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.


About Ky & Lisa

Husband and wife team with primary interest in predator/prey interactions through our involvement in gray wolf and ungulate studies in Yellowstone National Park, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Isle Royale National Park.
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3 Responses to Back to Yellowstone! – Winter 2015/2016

  1. Julian Heath says:

    Do you ever find a lobo (lone wolf) or are they always in a pack?
    What causes some wolves to have black or dark brown coats but other have more German Shepherd type of colouring? The black wolves look more evil but they’re probably the same temperament and the paler beige variety! Juji xx

  2. Marty Daignault says:

    Thanks for sharing. Always love to hear news. Merry Christmas!

  3. Pratt Family says:

    Great description and amazing pictures. Thanks for taking the time to share.

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