the Park. The two were exhausted at the end of the day!

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Some of the Mollie’s pack making their way through the snow in Pelican Valley this winter. Photo taken from the air by our good friend and Wolf Project Research Associate Kira Cassidy.

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Isle Royale National Park Wolf/Moose Study – 2018

We arrived in Thunder Bay, Ontario late in the afternoon on January 14th.  Lisa and I had driven the two days before from Montana, me flying in to meet her after she spent a week visiting her sisters and dropping off our puppy Phoebe who would spend our time on Isle Royale with her 6 cousins (Tarn, Elf, Frog, Bounder, Spring, and Kestrel – all pictured below).  I had been visiting my folks and brother’s family in PA and enjoyed giving a talk on our Yellowstone wolf research to my parent’s retirement community just before I left.

6 MT doggies

Bounder, Frog, Spring, Elf, Kestrel, and Tarn


Our Girl – Phoebe Piranha Monkey

Once in Thunder Bay, Lisa and I were responsible for making sure our food orders were ready to go and to coordinate with Mark Wiskemann from WiskAir who would fly us to Isle Royale National Park on Jan 16th in his Bell 412 helicopter. Dry goods had been stocked on the island in October but perishables, including meat, dairy, and vegetables had to be purchased just before we left.  We picked up the prepared orders of over 30 pounds of meat and 13 ‘apple’ boxes of other food and met Rolf Peterson (Co-Project Leader from Michigan Technological University), Sarah Hoy (Research Assistant Professor, MTU), and Nate Hanks (National Park Service representative for the study) at the airport on the morning of our flight. John and Leah Vucetich (co-project leader and research scientist from MTU, respectively) were not able to join us this year due to personal reasons. We missed their company and companionship!


Loading up food and gear at the hangar

Flying conditions were favorable but we had to wait a couple of hours for the helicopter to return from a job it had just completed the two days prior relocating nine cow and one bull caribou from Michipicoten Island to the Slate Islands in northern Lake Superior. The most southern remnants of Ontario’s woodland or boreal caribou still occupy these small coastal islands and were relocated from one island to the other to remove caribou from Michipicoten to protect them from wolf predation and to repopulate the Slate Islands. When lake ice used to form frequently between the islands and the mainland, wolves and caribou could travel freely between land masses. However, due to effects from global warming trends these ice bridges freeze less frequently and trap vulnerable caribou on the islands with wolves with no way to escape. As soon as we unloaded from our return trip on February 12, Wisk Air would fly back to Michipicoten to relocate more caribou to Caribou Island a little further south in Lake Superior. To learn more about Ontario caribou, see Ontario Woodland Caribou Conservation 


Picture by Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.

The 20 minute/30 mile flight from Thunder Bay to the 210 square mile island of Isle Royale is beautiful! We always thrill to see the land below us disappear as we begin our flight out over the icy-cold waters of Lake Superior and then get our first glimpse of the island on the distant horizon. Ice is always present on the lake, sometimes in solid sheets that appear dark black where snow has not covered them and other times in a broken mosaic of geometric patterns created by wind and water currents and that stretch as far as the eye can see. The formation of ice is significant for the ecology of Isle Royale because it is assumed that wolves had to have crossed the ice from Ontario in order to get to the island over 70 years ago. Any wolves that came over in subsequent years would have made the same crossing.  Throughout much of the 20th century ice would freeze 8 out of 10 years but recently it is predicted that it will only freeze 2 out of 10 years, meaning that the opportunity for wolves to arrive from the mainland and infuse the dwindling population on the island with new genes is greatly reduced. Mark landed us safely in front of the Windigo bunkhouse on the west end of the island, our base camp for the next month.


From left: Lisa, Ky, Rolf, Nate and Sarah

When we left the island last February, much discussion surrounded the proposed National Park Service plan to augment the existing population of wolves with individuals from the mainland. Over the years, as many as 50 wolves had kept the moose population on Isle Royale in balance with the fragile island ecosystem but wolf numbers had dropped drastically since the 1980’s due to introduced disease and inbreeding depression and only two wolves were observed in 2017 (and two sets of tracks were found both by the plane and by Lisa and I on the island in January 2018). DNA gathered from wolf scats identified that the two wolves were closely related and could not produce viable offspring, the male was both father and half sibling to the female.


Two wolves pictured from 2017-only tracks from a pair of wolves have been seen in 2018. Photo by Michigan Tech researcher.


The moose population was estimated at ~1,600 and would grow at a predicted rate of 20% per year. Unchecked by wolf predation, this growing population could eventually deplete their winter forage. Overpopulation coupled with winter habitat depletion, severe winter weather, and the potential for winter tick infestation (which causes anemia and leaves moose exposed due to severe hair loss from grooming) could prove devastating. This scenario had played out in 1995-1996 when an estimated number of 2,400 moose (possibly the highest recorded moose densities in the world) were subjected to these conditions and over 1,200 died over the course of the winter. For details, see Annual Report 1995-96.


Cow with female calf that visited Lisa and I near Daisy Farm. Productivity is high with many cows with twins observed this year.

We were met on the island by current project pilot and Minnesota Fish and Game Warden Don Murray, who flew from Two Harbors, MN in his single-prop Aeronca Champ plane.  Don is the grandson of the original project pilot (also Don Murray) who flew for the study for 19 years starting in 1959. He was succeeded by another Don (Glaser), a former employee and current air-taxi pilot in Alaska. Don Glaser still flies periodically for the project and was scheduled to be here for two weeks this winter. Unfortunately, he began having mechanical problems with his Piper Super-Cub (aka, The Flagship) and had to fly back to the mainland for repairs.


The two Dons, Murray (left) and Glaser (right). These pilots are always fun to be around.

‘Young’ Don Murray, who first started flying for the project in 2008, is still flying his grandfather’s plane. Many years ago after Don ‘Senior’ stopped flying, he sold his plane and it was subsequently owned by at least two different pilots. One day, while driving through the Minnesota countryside, ‘Young’ Don saw the plane sitting abandoned and in disrepair in the middle of a field. He recognized the plane as his grandfather’s and approached the owner in the hopes of purchasing it.  The plane at the time was not for sale but Don stayed in touch with the owner over the next few years, circumstances changed, and eventually he was able to buy it.  Sixty years later, the red and white Champ with call sign ‘N1713E’ can still be seen flying low over Isle Royale surveying for moose and wolves.


Champ and Don Murray picking us up from our Daisy Farm outpost on the eastern end of Isle Royale. The ice was over 14″ thick this year so Champ was able to land close to the cabin.

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Both Champ (behind) and the Flagship (in front) landing on Moskey Basin on the eastern end to bring us back to Windigo on the western end.

Once ensconced on the island, Winter Study began!  Rolf, a former Professor at MTU who has been working on the study since 1970, and Don Murray would fly the island (weather permitting) and count moose on 91-1 km2 survey plots in order to estimate population size.  Because dense forest limits visibility of the moose on parts of the island, sightability correction factors (determined through years of surveying) have to be applied to counts to determine the total number of moose seen.


12 moose were counted in this plot – 11 are visible in this photo by Rolf Peterson

Rolf also coordinated the study from the bunkhouse, prepared most of the delicious morning and evening meals, and baked some wonderful fresh bread!  Sarah flew periodically to help locate wolves, prepared the samples Lisa and I collected from the field for future chemical analyses, and added some tasty vegetarian meals to our menu. Nate was instrumental in keeping operations going in the bunkhouse by keeping it warm by constantly stoking the wood stove, maintaining generators to keep lights on, and restocking water supplies every day from our ice hole in Washington Harbor.  Nate also prepared a wood-fired sauna twice a week, which we used to relax and soothe tired muscles and also to bathe. Everybody chipped in to make the bunkhouse a comfortable winter retreat!

Lisa and I continued our field work from last year spending most of our time skiing on the west end of the island based out of Windigo and 10 days on the east end at Daisy Farm . We collected fecal pellets and urine deposited in the snow from individual moose at both ends of the island for studies of individual diet composition and chemical analysis of urine to determine both the health of the moose and how much energy moose put into detoxifying their diet of balsam fir.


