How to find Wolves in Yellowstone

Yellowstone wolf running in snow in Crystal Creek pen; January 1996; Accession No. 15606 Courtesy US National Park Service
Yellowstone wolf running in snow in Crystal Creek pen; January 1996; Accession No. 15606
Courtesy US National Park Service

Outlying wolves of the Northern Rocky Mountain population occasionally wander into Utah, but seeing one is rare. If you want to increase your chances of viewing one of these majestic beasts, the best place to go is the northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park.

Wolf standing in water, in Grand Teton National Park, close to Yellowstone. Courtesy US National Park Service.
Wolf standing in water,
in Grand Teton National Park,
close to Yellowstone.
Courtesy US National Park Service.

For over six decades, wolves were missing from Yellowstone’s ecosystem. But on a cold January day in 1995, eight gray wolves from Canada were released in the park in an effort to restore the predator to this native habitat.

Before their release, wolves were the only indigenous mammal missing from the Park. The last pack of wolves were killed in the 1920s.

The Park is now one of the few ecosystems in the temperate world to have the same mammals wandering around, as it had hundreds of years ago.

A mother wolf nursing her pups outside their den. 7-16-2010 Courtesy US National Park Service
A mother wolf nursing her pups outside their den. 7-16-2010
Courtesy US National Park Service

Today, approximately 88 wolves live in Yellowstone.

Finding one of these gray wolves is challenging, but if a person knows where to look, with the right equipment, the chances increase considerably.

Nathan Varley, a naturalist guide with Yellowstone Wolf Tracker says, “Wolves are usually spotted from long distances, using high quality optics. Recently, I guided a group that had their first wolf sighting over two miles away. We patiently watched the pack of 11 wolves move until they were less than a mile away.”

Leopold wolf following grizzly bear Courtesy US National Park Service, Doug Smith Photographer, April 2005
Leopold wolf following grizzly bear
Courtesy US National Park Service,
Doug Smith Photographer, April 2005

“The pack encountered a bison herd and attempted to single out a calf. The herd rallied, surrounding the calf so the wolves couldn’t get to it. Snow began to fall so we lost sight of the hunt, but learned later the pack was unsuccessful. We found them the next day, many miles away.”

Before arriving in Yellowstone, visitors may want to learn how to distinguish coyotes from wolves.

Two wolf pups gnaw on bison bones Courtesy US National Park Service
Two wolf pups gnaw on bison bones
Courtesy US National Park Service

Rick McIntire, who researched Yellowstone wolves with the U.S. Park Service since 1995, explains, “In a given wolf pack territory which may be 300 square miles, there could be 10 coyote packs. So the chances of visitors seeing coyotes before wolves is high.

McIntire gives the following tips for identifying coyotes and wolves:

“It may be hard to tell smaller wolves from bigger coyotes. One thing to look for is coyotes have big ears and narrow jawlines like a fox, whereas wolves have ears that are proportional to the size of their heads, and strong stout jaws.

Their vocalizations are also different. Wolves have a deep howl, while coyote’s howl has a high pitched tone.

The wolves color may also help. Roughly half of Yellowstone wolves are black and since coyotes are never that dark, if you see a group of canines and one of them is black you have found a wolf pack.

The best place to begin the search is the northeast corner of the park at Lamar Valley – the “Serengeti” of the Yellowstone. Many prey gather here, which attract the large predators like bears and wolves.

Once you arrive, find an appropriate place to park, set up your viewing equipment close to your car, then settle down for a relaxing couple hours of observation. Patience often pays off, so be alert.

Daniel MacNulty, associate professor in the Quinney College of Natural Resource at USU, who has been studying the Yellowstone wolves for the past two decades said, “Watch for prey standing alert looking at something, follow their gaze, they may point you directly to a wolf pack.”

So if you’re ready to find one of these majestic beasts, gather some family or friends, your high quality optics – and head north. The northern road in Yellowstone which passes Lamar Valley is open all year long, so you won’t have to wait spring.

This is Shauna Leavitt and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy US National Park Service:

Audio: Contains audio Courtesy & Copyright Friend Weller, Utah Public Radio
Included Links: Lyle Bingham, Webmaster, WildAboutUtah.org
Text: Shauna Leavitt, Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Additional Reading

Wildlife Viewing, Yellowstone National Park, US National Park Service, US Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/viewanim.htm

Yellowstone National Park, US National Park Service, US Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/yell/index.htm

Inside Yellowstone Videos – Lamar Valley and Wolves, Yellowstone National Park, US National Park Service, US Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/photosmultimedia/0031lamarvalley-iy.htm

Wolves, Yellowstone National Park, US National Park Service, US Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/wolves.htm

Maps, Yellowstone National Park, US National Park Service, US Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/maps.htm

Blakeslee, Nate, American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West, Crown; First Edition edition (October 17, 2017), https://www.amazon.com/American-Wolf-Story-Survival-Obsession/dp/1101902787

Lamplugh, Rick, Deep into Yellowstone: A Year’s Immersion in Grandeur and Controversy, https://www.amazon.com/Deep-into-Yellowstone-Immersion-Controversy/dp/1546448322

Allphin, Don, Not crying wolf: There really are wolves in Utah, Herald Extra, Logan, Jan 9, 2015, https://www.heraldextra.com/print-specific/columnists/not-crying-wolf-there-really-are-wolves-in-utah/article_4c19beea-06c2-59d4-b963-49fe2fd48136.html

Wolves in Utah, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, https://wildlife.utah.gov/wolf/

Utah Wolves, Sierra Club Utah Chapter, https://utah.sierraclub.org/content/utah-wolves

Utah Wolves, The Wildlife News, http://www.thewildlifenews.com/category/wolves/utah-wolves/
See also:
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