The heavy fog coming off the Yellowstone River on Tuesday morning made it difficult to see everything happening around the grizzly bear protecting his buried kill.
As the fog lightened a little, the early observers saw a light-colored wolf, wearing a collar, approach the bear sitting on the exposed shoulder of the elk. The wolf soon was joined by at least four others: two black and two gray ones.
As several wolves approached the bear, he sat motionless looking forward with his back to get a drink of water and allowed the wolves to smell the ground around him. They did not challenge him in any way and soon slipped away. Several wildlife photographers predicted that they would be back in a little while but they did not return.
This large grizzly, Bear No. 791, is no ordinary bear. On Sept. 18, he chased a 6 by 6 bull elk with a broken hind leg into the Madison River and drowned him, floated him down the river and pulled him to the shore near a large fallen tree and a steep bank. Those actions were recorded by a photographer, which you can watch in the video above.
These actions may appear by chance, but 791 is very smart and does not follow the rules of ordinary grizzlies. The 9-year-old bear is rumored to be the largest bear in Yellowstone Park, weighing between 600 and 700 pounds. He was moved from Grand Teton National Park a few years ago because he was killing cattle. After being moved, he killed and ate another grizzly that challenged him while he was feeding on a carcass.
It’s not clear whether the placement of the elk carcass was a lucky or planned decision. The large tree and the Yellowstone River act as a barrier from an attack by most other preditors. The hindquarters were placed higher on the bank, buried with dirt from the high bank and consumed first. Wolves have come in three times and each time the bear has sat on the exposed chest of the elk, allowed them to sniff around and leave. Wolf packs usually create a circle around a bear on a carcass and will attack from all sides to frustrate it and force it to abandon the food source.
Old 791 has put on quite a show and people have been flocking to see him, hoping for some kind of “action.” I traveled there on Monday and Tuesday with Monday being an accident in finding it and then spending 12 hours there on Tuesday with at least a hundred bear/photographer enthusiasts enjoying the experience.
The bear was much more relaxed on Monday than on Tuesday. He napped most of the morning after eating most of a hindquarter. He would roll over on his back and put his feet in the air, sit like a Teddy bear and would take baths in the river. Ravens bothered him, but he tolerated them. No other predators showed up.
It was a different story on Tuesday. As I got to the area at 5 a.m., I could hear four or five bull elk bugling nearby and could also hear two packs of wolves howling in the distance. I visited with a photographer from Oregon who had stayed in his car all night. He told me that on Monday evening just after dark, he heard a large pack of wolves fairly close. Just before the fog got heavy over the river, a coyote snuck in behind the bear but left quickly. I was joined by local photographer Reed Miller of Rigby, one from Iowa and another from North Dakota, looking for the “perfect shot.”
Adam Brubaker, owner of Tied to Nature wildlife tour service in the park, drove by and told us there were several packs of wolves moving quickly toward the bear. Within 15 minutes, the five wolves showed up.
After the wolves left, the bear acted nervous and was annoyed by the ravens and Turkey vultures, especially while feeding. He paced around, uncovered part of the elk, ate a little and then covered it back up. It bathed once, licked the antlers of the elk twice and spent most of the time either sitting on the shoulders of the elk or laying down across the carcass.
I left at 5:15 p.m. Brubaker emailed me a picture of a single black wolf, which came in about 6:45, but only stayed about 10 minutes. Miller told me a cream-colored wolf came in on Wednesday morning and stayed just a short time. Each time, the bear would sit on the elk and remain motionless. On Thursday, Sept. 24, the grizzly abandoned the kill sight and moved on.
It was the experience of a lifetime. I am now ready for another bear, wolf, elk or moose encounter.