Sampling from a browsed fir tree on Ransom Ridge overlooking Rock Harbor (East end)

We also collected balsam fir twig samples from randomly selected plots vs used plots (where moose had recently browsed) to compare concentrations of plant secondary metabolites, defense chemicals that are concentrated in fir annual growth as a possible defense to moose herbivory. For more details on these topics, see this link to our blog from last year Isle Royale 2017 and this link to a paper that Lisa and I collected the data for Fir chemical defense and moose.


Lisa on a beaver dam in Tobin Creek – east end of the island.


Lisa recording measurements from heavily browsed fir trees.

Researchers have known that moose on Isle Royale are more genetically susceptible to arthritis than other populations, probably because the small founder population that first swam to the island over 110 years ago carried the arthritis gene. Recently, they determined that IR moose also share some of the same genetic markers used for diagnosing arthritis in humans. In the coming years they would like to start a study following individual moose throughout their life to track these genetic markers and possibly the progression of arthritis in the hopes they can learn more about the disease to help humans. In that effort we are also focusing on collecting as many pellet samples from individual calves, which will then be identified from their DNA. These will become “known-aged” animals for this study. Over 23 total days in the field, Lisa and I skied and bushwhacked 168 miles across the island’s lakes and harbors and through dense forests, thickets and swamps.

Of course, we always enjoy the prospect of finding a shed moose antler!



While we are fascinated by all that we learn on Isle Royale in this, the 60th year of the study, we are also excited to experience this isolated wilderness that has seen minimal impact by humankind. Other than fires that were purposely set on the east end of the island for removing vegetation for copper mining exploration in the mid-1800s, large clear cutting around Siskiwit Lake on the south side of the island in 1936, and fires that burned much of the central part of the island that same year, much of the island has remained pristine virgin forest.  Such old-growth forests do not exist in North America, especially in New England, where commercial forest practices have altered much of the landscape. The eastern end of the island is covered with lush conifer forests at the lower elevations – white spruce and balsam fir predominate, with black spruce the common species of wet boggy areas. Towering aspens are found scattered about the conifer forests particularly along the lake and harbor shores. The western end of the island, which has deeper nutrient rich soils left by the retreating glaciers, supports massive yellow birches and large expanses of sugar maples.  On both ends of the island, white cedar predominates in almost impenetrable marshes and can be found mixed with hardwoods even in upper elevations.


White birch with white cedar.

The middle of the island, which burned in 1936 and grew back as a large white birch forest, provides little cover for moose in the winter, so consequently, wintering moose are found mostly on either end of the island or along the shorelines.

The mammalian fauna on the island is also unique. Only 15 miles from the mainland, there are only a few mammal species that live here:  wolves, moose, red fox, red squirrel, snowshoe hare, pine marten, river otter, beaver, muskrat, deer mice, short-tailed weasel and mink. Other species have at one time inhabited the island but are not found here anymore, including little brown bats, coyote, lynx, and caribou.  There are no bear, deer, porcupine, raccoon, bobcat, or gray squirrel. It’s amazing that these animals have never made it to the island!


Snowshoe Hare – picture by Sarah Hoy

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Young bull moose browsing at Windigo – picture by Rolf Peterson.

We truly feel privileged to be part of this iconic wolf moose-study and to be able to experience this beautiful wilderness in the winter!  We look forward to sharing our experiences from next year!


Sunset on Moskey Basin on the way home to Daisy Farm Cabin


Sunset over Washington Harbor and Beaver Island the first day we arrived


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Isle Royale 2017



Five of us flew to Isle Royale on this Bell 412 Helicopter on January 18.


Beaver Island in Washington Harbor. Our housing at Windigo is on the shore just over the island. We had very little ice this year and 4 days of warm and rain just after we arrived took care of much of the snow.

Isle Royale (IR), Michigan is an island National Park located in the northwest corner of Lake Superior and 15 miles from the closest mainland near Thunder Bay, Ontario. The Park is open from April 16th to October 31st and is only accessible by boat during those months. It is the most remote National Park in the lower 48 and was established in 1940 and designated as wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964. Many people who spend time on IR, backpacking or paddling its 50+ inland lakes, seek a unique wilderness experience while enjoying the solitude of this remote island. The presence of wolves and moose on the island are a draw for many as they enhance the feeling of wildness. Wolves have inhabited this island since the 1940s and moose since the turn of the 19th century. As many as 2,500 moose and 52 wolves have lived on the island at one time.


Taken the day we arrived on the island, this picture shows the last two remaining wolves on the island.  These wolves are extremely inbred and have not had pups. The 8 year old male is both the father and half sibling of the 6 year old female.  Wow, figure that one out!

Only two wolves and approximately 1,300 moose currently live on IR, and fearing that wolves will soon vanish from the island, National Park Service personnel have committed to augment the current wolf population in order to restore their predation on moose which maintains a balanced moose population. Without predation it is feared that moose will over-browse the island and permanently compromise the health of the ecosystem. For example, in the winter of 1995-1996, moose numbers were at a historic high and wolf numbers had remained low for almost a decade following the outbreak of disease. Moose, particularly on the west end of the island, had denuded the regenerating balsam fir, their primary winter forage. Following a particularly long winter, over 1,000 starving moose died. Use this link to read more about the proposed wolf reintroduction in the National Park Service ‘Draft Environmental Impact Statement’.

DEIS to Address the Presence of Wolves in Isle Royale National Park

We were excited for our 4th winter field season working with the IR Wolf and Moose Project, started in 1958 to study the relationship between wolf and moose predator/prey dynamics and their effect on the island ecosystem. It is the longest running wildlife study in the world.  Researchers, Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich from Michigan Tech University, study this system intensively each year during January and February.  With pilots Don Murray and Don Glaser, they focus on counting moose in 91 study plots for


Lisa and Don Murray prepare to fly from Daisy Farm to Windigo.


This plane belonged to Don’s grandfather when he started flying for the project in 1958. His grandfather eventually sold it and years later Don found it abandoned in a field, bought it, restored it, and painted it the same colors as when it flew in ’58. It is a Aeronca Champion commonly known as the “Champ”.

estimating moose population size, and locating wolves in order to estimate their numbers, record their activities and movement patterns, and find their kills for estimating kill rates.


Pellets collected for diet analysis.

As the ground crew, Lisa and I are responsible for collecting moose fecal pellets and urine by following fresh moose tracks in the snow and collecting balsam fir samples.


Collecting data in a balsam fir browsing patch.samples from moose foraging areas.  We keep track of fresh wolf sign (tracks, scat, kills) and report these back to the air crew.

This year, moose pellets were analyzed in a process called microhistological analysis to determine diet composition of the moose.  In this process, pellets are ground up, washed in solution, and then viewed through a microscope to identify the species of plant material in the diet.  Results show that moose on IR feed predominantly on Balsam fir, Eastern white cedar, and numerous hardwood browse species.  Chemical analysis of urine reveals how healthy a moose is by determining its urea nitrogen to creatinine ratio.  A high ratio suggests a moose is food stressed and is metabolizing its own muscle for energy.  The ratio of glucuronic acid to creatinine in urine tells us how much energy a moose is putting into detoxifying the plant material that it consumes. In their defense to moose herbivory, we are finding that previously browsed firs concentrate Plant Secondary Metabolites (defense toxins) into their new annual growth.  The concentration of defensive toxins in fir samples help us understand why moose choose certain trees to browse on. It’s hard to imagine that a plant can defend itself from a moose!


Our small cabin at Daisy Farm.  Yes, that is Lisa washing her hair over the sink!

We were on the 45 mile long island for 28 days, half of our time spent on the west end in an area called Windigo, and the other half on the east end near the Daisy Farm campground.  Windigo is one of the visitor centers in the park and here we stay with the other researchers and pilots in one of the employee bunkhouses where we draw water from a hole in the ice on Washington Harbor, heat with wood, and use a generator for electricity.  At Daisy Farm, Lisa and I live in a 12’ x 24’ ranger cabin situated only 20’ from the lake where we heat, cook, and light our cabin with propane fuel and draw water from Rock Harbor.


Our daily commute at Daisy Farm.  We are standing on the west end of Moskey Basin and our cabin is on the left side of the ice, 3 1/2 miles down the bay.

For more information on the wolf moose study click on this link and and click ‘Winter Study”.


Looking up onto the Green Stone Ridge in the center of the island.


Checking ice thickness after hacking a hole with an axe to make sure it is thick enough for the plane to land on.


Out on the ice on a cold and blustery day!


