More on the missing Nez Perce Pack
Did the light winter provoke their move?
1-22-2003, update 1-27-03
Despite a lot of flying the Nez Perce Pack is still not located. Bad weather is closing in, so there won't be flights for a few days. I discussed two hypotheses as to where they are. Dr. Doug Smith of Yellowstone Park said the likely places have been checked. Flights farther and farther afield take more time. The time to fly perimeters around Yellowstone increases more than proportionately with the radius to the airport. Flights have also been made by Mike Jimenez out of Jackson, Wyoming.
Dr. Smith said if the wolves were in a populated area, the presence of 19 wolves would have very likely been noticed. He thought the next two places to check would be to the east southeast of the Park in the Washakie Wilderness, or to the west in the vicinity of the Centennial Mountains on the Idaho-Montana border.
He suspects the exit from the Park might be due to the mild, low snow winter. Wolves count on the elk and other potential prey to weaken in the deep snow and cold temperatures. The Nez Perce Pack's territory is a large swath in central Yellowstone. That area does not have elk in the winter in the large numbers like the Northern Range. Smith said there are perhaps 500 elk there, and maybe only 20 or so currently vulnerable to a wolf attack. The mild winter also allows the elk to spread out, reducing the efficiency of hunting even more. Smith said that wolves cannot kill any animal they want, even a pack of twenty. He said there are a number of moose in the Nez Perce territory that have resisted repeated attempts by the wolves.
The bison, which are fairly abundant, are more difficult prey, although both the Nez Perce and Molly's Pack have learned that some of the bison are vulnerable in late winter/early spring, March or early April. Most years, Molly's Pack leaves the deep snow Pelican Valley in mid-winter and preys on elk east of the Park in the North Fork of the Shoshone drainage. Then they return to the Pelican to prey on the weakened bison. The grizzly bears have noticed this, and they seem to be emerging from their Pelican Valley dens early to grab the bison carcass from the wolves if they can.
The Nez Perce Pack did visit the Northern Range, Tower Junction and Blacktail Deer Plateau area in early December -- all 20 wolves. They killed a bull elk near Tower and another on the Blacktail Deer Plateau, but no doubt the pack learned of the Agate (and other packs) near Tower and the big Leopold Pack on the Blacktail. If they moved even more to the west, they would encounter the large Swan Lake Pack, and on the other side of the Gallatin Range, the Cougar Creek Pack or the Chief Joseph Pack. So other territories in the Park are taken.
One member of the Nez Perce pack, 214F, dispersed and is near Mammoth, so that is some indication the pack moved west of the Mammoth to Norris road.
The Washakie hypothesis has to do with their unusual route of return from the their Eastern Idaho walk-about in Nov. 2001. After appearing near Ashton, Idaho and then Tetonia, they disappeared despite many tracking flights. A direct route to central Yellowstone would be over the Madison Plateau to Old Faithful, but they first reappeared in the Pelican Valley, indicating an entrance from the SE of Yellowstone. Perhaps they tracked all along the south boundary of Yellowstone to near Togwotee Pass and then over the top, down the South Fork of the Shoshone in the middle of the Washakie Wilderness, up the North Fork of the Shoshone over Sylvan, Jones Pass, or Crow Creek Pass into the Pelican. Maybe they are now in the deep wilderness South Fork of the Shoshone.
In general, the wolves have to work harder for a kill this winter because of the light snow, or snow at all. Smith, who was one of the 4 counters in the recent elk counting flights said the elk are spread out. He also said the count of 9200 is clearly an undercount. The light brown elk, with their lighter rumps, are hard to see on the brown hillsides and harder still in the brown which is mottled with patches of snow. He said he is sure that true number of elk on the Northern Range is 10,000 at a minimum, probably 11,000, and maybe as high as 12,000. Truly, the wolves have destroyed the elk herd <g>
1-27-03 update. After a week of bad weather, the Park Service flew all of YNP last Friday, plus a good area north of the Park and a small area to the west, but no luck on getting signals from the radio collars in the pack. Now bad weather has returned. If the pack was in a rural area, by now there would have been reports of wolves. This pack has no black wolves. They are all gray.
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