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Wolf hunting elk in Yellowstone
Wolf hunting elk in Yellowstone

Wolf Chase

Full moon over the Madison Valley; oh, and the Bull Elk
Full moon over the Madison Valley; oh, and the Bull Elk

September in the Greater Yellowstone ushers in the cool crisp days of autumn and is a welcome change for those of us who live here. Gone are the hoards of visitors, mosquitoes, and the frenetic schedule those of us who work the tourist industry through the busy summer. September is also elk photography season for those of us who measure the year by photo opportunities available. Sometime between the first of September and the middle of September the Yellowstone’s bull elk loose their mind because it is breeding season and this is the most exciting to photograph bull elk. This is called the rut and it lasts sometimes until mid October. During the rut, the bull elk can be seen challenging one another for the cow elk. The biggest toughest bulls sometimes build a harem of cow elk that sometimes number as high as forty cows.

Yellowstone’s Madison Valley near the west gate of the park is a great place to photograph the elk rut as the elk here are habituated to people so they are more approachable, and this provides good opportunities for good elk portraits and rutting action. The Madison Valley is narrow with plenty of meadows so the elk are easy to find. The Madison River often adds to the scenery of an elk shoot.

Backlit rutting bull elk
Backlit rutting bull elk

As good as the Madison Valley area is for elk photography I feel it is over exposed so I often look elsewhere for a change of backdrop for my elk photos. One of the places I like to shoot is the Swan Flats area of Northwest Yellowstone south of Mammoth Hot Springs. The area has lots of elk, but they are tough to approach, as they don’t see many people so aren’t so aren’t habituated, as are the elk of Madison Valley. The shooting may be tough, but the scenery is superb; and better yet, different.

One frosty fall morning I wanted to hike in for them at Swan Flats so at the first hint of morning light I headed east through the sage to the burn areas east of the highway. I saw several herds but none that were feeling photogenic; therefore, uncooperative. I hiked between the new forests that were again thriving after the burn of 1988 making a big circle west of the Gardiner River.

Black wolf got the Bull Elk's attention
Black wolf got the Bull Elk's attention

About three quarters around my loop I stopped to photograph a six point bull looking for the ladies and while photographing him a black wolf walked into the frame, stopped, posed then moved out of the frame. How fortuitous, I love it when serendipity smiles upon me!

My interest in photographing the bull elk dropped like a hot coal in a clinched fist, my new focus was the developing scene where the black wolf was circling the herd of cow elk like a cow dog and when he got them headed the direction he wanted he broke into a run to chase them into the ambush where two other wolves were lying in wait.

The elk cows were about 100 yards away, and three elk with a hungry wolf on their tail broke in my direction. Yellowstone elk have found that if they run towards people that sometimes the wolves will abort their chase; this wolf didn’t. Both the elk and wolf charged towards me only to break right about 35 yards short of me so I was treated to the opportunity to photograph much of the chase and even captured the wolf with all four feet off the ground in hot pursuit.

Wolf chasing elk
The Chase is on

Much to the relief of the lady viewers of my wildlife photography, the elk got away. I then realized it might be time for me to access my situation in the middle of a wilderness flush with carnivores chagrined because of breakfast denied. Wolves rarely attack humans, but the operator here is rarely. I am about two miles from my car, and I just watched demonstratively hungry wolves get skunked by an elk. Factoring that all three wolves are still hungry and still looking for something to eat, I couldn’t help wondering if a slow photographer might suddenly become more appealing to their discriminating palate.

I had a grove of young trees behind me, a great place for wolves to make a stealthy approach, a possible and wily plan B? I decided to move further into the sage meadow so I could watch my surrounding a bit better, as if I would have been able to spot two and a half foot tall, stealthy wolves, in sagebrush that was three feet high.

Cow elk chasing Wolves
Oddly enough this cow elk is chasing the wolves; the wolves though are chasing her calf.

When in the backcountry I always carry bear spray. A can of bear spray has enough repellent to last for about one minute, just enough to repel a single bear. I wondered if one minute of spray would be enough repellent for a small pack of wolves? Wolves that may or may not all be in range of a single cloud of spray measured only in a moment of time.

I spend a lot of time in the field, and sometimes I believe I am quite knowledgeable about animal behavior, but dang it, wildlife is always throwing a behavioral curve ball at me. These critters that roam my wild, consistently contradict what I believe I have learned by presenting confounding behavior which drives home the fact that the more I am around wildlife; the less I know. Knowing what I do about how wolves rarely attack people was only comforting in as far as realizing that wildlife regularly defies what I think I know.

Close encounter during wolf hunt
Close encounter during wolf hunt

With hyper vigilance I worked my way back to the car, yet perversely hoping to see the wolves on the hunt again, but certainly hoping they weren’t settling for a change of diet. I photographed more elk and bison along the way.

Upon arrival to the safety of my car, I was both relieved and ecstatic. Relieved because the wolves didn’t choose this day to step outside regular wolf behavior and ecstatic with the pride of achievement of a memory card full of wolf chase photos and back country elk.   I was also thankful how serendipity had smiled upon me once more!

The Wolf Gallery


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