Sun setting over Washington Harbor and Beaver Island on the west end of the island.

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Time flies in Yellowstone!


Looking up the valley of a cirque-like feature called “The Pocket” on the northwest side of  Quadrant Peak.

Almost two months have passed since we made our last post.  Following the end of our early winter moose surveys we have been working on completing our second-year moose study annual report, helping the Yellowstone Cougar Study with their efforts to capture and radio-collar six cougars, preparing for the intensive one-month March Winter Study (wolf study), and as of March 1 have been scouring the Northern Range of Yellowstone searching for wolf-killed prey and performing necropsies on them.

We were successful in completing our moose report that summarizes our winter 2014-2015 field season and some of our genetic results so far. We are attaching the report to this blog so feel free to share it!  2014 YNP Moose Study Annual Report


Adult female cougar treed by hounds during capture operation.

The Yellowstone Cougar Study, a multi-year study of the cougar population on the Northern Range of Yellowstone, was fortunate to have captured and radio collared three cats this winter.  One was a sub-adult male collared in December and two others were part of a family group; a mother and a yearling male, who is one of her three kittens from last year. Unfortunately, the sub-adult male was killed by another male cougar in the steep and rocky canyon country along the Yellowstone River, but the mother and yearling, still together with the other two siblings, continue to provide important biological data from their radio collars. Lisa was fortunate to have been involved with the successful capture of the adult female!


Sula and Junior, specialized lion hounds, keep the cougar treed until the crew can dart her and lower her safely to the ground.


Wolf Project and Cougar Project biologist Dan Stahler (middle) prepares to collect biological data from the cougar. Cougar Study technician Ellen Beller assists. Houndsman Tony  Knuchel fits the cougar with a satellite radio collar.


Checking teeth for age.  This cat was approximately 5-6 years old.


The cougar capture crew from left to right Colby, Ellen, Lisa, Tony and Wes.

The Yellowstone Wolf Project’s March Winter Study started with two days of training for eleven volunteers, all with college degrees (mostly in wildlife biology) and all looking for biological field work experience as they pursue their next career or educational move. Some will take jobs as wildlife biologists, some will pursue further education in graduate school, and some will continue to work as biological field technicians on other wildlife projects.


The Wolf Project March Winter Study crew, including seven new volunteers, eating ice cream after a morning of boiling and cleaning elk metatarsi and mandibles.


The work station across from the flanks of Mount Everts in Mammoth.

The three Winter Study research wolf packs this March are the Lamar Canyon, Junction Butte, and Prospect Peak packs. These packs have adjacent territories in Yellowstone’s Northern Range, an area where the elk population (their primary prey) is relatively dense compared to the rest of the Park and where there are currently almost 5,000 bison. The Prospect Peak pack occupies a territory on the west end of the Northern Range and spends most of its time on Blacktail Plateau, Mount Everts and along the Yellowstone River corridor all the way to Hellroaring Slope. The Junction Butte Pack can be found near Hellroaring but spends most of its time further east near Tower Junction (an intersection of two of the Park Roads and the location of Roosevelt Lodge and the Tower Ranger Station), in the Yellowstone River corridor northeast of Mount Washburn, on a vast treeless plateau called Specimen Ridge, and along the meandering Slough Creek in an area called Little America.  The Lamar Canyon wolves can be found in Little America sometimes as well but generally localize just to the east throughout the Lamar Valley.


Searching Lamar Canyon pack clusters high above the Lamar Valley in Rose Creek.

Lisa and I, along with our cluster crew Quinn, Nels and Grace, are collecting predation data by searching GPS locations for the Prospect Peak and Lamar Canyon packs. There are two wolves in Prospect Peak and one wolf in Lamar Canyon that have satellite GPS collars and we are able to track their locations every hour across the landscape. If the wolves spend more than 2 hours in one location, that spot is designated as a cluster and we go search it!


Ky, Lisa (taking picture), Grace and Nels (our two returning Mainers) grab lunch after processing a bull elk carcass from the Lamar Canyon Pack.


Lisa and Grace with snow person friend Pat. We left to search more Prospect Peak pack clusters and came back an hour later to find that Pat had been trampled by a herd of young male bison.

We have also continued to opportunistically collect moose pellet samples between our early- and late-winter survey periods. These pellets may help us identify a moose that we haven’t sampled yet, allow us to track pregnancy status through hormone analysis of females throughout the winter, enable us to track winter movement patterns of moose, and give us an idea of moose winter home range size.

Along the way I have turned some of these days in the field into opportunities for a little adventuring. One day I was able to summit Quadrant Mountain, which forms the western border of a beautiful area known as Gardner’s Hole. To descend the mountain I skied northwest and down through expansive white bark pine forests in a steep drainage called “The Pocket”. On another day, I was able to approach the summit of Electric Peak, the tallest mountain in the northwest corner of the Park at almost 11,000 feet, before I was turned back by high wind, poor visibility, and soft snow conditions. I had summited Electric one time before in the winter but had never been on top of Quadrant.  Reaching the top of Antler Peak, which lies just to the south of these others, is the next on my list of adventures. If time, weather, and snow conditions allow, perhaps I will be able to share pictures of the views from its wind-blown summit on our next posting.


One of the summits of almost 10,000 ft. Quadrant Mountain



A close-up of the almost vertical face of “The Pocket” reveals a massive avalanche!


Antler Peak from the summit of Quadrant Peak to the south.  Note the Tetons just over the left shoulder of Antler Peak almost 70 miles away.

Tomorrow, our crew heads out to the upper reaches of Slough Creek to search some clusters from the Lamar Canyon Pack and will stay a night in one of the ranger cabins.

Stay tuned for our next blog and thanks for following along!

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In the Land of Moose!


Ronan and I start an early moonlit ski up through Snow Pass to survey for moose in Gardner’s Hole

It has been a whirlwind since we last posted on the 22nd of December.  It seems that with the shorter days we have had to use every minute of daylight to get our moose surveys completed. We normally aim to start our early winter sampling on December 15th and end on January 15th, but this year we started early on December 13th and ended on January 19th.  Since this is the third and final field season of our three-year study we wanted to make sure we thoroughly covered our study area.  We will replicate this effort when we conduct our late winter survey during the month of April.

Into Gardners Hole

Snow fell just in time. A drop into the Gardner River

The snow started falling just in time allowing us ski access to all our survey areas. Without snow we would have had to conduct our work on foot and we would have needed another few weeks to complete our work. In total Lisa and I, with a few days help from friends Ronan Donovan and Emil McCain, sampled approximately 200 miles of study transects and collectively covered over 300 miles on our skis to do so.


That same day with Ronan skiing out with our headlights.

We collected a total of 134 moose pellet samples of 30 pellets each that we divided into 3 bags of 10 pellets each. One bag from each pellet sample will be shipped to our collaborator at the University of Minnesota-Duluth for genetic analysis and one bag to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Lab in Virginia for pregnancy hormone analysis. The last bag will be dried in a large oven here in the Park by Lisa and I and 8 pellets from each sample will be measured to determine an average volume index of the pellets in order to assign one of three age classes to the moose that deposited the pellets (calf, yearling, or adult).


Collecting samples from a moose bed.

I am analyzing our individual moose ID’s (or genotypes) with a computer software program called Genecap. Each moose genotype consists of a sequence of 12 numbers which represents 6 different segments of DNA, each with a piece contributed by both the mother and father moose, called alleles. So 6 pairs of alleles for a total of 12 pieces of genetic information for each moose.  Each individual in the population has a different combination of these 12 alleles. The software compares every individual genotype with all the others in the data set and combines groups that match and so are from the same moose (over the course of our surveys we will have collected samples from some moose multiple times). I have to make sure these matches make sense by comparing them to our other data; pregnancy hormone concentrations, volume of their pellets, and location sampled. After careful scrutiny I can generate a list of individuals in our study area.  I’m not quite done with our first year analysis but at this point it is looking like we have between 80 and 100 different moose in our study area.  After combining our 3 years of data I will eventually plug these into a Spatial Capture Recapture computer model to generate other population parameters.  More on that in the future.

Highlights of our Early Winter 2015 survey included a New Year’s Day moose survey flight for me where I spent 3.5 hours flying over northern Yellowstone’s best moose habitat in search of moose and moose sign, a week in the beautiful Soda Butte Valley surveying the best winter habitat in our study area with the greatest concentration of wintering moose, and our 5-day back country trip up the Slough Creek drainage to its headwaters to look for moose in an area called Frenchy’s Meadow.

