- Yellowstone Wolf Project
Yellowstone Wolf Project
It tingles in the spine of all who hear wolves by night, or who scan their tracks by day.—Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
I. Big Sexy
From Bozeman to Gardiner, the highways were slicked black by a late winter storm, and I noticed how thin Regina had grown from long hours,
eating little, the new hole she’d carved into her belt using the tip of a hunting knife, then the one-street town,
then the northern entrance to Yellowstone, its high arch, bull and cow elk suffering scabies, orange lichen
painting a cluster of boulders from a two-year-old rockslide. I told her about the life-sized bronze statue of a grizzly in Bozeman’s airport lobby, reared up [End Page 115]
and snarling like a movie bear—scripted, unnatural. Up ahead, a group of wolf watchers, wolf paparazzi, had gathered at a turnout, and she pulled over so I could look
through high-powered zoom and see the first free wolf of my life, watched him nap on a hillside in Wyoming, belly full from a recent kill, nicknamed: Big Sexy.
II. At the Kill Site
We spent the morning dodging huge domelike patties of bison dung roasting golden brown along the path, hiked across rollers of scrubland sage and crumbled
escarpments, followed a single set of wolf tracks for hours. Once, in a low valley next to a river bend, she pointed out a yellow flower wet with snowmelt,
and suddenly they were everywhere they hadn’t been before. I remember the first that we saw of the cow elk carcass was a rumen pile, stomach ripped out
and dragged clean from the body—they do this to keep the acid in the stomach from bursting and ruining the meal—then a spine,
curved and wet, still clinging helplessly to the skull, and finally three of the four legs scattered about. She set to work to collect what data remained,
sawed through femur and thick white marrow (healthy), plucked teeth from her mandible to identify age (a mere four years), [End Page 116]
put the saw into her backpack before settling down on a bluff to eat lunch. We ate peanut butter and jelly on wheat
above a river so blue it was green, so clear that the smoothed boulders stared back at us like hats behind a hat shop window.
III. The Herd
While crossing the narrow bridge, we slowed the truck for a moment to watch a family of river otters on the jagged ice shelves below—the river’s white teeth, teeth
of melt and flood—when a herd of bison came stampeding from behind, an angry herd of stampeding hooves and heft that made it a few feet from the bumper
before we sped away, lucky or blessed, the herd getting smaller in the rearview, our heartbeats normalizing. I thought it must have been the fear of being alone
that set them charging across that bridge, that startled them in one direction versus the other, although I couldn’t have been certain. In any case we spent a few quiet minutes inside
that coarse, sage-covered Lamar Valley which rose on both sides into peculiar mountain peaks, listened as snowmelt became the current of a mindful river that knew how to take its time.
When later we found an elk that had died over the winter of natural causes—a rare luxury— had frozen, thawed, and been eaten, [End Page 117]
tufts of tall grass were already laying claim to it, as though the earth had hands and was holding it still, pulling it down into the softened hillside.
All that remained was a chunked pile of bones after the Silver wolves stumbled on its smell, a boon, stripped its body clean,
went to sleep it off on Junction Butte. It’s no wonder elk live such startled, stressful lives, persisting across the white valleys of winter
like furred stoics, blanketed by the fear that come spring they’ll bleat and shit while being eaten alive. And to imagine that this cow lasted eighteen winters:
arthritic, necrotic; it goes...