Spotting wolves in Yellowstone

America’s first national park may still be its best when it comes to wildlife viewing. Yellowstone is home to the greatest concentration of animals in the lower 48 states, offering ample opportunities to see a wide variety of species, including elk, bison, sheep, and even bear, in their natural habitats. But the park is also home to a number of unique, and distinct, wolf packs as well, and visitors come from all over the world with the hope of catching a glimpse of these mysterious and elusive animals in the wild.

I recently traveled to the park myself, and had a rare opportunity to go wolf spotting with Ranger Rick McIntyre, a man who knows more about the wolves of Yellowstone than anyone else on the planet. McIntyre tirelessly tracks the various packs, not only recording their movement and feeding habits, but more intimate details such as changes in leadership, mating habits, and other behavioral patterns as well. In fact, he watches them so closely, he can usually identify the individual wolves by sight and give you a brief history of each animal too. McIntyre is a man who has dedicated his life to observing the wolves, and admits that he spends an average of 11 hours a day, seven days a week, in Yellowstone following the creatures that he loves so much. His dedication to the job runs so deep, that he hasn’t taken a single day off in over ten years.

Listening to Rick talk about the wolves is like listening to a master storyteller weaving an epic tale filled with passion, love, tragedy and triumph. He identifies the key players by their officially assigned numbers, but breathes life into the central characters, giving them motivations and desires to the extent that you’ll forget that you’re talking about wild animals instead of the Montagues and Capulets.

While spotting wolves can be a challenging and difficult affair, McIntyre makes it seem easy. It doesn’t hurt that he has the radio frequencies for the various tracking collars worn by a number of females in the various packs, not to mention the high tech gear used to detect the presence of those signals. While I was with him however, he wasn’t picking up much of a signal at all, picking up just very feint, and distant pings. But rather than give up and move on to another area of the park, he simply shrugged his shoulders, set up his powerful spotting scope, and aimed it at a distant hill. Peering through the powerful lens for a moment, and without adjusting it a single millimeter, he stood up and cheerfully asked “who wants to see a wolf?”
For the next 20 minutes or so, Rick, myself and several other travelers took turns watching members of the Blacktail Pack, so named because they live in the Blacktail Plateau region of Yellowstone, as they took shelter along a ridgeline. The wind was cold and biting that day, and for the most part, the wolves stayed low and huddled close to one another. At times however, a large, black wolf, which McIntyre identified as the beta female, would rise up and walk the perimeter, keeping a wary eye out for intruders. Even at the distance that we were watching them from, the profiles of the animals were distinct and unmistakable, and it was a sublime experience to catch them in their natural state while their biggest advocate in the park shared their secrets.

There was a time when wolves in the Yellowstone region were a common sight, but because the intelligent and well organized predators were so good at hunting their prey, they often ran afoul with local ranchers and other residents. It was not uncommon for wolves to kill cattle or sheep, which did little to endear them to the humans that they shared the landscape with. Because of this natural rivalry, wolves were generally shot on sight, and were eventually hunted to near extinction. By the early 20th century, they were a rare site in the American west, and completely non-existent in Yellowstone itself.

In 1995, 70 years after the last wolf has been spotted in the park, a controversial plan was announced to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone. Experts saw them as vital to managing the overall health of the park’s ecosystem, which had seen its elk herds grow to record numbers, unchecked by any natural predators. Meanwhile opponents to the plan feared that the wolves would wander out of the park and once again raid the livestock of ranchers. It turns out both parties were right, as the reintroduction of the wolves helped to thin the herds and make them stronger overall, but the number of run-ins between man and wolf also rose as well. The presence of the wolves in the region remains a point of contention, as ranchers along the Yellowstone perimeter, and beyond, would like to have the option of shooting the wolves that prey upon their livestock, something that isn’t possible while the creatures remain on the endangered species list.

For Rick McIntyre, and the other wolf specialists in Yellowstone, those political issues are off their radar. Their only concern is studying and managing the wolf packs under their care and ensuring that they continue to play their necessary role in keeping the park’s ecology healthy and strong. McIntyre wouldn’t comment on anything related to wolves that weren’t in the park, and deftly evaded the potential minefield that discussions of those predators inevitably bring. Instead, he prefers to focus on the wolves that he knows so very well, and sharing his insights into their lives.

Tracking the various wolf packs of Yellowstone is quite a job, as they are regularly on the move and prefer to stay well hidden from prying eyes. They all have their own territories however, which helps to define their locations to a degree, so if you are traveling through Yellowstone, it is worth the time and effort to see if you can spot them in the wild. Be sure to bring a good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope of your own, and checking in with any of the rangers in the park can usually offer valuable tips on the best spots to catch a glimpse of the creatures. Keep an eye out for the “wolfman” himself, Rick McIntyre, as he is usually driving a distinct yellow Nissan Xterra, and is always willing to offer great tips on where to look.

When it was established back in 1872, Yellowstone was the world’s first national park. Now, nearly 140 years later, it continues to offer a host of natural wonders for all of us to marvel at, including the wolf packs that have once again taken their rightful place amongst the wildlife there.