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.
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.
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 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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!