The Weekly Wolf
I spent six years living with the wolves of
Each Monday, this page will feature a photograph and story
of these wolves or a fellow species from the gray wolf's ecosystem.
May 30, 2011
I took this photo many years ago, when Selway first came to Mission:Wolf. She had spent her early life at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, Montana, before getting kicked out of the pack and moving to Colorado. She was so skittish around new people that it took me weeks of sitting by her enclosure each morning for her to relax. Finally, Selway's curious nature overcame her fear and she snuck up behind me for a quick sniff. I can't tell you how difficult it is to take a good photograph over your shoulder, through a fence, of a timid wolf. My persistence eventually paid off and I was able to make friends with Selway. Today, she is the oldest wolf at the refuge at a ripe old 15. Her eyes are a little more clouded, her belly's a little more round, and she's stiff with arthritus, but Selway is still young at heart.
May 23, 2011
This week we have one of my favorite photos of Lily Fleur. When I woke early on that chilly November morning to do the walkaround (our daily check on all of the wolves and fences at the refuge) a thick ice fog had moved in. By the time I walked from my tipi to the kitchen to get a cup of hot chocolate to take with me on the rounds, my hair and eyelashes were coated with ice. The first half of the walkaround was painfully cold and I had to search through the fog to find the wolves - each curled up with their tail over their nose for warmth. Then, just as I crossed the bridge over to Lily and Gizmo's enclosure, the sun broke through the clouds. The fog magically parted and every little ice-coated twig and needle sparkled in the light. I quickly pulled the camera out from inside my coat (to protect it from the ice) and snapped a picture of Lily just as she stood up to stretch and sound the first howl of the day.
May 16, 2011
Soleil & Orion
Since I wrote so much about the bison in the last two Weekly Wolf posts, I am going to keep it short and sweet this week. Soleil (blonde) and Orion (black) are a playful pair of young wolves who are madly in love with each other. I took this photo of them a couple of years ago as they were waking up on a cool summer morning. They had just finished their morning howl with the rest of Mission:Wolf's residents and were in high spirits. Mere seconds later Soleil pounced on Orion and the two of them spun down the hill in a whirl of happy squeaks and growls. I am honored that they included me in their morning play session, as both Soleil and Orion came to the refuge from neglectful situations and are shy and reserved around most people. Due to the hard work of Mission:Wolf's staff, these two are a lot more outgoing these days, and are happy to be living on the tour route.
May 9, 2011
American Bison (Part II)
American bison are large, highly social animals that are perfectly adapted to life on the open plains. Bulls are typically larger than females, measuring up to 6 ½ feet tall, 11 ½ feet long, and weighing up to 2,200 pounds. Both sexes have curved horns that can grow up to two feet long that they use in mating season battles and to aggressively defend their calves. They are surprisingly agile, able to turn on a dime and outrun nearly any predator, hitting speeds of 35 mph. The bison’s heavy, shaggy coat keeps them warm in the winter and acts as a virtually fire-proof insulation against wildfire in the summer. The structure of their vertebrae and shoulders ensures that an American bison’s head rides close to the ground, making their grazing on grasses and sedges more energy efficient.
Bison society is segregated by sex most of the year, with females living in large maternal herds with other females and their offspring. Male bison leave their maternal herd when they reach sexual maturity at three years of age, and go on to either live alone or join other males in a bachelor herd. Adult males and females only mingle during the rut (breeding season) in August and September, when dominant males claim small harems of females and protect them from the advances of other males. The next spring, after a gestation of 285 days, a female gives birth to a single reddish-brown calf. A calf will nurse from its mother for up to 18 months and spend up to three years close by her side. The dominance hierarchies of each sex are determined by the size and strength of the animals, and thus usually by their age (the life expectancy of a wild bison is 15 years).
The only continuously wild herds of American bison left in the world are in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park and the United State’s Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone’s 3,500 bison are direct descendants of a remnant population of 23 animals who survived the mass slaughter of the 1800s by hiding out in the park’s Pelican Valley. Then, in 1902 a captive herd of 21 plains bison were introduced in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley. The Lamar herd was managed like livestock until the 1960’s, when the park service adopted a new policy of natural regulation. Since that time, Yellowstone’s bison herds have intermingled and grown on their own. They can now be found throughout the park in open and semi-open habitats.
