LAMAR VALLEY — The Wolfe pack is back.
When Karen Wolfe got word that a Yellowstone wolf pack’s den was visible from a road she scheduled an “emergency trip” from her Phoenix home located 17 hours and more than 1,000 miles to the south.
She also called her sister, Virginia Wolfe, who lives in Vashon, Wash. — 13 hours and almost 800 miles to the west of Yellowstone National Park — to meet her in the Lamar Valley.
“We love wolves,” Karen said. “They’re beautiful — beautiful and mysterious.”
Last Thursday Karen was bundled against a cold spring breeze in a knee-length blue parka with fake fur trim around the hood. Next to a large flat boulder placed at the edge of a parking area along Slough Creek, Karen had set up her tripod and spotting scope to zoom in on the wolf den about a mile-and-a-half away. In a purple notebook with a wolf illustration on the cover, she took notes of what she saw.
Her sister, Virginia, had her tripod and spotting scope set up next to Karen’s, and together they took turns allowing tourists to look through their high-powered magnifying lenses to see wolves in the wild while also repeatedly answering the same questions about the wolf pack.
The center of attention was on a hillside to the northwest. There, barely visible even with the intense magnification, were two adult members of the 10-member Junction Butte pack resting in the shade of pine trees. Behind the trees, on a steep hillside covered only with sagebrush, was the dark opening to a den. At about 5 p.m. four black pups exited, one with a bright white blaze on its chest.
The pups were just a portion of two litters using the den, five black and three gray, according to Doug Smith, Yellowstone wolf biologist.
This is what they had been waiting so long to see.
“Woo hoo!” shouted an excited Jim Smith as he saw the wolf pups at the entrance to the den through Karen’s spotting scope. He literally jumped for joy.
Smith had driven from his home in Tampa, Fla., on a tour of parks around the nation. At age 60 he said there was no better time to take such an extensive excursion, which had also taken him to national parks in Arizona and Utah.
He called the wolves a symbol of wilderness, along with mountain lions and grizzly bears.
“Shouldn’t we save a little something that is wild and beautiful in us?” he said. “Now it has become a bit of a challenge to find these beautiful creatures.”
Karen seemed almost as excited by Smith’s response to seeing the wolves as to spotting them herself.
“You see this reaction?'" she said pointing to Smith, a smile lighting her face. “You don’t get to see this all of the time. The reactions of people is marvelous, especially the reactions of kids. They are so excited to see a wolf.”
Becoming a Yellowstone wolf groupie was far from Karen’s mind when she worked as an economist for a utility company in Arizona, a job that she said gave her all of her gray hair — well, that and her son. Then on a May trip to Yellowstone in 2011 — following “a very, very snowy winter” — Karen saw her first wolf in the Hayden Valley and someone let her look through their spotting scope. On the same trip she later saw a famed female wolf on a bison kill in the Lamar Valley.
“I had never seen anything like that,” she recalled, wide eyed. “And now I come here to relax and see the wild.”
Karen later brought her sister to Yellowstone and nurtured her infatuation with the park’s wild wolves. Virginia, age 55, took a leave of absence from her job this year that will make it easier for her to visit Yellowstone more than twice. Next, Karen wants to bring her 9-year-old granddaughter to view the wildlife and incredible natural setting of mountains, forests and streams.
“I kind of feel young,” said Karen, now 69 and retired. “My head feels young, but not my knees.”
Typically the Wolfe sisters visit twice a year — in May and October. This year they plan on visiting four times.
“So thank the wolves for our tourist dollars,” Karen said.
On this day the Wolfes had set up their tripods and spotting scopes at about 6:30 a.m. A large crowd soon formed, including photographers with lenses as long as a man’s arm and as big around as a baby’s head worth thousands of dollars. By 9 a.m. most of the wolf activity had died down and the wolf watchers dispersed to seek out other, more exciting subjects.
Wolf biologist Smith said it's great that visitors to Yellowstone can see a large carnivore that was nearly exterminated from the lower 48 states. But he cautioned that visitors, in their excitement to view the pups, park carefully, watch out for traffic and be respectful of other visitors and rangers. Right now, there are fewer visitors during the week. That will change in June when there are typically more visitors during the week.
By last Thursday evening only a half-dozen cars and people were present. That made it easier for self-described city girl Victoria Condell, of Chicago, to look through Karen’s spotting scope and see the wolf pups.
“Now I know why you do this,” Condell told Karen after looking at the wolves. “It’s so exciting. Oh my god!”