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The insistent buzzing of an alarm clock invades my dreams and cuts through the unfamiliar darkness of the log cabin. Instantly awake, I quickly run through the possibilities in my mind. One thing is for sure - I am not at home. Sleepy noises come from the other side of the room: neither am I alone! Then it hits me: I am at the Buffalo Ranch in Yellowstone National Park and I am sharing the basic but cozy cabin with two other women who are here for the same reason I am: The wolves!

The Yellowstone wolves are our passion, our concern and our quest. They drive us out of the warmth of our sleeping bags at five o'clock on this cold March morning. Well, the wolves and Jim Halfpenny, our fearless and merciless leader and renowned instructor at the Yellowstone Institute. Wolves are his passion, too, and he made it clear to our group of fourteen impressed students the night before that he would leave without us, would we not be ready to roll on our first morning excursion at precisely 6:30 a.m.

Stuffed with our breakfast as well as into at least ten layers of warm clothes and armed with an impressive arsenal of scopes, binoculars and cameras, we file into two vans, while the full moon floats above us in a sea of pink. Diann, Jim's partner, drives the other van and off we go into a dawn that awes us with its unearthly beauty, justly befitting a magical place called Yellowstone.

Although Yellowstone Park is a managed place, its wildness is intact and touches everybody who visits. Indeed, it is the wildness that draws us, attracts us. We, who have forgotten how it feels to be wild and who have done our best to tame and exploit the wilderness, return to this place to recapture the magic.

I cannot think about wildness and about magic without thinking of the wolf - a strong, sensitive and intelligent animal with complex social behavior and lasting family ties. It has survived and evolved with minor variations in its mode of living for millions of years throughout most of the northern hemisphere. When humans and wolves both hunted in bands, the two predators lived in competition but relative harmony. When agriculture changed the way of life for humans, when plants and animals were domesticated, and nature was controlled and exploited - there seemed to be no room for wolves anymore. Man has tried to wipe out this animal whenever and wherever he could ever since.

Misunderstood, hated and persecuted with a vengeance only possible to man, the wolf still persisted against all odds in many places of the world - mostly in remote areas - though its numbers were dwindling rapidly. In the Yellowstone area, however, the animal was completely wiped out - except for a few lone individuals who were seen once in a while (whose definite identity is still unconfirmed) and who would have been unable to form a viable population with any future on their own.

The wolf needed help. And in the last minute of this remarkable animal's seemingly doomed existence, help arrived on the scene for this endangered species and the reintroduction plans for Canis lupus into the Yellowstone area were drafted.

The rest, as they say, is history. Built from stock brought in from Canada, wolf packs are finally repopulating Yellowstone, their howls resounding again through its valleys and from its mountain tops. Yellowstone is whole again, its magic restored, the balance of predator and prey reinstated.

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Our two vans arrive at their destination and we spill into the quiet, cold morning. Our excitement is barely held in check by Jim Halfpenny's stern instructions: "No sound, people! No slamming of car doors and no talking! Wolves are very shy and easily disturbed by people. And most of all - no howling please!"

I am disappointed. No howling? I feel like howling right now. This beautiful winter morning, the excitement to be in wolf country - the incredible sense of being alive in a wild place, to be here now is just so overwhelming, it would indeed deserve a howl. But it has to wait.

We are lucky. The Druid Peak Pack, consisting of eight wolves, has been sighted regularly from the road traversing the Lamar Valley, thus allowing people to observe and study them. The Druid Peak pack has made a kill last night and is feeding again on the elk carcass. Apparently our arrival disturbed them and they move eastward in a strung-out line.

Barely out of the van my binoculars fly to my eyes in one quick motion and I behold the Druid pack: #40, the gray alpha female, and her new mate #21, a black male from the Rose Creek Pack, run in front followed by #42, a black/gray adult female. She, in turn, is followed by last year's five pups, three black ones and two gray ones.

Our group is excited, trying unsuccessfully to keep quiet. We whisper and point and look through each other's scopes. The clear, cold morning adds its own magic to the event, while the moon slowly pales and sunlight washes through the valley.

The wolves move steadily out of our sight, their every move followed by our scopes until they are gone. We all file into the vans again and drive down the road, hoping the pack will appear on the other side of the ridge. The wolves, however, have different plans and don't show.

It's time to return to the Ranch. The coffee is already on, as we spill into the kitchen at the Institute. Excited chatter fills the room as the group exchanges their observations with everybody else, who basically has seen the same thing. The pack of wolf watchers bonds.

The Yellowstone Institute, part of the Yellowstone Association, in cooperation with Yellowstone National Park offers many different nature and outdoor-related courses, thus educating the public to a better understanding and appreciation of the Yellowstone area. The Institute is located at the old Buffalo Ranch in the Lamar Valley, the facility where bison were bred and brought back from near annihilation in Yellowstone in the early 1900's. Students can stay in the rustic cabins at a minimal charge and the indoor classes take place in the main building. The two classrooms are located right next to kitchen and restrooms, which makes for a convenient and relaxed atmosphere. The outdoor classroom, of course, is all of Yellowstone Park.