The ultimate goal of the moose survey flight is to locate moose and moose sign so that we can focus our surveys on those areas with moose.  It also serves to eliminate those areas from surveying where no moose or sign is found.  This is almost as important as finding moose because we can eliminate areas to sample that might otherwise require multi-day back country trips.  I flew again in a Piper Super-Cub with pilot Steve Ard from Tracker Aviation out of Bozeman, MT. We found most of the moose sign where we were expecting to find it, in the upper reaches of Slough Creek, in and near Frenchy’s Meadow (FM). Each year we survey this area we find more moose than the year before and this year was no exception. In the willow flats two miles downstream from FM in an area called the 3rd Slough Meadow we located a group of 3 middle-aged bulls, on the south end of FM we located a bedded cow with a calf and young bull, and in the north east corner of FM we found a group of 6 moose bedded together, 4 bulls and two cows.  One of the bulls had quite a large set of antlers and was a beautiful animal to see!

3rd Slough Meadow Bulls

Three middle-aged bulls in the 3rd Slough Meadow.

Frenchy's Meadow - Bull 1

We would later find the right antler of this nice Frenchy’s Meadow Bull

Our plans to start our FM trip the next day had to be changed and we would not be able to start until the 15th of January.  However, I did not want to miss the opportunity to sample at least the 3 bulls we saw in the 3rd Meadow so the next day I skied 10 miles up the Slough drainage to where we saw them, collected their pellets that afternoon, stayed overnight in the Yellowstone Elk Tongue Patrol Cabin and then skied out the next day. We would have to wait to collect the other samples from FM for another 13 days. I was hopeful the snow wouldn’t fully cover their beds and tracks – I had taken pictures from the plane so that we could find them on the ground. By the time we did get to FM, six inches of snow had fallen but we were able to find the beds of each of the 8 moose I had pictures of and were able to collect samples from them all!

We look forward to our time in the Soda Butte Valley because we stay with our friends Laurie and Dan Lyman and get to visit also with friend and Wolf Project co-worker Rick McIntyre, a Yellowstone icon. The Valley is quite narrow with towering 9,000 to 10,000+ foot mountains on either side – The Thunderer; Baronnette, Abiathar, Meridian and Druid Peaks; Mount Hornady and Norris; and Mineral and Republic Mountains. Abiathar is the


Barronette Peak – Home of many Mountain Goats!

highest at just under 11,000 feet. Here we often find moose wintering 1,000 feet above the valley floor at over 8,000 feet where they hunker down for the winter beneath old growth conifer feeding on regenerating subalpine fir twigs and Old Man’s Beard lichen. The moose were plentiful but our surveys were challenging because the snow was still not deep enough to cover much of the downed trees and stumps and had the consistency of sugar, which made it difficult to move around in. Avalanche danger was high so we had to be very careful where we were skiing.

We look forward to the peace and solitude of Frenchy’s Meadow every year. Located 15 miles up the Slough Creek drainage from the trailhead, which is another 5 miles away from the nearest residents at the Tower Creek Ranger Station, the Meadow is the most


Skirting the 2nd Slough Meadow on the way to Frenchy’s Meadow

remote destination of our study. Over the last three years we have been the only ones to visit the Meadow in the winter and stay in the 1920’s vintage Slough Creek Forest Service cabin.  FM lies within the Custer-Gallatin National Forest, a 3.1 million acre expanse that lies both north and west of the Park and is considered one of the most ecologically diverse landscapes in the region. Yellowstone of course is another but is only 2/3 the size at 2.2 million acres.


After a long day and 15 miles of skiing, Lisa approaches the Slough Creek Forest Service Cabin. Our home for the next 3 days.  We hoped the key worked!


It Did!!!!

Slough Creek bisects FM and is joined by a number of other high mountain streams including Bull, Abundance, Frenchy, and Wolverine Creeks. Much of the lower half of the Meadow is formed by a huge alluvial fan at the outflow of Lost Creek. Choked with willow and pockets of mature conifer forest (most of the forest is regenerating lodgepole pine, still recovering from the massive forest fires of 1988) the area provides some of the best wintering habitat for moose in the region.

We sampled for a full two days here and were treated to some wonderful moose sightings and beautiful scenery. One day we were moving through the willow, continuously scanning for moose with our binoculars, when only a couple hundred yards in front of us


Using our track from the day before to push our survey to the top of Frenchy’s Meadow.  This is near the spot where we saw the 4 bulls.

four middle-aged bulls popped up out of their beds.  They regarded us curiously before moving off up the near slope where they watched us collecting their pellets. The next day we watched a cow with her bull calf, his little antler buttons just barely poking out of his head, feed along the east side of the meadow.  Mom had for some reason decided it was okay to bed separately from the calf at almost 1/8 of a mile away so when we first saw her we thought she was alone.  Soon we would see the calf meandering up the stream to meet


Lisa packing out our path to the outhouse.

her.  On our ski out, in the 3rd Slough Meadow where I had seen the 3 bulls from the plane, we watched two bulls (one, the larger of the two had already dropped its antlers) feeding on the willows in the creek below us. We watched where they deposited pellets and then with Lisa keeping an eye on their activity I snuck across the creek and picked up my samples.  They watched me curiously but were deeply engrossed in their mission of eating as many willow twigs as they could. Depending on the size of the animal and type of browse available, a moose can eat up to 60 pounds of forage a day!


Getting ready to depart the cabin, it always seems to snow while we are here.

We did find 2 moose antlers on our trip which are shed annually by moose. Change in hormone levels triggers the shedding of antlers. Those first to drop are from moose with the largest fluctuation in hormones. These would be the mature bulls that have the highest levels of testosterone during the late September fall breeding season. Young bulls can carry antlers into the late winter and in Vermont one year I even saw a yearling bull still with antlers in April. Only a couple of hundred meters from where I spotted the group of 6 moose from the plane on Jan. 1, Lisa found the right antler of the largest bull in that group.  It was very distinguishable because it had a triple brow palm that was very obvious from my flight photo.  Only 30


The first antler hung up in the willow.

meters from there and barely visible, I found another right antler from another mature bull. It was palm down in the willows with no tines sticking out of the snow. Had I been skiing 2’ to the left or right, I would have never spotted it. I may be biased, but I think antlers are one of nature’s most beautiful creations! Their individual shape, color, size and smell make each one so different from the other.


The antler in my left hand is from the large bull pictured bedded in the meadow.

Until next time from Yellowstone National Park, we wish you all well!

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Back to Yellowstone! – Winter 2015/2016

Geode Lake

Ky skiing across Geode Lake while surveying for moose pellets. DNA is extracted from pellets and used to identify individual moose and their sex.

We are back in Yellowstone National Park for another winter studying wolves, elk, and moose.  I arrived on December 10th and Lisa arrived on November 10th.  She drove out early to participate in the Yellowstone Wolf Project’s early Winter Study from November 15th to December 14th. Just like last year she was responsible for downloading GPS data from radio-collars that have been fitted on a few of Northern Yellowstone’s wolves as part of the wolf/elk predation study that has been going on for twenty years.  As a reminder, she creates maps from the GPS data and then identifies the locations on the map where the GPS collared wolf has spent at least 2 hours, called ‘clusters’. These clusters are searched for evidence of a prey carcass by Lisa and her field crew of 4 biological technicians.

Crystal Creek

Technicians Kira Powell, Wes Binder and Emil McCain searching clusters in the Crystal Creek Drainage.

Her crew started with two functional GPS collars to follow but by the time the 30 days ended, only one collar had enough battery left to transmit data.

Specimen Ridge

Lisa joins the crew to search clusters on Specimen Ridge.

Heading Home

The crew headed home after a long day.

In addition to the cluster searches, Lisa helped coordinate some of the details for the three teams assigned as ground crews on the three study packs. This year, the packs included in this intensive winter study period were Lamar Canyon, Junction Butte, and Prospect Peak.

Lamar Canyons

Some Lamar Canyon Pack wolves including alpha male ‘Twin’ leading the way.

Lamar Canyon is probably the most famous and most photographed wolf pack in the world at the moment as they are often visible from the road. There are 10 wolves in this pack and they are led by alpha female 926F and alpha male 992M (Twin). There are two yearling females, 3 adult males, and 3 pups.


