Canyon Wolf Pack Hunt, Part I – Nature Does Not Always Paint a Pretty Picture

September 27, 2012

Today, less than 60 yards away from our vehicle the Canyon Pack isolated a cow elk and chased her down the hill, across the street and into the trees immediately next to our parked vehicle…. With no one else around, it was just four clients and me.

As we drove down from Dunraven Pass this morning after looking for bears in the white bark pines, 4 wolves met us in our lane of travel. It was the alpha male 712, and three others. As they went up hill to the west of the road, it was apparent that they were turning and heading south. There were a total of 6 wolves that we saw passing through the Dunraven Picnic Area (thankfully no one was there eating at that early hour). The wolves disappeared among the trees.

Anticipating that they might parallel the road south, I drove a bit farther down to park in a designated parking area. Waiting quietly and patiently for about 10 minutes, the alpha female emerged from the tree line not far away from us and hot on the heels of a cow elk! An uncollared black wolf (1.5 yr old daughter) was right along with her.

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The alpha female began to work around the elk’s legs. It was about 8:20am. The elk made a fleeting run down the hill with the alpha female and daughter in hot pursuit! Each time the hoof and paw hit the ground, they were one-step closer to us…it was surreal…and happening so quickly! The black wolf latched on to the throat of the elk in hopes of collapsing the windpipe. It was launched completely into the air! Swinging around in front of the elk, on the downhill side. This was not the place for the black wolf should the elk were to falter…

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The black wolf lost her grip and tumbled in the ditch near the roadside, maybe even slightly trampled by the running elk. The elk, again took the lead. The alpha female puts all her might trying to make contact again. Once the elk reached the tree line after crossing the road, it was only a matter of seconds until she was down and out. Overall, the chase and take down took only a few minutes… VERY quick!

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Nature does not always paint a pretty picture, nor is nature always nice… But where there is death, there is life and others, beyond the wolves, many other creatures will benefit from this elk.

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What a day! I had just enough cell reception to call the Canyon District Ranger Staff to inform them that they might want to get to the location, as it was only yards off the roadside… Rangers arrived and proceeded to close the parking area where we were, only about 60 yards from where the elk was taken down.

Please remind people, when viewing such moments like this; please keep your distance and voice levels to a minimum! We were parked well before the chase began and the elk happen to run towards our parking area. We were ready to jump in to our vehicles if the animals approached, which they did not.

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(Please read the follow-up to this story, found just below)

Canyon Wolf Pack Hunt, Part II – Yellowstone CSI

Now for the rest of the story… On October 4th, one week after the Canyon wolves took down a cow elk just 60 yards from where we stood, two new clients and I decided to do a little Yellowstone CSI (Carcass Scene Investigation).   There can be an amazing amount of clues left at the scene from a wolf kill to help determine why the animal was singled out. We wanted to know more and took a closer look!

Please keep in mind that I am not a university-trained ‘biologist’, what I am is an expert Naturalist! I have (as of this writing (2012), 12+ years) field experience working in Yellowstone, with some of that time working for the National Park Service, with the Wolf Project staff.

One of the many pieces of the puzzle when looking at a carcass site from the biologist, or for that matter, the naturalist perspective, is to determine the age of the prey species… To do that, one must find the lower jaw.

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Cow elk mandible – from this story

By pulling an incisor, you could determine the age by looking at the growth rings of the tooth, but when in-the-field, far from any laboratory or microscope, another view of the mandible would be to look at the wear of the molars. As you will see with the attached pictures, this cow elk’s molars were worn down to almost the gum line! Take a closer look and you will see some abnormalities with the lower left molars…there lies the clue we were looking for! She had an abscessed tooth. Check Picture #1 (see below), the bone has been deformed and grasses have jammed between the teeth. The lower left molars have worn down lower to the gum line than the right side, showing us signs of irregular wear. In Picture #2, one of her incisors had dropped out and the gums had closed around the exposed socket…

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Picture #1, cow elk mandible

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Picture #2, cow elk mandible

It just so happened that one of my clients on this tour was a Dental Hygienist who knows a thing or two about teeth. It helps to hear straight from the knowledgeable source… So here is what we speculated…

This older cow elk, I assume maybe 14 – 18 years old, was obviously suffering from an abscess tooth. It was either a periodontal abscess or an apical abscess, and at this stage there is no way to know for sure. If the cow suffered from a periodontal abscess, in the soft tissue, packed grasses in-between the tooth and gum could have caused it, or possible sustained in an injury. By the looks of it, she did have grasses packed in that area…

If it were an apical abscess, caused by bacteria inside the pulp chamber of the tooth, this would have caused swelling in a confined area… Secondarily, the swelling would cause pain and make eating difficult, which in turn would lead to malnourishment and a sickly appearance.

Let us add one more dental note to the mandible found – if the elk had a fistula, meaning an abnormal passage allowing discharge of inflammatory material, there would likely be a noticeable rank smell coming from her mouth, but she would have had less pain which would allow her to graze and feed easier.

In retrospect, looking back to the moment a week before, when the wolves took this elk down, from an outward appearance she seemed pretty healthy. And upon the wolves opening her up for their morning meal, her rumen was full of grass and she had a noticeable fat layer to her mid and rump section.

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Outward appearance, we might see her as a healthy specimen… Take a closer look at her jaw line… It looks odd to me in this picture (nothing was done in Photoshop editing).

So, I would determine, from a Naturalist perspective that by what we found, the wolves were walking through the forest just west of the roadway and slightly south of Dunraven Picnic Area and came across a group of elk. There could have been a foul odor in the air that the alpha female clued in to. She took a step towards the elk with others in her wolf pack to test the group to see if they could pinpoint where the stench came from… Upon finding the source, the cow in question, made a run for it, dashing out of the woods to an open rocky area… She stood her ground and kicked backwards and forwards hoping to thwart her aggressive attackers. With this tactic not working she made a last ditch run downhill, towards the roadway and humans. The rest of the story is, well… History.

So, there you have it, “my dear Watson”! Deductions made by analyzing the remnants of a kill site in Yellowstone National Park… You have now concluded Part 1 of the Yellowstone Carcass Scene Investigation 101.

Until the next time… Cheers.

MacNeil Lyons, Owner & Guide for Yellowstone Insight

 

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”

Sherlock Holmes Quote – The Hound of the Baskervilles

‘It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.’

Sherlock Holmes Quote – A Scandal in Bohemia

‘There is nothing like first-hand evidence.’

Sherlock Holmes Quote – A Study in Scarlet

‘Nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person.’

Sherlock Holmes Quote – Silver Blaze