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Yellowstone Wolves

Photo by Stan Tekiela

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

March 19, 2022

The complexity of nature is often hard to understand and even harder to witness. Sure, we learn about it in school, read about it in a book, or watch it on a TV nature documentary, but it isn’t until you see it firsthand that you start to understand and appreciate the complexity of nature. I have been fortunate to be able to see it myself and gain a better understanding.

Take for example something that happened just a couple days ago. I am in Yellowstone National Park leading photographic tours in the dead of winter. Snow and cold rule the land. For a month I am moving around the park, entering the inner core of the park that are not accessible without large trucks with massive wheels and tires to navigate through the deep snow.

Of course, finding and capturing images of wolves is the ultimate goal for my photo tours but honestly you never can be sure you will even see wolves, let alone capture some images. Even less likely is to witness the life and death struggles that occur in the natural world. But that doesn’t stop us from trying each and every day even with sub zero temperatures and snow squalls that dump 3 inches of snow in one hour then the sun comes out.

On one clear and very crisp morning, just before the sun came up, we located a “kill site”. This is where the local pack of wolves was successful at taking down a bison. We were able to climb up a short hill through deep snow to where the wind had blown the snow clear. Setting up our tripods and cameras we where able to witness the harshness and overwhelming reality of a complex and intact ecosystem.

This pack of wolves had 13 members and 3 of the wolves where at the bison carcass. The rest where very high up on the mountain in a small clearing laying in the snow. We could only see them using high powered binoculars or spotting scopes. But right in front of us, was the facts of life. Or should I say, life and death and the complexity of nature.

Wolves are top predators, usually called apex predators. They live in family units of anywhere from 4 to 30 members. Usually these are blood relatives, so they are brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews. They need to live in family units because a single 80-pound wolf can’t possibly take down and kill a 2-thousand-pound bison. So, they work together as a family to subdue their prey.

However, the more members in the pack the less food each wolf gets to eat in the end. Studies show that the optimal number of members in a pack of wolves is 6 to 8. This is enough wolves to take down a large animal such as a bison or elk, but not too many mouths to feed, thus each member gets enough to eat.

But the real complexity of nature really doesn’t show itself until after a pack of wolves has killed their prey. I have seen this time and time again and it always amazes me. Within minutes of the kill, the first birds arrive. First to arrive are the ravens. These amazing birds often follow wolf packs around waiting for something to happen. They are very bold, and the entire family of ravens show up. It is not unusual to have 20 or more ravens within the first 15 minutes.

More times than not, the wolves take a break and rest directly after taking down their prey. After all it takes a lot of energy to kill something that is ten times your size, and you can only use your teeth to kill it. Next are the Black-billed Magpies. These black-and-white birds with long tails sneak in between the ravens and grab what they can. Next are the Bald Eagles. These birds usually push off the ravens and magpies and temporarily take over the carcass. Right after that is the Golden Eagle. They often fight with the Bald Eagles for a place at the table.

Coyotes are never far away. There is no doubt they can smell the kill and literally come running as if someone rang a dinner bell. They approach slowly and cautiously, looking around and making sure the wolves aren’t too close. When they approach the carcass, they chase off the ravens, magpies and eagles.

Red Foxes are never too far behind the coyote. They stay away from the coyote and bid their time waiting for a chance to get in there and grab a bite to eat. And they always do make it in some how.

The wolves often return and chase everyone off. They will eat quickly, and each wolf can consume up to 20 pounds of meat in one sitting. It doesn’t take very long and the only thing left is bones and some fur. Even the bones and fur are eventually used. Absolutely nothing goes to waist in the natural world.

Most of the time within 24 to 48 hours everything is gone. Just a few remaining scraps and a stain of blood in the snow. It is amazing how so many other critters benefit from what the wolves do. Until next time…

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the U.S. to study and capture images of wildlife. He can be followed on Instagram.com, facebook.com, twitter.com. You can contact him at his web page at www.naturesmart.com

The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

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