The open spaces and plentiful, diverse mammal populations of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the U.S. Rocky Mountains translate to excellent wildlife-viewing – including what are widely regarded as some of the best wolf-watching opportunities anywhere in the world.

A lot of that wolf-watching takes place at a distance (as it should), with lounging, gambolling, patrolling, grizzly-annoying lobos perceived long-range through binoculars or spotting scopes.

Sometimes, though, up-close encounters with wolves take place unexpectedly – particularly along Yellowstone’s road system. Last month, Nick Zimmer had such an encounter. On December 21, he told For the Win/USA Today, Zimmer had spent the day on the trail of the Wapiti Lake Pack, currently Yellowstone’s largest at roughly 20 wolves. He’d seen eight of the Wapiti Lake wolves during the day, and had hoped to find the rest of the pack as well. Coming up empty on that count, he was heading out of the park in the evening, driving across the Yellowstone Northern Range where large numbers of ungulates spend the winter, when he found himself in the thick of a wolf hunt.

“Right at dark I came around a bend and saw an elk sprinting full speed,” Zimmer wrote on Instagram. “I thought I could see black dots chasing it so I grabbed my phone and recorded. I missed the first elk being chased and didn’t know there was a second until it came exploding onto the road! The 10 wolves continued the chase and took the elk down 75 yards from the road.”

In Zimmer’s footage, the second elk skids across the asphalt with wolves in close pursuit; at one point, the elk kicks out with its hind legs in an attempt to thwart its pursuers.

Those kicks, by the way, can pack a punch: Wolves commonly suffer injuries from the defensive hoof strikes of elk, and some of these wounds end up fatal. (Yellowstone wolves are occasionally also gored by the antlers of bull elk.)

Zimmer was enthralled by the encounter. “Being the only one there, it was so quiet around that you could actually hear the wolves panting after a long chase,” he told For the Win/USA Today.

“I could still barely see them in the darkness and stayed awhile watching and listening to the wolves eating their fresh kill,” he said.

Elk, or wapiti, compose about 90 percent of the winter diet of Yellowstone wolves. The canids – endurance, or “cursorial,” hunters, like other pack-hunting wild dogs – aim to run down these big deer and drag them to the ground; often the killing stroke is a sustained bite to the throat, which either throttles the elk or cuts the jugular vein.

As with many large carnivores, however, many elk predation attempts by wolves fail – and, as we’ve already mentioned, these attacks can be risky for the wolves. It’s tough work being a wolf – and tough work being an elk, too, we might add, not least when trying to stay a step ahead of both wolves and the fierce winters of Yellowstone country.

That big Wapiti Lake Pack, by the way, was the same involved in a bit of a squabble with a big grizzly bear last October, which was also caught on film.


Top header image: Jethro Taylor/Flickr