Junction Butte Pack wolves at play.

Junction Butte, with 13 wolves, spends most of their time traveling between Slough Creek, Little America, and Specimen Ridge and are often visible for visitors as well. This pack is led by gray alpha male 911M (one of the GPS collared wolves), currently injured from a possible encounter with a bison, and alpha female 970F, a large black wolf. There are four other adult wolves in this pack and 7 pups.


Alpha female 821F of the Prospect Peak pack.

Prospect Peak is often the hardest pack to see as their territory comprises the top of Mount Everts, parts of the Yellowstone River drainage, and the Blacktail Plateau. This pack numbers between 12 and 13 wolves and are led by alpha female 821F and alpha male 763M. 964M, a gray yearling, also has a GPS collar and was one of the wolves that Lisa kept close track of!

I arrived just in time to see the last of the December raindrops (I hope!) and the start of what we hope will be a snowy winter.  There was a fair bit of snow on the ground for Thanksgiving but some warm days melted most of it away. I got here just in time for the most exciting time of the year for the Wolf Project. Starting December 12 and for the next two days, a helicopter crew from Washington arrived to capture wolves so they could be examined by Wolf Project biologists and fitted with radio-collars.

The helicopter was able to fly only one of the three scheduled days due to poor weather, but it was a successful day.  Two wolves were collared from the Lamar Canyon pack including its alpha male, 3 wolves from the Junction Butte pack, and 1 pup from the Prospect Peak pack.  Sometime after the New Year, another effort will be made to finish collaring the Northern Range packs as well as some packs located in the Park interior.

Lisa had an experience of a life-time as she was asked to help Doug Smith (Wolf Project Leader) and Kira Cassidy (Wolf Project Research Associate) process the three Junction Butte wolves.  She put on her flight gear, boarded the helo with the others, and off they buzzed into the Yellowstone wilderness.


Lisa excited about her first helicopter ride!

Away she goes!

Lisa ready for take-off with Doug Smith riding shotgun.


Away she goes!

They were flown to a flat plateau where the three wolves had been captured and sedated. Lisa, Doug and Kira put radio-collars on all three wolves, drew blood for DNA analysis, took body and tooth measurements, monitored temperature, and weighed the animals. The processing took about half an hour and by that time the wolves were more alert and the sedatives had begun to wear off.

Junction Butte wolves

Doug Smith, Wolf Project Leader and Kira Cassidy processing wolves.

crazy good day

Lisa and former Junction Butte Pack alpha male 890M



One of the Junction Butte Pack wolves waking up from the sedative.

The crew moved about 100m away and watched while the wolves began to move around. Once they were satisfied that the wolves were okay, the helicopter flew in and took them back to Tower Junction where helicopter operations were based.

Soon after my arrival, moose started to pop up everywhere as they began their transition from summer habitats to their winter range. We received many text messages about “a big bull-moose at Elk Creek”, “cow with calf at Geode willows”, and “cow in the Blacktail willows”.  We were starting just at the right time as our early winter moose study runs from December 15 to January 15.

Once again, the focus of our moose study is to conduct a non-invasive population study of the northern Yellowstone moose where we collect fecal pellets from moose as a source of DNA and pregnancy hormones. DNA is extracted from epithelial cells from the surface of the pellets and is analyzed to determine a moose’s individual ID, sex, and pregnancy status if it is a female.  Measure pellet volume then helps us differentiate between calf, yearling, and adult age classes.  When we put all these data together in capture-recapture computer models, we can generate a pretty accurate count of population size and other information such as population growth and survival rates.

I started for a day without Lisa while she wrapped things up with the Wolf Project and surveyed a transect, which runs down Blacktail Creek, upstream along the south side of the Yellowstone River, and then up Oxbow Creek.  I saw and sampled 3 different moose and followed cougar tracks for much of the way.

Oxbow Bull

Oxbow Creek Bull

Today we did a big loop in the upper Blacktail Creek which lies in the middle of the wide open Black-tailed Deer Plateau.  What a beautiful place! Over the next three days together we surveyed other drainages on the Plateau and once again got into moose!


Looking across Blacktailed-Deer Plateau towards Electric Peak


This bull elk was feeding in the willows along Blacktail Creek. He had scabies, an ectoparasite, which causes the infected animal to scratch and rub their hair off exposing them to the severe winter temperatures.  A mile away we found a bull elk killed by the Prospect Peak pack which was missing much of the hair on it’s back.

Ky and Moose

Observing a bedded bull in Geode Creek


Antler art

Drawing the bulls antlers to aid with future identification

Geode Bull

Geode Creek bull moose. Six wolves from the Prospect Peak pack that we had seen 30 minutes earlier walked right past this bull as we could discern from their tracks. 85% of the Yellowstone wolves diet is elk and very rarely do they kill a moose, especially a mature bull.

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Wrapping up our work in YNP


The Teton Range beyond Jackson Lake as I was driving to Granby, CO for the moose conference.

Our April sampling ended soon after our Soda Butte trip. We took advantage of what little snow was left and were able to sample a few more moose. We then shifted gears a little at the end of April entering data, shipping pellets out for DNA analysis, measuring pellets, and getting ready for the 49th International Moose Conference in

We saw this pine marten, the only one we saw this winter, near Canyon Village in the Park interior.

We observed  this pine marten, the only one we saw this winter, near Canyon Village in the Park interior.

Granby, Colorado. We even took a two day birding trip which took us into the Park Interior and out the West Yellowstone entrance where we did a 60 mile driving loop and stopped along the way at some notable birding spots.  Henry and Hebgen Lakes were the highlights were we saw thousands of waterfowl.

We saw 755M, former alpha male of the Lamar Canyon Pack, travelling close to the road in the Hayden Valley. He was probably looking for food to take back to his mate that was in a den with newly born pups.

We saw 755M, former alpha male of the Lamar Canyon Pack, travelling close to the road in the Hayden Valley. He was probably looking for food to take back to his mate who was in a den with newly born pups.

The conference was well attended by many moose biologists and managers across North America. All the Rocky Mountain States were represented, a few of the Canadian provinces, Minnesota sent a group of moose researchers, and we had moose biologists from Vermont-Cedric Alexander, NH-Kris Rines, and Maine-Lee Kantar. It was great to see the New England people there. Myself and one of our collaborators from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Tessa Tjepkes, were the only ones presenting moose research involving the use of non-invasive methods for estimating moose population parameters so many people were excited to hear about our work. I don’t doubt the methods we have been demonstrating in Yellowstone will be used in other regions of the western U.S. in the near future.

We also just completed our first round of genotype testing from the 270 pellet samples we collected in the winter of 2013-2014 and were able to identify 87 individual moose living on Yellowstone’s Northern Range. As we dissect the data a little more we may find a few more but this is pretty close to what we were expecting. Now that we know what samples came from which individual, we can apply pregnancy hormone data to each cow to determine if she was pregnant. Doing this with all the moose will give us the population pregnancy rate of northern Yellowstone moose. Knowing how many cows and bulls we have will let us estimate population sex ratio. One bull for every cow, or a 1:1 ratio, is typical of a non-hunted population. We are excited to see what we get with this! We can also now look at winter movements and estimate winter home range size because we keep track of all the locations where we picked up the samples. For example, we sampled one bull 8 times over the winter and could see him travel through three different stream drainages. We are excited because the information we are getting from moose non-invasively is just as good or better than what could be gathered through traditional means, i.e. capture the animal using a helicopter, take blood for pregnancy testing, pull a tooth for aging, radio collar it, and then follow it around periodically (often from a plane) to record its location. In comparison to the non-invasive methods we are using, traditional methods are costly and very stressful and sometimes fatal to the study animal.

Lisa investigating a fresh moose track in the Soda Butte Creek drainage.  You can see the snow is lacking beyond the track as was the case on all south facing aspects.

Lisa investigating a fresh moose track in the Soda Butte Creek drainage. You can see the snow is lacking beyond the track as was the case on all south facing aspects. Luckily this moose stayed in the snow so we could follow it!

