Maybe it's all those big, bad fairy tales, but Californians are crazy about wolves. Since a wild gray wolf tracked by Oregon wildlife officials migrated into California in late December, California Department of Fish & Game offices have fielded 50 to 75 calls a day about him.
The department has put a map of the wolf's travels on its website (www.dfg.ca. gov/wildlife/nongame/wolf) and regularly posts updates on his location. The posts are intentionally vague and delayed, though, to protect the wolf, said Harry Morse, a DFG spokesman.
Known as OR7, or Journey, the wolf is protected by the Endangered Species Act; he's the first wild wolf documented in California in nearly 90 years.
That's part of the fascination, Morse said. But it's more than that.
Wolves have an "aura," he said. "And people are just interested."
In late December, Morse took a personal vacation to Yellowstone National Park on a "Winter Wolf Discovery" tour offered by the Yellowstone Association. It was the latest of several wolf-spotting trips he's taken.
The nonprofit Yellowstone Association offers year-round wildlife tours, including one each season aimed specifically at tracking wolves.
Here's what Morse had to say about his trip and about the lure of wolves.
>Where do you recommend seeing wolves in their natural habitat?
Yellowstone National Park is the best place in the nation to see a wolf. Lamar Valley is the best of the best, with vast, rolling hills that are visible from the road.
Using a spotting scope, you can see wolves hunting most days. Going with a naturalist increases the odds of seeing a wolf. Some of the best naturalists work with the educational programs run by the Yellowstone Institute out of Mammoth in Yellowstone National Park.
>What's the best time of year?
I like the winter and fall. During the winter it is a wonderland without lots of people. Winter is special since you feel like you have gone back in time and a mantle of snow covers the park.
It is the best time to see wolves on a landscape that seems wild and primitive. Fall is my other favorite. During September and October the weather is good, elk are bulging and the wolves are actively hunting.
>How much of spotting a wolf is luck?
In winter in Lamar Valley you are going to see wolves at a distance. As the seasons change, they are less predictable and harder to see, since they blend in better. On the snow they stand out. On the spring and fall trips I took it was a lot tougher to see wolves. We saw wolves on each trip, but it was not a sure thing like the winter viewing.
The one big advantage the naturalists for the Yellowstone Association have is their connection with the park wolf biologists. Often, the park biologists will tell them where a kill is because they know the guides will not disturb the wolves and keep a safe distance.
>Does the Yellowstone Association offer advice on how to prepare?
They send out a checklist of all the things they will provide, including spotting scopes and binoculars, and the things that you need to prepare for. They have a very specific list for winter because they want you dress properly so you are not cold.
>What additional preparations do you recommend?
Read up on some of the life history of animals you want to see and the unique geothermal features from Old Faithful to mud pots.
The park has a great history and PBS has a wonderful program on Yellowstone in winter that you can view on their website.
>How fit do you need to be?
Most of the wildlife- watching educational programs do not require a high degree of fitness. The brochure on each of the activities gives specific recommendations. The longest walk we went on was less than a mile. The change in altitude and cold in winter is the toughest thing to get used to.
>How do you get around once you're there?
In the winter, you most often go in and out on snowcats from West Yellowstone and vehicles from Gardiner, Mont.
In December, we drove vans in and out of Lamar Valley because it is one of the few plowed roads. The vans are comfortable and easy to store gear in.
In Mammoth (site of the lodge) snow is cleared and it is easy to get around. At Old Faithful you need a Snowcat to get around.
I did a lot of cross-country skiing around Old Faithful. It is really beautiful.
>What's included in the trip?
Almost everything is included. Most meals, room, transportation, guides and equipment for wolf watching. The naturalists take time to go over the history of the wildlife and geothermal features in the park in an interesting way.
>What else might you see?
The bison herds are very interesting. Some of the bulls weigh up to 2,000 pounds. We also watched wolves on an elk they killed. ... Lots of elk during the spring, summer and fall months and the occasional bear. Swans and other waterfowl are found year-round along the rivers, and the occasional bald eagle visits the park to nest each spring.
I saw coyotes almost every day, close enough to get some good photos.
>Why are people so interested in wolves?
Wolves fascinate people. They are one of the last wild vestiges of bygone eras and historical tales.
They embody wildness and wilderness in an era of high-rise, office cubicles and driving the kids to sports practice and dance lessons.
With many dedicated wolf watchers, it is almost a spiritual connection.
SPRING WOLF DISCOVERY
What: The three-day guided trip takes you through Yellowstone National Park's northern range in search of the carnivores. Naturalists will take you on hikes of up to three miles a day through the animals' habitat. In addition to the expertise of park naturalists, the trip includes transportation, four nights lodging at Mammoth Hot Springs, breakfasts and lunches, and dinner on the last night.
Where: Yellowstone National Park, stay at Mammoth Hot Springs
When: Three-day programs offered May 12, 14, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28, and 30
Cost: $669-$893, not including taxes or utility fees
Information: (866) 439-7375 or www.yellowstoneassociation.org
What else: The Yellowstone Association also offers Summer Wildlife Expedition trips (June-August), Fall Wolf and Elk Discovery trips (August-October) and Winter Wolf Discovery trips (December-February).