YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — At first light, Big Blaze, a black wolf with a white chest, trotted across a distant slope, following the scent trail of the Blacktail pack.
At a turnout overlooking the valley, spotting scopes set in snow were trained on the wolf.
A day before, the Blacktail pack fed on an elk carcass nearby. Big Blaze, one of the pack’s older males, was losing no time rejoining the pack.
The sun, rising over the Yellowstone River valley in March’s morning chill, lent the landscape a pristine glow. Casual tourists, missing from the scene, were replaced by wolf-watchers and park researchers.
Karen Webb and her husband, Alan, came from England to see Yellowstone’s wolves. Wolves were their only reason for visiting America, Karen Webb said.
“I never understood why Americans use the word ‘awesome.’ It seemed like the strangest of words, until the first time I stood here in the silence on a cold icy morning,” she said.
In early March, she and her husband took part in their third wildlife tour through the park, tours led by husband and wife biologists Nathan Varley and Linda Thurston.
“We’re not ‘bus trip people,’ “ Webb said. “But this is entirely different. It is an adventure.”
The British couple, along with a dozen other intrepid eco-tourists, rose before dawn in Gardiner to get in position along the Hellroaring Overlook, a turnout west of Tower Junction.
Wolves draw large numbers of visitors to Yellowstone, but few hire guides to improve their odds of spotting them.
Six years ago, Varley, who has a Ph.D. in wildlife biology, and Thurston, who has a master’s in the same field, started their business, the Wild Side wildlife tours. Three years ago, it became the couple’s full-time business. The pair, who live in Gardiner,
provide trips that offer individuals or small groups anywhere from a single day to up to five full days in the field.
As Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley has become known as one of the best places in the world to watch wolves, the couple have fed on the public’s thirst for seeing the elusive predators.
Their insights into wolf behavior come from years of experience.
Varley was among the first volunteer field interns hired after the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone in 1995. He met his wife when she joined the Yellowstone Wolf Project in 1996.
As interns on the project, they earned $7 a day watching wolves for their efforts in the field. Thurston went on to research the denning behavior of Yellowstone’s wolves for her master’s degree. Later, she worked in states outside the park to mitigate wolf predation on livestock.
Nathan, 42, grew up at the park’s headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs with a ringside seat on some of the park’s most contentious issues over the last few decades. He was a firefighter during the summer of 1988, when massive fires blazed through the park. He studied elk predation by wolves for his Ph.D.
What he didn’t learn on his own, he may have absorbed from his father, John Varley, who was chief of scientific research in Yellowstone Park for 25 years and remains something of a legend in park circles, or from his mother, who also worked for the National Park Service.
Beyond their intimate knowledge of the park, both Thurston and Varley have a talent for making wolf research sound like soap-opera intrigue.
On tour, Thurston drives the Suburban. Varley drives the 14-passenger mini-bus.
As they wound slowly through the park’s northern range, Varley fielded questions from the group, his face and bushy black beard framed in the rear-view mirror. His laid-back manner seemed to be mixed with enthusiasm for a new day’s adventure.
“It’s not unusual for a member of a pack to lag behind the rest of the group by a day or two,” Varley told the tour group.
“Big packs, like Blacktail, just tend to go wherever they want.”
Outside the national park, humans are the leading cause of wolf mortality. Inside the park’s boundaries, fights between wolves from different packs cause the most deaths.
A pack’s composition often dictates whether it will accept a new member. A pack with three or more older adult males is unlikely to tolerate another male joining the pack.
“Big Blaze is the great exception,” Varley said.
The black wolf was born into the Druid pack, became one of the founding members of the Blacktail pack, then led the Agate Creek pack. Deposed as the Agate pack’s leader and nearly killed, Big Blaze managed to rejoin the Blacktail pack.
At Slough Creek, where the territories of three wolf packs overlap, the tour group trudged a short distance on hard-crusted snow to a spot overlooking the creek. They spotted a lone coyote out hunting.
On the walk back, Jan Harding, of Atlanta, Ga., followed the group’s tracks to avoid plunging into soft snow. Growing up in Utah, she had visited Yellowstone, but the Wild Side tour was her first guided trip.
“I didn’t think we’d see wolves every day, and we have,” she said. “To see a wolf pack on a hunt. To see what they have to go through to be able to eat. It’s just amazing.”
People love seeing interactions between wolves, Thurston said. It’s rare for wolves to come within a quarter of a mile of wolf watchers. But, with spotting scopes, that distance is close enough to see the animals’ faces.
“If you can see them close enough to see their eyes, people are really blown away,” Varley said.
“Wolves often have these gold or orange-colored eyes. They’re definitely a bright color, and usually they have black around their face that accentuates their eyes. The intensity of it — it looks like their eyes are really studying you and noting every fine detail.”
In addition to their own group tours, Varley and Thurston lead tours for wildlife conservation organizations and school groups. The Wild Side charges $1,500 to $2,000 for inclusive, five-to-seven-day group tours or $480 a day for customized tours for up to six people.
As tour guides, he and his wife try to bridge the gap between people who do science and the public.
The March trip’s itinerary included segments watching Jim Halfpenny, a scientist and master tracker, make a casting of a wolf’s paw print; a look at evidence from a carcass from a week-old kill site; a short trudge on snowshoes to a long-abandoned den site; and a talk given by Doug Smith, leader of the Yellowstone Wolf Project.
In addition to wolves, the group observed many of the park’s larger mammals and spent two hours watching otters playing.
For Charlie Palmer, an audiologist from Arkansas, the high point of the five field days in March was watching through binoculars as members of a wolf pack chased an elk down off Specimen Ridge.
“To get to actually see a takedown, that’s a National Geographic moment,” Palmer said. “The actual takedown was in the woods, but we saw the first stumbling of the elk.”
The alpha male, or pack leader, doesn’t necessarily lead a hunt, Varley said. The big, burly alpha male’s body type is great for fending off other wolves, but makes it tough to sprint after prey. During a chase, alpha males are more apt to deliver the final, lethal blow, when size matters.
“The best, the most lethal, hunters are the 2-year-olds,” Varley said, referring to research by his longtime friend Daniel MacNulty at the University of Minnesota.
The 2-year-olds combine athleticism with well-honed hunting skills.
“These 2-year-olds are the NBA stars. By 5, they’re starting to crest that hill and are going down the other side,” Varley said.
While alpha males are not always great hunters, they’re great leaders.
Where alpha status always matters, and matters most, is in breeding, he said. The alpha male gets to breed the alpha female and may also breed subordinate females. But, since few breeding opportunities are squandered, lesser males may also get a chance if multiple females come into heat simultaneously.
Varley and Thurston consider themselves “refugees from the wildlife biology profession,” an exodus spurred by their desire to stay in Yellowstone, the lack of full-time jobs in their field and a profession in which climbing the career ladder often means moving away from field work.
Sometimes, Varley still gets a chance to help other biologists on research projects. Late last fall, he retrieved several radio collars containing years worth of data. The collars had fallen off in the backcountry.
It was the kind of assignment Varley relishes.
MacNulty became friends with Varley when they worked in the field together on the first study to ever track the park’s wolves in winter. That study proved to skeptical researchers that it was possible to watch Yellowstone’s wolves in winter.
“You spend enough time in the park, and you become aware of patterns in animal movement and activity,” MacNulty said in a phone interview. “Nathan is an absolute pro on that.”