By Meg Sommers
This shot came from being in the right place at the right time, understanding the dynamic of the situation and anticipating the possibilities.
There is a very good chance of seeing wolves in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park in the winter time. They aren’t always close enough to photograph, in fact usually they are not. But you will likely see them nonetheless. Winter favors wolves, with their relatively light bodies and large paws which serve sometimes like snowshoes. Compare that to their primary prey, the elk. They have small hooves which post-hole with every step they take. In addition, the bull elk have just been through a grueling rut season, which makes all of them — victors and vanquished alike — exhausted and weakened. Food for the elk is also much harder to find, and by the middle of winter, the disparity is great.
Sometimes, the wolves even get a windfall. This particular pack, the Lamar Canyon wolf pack in the eastern end of the Lamar Valley, got just such a treat. One night, a vehicle hit a small bison on the road and the bison died. It died very close to the road and the rangers were concerned that would create an inevitable conflict between the wolves and the wolf watchers and photographers. The rangers made the decision to move the carcass about 200 yards off the road. They found some volunteers and the carcass was moved to the more distant location, closer to the river, allowing the wolves a sense of comfort and privacy.
Even before the Lamar Canyon wolf pack made their first approach to the carcass, word had spread of the situation. For several days, there were wolf watchers and photographers there at the site, waiting for something to happen. Early in the second day, after the wolves had fed fairly frequently, the scavengers began to gain courage and coyotes could be seen in the vicinity.
Only one coyote, at least initially, was bold enough to creep and sneak her way towards the carcass. I say she, because this coyote was on the smaller side, as coyotes go, with very fine features, feminine like. Maybe it was her courage I admired or her brazenness, I can’t be sure.
They say that coyotes are very adaptable, and from personal observation, I would very much agree. Here you have an animal which was artificially at the top of the food chain in Yellowstone for many years while the wolf was absent. Once the wolf was reintroduced, coyotes learned that to be caught by a wolf pack out in the open meant sudden death. Wolves will literally draw and quarter a coyote, given even half a chance. They principally dislike them because they are competition for some of the same food sources. Scientists tell us the coyote population dropped by 50 percent in the early years after wolf reintroduction.
The Yellowstone coyotes have adapted and rebounded some. Now, when an experienced coyote approaches a wolf kill, the coyote knows it is risking — if not inviting — death. When you are hungry enough though, you will take that chance.
So it was on this afternoon in the Lamar. Here was the bison carcass, and the Lamar Canyon wolf pack had fed an hour or so ago, so they were not physically present at the carcass site. The wolves had wandered off to sleep with one eye open.
Lady coyote very cautiously approached, casually, as if not at all interested at first. Then she sprinted directly to the carcass. She was able to eat for perhaps 10 minutes. All the while, the group of human observers gathered knew the risk she was taking. At one point a single wolf from the Lamar Canyon wolf pack could be seen surveying the situation from nearby.
The coyote was extremely nervous now, and everyone was rooting for her. Run, run, we are thinking. Suddenly she does. There is probably about a foot of snow on the level for her to traverse. Rather than try to break a trail through that much snow, she chooses to follow a trail already established by someone or something. The trail leads directly towards the spectators, which doesn’t bother the adaptable coyote much at all. She ran straight towards us. With little margin for error but confident in her course, she veered away from the crowd, running parallel and around us at about 25 yards. Members of the Lamar Canyon wolf pack, close at her heals (but less comfortable with humans), pulled up and stopped at about 100 yards. That’s when I took this shot, and why it is called “Drats.”
The coyote did get away. She was so emboldened by her success that she returned within a couple hours to feed again. This time, the wolves just let it happen and left her completely alone.
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