Oregon writer, Rain Trueax, and Oregon painter, Diane Widler Wenzel co-author Rainy Day Thought. Diane generally posts on Wednesdays and Rain on Saturdays. There may be extra days or changes as situations warrant. Comments are always welcome and appreciated as it turns an article into a discussion.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

predator and prey

When I am in Yellowstone, it's all about watching for the animals. Some, like the buffalo as they cross the road, are easy to see.  The rest take being alert, paying attention, stopping when others are stopped along the road (getting off the side and not making that stop in the middle of the road). It takes being satisfied to see something very far away but you know it's there and that is thrill enough.
The first time we drove into the Lamar Valley I was in awe to see buffalo herds that seemingly stretched across the valley and spread out for miles along the river. You can't photograph it. It's just too big and they move together as they graze. It's the kind of thing you see in a movie but don't expect to see for real.

All these animals live as they would if it was two hundred years ago and the land was theirs. Well with some minor exceptions like mankind interferring in controlling numbers or collaring some to see where they go or what happens to them; but it's about as natural as it gets for people like me to be close to them and observe their behavior.

I've seen it more often than I can count where humans lose track of where they are and start to follow a bear for that perfect photo or go running down to a buffalo herd as though they would somehow not see that person as a danger. It has led to the death of more than one photographer. Most of us live so far removed from nature that when we are there, we forget this is the real deal.

For most of us though, we are content to stay back and get the best telephoto we can handle to take whatever photos we can without disturbing the habitat of these animals. Sometimes the park service has to interfere and remind people that humans are guests here and that the habitat first and foremost is to protect the animals as best it can.

When I was there in September, my dominant feeling rapidly became how very difficult their lives are-- predator or prey. What seems idyllic to us as humans from our safe distances ignores the reality of what a life in the wild is like. We admire the beautiful wolves but they have to kill the equally beautiful elk. It's not a choice for them. Kill or die.

Wolves don't have an easy time of it even within their own species.  Wolf packs are tough places where only the alpha male can live. I have read that only the alpha female is allowed to breed while the other females help to raise the young.

Packs can be attacked and their members killed by neighboring wolf packs. Packs have been virtually destroyed that way. Some get diseases which leads to what was a powerful pack being reduced to one or two animals like the Soda Butte pack which is east of what is today's biggest pack in that area, the Slough Creek pack.

When I first saw wolves in the Lamar Valley, the Soda Butte pack was strongest. They would often be clear across the valley, some of them playing with the pups while others were out hunting. Seeing them through binoculars was initially what made me want a better telephoto lens for the camera. We still don't have a lens that can really photograph them. That pack is now one female and one male who do not breed or have not anyway. I have a photo of one of them alone on a hillside (last blog). I wonder if it remembers the pack days as I do.

Slough Creek pack seemed very at ease with where they were even though sometimes what seemed to be a hundred people watched them from a rise across the valley. We did that several different days with different lighting yielding varying results. Sometimes I'd take a photo of where the pack had been wondering if they were there, but I just wasn't seeing movement. Most of those pictures yielded nothing when blown up.  When I would see them playing or looking for food or howling, I'd try to get the best sharpness I could and the photos, tiny, fuzzy or not are all treasured.

The morning of the full moon shots, we were upstream from the pack when suddenly one of them began to howl. Howl is a weak word for what that sounded like. It was more like singing and it was beautiful, absolutely beautiful. Even more so when another wolf answered from somewhere up in the trees high on the hill. I don't know if we heard a mother calling to her grown pup or if they were mates. Whatever it was, it's beyond describing. I looked online to hear audio of wolves and nothing came close.

Wolves have various howls they use. What I think we heard that morning was a pack howl. I know this is my imagination but that howl seemed to be expressing love and need. It was as beautiful as any song written or performed by a human as was the answering howl from high on the hill.

Their life is not idyllic or easy as they have to kill other animals to live. Brutal as that seems, that killing is beneficial to Yellowstone as it keeps other species from overpopulating. Maybe the wolves own willingness to kill each other helps them not overpopulate; but when they do, they move elsewhere or they starve. From all I know, they cannot eat roots or berries like the bears. Killing is their only option.

You hardly see any elk in the Lamar anymore. These were along the Firehole. Locations where you do see them, there are less wolves. Only once have I seen an elk in Slough Creek a few years back where a cow came running down through the stream and up the other side as though hell itself was after her. To her, it probably was although I saw nothing.

The wolves kill buffalo also although more the calves than the adults for obvious reasons. Some of the buffalo leave the main herds, all of them bulls, and I am not sure how they fare if a wolf pack starts after them. Winter is probably their most dangerous time as in snow they couldn't run as fast (buffalo can run 30 mph) and they might be weakened by hunger.

We saw a kill along the stream but the animals eating at it were coyotes who keep a wary eye out for the wolves return as they kill coyotes also. 

My strongest impression from this trip, besides being so grateful I got to be there, was how difficult the life is for these animals even in a protected park whether they are predator or prey. They look so beautiful, most seem alert but mostly at ease, but their life is anything but one of ease. It's a constant battle for survival.

More next blog on the bears of Yellowstone this trip.

Click on the wolf images as it's about the only way you will see them. If you were actually there, you'd have to strain just as much.


OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

You've got some GREAT Pictures here, Rain....And considering how hard it is to get really good photo's--You Did WONDERFULLY!
And that Lobe Wolf in the last Post about your trips to Yellowstone....

I so agree with you. It must be such a very very hard life for all these animals. It exhausts me to think about how hard it is for them to survive.

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