I just got back home to Vermont on May 5th and am happy to be here! The snow is gone and the leaves are popping. The poplars are already beginning to leaf out. Lisa is spending three more weeks in the Park to train the person who will be running the summer predation study, which is the summer version of what Lisa was doing in the winter. Lisa will only be able to download one GPS collar, at least for the beginning of the summer, because the other two wolves that have been fitted with GPS collars have gone off on their own somewhere and haven’t been seen with their packs in several weeks. Hopefully, they will return soon. Lisa has a good summer crew, including two bear researchers from Norway, but she is really looking forward to getting back home – it has been a long winter!

As far as the moose study goes, we will be processing and analyzing our data this summer and will have our second annual report out by September 1st. We’ll post it on our blog when we do. Thanks for joining us on our adventures this winter and we look forward to sharing more next winter. Have a good summer!

A bull moose feeding on willow along Obsidian Creek. We were able to collect pellets from him only because we could determine his exact location and surveyed the sight soon after he left.

A bull moose feeding on willow along Obsidian Creek. You can see his new antlers just starting to grow. We were able to collect pellets from him only because we could determine his exact location and also surveyed the sight soon after he moved on.

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Back on the Tracks of Moose

We put off the Frenchy’s Meadow trip for a week so we could sample the upper Gardner River basin, called “Gardner’s Hole”, while there was still snow to ski on. Nestled between Quadrant (9,944’) and Little Quadrant (9,892) Mountains and Electric Peak (10,992’),


Approaching Electric Peak along the Gardner River. To the left, the Flanks of Quadrant Peak are forested and is good winter habitat for moose. Typically 2-3 feet of snow still blanket these rolling hills in April.

Electric Peak as seen from Gardiner's Hole.

Electric Peak as seen from Gardner’s Hole.

Gardner’s Hole is a hard to get to place located about 2 miles west of Swan Lake Flats. It’s one of our favorite destinations in the Park. Here, Fawn Creek meets the upper Gardner River before it winds for miles through sage brush flats and drops into Sheepeater Canyon and eventually runs into the Yellowstone River near Gardiner, MT.  Bordering the Hole to the west and at the foot of the three big peaks is a dense old-growth Engelmann spruce/Douglas fir/Subalpine fir forest. Here, moose spend the winter taking advantage of the thermal cover and lesser snow depths provided by the forest canopy and the sub-alpine fir regeneration in the understory that provides the animal’s winter diet.

This year was different than last year in that we did not see or sample a single moose.  Last year, even with much greater snow depths, moose abandoned this high elevation refuge by early April and moved down into the streams that provided abundant willow forage.  We are guessing that with the much warmer than normal temperatures moose have stayed in the forest to stay cool. Research has shown that moose can get heat stressed when temperatures exceed 57 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and 23 F in the winter. Because they still retain their winter coats in April, warm days this time of year can be particularly difficult for moose. They are also likely having an easier time moving around in the forests due to early snow melt. Even without collecting any samples, the beauty of Gardner’s Hole and the surrounding mountains made our trips well worth the effort.

In trying to take advantage of the remaining snow in the Park we sampled Pebble Creek and skied a big loop around Round Prairie and Trout Lake, then spent a couple of days getting organized and started our trip to sample in the upper Slough Creek drainage and Frenchy’s Meadow.  Lisa was still finishing up her work with the wolf project work so Nel’s joined me for the adventure.  Since the first few miles of the trail accessing Slough Creek did not have any snow at all, we hired a backcountry guide to tow us

View of our guide Allen while in-tow!

View of our guide Allen while in-tow!

in to a tributary of Slough Creek called Abundance Creek.  We wrapped the bicycle tubes that were tied onto the tow ropes around our waists and off we went.  Within

Dropped off at the Wilderness bored near Lake Abundance we are ready to start our ski down to Frenchy's Meadow.

Dropped off at the Wilderness bored near Lake Abundance we are ready to start our ski down to Frenchy’s Meadow.

a half hour we had travelled the 6 miles to the top of 9,700’ Daisy Pass.  Here our guide dropped over the other side to check for avalanche danger before signaling us to descend. With big smiles on our faces and heavy packs on our backs we dropped onto the slope, made a dozen telemark turns in knee-deep powder, and then resumed our tow to Abundance Creek on the Wilderness boundary.  At this boundary, motorized vehicles are not permitted so we were on our own.

Looking up the drainage of Abundance Creek. The fires of 1988 ravaged this area too.

Looking up the drainage of Abundance Creek. The fires of 1988 ravaged this area too.

Slough Creek Forest Service Cabin.

Slough Creek Forest Service Cabin with considerably less snow than the last time Lisa and I visited.

The north face of Cut-Off Peak from the Bull Creek Drainage.

The north face of Cut-Off Peak from the Bull Creek Drainage.

Fourteen miles later and 1,700 feet lower we arrived at the Slough Creek Forest Service cabin. The ski down the drainage was beautiful and we did sample moose – a very healthy cow moose and her female calf. Over the next two days, we sampled another half dozen moose, saw another cow/female calf pair, and I had the experience of 4 wolves (1 black and 3 gray) passing me by at 125 yards.  We saw their tracks earlier and Nel’s likely spooked them from a bedding spot. None of them wore radio-collars nor fit the color description of known YNP packs so I knew I had the unique opportunity to gaze upon unknown wolves from the wilderness to the north. We did find snow where it had been shaded by the sun up tight to the forest on the southeast side of the creek and could ski all but the last mile before the Slough Creek campground where Lisa, Grace and her friend Maddy picked us up to take us back to our vehicle at Cooke City.

Nels getting creative on the ski out.

Nels getting creative on the ski out.

We skied a total of 48 miles in that spectacular country, constantly in awe of the well-adapted wolves, moose and other wildlife that live the winter in that seemingly barren landscape.

Lisa happy to be back in the field (I was too)! Here she is eagerly backtracking our first fresh moose track in the Soda Butte drainage!

Lisa happy to be back in the field (I was too)! Here she is eagerly backtracking our first fresh moose track on new snow in the Soda Butte drainage!

Hooray!  Lisa has finished her Wolf Project obligations for late Winter Study and we are finally reunited as the moose study field crew! (Thanks Nels for filling in – your help and company were greatly appreciated!)  Since late February she has anchored the GPS cluster efforts, tirelessly keeping up with scheduled downloads, data conversions, cluster map making, and coordinating the ground crews to search them.  Even though she has been able to be in the field for a couple days of searching and numerous download attempts, much of her time over the last month has been in a little cubicle in the upstairs of the Yellowstone Center for Resources in front of a computer. She is happy to be stretching her legs on skis, hearing the calls of the spring birds, and smelling the fresh spring air.

We are currently spending the week sampling in the Soda Butte Creek drainage between Round Prairie and Cooke City where a good portion of Yellowstone’s wintering moose reside.  We have collected pellets so far from 3 different cow/calf pairs as well as a few loaners.  The 4 bulls we have been seeing over the winter have taken to the forests.  Usually, this time of year the moose are moving downhill out of the mature conifer and appearing in stream bottoms where they will spend days and even weeks browsing on the willows. As I mentioned about the Gardner’s Hole moose, this year is different. We believe some of these moose are in higher elevations than we can even safely navigate on skis.  However, in order to find their winter hideouts, we plan to back-track every moose we find travelling down the forested slopes.

The spectacular mountain and dense confer vistas of the Soda Butte drainage never cease to amaze us.

The spectacular mountain and dense confer vistas of the Soda Butte drainage never cease to amaze us. Abiathar Peak as seen from across the valley on the flanks of Barronette Peak.

Looking east up the Soda Butte Drainage from across a snow slide path

Looking east up the Soda Butte Drainage towards Mineral Peak from across a snow slide path.

Wading the Soda Butte Creek at Round Prairie.

Wading the Soda Butte Creek at Round Prairie.

Once we finish up our Soda Butte work we may be done our moose field work for the year because the snow will be gone and we will not be able to locate fresh moose pellets on bare ground.  Because DNA on the surface of moose pellets degrades so rapidly if subjected to warm, moist conditions and/or direct sunlight, we must insure the pellets are 3 or fewer days old. An early ending will give me time to work on a presentation I am making in late-April at the 49th Annual Moose Conference and Workshop which is being held in Granby, Colorado, and it will give Lisa a chance to get ready for one more month of GPS wolf work also starting the end of the month.  I will be heading back to Vermont on May 5th and Lisa on May 22nd.

