Photographing the Wapiti Wolf Pack in Yellowstone

The Wapiti wolf pack in Yellowstone.

The Wapiti wolf pack in Yellowstone.

Story & photos by Scott Joshua Dere

For 10 years, I have been traveling to Yellowstone National Park to pursue my love for wildlife photography. Every year the park has given me special scenes to photograph and animals to see in their natural environment.

One of the most coveted species to see in this national park are wolves. I have seen them many times in and around the park but usually it’s at great distances, similar to the above photograph, or on a late night drive. However, this year my guide, Christopher Daniel, and I were able to track them closely for 3 days, until we were gifted with a rare close encounter.

Tracking the pack through snow.

Tracking the pack through snow.

Tracking the wolves was made easy after a light snowfall helped us follow the their tracks up the road for 25 miles. The Wapiti wolf pack has an experienced alpha female that knows the secret to traveling far distances quickly in Yellowstone by following the groomed trails made and used by humans to tour the park.

To show the massive size of these wild wolves, I put my own hand print next to one of the wolf tracks.

To show the massive size of these wild wolves, I put my own hand print next to one of the wolf tracks.

We always leave early in the dark of early morning, to get deep into the area for sunrises and, sometimes, to catch the animals still busy from the night’s activities. Unbelievably, and to the surprise of both myself and my guide, 50 yards into the park we found the Wapiti wolf pack on the road, in a ball of fur that scattered away from our headlights. We were blown away by what was unfolding in front of us! We were not prepared for it and watched as they cleared out of the road into the thick pines on both sides. I figured that would be the highlight of the whole tour. A ridiculously close encounter with 16 wild wolves within 10 seconds of entering the west gate of Yellowstone National Park.

The West Gate of Yellowstone National Park. Thank you to all who made it possible for us to go in the park during The 2018 Government Shutdown!

The west gate of Yellowstone National Park. Thank you to all who made it possible for us to go in the park during The 2018 government shutdown!

After passing the area of contact with the pack, we pulled forward 100 yards and shutdown our snowmobiles for a while, watched and listened.

Then, half the pack came back on the road, right in front of us, and began to howl to the rest of the pack that had been startled by our intrusion. Within a few minutes, we witnessed the entire pack march right through the gates and leave Yellowstone Park!

Day 2 at Madison Junction. Paused for sunrise 16 miles into the Park from the West Yellowstone Gate.

Day 2 at Madison Junction. Paused for sunrise 16 miles into the Park from the West Yellowstone Gate.

The next day we started early again. To our delight, a fresh snowfall revealed that the Wolves found their way back into the park. We followed their tracks for 25 miles on snowmobiles and knew we were getting close, as we encountered Bison running towards us in an unorganized and panicked stampede, as if something had startled them. Tufts of hair were on the path among all the prints and we felt real excitement at being this close to the action.

Day 2: Three photo panorama of a standoff between bison and wolves.

Day 2: Three photo panorama of a standoff between bison and wolves.

The wolf tracks led us to Gibbon Meadows, where the action had subsided. A standoff between a healthy group of bison and a tired pack of wolves seemed to be dying down. The wolves had been traveling all night and must have been exhausted, as they were bedding down in the snow for the day. The bison were in a tight group, facing out, and seemed triumphant from our viewpoint. We left this scene early, knowing a very different outcome could happen the following day.

The Wapitis resting in the snow covered Gibbon Meadows.

The Wapitis resting in the snow-covered Gibbon Meadows.

Day 3. It’s early and we travelled a long way, under the cover of darkness, to be able to get to this scene. My guide, Chris, and I pull up to the wolves who are already on their bison kill and are spread out around the new carcass and all the way up to the forest. Younger wolves were feeding while older members of the pack that had fed first were walking away to rest.

Younger wolves feeding on a carcass. Older wolves walk off in the distance.

Younger wolves feeding on a carcass. Older wolves walk off in the distance.

The wolf is the largest member of the canine family. In the wild it is the apex predator and can hunt large prey. They communicate to one another using a spine-tingling howl and have always been an elusive magical part of the North American wilderness.

The beautiful alpha female

The beautiful alpha female.

After some incredible photographs of the Wapiti wolf pack feeding, I changed my location a bit to get some different angles of the pack. The backdrop of Bajah Spring, steaming in the cold weather, made certain images difficult to get, but resulted in some dramatic images, as well.

A highly advanced expressive behavior allows for a hierarchy of wolves in the pack.

A highly advanced expressive behavior allows for a hierarchy of wolves in the pack.

This was an incredible encounter, of which I showed just some of my favorite images. A huge thank you to my snow mobile guide, Chris Daniel, for staying hot on the wolf tracks for three days to get us on the action. Everything about the chase was exciting, from bumping into the pack in darkness at close range to following their movements in and out of the park. The light snows allowed us to follow their movements for days. The stampedes of bison running up the road in fear was electrifying.  The glory of finding the action early earned us the privilege of spending hours with the pack, observing their behavior and photographing their magical presence in the park.

Scott Joshua Dere is an accomplished photographer based in New York.  In addition to a successful commercial and fine art business, Art Photographers, Scott pursues his passion for wildlife photography, offering prints and workshops at Elements of Nature.  Learn more about Scott at his website.