During the spring and summer, the bison spend most of their time on the open grasslands of Yellowstone’s Hayden and Lamar Valleys. Then, as winter snows begin to fall, the bison population fragments. Small groups congregate in the park’s geothermal areas, counting on the ground’s warmth for forage. However, the large majority of Yellowstone’s bison migrate to lower elevations outside the park in their search for food and shallow snow. Ranchers who graze their cattle on national forest lands around Yellowstone worry that a disease carried by a small percentage of the bison, called brucellosis, could be transferred to their cows. Brucellosis can be transmitted through the saliva of an infected animal left on grass chutes, and causes cows to abort their calves. However, there has never been a documented case of brucellosis being transmitted to cattle from wild bison. Nevertheless, Yellowstone’s bison have been periodically subjected to hazing, capture, vaccination and quarantine since the 1980s. Since 1985 6,895 Yellowstone bison have been killed specifically because of the perceived threat from brucellosis. The controversy still rages today, with the federal Interior Department, Montana State, and many ranchers on one side, and scientists and conservation groups on the other. For more information on the bison debate, please visit the Buffalo Field Campaign’s website.
While visiting Yellowstone National Park two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to see one of the first bison calves of the year. The little guy pictured above was so playful, boisterous, and unafraid of anything that he galloped right for me as I was standing on a hill. I have enough experience with wild bison to know that they can be one of the most dangerous animals in Yellowstone. The calf’s mother wouldn’t have hesitated to charge and attack me if provoked. I quickly back-peddled and made sure there was plenty of distance between me and the curious little calf. Eventually the mother collected her wayward son and headed off through the trees to catch up with the rest of her herd. As I watched them go, I hoped that the little calf could survive the trials of his coming years – human hunters, wolves, grizzlies, political machinations – and grow to be a king of the plains.
May 2, 2011
American Bison (Part I)
The American bison (Bison bison) is the largest living land animal in North America. They were also once the most numerous large wild mammal on earth, numbering 60-100 million. One of the two subspecies, the plains bison, roamed in such massive herds that they were the driving force that shaped the landscape and ecology of the Great Plains. Wood bison, the other subspecies, inhabited the cooler grasslands of Canada and grew to be one of the largest bovids in the world. European explorers stood in awe of these massive beasts when they first set out across the new continent. While Native Americans called them Tatanka, Europeans named the great shaggy animal bison, for the Greek word meaning ‘ox-like animal.’ The bison’s third name, the American buffalo, comes from French fur trappers calling them boeufs, meaning ox or bullock. In truth, the American bison is not related to the world’s two true species of buffalo – the Asian water buffalo and the African water buffalo.
As the United States expanded west in the 1800s, the government declared war on the bison and native people. For nearly 10,000 years the fates of the bison and the people of the Great Plains had been inextricably linked. Many tribes migrated with the huge bison herds, counting on them to provide meat, leather, sinew for bows, grease, dried dung for their fires, hooves to boil for glue, and even bone marrow for food in times of famine. Then, in less than 100 years, government supported commercial hunters broke that link, nearly driving the bison to extinction. Millions of bison were shot, skinned, and left to rot. The skins were shipped back east to feed an ever increasing demand for leather industrial machine belts used to power steam engines. Hunters were charged with the duty of killing as many bison as possible to starve the Great Plain’s Native American people and drive them onto reservations. By the mid-1880s only a few hundred bison (out of 100 million) had survived the slaughter.
Even as the last American bison were disappearing from the earth, congress and the president turned a deaf ear to their plight. In 1899, a man named James Phillip took matters into his own hands and started breeding a captive bison herd specifically to save the species from extinction. From his original five animals, Phillip’s herd grew to 1,200 by his death in 1911, and went on to serve as the founding stock for many of today’s herds. Thanks to the efforts of James Phillip and other far-sighted people like him, there are an estimated 530,000 bison in North America today. While this is an incredible recovery, nearly 500,000 of those bison live in captivity on privately owned commercial ranches, where they are raised for their meat and hides. Recent studies have revealed that almost every one of those animals are actually hybrids that contain some domestic cow DNA. Bison are officially classified as a type of cattle by the USDA and are commonly bred with cows to produce ‘beefalo,’ prized for the low fat and cholesterol content of their meat.
Of the 30,000 wild bison in North America, studies have shown that at least 18,000 contain some domestic cattle genes. This is a particularly challenging problem for wildlife managers and conservationists because most hybrids look exactly like purebred bison. In the US, these bison can be found in South Dakota’s Custer State Park (~1,500 animals), Utah’s Antelope Island State Park (700), Montana’s National Bison Range (400), and in a few, small herds in Alaska. In Canada, these bison survive in the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary in the Northwest Territories, Elk Island National Park in Alberta, and Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan. In 2002 (before the DNA studies) the US and Mexico worked together to reintroduce these bison to the El Uno Ranch in Janos and Santa Helena Canyon, Chihuahua, and Boquillas del Carmen, Coahuila.
At most there are only 12,000 pure wild bison living on their natural range, broken up into four herds found in Yellowstone National Park, Utah’s Henry Mountains, South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Park, and Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park. The American bison is such an iconic animal, one who has shaped North America’s very landscape and who has been so tangled in human politics, that their story is too long for just one Weekly Wolf entry. Please check back next week for information more on the genetically pure wild American bison.