We wish our Mainer friends Grace and Nels good luck in their travels and summer pursuits. Nels will be working in Homer, Alaska cutting and raising timber-framed structures and Grace will be caretaker of the Piazza Rock campsite along the Appalachian trail not too far from Rangeley, ME, one of her favorite places.  We enjoyed their company this March and appreciated their contributions to the cluster searching crew.  Hopefully we will be able to visit with them this summer in Maine! We will fondly remember their positive attitudes, eager enthusiasm, happy faces, folk songs with a banjo, and of course eating eggs with them three times a day.

Grace and Nels, Mainers, good freinds, and good folks enjoying a banner March day along Slough Creek.

Grace and Nels, Mainers, good freinds, and good folks enjoying a banner March day along Slough Creek.

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March Wolves, April Moose, and a Cougar Kill

Cougar-Cached Elk. The Prospect Peak pack crew members Kim and Elizabeth were checking radio collar signals from this location when they accidentally jumped the cat of it's kill.

Cow elk cached by a cougar. The Prospect Peak pack crew members Kim and Elizabeth were checking radio collar signals from this location when they accidentally jumped the cat off its kill.

Cached cow elk with puncture wounds on it's neck. Some folks came back later that day and observed the cat feeding from a distance  Based on the size, shape of the head, cougar project members thought it was a female.

Cached cow elk with puncture wounds on its neck. Some crew members came back later that day and observed the cat feeding from a distance Based on the size and shape of the cat’s head, cougar project members thought it was a female.

March Winter Study ended on the 30th. We had a wrap-up meeting on the 31st as well as a celebratory banquet at the Rusty Rail Restaurant in Gardner, Montana. Lots of big cuts of beef, tasty chicken and good company were enjoyed by all.

The weather at the end of March finished much the same way it began – warm and no snow.  By the end of the month we were hiking to most of our clusters below 8,000’ but piecing together some high elevation mountain ski routes to access a couple of areas.  We continued our search of GPS clusters with the help of the cougar study crew who had wrapped up their cougar work on March 15. They are the same crew that had been searching clusters for Lisa between Nov. 15 and Dec. 15 so they are seasoned veterans and we were happy for their help. We did get one more day of bone-boiling in; this one, however, was different because we had a banjo serenade.

Site that 870F was found upstream from the Elk Tongue Cabin.

Site that 870F was found upstream from the Elk Tongue Cabin.

Following up on our last post, 870F (former alpha female of the Junction Butte pack) finally succumbed to starvation.  The wolf project plane detected a mortality signal being emitted from her collar.  When the collar remains stationary for a period of time the frequency of the signal increases and we know the animal is dead.  We immediately made

870F's final resting place, laying in the sun, a large spruce blocking the westerly winds, and Slough Creek to her back.

870F’s final resting place, lying in the sun, a large spruce blocking the westerly winds, and Slough Creek to her back.

plans to ski the 9 mile up Slough Creek to retrieve her carcass.  Because she had survived two rounds of serious injury, one to her spine and the other from a nasty wolf attack, we knew a necropsy of her body would prove informative and educational.  Grace, Nels and I left early the following morning trying to take advantage of skiing on the frozen snow before the warming of the day started to melt it. It didn’t end up mattering that we started early because the first two miles of our trail in had already melted out, but at least the mud was frozen!  We walked in carrying the sled we would pull the wolf out on and all our ski gear. Once into the First Slough Meadow the snow was plentiful and we made good time to the Elk Tongue Park Service Patrol cabin, the one Lisa and I use when travelling to and from Frenchy’s Meadow to sample moose.  We found 870F 500m upstream from the cabin and stretched out beneath a massive Engelmann Spruce tree in the sun and only 50m from a winter-killed bison carcass. She spent much of her last weeks here chewing on bones and dried up hide, too weak to search for a more nourishing meal.  She hadn’t been scavenged at all and likely had only been dead for a couple of days. We packed her up in the sled, spent the night at the cabin, and pulled her out the next day.

Grace pulling 870F's sled up and over the hill from the 1st Slough Meadow.

Grace pulling 870F’s sled up and over the hill from the 1st Slough Meadow.

We were met by Lisa and other wolf project personnel who helped us carry her out when we ran out of snow. Many wolf watchers gathered around to pay their respects.  To many, this wolf was a symbol of strength and survival, the underdog who could always overcome adversity.  On the day that we pulled her out, two of her pups from the previous year’s litter that had gone missing for almost a month, returned to the Junction Butte pack, their natal pack. Two had replaced one.

The other study packs were sorting themselves out too.  The threat of the Mollie’s Pack to the Lamar Canyon Pack ended without incident. We were thinking that the Mollies would try to insert one of their males to fill the vacant Alpha male position but it never happened.  Eventually, the Mollie’s headed back towards their main territory in the Pelican Valley.  A group of four males from the Prospect Peak pack, however, were successful in courting the Lamar alpha female 926F and after a couple of tense days of posturing, chasing, howling, and running, the female took a sincere interest in them.  Two males in particular, a radio collared gray male, 965M, and an older non-collared black wolf called Twin because he looks so much like the alpha male of the Prospect Peak pack, 763M, were the two obvious suitors.  The female eventually chose Twin and 965M went back to his pack.  The 6 pups of the year, however, were not accepting of the males who had killed their father and fled for over a week up into the Cache Creek drainage, a tributary of the Lamar River located approximately three miles upstream from its confluence with Soda Butte Creek..

In the meantime the Junction Butte pack and the Prospect Peak pack have started localizing around some traditional den sites in the Yellowstone River drainage and on the Blacktail Deer Plateau.

The Junction Butte pack wolves had bedded on this narrow ridge in the Deep Creek drainage.

Wolves from the Junction Butte pack had bedded on this narrow ridge in the Deep Creek drainage.

Nels skiing the cornice just west of Amethyst Peak on our way back from a Deep Creek cluster search.

Nels skiing the cornice just west of Amethyst Peak on our way back from a Deep Creek cluster search.

Cluster searching with wolf Project leader Doug Smith in center, Wolf Project volunteer Aaron, and Doug's buddy Blaine from Alaska.

Cluster searching with wolf Project leader Doug Smith in center, Wolf Project volunteer Aaron Morris, and Doug’s buddy Blayne Smith from Alaska. We each carried a pair of Altai Hoks mounted with universal bindings because we knew we’d be hiking as much as we were skiing!

Our cluster work took us into some unexplored corners of the Northern Range.  Nels and I had some challenging searches with a couple long days of 19 and 22 mile trips with over 7,000′ both climbing and ascending.

Yesterday, Lisa successfully completed the final GPS downloads from all three study packs and today the cluster crews are in the field searching the final March clusters.  As for me, I have transitioned from wolves to moose in a single day and am preparing for a five-day back country trip to sample moose in Frenchy’s Meadow again, that very special place in the headwaters of Slough Creek. Lisa cannot start moose work until she is done with the wolf GPS cluster work, so Nels is joining me for the this trip.  Since we lack snow that would enable us to ski upstream from the Slough Creek Campground we are starting from Cooke City and will be towed behind a snowmobile and dropped off at Lake Abundance. From here we will ski down Abundance Creek to Slough Creek and the Meadow.  I was able to take my late winter moose flight just three days ago and did see 8 moose in the meadow; 7 of the 8 were females and 3 were  calves.  Hopefully we will be able to collect samples from them all. We also saw two different grizzly bears feeding on winter-killed bison.

Cow moose with female calf in Frenchy's Meadow. We didn't see the two big bulls that we had seen here earlier in the winter.

Cow moose with female calf in Frenchy’s Meadow. We didn’t see the two big bulls that we had seen here earlier in the winter.

Boar grizzly bear on winter-killed bison in 2nd Slough Meadow

Boar grizzly bear on winter-killed bison in Second Slough Meadow

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Catching up on Winter Study and some interesting wolf interactions!

Looking down the Yellowstone River Drainage sough of Gardiner, MT. Our vantage point is from inside the Park on the north side of Sepulcher Mountain.

The Yellowstone River Drainage downstream (north) from Gardiner, MT. Our vantage point is from inside the Park on the north flanks of Sepulcher Mountain following an attempt to capture a cougar. 

We were hopeful to post a blog every few days or so this month but with the longer March days and the wolves keeping us on our toes we have been spending what little free time we have had just eating and sleeping.

