LAMAR VALLEY, Wyo. – Yellowstone tourists are riveted to their spotting scopes, watching a life-and-death scene unfold.
Bison are plunging into the swift-flowing Lamar River to widen the distance between the herd and a lurking wolf. Tensions heighten when a ginger-colored calf balks at getting into the water.
Breathless commentary from the crowd narrates the movements of predator and prey.
“The baby is like, ‘Mom, where are you? Don’t leave me!’ ” “A bunch of bison just chased the wolf away!” “The wolf is back. It’s standing in the way of where the buffalo want to go!”
The standoff ends with two adult bison escorting the calf across the river and the wolf strolling off. A few bystanders applaud the bison, but there’s also sympathy for the black wolf, an alpha female with hungry pups to feed.
This is the kind of draw that wolves have in America’s oldest national park. Their presence has transformed the Lamar Valley from a sleepy corner of Yellowstone to an international destination for wolf viewing, complete with traffic jams and overflowing vehicle turnouts.
More than 300,000 people see wolves in the park each year, according to a 2006 University of Montana study, which estimated the impact of Yellowstone wolf tourism at $35 million annually.
Wolf-watchers range from casual tourists to dedicated regulars, who spend thousands of dollars on spotting scopes and use radios to alert others to wolf sightings. A few are citizen scientists, who keep detailed field notes of wolf activity.
Some regulars can recognize 40 to 50 of the park’s 87 wolves on sight. They know how the wolves are related. They keep track of pack rivalry and even know which wolves slink off for extra affairs during the late-winter mating season.
“It’s kind of like ‘The Young and the Restless,’ ” says Stephanie Stewart, of Hartford, Conn. “Who’s hooking up with whom, and who left to join another pack.”
Stewart and her husband, Duncan, visit Yellowstone at least once a year. They enjoy watching and photographing a variety of wildlife, from ravens to badgers to bison. But wolves are definitely a top draw, the couple say.
Watching the wolf-watchers is something of a spectacle in itself, says Arne Jorgensen, an architect from Jackson, Wyo., who was visiting the park with his wife and teenage daughter.
“There are these two soap operas that merge,” Jorgensen says. “One is the wildlife interactions … and then there is the human reaction to wolves and the great emotions they evoke.”
While some in the crowd described wolves as “warriors” and “family people,” Doug Faron, a software developer from Seattle, admits to finding his first impression of wolves in the park unsettling. They were feeding on a bison.
“The first day we saw the carcass, it was just a red thing – kind of gross,” he says.
But throughout several days, he became intrigued by the number of animals that scavenged from the wolf kill. Coyotes darted in after the wolves, grabbing pieces of meat. Bald eagles and ravens circled and landed. A grizzly bear stripped the last flesh from the bones.
“One animal gave its life so that others could live,” Faron says.
It’s that visceral experience that attracts people to wolves, says Nathan Varley, a wildlife biologist with a doctorate who runs a Yellowstone wolf-watching business with his wife. Most of his clients are urban residents who want to see Wyoming and Montana’s undeveloped places. About 20 percent are from overseas.
“They like this idea of an iconic wild animal that lives its life unfettered by human activity,” he says.
Yellowstone’s wolves held such a powerful draw for Doug McLaughlin that he rearranged his life to observe them daily. The former Centralia, Wash., resident manages a lodge near Yellowstone that allows him to spend the early mornings looking for wolves in the Lamar Valley.
McLaughlin says he’s an ambassador for the often-misunderstood predator. He’s established a nonprofit to call attention to the issue of wolves that venture outside of Yellowstone and are shot by hunters.
Yellowstone’s wolves are studied intensely, so it’s a tremendous research loss, he says.
“I think in a generation, the hatred toward wolves will die out,” McLaughlin says. “People will learn their value to ecology.”
And while park visitors often refer to wolves’ humanlike traits, McLaughlin thinks it’s the other way around.
“We have something left of their wild qualities,” he says.