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We settle down for a few hours of lecture and discussions. We learn about the evolution, biology and behavior of wolves, watch slides and videos. Our brains fill with images of wolves interacting with their pack mates, the raising of pups, the hunt. We have entered the realm of understanding.

The wolf, a vastly misunderstood animal, has been misrepresented in old stories, ancient legends, as well as modern fiction stories and movies, as a bloodthirsty, dangerous creature. In contrast to these stories, it is interesting to learn that there is not one proven attack on humans by a wolf documented in North America. On the other hand, millions of wolves have been wiped out by humans. People often make the mistake labeling animals into "good"and "bad" categories. Of course, the little adoring elk calf, a grazing animal, is a "good" animal. The wolf, on the other hand, is "bad" because it kills the calf.

Life in the wild is not a movie. Wild animals are neither good nor bad. They have been shaped by evolution to take their place in the web of life, in a predator and prey relationship. Wolves do not kill for fun. They have no choice but to kill in order to survive. They cannot thrive on grass and twigs any more than man can.

It is time to go out wolf-watching again and off we go down the road in an excited mood and armed with our spotting equipment. The wolves don't show despite our patience, yet we see a variety of other, equally interesting animals that normally would have blended perfectly into the landscape. But now, under the scrutinizing search of our wolf watch mission, they stand out: two bighorn sheep, leisurely bedded down, are chewing their cud; two golden eagles on a rocky ledge; a group of mountain goats high up on a far ridge; a bald eagle in a dead tree. The wolves, however, are nowhere to be seen. They have retreated to their own world again, hidden from our curious eyes. We do not follow.

Tonight the guest speaker is Doug Smith, wolf biologist in Yellowstone. Doug does his wolf-watching almost every day from a small plane. He tells us about collaring wolves, keeping track of them, watching their movements, their behavior, their hunts. Doug is a very interesting speaker, but I can hardly keep my eyes open. It is late, but nobody wants to go to bed. The thoughts of another early morning expedition finally drive me out into Yellowstone's velvety black night to my cabin.

The next morning sees our pack of wolf watchers strung out along the road behind our scopes and binoculars, watching a fresh kill on a hillside. The wolves have left already and coyotes have moved in to take what they believe is their share. The wolves, we know, have moved up the hill and over a rocky outcrop. We hope they will come back down to the elk carcass.

Over time, wolves have developed efficient hunting strategies. In return, the prey animals developed equally refined defense mechanisms. The result of this evolution of prey and predator is that only 3-4% of wolf hunts are successful and result in a killing. The wolves "test" their prey early on in the hunt. They quickly evaluate their chances and will not waste their energy on prey they know they cannot catch. As a result, wolves take weak, old, diseased, injured and young, inexperienced animals.

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As I scan the rocky outcrop through my binoculars, a dark gray wolf calmly walks out on the ridge. I hold my breath, watch the wolf for a long moment all to myself, then let out a restrained whoop. Everybody fixes their scopes on the spot - but the animal is gone.

We hang around a little longer, trying unsuccessfully to out-wait the wolves. Then it's time for more classroom stuff. We discuss the fate of the Yellowstone wolves, which due to a recent ruling by a federal judge, is uncertain again. One can only hope that wisdom and an understanding of "the bigger picture" will prevail and allow the wolves their rightful place among the creatures of Yellowstone and on this planet.

In the afternoon we learn about tracking wolves and drive out to a kill site, which is almost clean. Only a bit of fur, part of the spine, a few rib bones and a leg bone of the elk remain. We cut open the bone and examine the marrow to determine the age of the killed animal and what condition it was in. Then we look around for wolf tracks. And there it is - the signature of the wolf, the story of its passing written in the snow.

As the hours hurry by, our time in Yellowstone finally comes to an end. The pack of wolf watchers dissolves - for now. Later, as I drive home through the Lamar Valley, gazing out the window over the magical landscape, I think back at all the things I learned about the wolf and how a new excitement has grabbed me rekindling my own inner wildness, and how I will never forget that moment - my moment - I had with the dark gray wolf.

There is no way I can contain myself any longer. I pull to the side of the road, throw my head back, and let out out a long, wild, joyous howl.

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by Susanne Hülsmeyer

Susanne Hülsmeyer is a nature enthusiast, tracker and writer. Originally from Germany, she moved to Montana eight years ago and now lives with her eight llamas and three cats in the hills between Bozeman and Livingston. Besides tracking and trekking around her home, she visits Yellowstone to enjoy its wildness and wonder, plus watch wolves, bears and other animals. Susanne works for a travel company, and is also writing a book.

Copyright SH 1998


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