Since our last entry, Lisa has been spending most of her time trying to track down wolves in order to get GPS downloads and creating cluster maps.  I spent one day preparing metatarsi and mandibles for boiling, one day boiling these bones to remove tissue, and one exciting day helping to track down and possibly capture a cougar to radio-collar for an on-going cougar study.

Wes and I tracked a male cougar for the day hoping to find where he had made a kill so we could bring the hounds in the next day to tree him.  Once treed, the cat is darted from the ground with a sedative, safely lowered from the tree with a rope, and radio-collared on the ground.

Wes checking out tracks of a male cougar. He and I tracked this cat for a day hoping to find where he had made a kill so we could bring the hounds in the next day to tree him. Once treed, the cat is darted from the ground with a sedative, safely lowered from the tree with a rope, and radio-collared on the ground.

The cougar study crew thought this track was from a male.

This cougar took us on a chase up and down the north flanks of Sepulcher Mountain.

Wes plucking cougar hairs from one of it's beds for DNA analysis.  If we didn't catch the cat, we could identify it from it's DNA.  We eventually jumped the cat from this bed, the crew tried to follow it again the next day, but it eluded the capture crew by travelling to lower elevations where the snow had melted out.

Wes plucking cougar hairs from one of its beds for DNA analysis. If we didn’t catch the cat, we could identify it from its DNA. We eventually jumped the cat from this bed, the crew tried to follow it again the next day, but it eluded the capture crew by travelling to lower elevations where the snow had melted out.

The rest of my days have been spent in the field searching GPS clusters with our crew. From each wolf-killed elk we collect a metatarsus (lower rear leg bone above the hoof) and the lower jaw (or mandibles). We use the metatarsus to determine how well-nourished the elk was in-utero and as a calf.  A shorter than average metatarsus length suggests that the elk was born to a poorly nourished mother or was subject to poor forage quality as a calf.  Just like humans, if we eat poorly as children, our stature may be stunted as an adult.  From the mandible, we can look at the the teeth and tell us how old the animal is.

Lisa removing an incisor (lower front tooth) from a bull elk killed by the 8 Mile pack. The rangers had to move the carcass because it was too close to the road and a popular trailhead.

Lisa removing an incisor (lower front tooth) from a bull elk killed by the 8 Mile pack. The rangers had to move the carcass because it was too close to the road and a popular trailhead.

We can get a relative age of the animal by tooth wear and replacement but we also get a definitive age by extracting an incisor which is sent to a lab and aged by counting cementum annuli.  Each year in preparation for switching from soft summer diet to a coarse winter diet, a layer of cement is added to the root of the tooth to anchor it into the jaw.  The tooth is ground down and these layers can be counted like growth rings on a tree.

Emil in our bone freezer with metatarsi on top shelf and mandibles on lower shelf.  All lableled and ready to boil the next day.

Emil in our bone freezer with metatarsi on top shelf and mandibles on lower shelf. All lableled and ready to boil the next day.

We clean these bones up by boiling for cataloging and future measuring. We first make sure they are well labelled in preparation for three hour boil because if we lose tags in the boil, we lose data.  It’s important that all samples collected in the field can be used for our research analysis.  On our first boiling day seven of us boiled and cleaned 77 metatarsi.  On Thursday we will boil mandibles. This will be the last bone boiling of the year because grizzly bears are out from hibernation and we don’t want to attract them to Mammoth Hot Springs.


The location of the study wolf packs and their actions have been unusual to say the least.  Usually a pack chooses a territory that provides plenty of food and familiar topography that they defend from other packs. Adjacent packs do the same and more often than not through howling and scent marking each pack advertises its location to others that then stay in their own territory.  However, this winter we have had one pack, the Prospect Peak Pack that has been pushing the borders of its territory. They are larger than the other two study packs with 12-14 individuals depending on the day, and have an abundance of adult males. Perhaps in an effort to find a mate for one of their big males, they have been pushing into Junction Butte pack territory and have killed one of its young and severely injured their alpha female (870F) who is now just clinging to life in the upper Slough Creek drainage scavenging for food on winter killed bison. She likely won’t live much longer.  They have also killed two adult females from another pack of unknown origin.  In the meantime, 870F has been replaced by another female as alpha of the Junction Pack and the pack has vanished from their usual territory to the remote reaches of the upper Yellowstone River drainage.  They have denned here in the past and have plenty of food so may stay there for a while to avoid the Prospects.

Lisa and our friend, Erin Stahler of the Wolf Project, with the new alpha female of the Junction Pack, 970F, when she was radio-collared in December.

Lisa and our friend, Erin Stahler of the Wolf Project, with the new alpha female of the Junction Pack, 970F, when she was radio-collared in December. She is 870F’s sister and she took over leadership when her sibling was injured by the Prospects and then pushed out of her pack by the remaining wolves. It is a tough life in the wolf world!

On the other end of the study area the Lamar Canyon Pack of eight wolves, consisting of a mated pair and six pups, have stayed out of trouble until just two weeks ago when they appeared for the first time ever west of the Lamar Canyon for which they were named.  They were doing a pretty good job finding elk to prey upon in a landscape devoid of abundant prey, however, it seems like they were having a tougher and tougher time finding food so ventured west into Junction Butte Pack territory in their quest for food.  Here, they ran into the Prospect Peak pack over a week ago and the Lamar alpha male was attacked and severely injured. Two days later his radio collar started emitting a mortality signal and he was found dead from his injuries.  Despite the loss of their alpha male, the pack took one more foray west into hostile territory before finally returning to the Lamar Valley.  The female seems anxious to find another male to help her lead her small pack and has been leaving her youngsters behind for a day or two at a time while she wanders in search of other wolves.

The Mollies Pack on top of Mt. Norris. Most of the wolves in this pack are black.

A slightly blurry picture of the Mollies Pack on top of Mt. Norris taken from a great distance through a spotting scope. Most of the wolves in this pack are black.

All seemed to be getting back to normal until the Mollies Pack showed up in the Lamar Valley after leaving their winter home in the Pelican Valley. As they approached the Lamar Valley the Mollies had killed an elk on the flanks of Mount Norris and then proceeded to travel closer to the Lamar’s denning site on the north side of the Valley.  The alpha female, 926F, seemed to have interest in the pack, maybe as a source of a new mate, and left her 6 pups and crossed the valley towards the Mollies. What she didn’t know was that the pups had also crossed and had made their way towards the intruding pack. One climbed a snow slope directly at the base of the cliffs, curious about the other wolves. The Mollies could have killed the pups but didn’t. Perhaps they sensed the absence of an alpha male and saw the opportunity for one of their members to fill the role. 926’s warning howls finally got the pups to return and the Mollies eventually retreated over the ridge.  The next day the Lamars followed their scent trail and eventually the pups came running back without their mother.  Her radio collar signals were still audible but no one knew what she was up to.  Yesterday her signals were back with the pups in the den area but the wolves were not in view. We are all waiting for the pack study crew to view the wolves to see if 926F brought back a new male as her alpha mate.

Lamar Alpha female 926F howling for her pups as they traveled a little too close for comfort towards the Mollies' Pack, a pack that normally makes its home in the Pelican Valley in the Interior of Yellowstone Park.

Lamar Alpha female 926F howling for her pups as they traveled a little too close for comfort towards the Mollies’ Pack, a pack that normally makes its home in the Pelican Valley in the Interior of Yellowstone Park. 

Eating good old pb&j in the field.

Eating good old pb&j in the field on a day that Lisa and I searched GPS clusters in Lost Creek. Note the lack of snow in the distance and warm weather apparel. This was the second day in a row that night-time temps exceeded the freezing mark. On this day we skied through mature Lodgepole pine forests and as well as tangled regen through knee-high mush.


Winter-killed bison found in the Yellowstone River drainage at Junction Butte pack GPS cluster. The wolves had been here for two days feeding on the carcass.

Winter-killed bison found in the Yellowstone River drainage at Junction Butte pack GPS cluster. The wolves had been here for two days feeding on the carcass.


The Yellowstone River Drainage just downstream from the Agate Creek confluence.  This landscape is still recovering from the fires of 1988 with the regenerating lodgepole pine still only about 10' high.

The Yellowstone River Drainage just downstream from the Agate Creek confluence. This landscape is still recovering from the fires of 1988 with the regenerating lodgepole pine still only about 10′ high.


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