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Gray wolves star attraction of Yellowstone winter

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YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — It is a sunny winter afternoon, and Simond Raymond has a problem.

His flight home to Yverdon-les-Bains in Switzerland leaves this evening from Bozeman, Mont. But at the moment, Raymond is standing in the snow of the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park, 120 miles away.

He must get his rental car over 30 miles of twisty mountain road, much of it snowpacked and icy, before even reaching the main highway, then another 90 miles, including a mountain pass, to the airport.

How late, he asks, can he delay his departure from Yellowstone? How far can he push his luck before he must leave? After 10 straight days of wolf-watching, how many more minutes can he squeeze in on this snowy, remote roadway, in hopes of just one more sighting?

Still, he assures me, it has been a successful trip.

"We've seen wolves every day," he says, smiling. "Sometimes the weather is very bad — but we saw the wolves."

Raymond fits into a category of Yellowstone visitor that did not exist 15 years ago — the wolf-watcher.

After being wiped out in the park early in the 20th century, 31 gray wolves were re-introduced in 1995 and 1996. They flourished. Today, more than 350 of their descendants roam the park and surrounding area, preying on the abundant elk, deer and bison.

When they were first released, some experts predicted they would fade quickly into the Yellowstone backcountry and sightings would be rare.

But the opposite happened. Wolves quickly learned that humans seldom left the ribbons of asphalt through the park, and that binoculars and spotting scopes fired no bullets. They learned to ignore people, as long as they weren't approached, and Yellowstone frontcountry — that area visible from the road — simply became another part of their turf.

Wolf-watching began almost immediately after the first wolves were released from acclimation pens, and some people became addicted. They have become a subculture of Yellowstone — enthusiasts from afar who devote their vacations, and locals who devote their days off — to watching and recording wolf behavior in the park.

The combination of wolves cavorting close to the road and a dedicated cadre of amateur wolf experts has helped make wolf-watching one of Yellowstone's favorite activities. Longtime wolf-watchers usually are happy to share their expertise with other visitors, explaining wolf activity and often offering to let visitors use their already-aimed, high-powered spotting scopes.

And winter is a prime time for watching wolves. Deep snow in the high country drives elk and deer down into the valleys. Wolves and their prey are easier to spot against the snowy background. And crowds are almost nonexistent.

The best wolf-watching is in northeastern Yellowstone, in the Lamar Valley. While success in finding and viewing wolves involves both persistence and luck, it is not a difficult pursuit.

Like other predators, wolves are most active early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Given Yellowstone's short winter days, being in the Lamar Valley early and late is not onerous, but it requires a measure of dedication. Once there, watch for people clustered around spotting scopes on tripods in roadway turnouts. They will be your best sources of information.

Don't be abrupt or demanding in seeking their guidance. Wolf-watchers are not paid to be tour guides; they are in the Lamar for their own enjoyment, and their expensive scopes are for their own use. A friendly and respectful approach can yield tips, stories, pointers and a chance to watch wolves through their spotting scopes; demands may draw nothing but a shrug.

If no wolves are visible, ask around. Many hard-core wolf-watchers stay in touch by two-way radio, and they may know of activity elsewhere in the valley. They may also know of a wolf pack frequenting a different part of the valley at a different time of day; plan to be there.

For those who want a more structured approach, a great option is to enroll in a course offered by the Yellowstone Association Institute.

The Yellowstone Association, www.yellowstoneassociation.org/, is the nonprofit educational group affiliated with the park that operates book stores at visitor centers around the park; its institute offers courses all year ranging from one to several days on various Yellowstone topics, including wolves.

The association maintains a field station in the Lamar Valley called the Buffalo Ranch — buffalo were indeed raised there a century ago, when a different philosophy governed the parks — complete with winterized cabins for rent. Classes are based there and at Mammoth Hot Springs; courses are limited to adults and, in some cases, teenagers. Prices vary, but average roughly $150 per person per day, plus lodging.

When I met Raymond last winter, my wife and I were on a short wolf-watching excursion during a trip otherwise devoted to cross-country skiing. He was standing with a group of other wolf-watchers, but there were no wolves around. I wasn't surprised; it was early afternoon, not prime wolf viewing time.

In fact, the best my wife and I managed this trip was hearing a wolf howl close to a backcountry ski trail as we passed by, and finding the antlers and scattered, still-bloody bones of a huge bull elk along another ski trail.

But living only three hours from Yellowstone, we make frequent trips to the park in winter, and our wolf sightings over the years have been memorable.

There was one occasion when we watched with delight as a full pack of wolves played "king on the boulder" less than 50 yards from the Lamar Valley road. One wolf stood atop a 3-foot-high boulder while others in the pack charged and leapt, trying to knock him off and take his place. Their play went on for hours, to a thrilled audience.

More serious was the small pack of wolves we once watched that casually circled a cow elk grazing by herself in the Lamar. They did not charge. They simply surrounded her slowly, cut off all her avenues of escape, and then lay down in the snow, waiting, waiting, waiting ....

And in their waiting, they provided a matchless view into the natural world of Yellowstone.

Editor's note: Before his retirement, William Kronholm was the AP's western regional news editor. He lives in Helena, Mont.