Save for trails of scurrying rodents and occasional deep depressions from moose, the snowbanks lining Gros Ventre Road were largely untouched as Ken Mills snowmobiled upriver.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department wolf biologist was on the lookout for the tea-plate-size impressions Canis lupus leaves behind. And he was searching in a place where they’re usually relatively easy to come by.
Outside Yellowstone National Park, the Gros Ventre is the most wolf-dense landscape in Wyoming. Yet the large carnivores and the sign they leave behind were nowhere to be seen Thursday.
“I can tell you,” Mills said 16 miles from the end of the plowed road, “I’ve never come up the Gros Ventre without at least seeing a wolf track.”
The dearth of wolves in the rugged valley east of Jackson Hole was connected to another mammalian Gros Ventre mainstay that is lacking: elk.
Wildlife managers haven’t yet flown to count wapiti in the nooks and crannies of “native range” where they’re eking out an existence until spring. But on the man-made winter range — the feedgrounds — where they are easily tallied, there’s an undeniable paucity of elk.
“It looks like 10,” Mills said as he pulled up to the Patrol Cabin feedground. “Pretty crazy.”
The drainage’s two other feeding areas that historically attract elk to eat hay, at Fish and Alkali creeks, were empty. In a normal winter there would be 1,000-plus elk there. Game and Fish’s official goal for the valley was 3,500 as recently as two years ago.
The herd’s apparent absence has caused the valley’s two largest wolf packs to split in search of more fruitful hunting grounds, pushing them into each other’s and neighboring packs’ territories. The result is drama in the wolf world: strife, death and displacement.
“Wolves are acting kind of like Yellowstone wolves right now,” Mills said. “We definitely get wolves that kill other wolves every year, but to have a whole pack shift territories and kill off a neighboring pack — or at least kill a few of them — that’s different.”
The famed wolves of Yellowstone’s wide-open Lamar Valley have for years spotlighted the social species’ complex pack behavior, exposing millions to individual wolf personalities and periodic interpack warfare. Their reintroduction and the flurry of research projects that followed also popularized the theory of an ecological “trophic cascade” that the large carnivores returned to the landscape, though some recent studies suggest the trickle-down effect has been overstated.
There’s no doubt that the Gros Ventre, its abundant wolves and their influence on the valley’s fauna and flora have received less fanfare.
But it’s an area Mills knows well. In 2014, months before a federal judge revoked Wyoming’s control of the species, the Pinedale-based biologist spent six weeks in the valley studying wolf predation. Tracking animals and visiting points on the Bridger-Teton National Forest where GPS tracking collars showed wolves were clustered, he encountered the remains of about 60 wolf-eaten ungulates.
Bite marks tell a story
Mills inspected a carcass Thursday, though it was of the canine variety. The deceased was 1037F, a 3-year-old female from the Togwotee Pack. Peeling back hide from the bitch’s face with a pocket knife, he could see that a puncture wound had pre-death hemorrhaging. Sign of a wolf bite.
“Multiple bite marks on the face,” Mills said. “Pretty brutal.”
Exposing the underside of the face further, the biologist pointed out the muscle that likely did her in: the masseter, which gives the wolf its bite force.
“This is the power of the wolf right here,” Mills said. “You can see, it’s like a chicken breast. It’s huge.”
Before hopping back on his snowmobile, Mills got a text from a contracted wolf-tracking pilot. It was a dead Togwotee Pack wolf, this one well to the north near Wind River Lake. The next day Mills visited the carcass. It proved to be another casualty of the wolf war.
GPS data suggests that 1037F’s misfortune was a run-in with the Slate Creek Pack, which has controlled the western side of the Upper Gros Ventre since forming in 2015. An offshoot of the National Elk Refuge’s Pinnacle Peak Pack, the Slate Creek wolves numbered 14 when assessed a year ago, enough to make them the biggest pack in Wyoming outside Yellowstone at the time.
A new pack
Mills’ very-high-frequency tracking receiver told him the Slate Creek wolves were nowhere near. What he did detect was a signal from a potentially newly formed pack, tentatively named “Kinky Creek” after the Gros Ventre River tributary that courses by the Darwin Ranch.
The biologist brap-brapped his way to the end of Gros Ventre Road, where he caught a signal of two animals high above their namesake drainage as daylight waned. They roamed ground he figured would be tough to reach on a snowmobile, and a long human howl produced no response. The snow was deep and, in the biologist’s view, the living tough.
“There’s not much to eat here besides moose,” Mills said. “This little group, they want to make a go of it, so they found this little tiny gap between the Green River and here.
“They’re in this little tiny sliver bounded by wilderness areas without any prey,” he said, “and other wolf packs that aren’t going to roll out the welcome mat for you.”
Bounding their east side was the Lava Mountain Pack, former denizens of the Upper Gros Ventre, which had claimed new territory in the Upper Green River area this winter. It was a bloody takeover. Two Green River Pack wolves were killed, leaving the pack’s existence in question.
On the drive back toward Jackson Mills received word that explained why he had failed to catch the signal of the Slate Creek Pack earlier in the day. The band of lobos was on Blacktail Butte, well to the west of its typical territory and in an area where it had never been documented before.
“Following the elk,” Mills said. “That’s what they’re doing.”
The Slate Creek wolves had set themselves up for a run-in with the Pinnacle Peak Pack, a formidable group of wolves that claims a valuable winter prey source: the National Elk Refuge’s thousands of ungulates.
But, at least for the time being, a clash wasn’t imminent. Mills’ pilot had last marked the Pinnacle Peak wolves running the subdivisions near Jackson Hole Airport.
Both packs’ whereabouts was another twist in what’s proving to be a weird winter for the Gros Ventre and its lack of wapiti and wolves.
“Wolves are overlapping at the moment,” Mills said, “and there’s a lot of shifting going on because of elk distribution.
“For our part, we’re not trying to make a big deal out of this,” he said. “This is just what’s going on.”