Ken Mills noticed something amiss with the Pinnacle Peak Pack while flying over the National Elk Refuge in mid-January during his routine wintertime wolf census.
To the veteran wildlife biologist’s eye, the bedded down wolves looked “nervous” and “disturbed.” One howled. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department wolf biologist then switched his telemetry equipment over to the Huckleberry Pack, typically denizens of northern Jackson Hole. The reason for the edgy body language soon became clear.
“They were strung out in a line, headed straight for Pinnacle,” Mills said of the Huckleberry wolves. “There were three in the lead and they stopped and they were howling.”
The invaders were deeper in ranks, being a double-litter pack that registered at 17 animals in Mills’ year-end assessment — easily outnumbering the 10 wolves he had pegged as a part of the Pinnacle Peak Pack.
The larger Huckleberry Pack soon had the refuge’s longtime local lobos on the run.
“Within 15 minutes they covered the distance between where they were and Pinnacle,” he said, “and they were at the bed sites, tails in the air, following the tracks of Pinnacle up towards the trees.”
Mills’ contracted pilot flew off, but not before he saw firsthand what GPS data had already confirmed: that Jackson Hole’s most visible wolf pack for the past decade had newfound competition.
“Certainly, that was an encounter that was intended to push Pinnacle away,” Mills said. “They both knew where they were and Huckleberry was basically pursuing them.”
For now the drama in the local wolf world has displaced the refuge’s longtime dominant wolf pack. Pinnacle Peak first shows up in Wyoming’s annual wolf reports in 2007, down by the Horse Creek area. By the next year their home range shifted north, where they assumed the territory of the Teton Pack, which fizzled out.
“It’s been a long time,” Mills said. “They’ve been there ever since I’ve been here.”
The Pinnacle Peak Pack has grabbed headlines for tussling with Spring Gulch cattle and being lethally targeted by federal trappers with Wildlife Services. But they’re also well known simply for being wolves that set up shop and established a den site right on the periphery of Jackson.
The National Elk Refuge passively keeps tabs on wolf activity, recording observations about which pack is where when the opportunity presents itself. A distinct difference in color — Pinnacle Peak is all gray while Huckleberry wolves are black and gray — has made distinguishing the two easy, refuge biologist Eric Cole said, and there’s been a notable absence of all-gray wolves.
“In general,” Cole said, “the Pinnacle Peak Pack is no longer the dominant pack using the refuge.”
The presence of a larger wolf pack — and, at times, two packs — hasn’t really changed anything operationally.
“Although elk are being killed by wolves on the refuge,” Cole said, “I wouldn’t say it’s having a significant effect on the feeding program.”
An “above average” number of wapiti have been confirmed killed by wolves — a dozen — and another eight or so animals have been scavenged on by one of the packs. Overall known elk mortality on the refuge through Monday was 35 animals, meaning wolf predation has been the cause of about a third.
Wolves have also been notably more visible: “More than usual, people have been seeing wolves in the vicinity of Miller Butte and the portion of Refuge Road that is open to the public,” Cole said.
What will become of the Pinnacle Peak Pack is a guessing game.
There’s a chance that the Huckleberries’ movement south is food-related and more a migration, Mills said. That behavior is exhibited by wolf packs that dwell along the Cody Front and head into the high country and wilderness in the summer but winter more along the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s peripheries. If the Huckleberry wolves drift back north to their traditional home range in northern Grand Teton National Park, southern Yellowstone and the Teton Wilderness, the Pinnacles could just slide back into their normal turf.
For a time the Pinnacle Peak Pack relocated to the Gros Ventre River area, a formerly wolf-dense landscape that’s been relatively devoid of wolves the last couple of winters. The formerly dominant pack in the lower drainage — the Slate Creek Pack, itself an offshoot of the Pinnacle Peak — pretty much “phased out,” having been hunted, dispersed or died, Mills said. The Lightning Pack remains, but it’s just a pair of wolves.
There’s a new group of several wolves some scientists have dubbed the Murie Pack that broke off from Huckleberry last year and has been spending time in the northern refuge and lower Gros Ventre, but Wyoming Game and Fish isn’t yet ready to declare it a new pack because its home range has been in flux, Mills said.
As for the Pinnacles, they’ve been on the go.
“They’ve made a circuit,” Mills said of their whereabouts. “They went east and then south.”
Grand Teton National Park biologist John Stephenson, the keeper of the GPS data for the pack, said the Pinnacle Peak Pack has since moved out of the Gros Ventre. As of last week the wolves were up in the normal territory of the Lower Gros Ventre Pack, which, despite the name, often spends time further north, in the lower Spread Creek area.
Stephenson had last marked the Pinnacles on aptly named Wolf Ridge. The Lower Gros Ventre wolves were also sticking tight to their territory.
None of the biologists interviewed for this story had any particular theory explaining the distribution shift, other than that wolves move around following prey, fight and swap territories. Notably, no wolves have been confirmed dead or suspected of dying due to the clash between the Pinnacle and Huckleberry packs.
“This happens,” Stephenson said. “Wolves are dynamic.”
Cole agreed: “I can’t begin to speculate. Inter-pack dynamics appear to begin akin to early human tribal societies with tribal warfare.”
Mill’s hunch is that the Pinnacle Peak wolves will eventually wander back to the territory that valley residents have grown accustomed to seeing them in for a dozen years.
“They tend to have a strong affinity to their traditional home ranges,” Mills said. “It’s hard to say, but if Huckleberry goes back north then Pinnacle probably will move back in. Wolf behavior is very, very adaptable, so there’s no hard-and-fast rule for what they’ll do.”
If the Huckleberries do stay put, they’ll become one of just a handful of major wolf packs that have claimed the protected, fertile hunting grounds of the National Elk Refuge since wolves were brought back to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem a quarter century ago, joining the Pinnacle, Teton, Gros Ventre and Flat Creek packs.