Picture of the week

February 11, 2018

Wolves and Bison

Wolves and Bison

A pair of wolves checking out a group of bison on the Blacktail Plateau near the northern edge of Yellowstone National Park.

Upper Yellowstone mapI just returned from a week long trip to Yellowstone, spending 4 days exploring the northern end of the park on the 45 mile road between Mammoth Lodge and Cooke City (see the inset map to the right).  This is my second visit during the winter to Yellowstone for the purpose of wildlife photography (You can read the trip report of my previous winter visit in 2016 here).  The effort this time did not disappoint, encountering lots of wildlife photo opportunities including wolves, moose, red fox, big horn sheep, coyote, elk, and of course the ubiquitous bison.  The weather was fairly typical with a range of conditions from sun to heavy snow, with temperatures relatively mild for this area between 15 and 30 degrees F (In my last visit temperatures dropped to as low as -10 deg F).  This time I was more prepared for extended time in the cold with chemical hand warmers, Goretex insulated boots, and a good down jacket.

A fellow photographer friend Tucker joined me on this trip, with an extra set of eyes being extremely helpful to better spot wildlife off the road.  This allowed me to put more focus on my driving given it is quite hazardous in places due to ice and snow.   Thanks to this extra set of eyes we were the first to spot some key wildlife opportunities before any others, including a pack of wolves coming out in the early morning relatively close to the road.

Encountering the Wapiti Lake wolf pack was probably the biggest highlight of the trip (as identified by a wolf tracker that I talked to).  I counted a total of 13 wolves with this pack, and was also able to witness the pack leader howling earlier in the morning. Unlike past experiences, we were able to get relatively closer at about 100 yards for some of the photography.  The pack hung around along the Blacktail Creek at the western end of the plateau (and road), keeping them in our sights for about 2 hours as they slowly progressed through the valley and the inside of the ridgeline on the farther side.  To photograph them I utilized two camera setups simultaneously:

1. Canon 7D mk2 with a 500mm L f/4 IS mk1 on a tripod with a gimbal head
2. Canon 70D with a 100-400mm L f/4.5-5.6 IS mk2 handheld.

The 500mm lens setup was the go-to camera for many of the captures, but the handheld setup gave me extra flexibility for some quicker opportunities or when trying to capture a broader scene.  I was also worried about any type of equipment difficulties (e.g. AF and exposure behavior) during critical situations like this, so I would switch between them just to provide a bit more assurance for getting good results.  The early morning captures were also challenged by the lower light levels, requiring me to push the ISO up to 6400 in order to maintain a fast enough shutter speed.  I also needed to rely more on manual focusing under these conditions to get the best results, as the camera's AF sensor tends to be attracted to the more contrasty sage brush or willow when the light is low.

Typically we would do two passes each day, once in the morning, and again in the afternoon until sunset. On the second day we decided to just go up to Cooke City for lunch, stopping at a local cafe. hanging out, and then returning to Mammoth in the afternoon on the return pass.  While there we talked with the proprietor about the wolves, and they mentioned that the state of Montana plans on issuing hunting tags for wolves soon when found outside the park.  All of us thought this was abhorent given how rare this species is and that no animal I am aware is capable of reading signs to know where the park boundary is.  Given the federal government already compensate ranchers for any cattle loss due to deprivation by wolves, it is unclear what the logic would be for hunting this animal that has originally roamed these parts longer than white man has been here.

Wapiti Lake wolf pack leaderWhile reviewing my photos from the trip back on the computer, I noticed that the pack leader appears to have a significant wound or gash on the right side.  There seems to be a tuft of hair that looks out of place, that perhaps is part of a flap of skin that got peeled back just behind the right foreleg.  The inset picture is shown here while the wolf was howling. Due to the low light and distance for this particular shot, it is a bit grainy. I suspect it may have been injured due to an earlier skrimish with a large animal such as a bull elk or bison.  Perhaps it is howling in an effort to find a member of the pack that is not accounted for?  When talking to a wolf tracker while observing the wolves, he mentioned that pack count was last known at 15 and was high as 20, but I only counted 13.

If you want to learn more about wolves, a good summary can be found by the NPS here.