The rumor is she was shot. Fact or fiction, it’s clear that 889F is limping and dragging one leg. Yet, with only three good limbs, this lone wolf can still spook an entire herd of bison. Witnessing such interactions between wildlife is rare unless you find yourself in a place like Yellowstone National Park.
If 889F was shot, it likely happened when she wandered outside of the park’s boundaries where she loses her federal protection. A highly efficient predator that doesn’t limit its food source to wildlife found within the park’s boundaries, the wolf is not always popular with local ranchers. In spite of, or perhaps because of this controversy, the wolf is one of the biggest attractions for Yellowstone. With only 80-100 wolves roaming within Yellowstone’s 3,500 square miles, even return visitors can go years without seeing so much as a track. For those determined to see the surprisingly mysterious ancestor of man’s best friend in its natural habitat, Nathan Varley, PhD is the man to meet.
Varley and his wife Linda Thurston own The Wild Side, LLC—a wolf watching excursion service that takes visitors into the wilds of Yellowstone in search of its most elusive, and often infamous, inhabitants. With parents who were park rangers and wildlife biologists, Varley is practically a product of the park and is one of few people who can brag about attending school inside Yellowstone. The small school Varley attended in Mammoth Hot Springs is now closed, but he recalls the time a bull elk got its antlers tangled in the swing set and mentions that there were plenty of days when recess took place indoors while the wildlife took over the playground. As a tour guide working in the area where he grew up, Varley shares stomping ground stories that are more entertaining and educational than much of what can be read in the material picked up at the visitor center. As a wildlife biologist who was involved with the initial reintroduction of wolves in 1995, Varley has firsthand and first-rate information about the eight wolf packs that live in Yellowstone.
Cold and dark are the conditions you want for beginning your Yellowstone wolf watch. Winter is the ideal time because the wolves stand out against the white snow. In addition, their prey is feeding at lower elevations—mostly along the river valleys near the roads. Seeing the sunrise also increases your chances of seeing these animals that are most active in the early morning hours. Although winter is prime time for wolf spotting, Varley and his team of local guides work year round to provide custom single or multi-day wolf excursions. Transportation is included, and a healthy array of high protein snacks and hot drinks are also provided. For humans and animals alike, food is not easy to find in Yellowstone, especially in winter when a blanket of snow can be just as bleak as beautiful. When asked how often wolves need to eat, Varley answers that while they need more food in the winter, it’s not uncommon for wolves to eat only once a week in the summer. With just one kill, an entire pack (Yellowstone’s packs range in size from two to sixteen wolves) can make do for days.
In the 365 days of the year that America’s oldest national park is open, more than three million visitors pass through; yet, only a small fraction will be lucky enough to see a wolf. But luck is just one part of the equation. To exponentially increase the chances of seeing a wolf, insert a guide like Varley. Although there is very limited cell phone service in Yellowstone, Varley is well equipped with a precious piece of technology that most mere mortals don’t pack—a radio. This allows for constant communication with other elite wolf watchers including the select few that have the frequencies for the tracking collars that are on some of the wolves. Within this tight-knit community of wildlife biologists, photographers, and other wolf enthusiasts, information that most people aren’t privy to flows freely. On a recent excursion, this information resulted in five separate wolf sightings for a group who had hired Varley for the day. All were longtime residents of Montana and frequent visitors to Yellowstone; yet, many of them had never seen a wolf in the wild.
Most of the legwork was done for them. In addition to doing the driving, Varley set up spotting scopes and packed seven pairs of snowshoes for a back-country trek to the last remaining acclimation pen which was used to hold the wolves when they were first brought to Yellowstone from Canada. Whereas wolves can cover upwards of thirty miles in one day, Varley lets his clients determine how much trail they want to blaze on their wolf excursion. Wolf watching can often be synonymous with wolf waiting, and in addition to perseverance for the excursion component, one needs patience for the exposure component. With temperatures dipping into the single digits, standing still at a spotting scope and waiting for a wolf to come into view can be surprisingly trying. Still, a glimpse of one of the most revered residents of the wild and fabled characters of folklore is well worth the wait. For everyone from first timers to avid followers, there is something surreal about this species—Canis lupis—that sends a life-changing chill down the spine.
Whether or not she was shot, 889F still has a long, cold winter ahead. Humans rest on fate, but for wolves and the rest of the wildlife in Yellowstone, it’s all about survival of the fittest. Sure, the geysers like Old Faithful and the plentiful herds of elk and bison are neat, but it’s time spent attempting to track down the top of the food chain that is the most challenging and memorable part of a Yellowstone vacation. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, but when in Yellowstone, take a walk on the wild side. If you’re lucky, or smart enough to go with someone like Varley, there’s a very good chance you’ll see a wolf.
*This piece was first published in The Active Times.