Just the day before, a pack of wolves known as the Wapiti found a large, weak, and injured bull bison.
Based on its size, this bison was near the end of its lifespan, and the winter weather was taking its toll. For a full day, the wolves tried to approach the bison, but when the bison turned to defend itself, the wolves retreated, fearing injury.
All of this took place along the Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park last week while I was leading a group of photographers on a photo adventure.
Large male bison often weigh more than 2,000 pounds, equivalent to one ton, and are extremely strong and powerful animals. These big males have the size and weight of a small automobile. Their hides are thick and covered with fur, making it very difficult for wolves to grab hold or tear the flesh. On the other hand, the average weight of a wolf is around 80 pounds, making them considerably smaller than bison.
The bison was along the river’s banks and often retreated into the water to escape the wolves. At some point, too weak from the winter weather, the bison simply submerged its head underwater and drowned. This was the break the wolves needed. The 10 or so wolves entered the river and started pulling on the bison. Eventually, the current carried the carcass downstream approximately a couple hundred yards, where it got caught in a shallow spot in the river.
The day after the demise of the bison, I arrived with my group of photographers. We had heard all the details of the day before, so we were eager to get to the scene. Early morning in the dark, we piled into our snow coach, a massive vehicle with 48-inch all-terrain tires, and headed into the depths of the park. Arriving just after daybreak, we set up about 130 yards away from the half-eaten bison carcass in the river. A coyote was already there, trying to strip off some meat from the water-soaked hide.
The weather was cooperating with us. The temperatures hovered around freezing with no wind, making for very comfortable conditions if dressed appropriately. While everyone was busy capturing images of the coyote, off to our left, deep in the woods, the Wapiti pack was bedded down and resting, out of sight.
A couple hours after we arrived, we spotted the first wolf making its way through the forest heading in our direction. The coyote, knowing better, vacated the carcass when it saw the approaching wolves. At first, we only saw one black wolf, then a second. The two wolves, which looked like siblings, stopped at the edge of the forest near a small stand of growing young fir trees. They surveyed the area carefully before approaching the carcass.
The wolves standing on the forest’s edge gave us wonderful opportunities to capture some iconic images. After a minute or two, they came down the small hill and crossed right in front of us to the river’s edge. The wolves walked right into the shallow and fast-moving river, heading straight to the carcass. A flock of common ravens had moved in on the carcass the second the coyote left, so the wolves started having fun chasing them off by running through the water directly at the ravens.
At one point, three wolves — two black and one gray — were all feeding on the carcass in the river. Every now and then, one would lift its head to look around, surveying the area directly around them to make sure they were safe. This allowed us to capture some amazing action shots and riveting video of the food chain in in the wild.
One by one, the wolves would emerge from the forest to our left, cross in front of us, and enter the river to our right. At one point, three of the black wolves gathered together and started play-fighting. This behavior, displayed right in front of us, assured me that our presence in no way affected the wolves’ behavior. They seemed very comfortable with us, respecting the distance we maintained. After a while, a couple of wolves lay down for a few minutes, further indicating they were not disturbed by our presence.
The wolves fed for the better part of a couple hours before they retreated to the forest to sleep again. We hung out and ate our lunches while we waited, and sure enough, later in the afternoon, the wolves woke from their naps and returned down to the river to feed more, allowing us to capture even more incredible images.
Normally, the moments we spend with wolves are measured in minutes, not hours, and definitely not in a full day. This was an outstanding opportunity to see, photograph, and learn the behaviors of one of the coolest animals in the world. Until next time …
Editor’s note: Stan Tekiela’s NatureSmart column appears twice a month in the Eden Prairie Local News. Tekiela is an author, naturalist, and wildlife photographer who travels extensively across the United States to study and capture wildlife images.
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