Amidst the manifold feelings surrounding the fires in the park, the loss of Sperry Chalet, and the closing of the Going-to-the-Sun road, something exciting has happened. Wolf sightings on the Oxbow Trail!
Wolves have long called this place home before any fur trappers or homesteaders arrived. Wolves have also long been the victims of misunderstanding, hate, and extermination. Even America’s iconic conservationist president, Theodore Roosevelt, called them “beasts of waste and desolation.” Wolves have often been seen as killers—feasting on our livestock and our game. Americans systematically killed off wolves. By 1910 there were only three or four packs remaining in the United States—all in Glacier National Park, which was established that year. “The resolution of the wolf problem” was high priority for the new managers of America’s 10th National Park. Early rangers used guns, traps, and poison to successfully eliminate the species from the park by 1936. The park was wolf-free for about 50 years until the 1980s when members of the Magic Pack, from Canada, denned and birthed a litter of five pups in the North Fork area. Due to changing public values and attitudes, the wolf population within the park has prospered and today there are six to eight packs.
It seems as though one of those packs may have made its way south to the Apgar mountain area and Lower McDonald Creek. On September 20th, beloved ranger, Bill Schustrom was leading a Creekside Stroll and spotted two wolves. Ranger Bill said that they had reached the Oxbow and a woman on his hike said, “Oh, there’s a wolf.” He looked down in the direction she was pointing and sure enough saw a black wolf in the dried creek bed and a grey wolf in the bushes nearby. Ranger Bill was thrilled! “I’ve worked here forty-three years and never seen a wolf!” Bill said that he has seen most of the other charismatic mega-fauna species: grizzlies, lynx, bobcat, and mountain lion, but never a wolf. “I got close once about 15 years ago on a snowy fall day driving up the Inside North Fork Road. There were big tracks that I followed for a ways, and then they disappeared off into the woods.”
Ranger Bill is not the only lucky person to have seen wolves in the Lower McDonald Creek area. A visitor encountered about nine wolves on the Oxbow trail, and a few days later Ranger Alexie saw a black wolf cross in front of her car on the way to work; it was heading toward the Oxbow. Later that morning, whilst leading another Creekside Stroll, a couple of visitors presented her with a fresh jaw bone (likely from a deer) that had been picked mostly clean. In the evening on September 24th, another visitor saw ten wolves cross the Camas Road.
There’s nothing quite like wolves to create a sense of wilderness. There seems to be a certain mystique around top predators like wolves, grizzly bears, and mountain lions—their legendary histories across many cultures; their power. “There is nothing, besides humans, above them in the food chain,” said Ranger Bill admiringly. Ironically, the Oxbow Trail is generally one that I don’t quite think of as wilderness: the trail is mostly flat, hikers take the paved Apgar Bike Path to reach it, and it is very close to both bike path and the Camas Road. It is a trail that I had never embraced or felt drawn to walk until last month’s wolf sightings. Since the sightings began I’ve now ambled along the Oxbow Trail a few times in hopes of glimpsing one of the enigmatic canines, and each time I’m struck by the peace and wild tranquility I find there. The gurgling of water flowing over the rocks in Lower McDonald Creek. The chorus of bird songs. The rustling as squirrels leap from limb to limb. The fall colors dappling Apgar Mountain. The wolf sightings along the Oxbow trail and my subsequent explorations in the area have served as an excellent reminder for me that wilderness is truly all around us here in Glacier.
How can I see a wolf at Glacier? Well for one thing, it is important to remember that we must keep a safe distance of 100 yards (a whole football field) in between us and large predators such as wolves and bears. Secondly, wolves like many animals are shy and are most commonly spotted in the early mornings and around dusk. Wolf populations are most abundant in the North Fork area of the park, but also along the Camas Road and on National Forest Service land. If you take an evening spin along the Camas Road, you may just get lucky and see some of these majestic creatures.