Bull Elk Takes On a Wolf Pack

Photos by Donald M. Jones
As told to Tom McCafferty Wildlife photographer Don Jones was in the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park at dawn last January when he saw this 6-point bull elk standing in a creek with three wolves watching from the bank.
Donald M. Jones: donaldmjones.com
The wolves belonged to a larger pack of 16 animals that's known as the Druid Pack.Donald M. Jones: donaldmjones.com
Don could see the rack of another older, larger bull poking out of the water nearby. That animal had been hit by a car two weeks earlier, after which it died in the river and then was eaten by the wolves.Donald M. Jones: donaldmjones.com
They would feed on the carcass, then bed on a on a bluff a hundred yards back from the river, toward a nearby patch of forest.Donald M. Jones: donaldmjones.com
During the month Jones spent photographing this area, three different bull elk died in this spot and were eaten by these wolves. "It was like they were going to the refrigerator," Jones says.Donald M. Jones: donaldmjones.com
The wolves were treating this particular opportunity like a serious training exercise, said Jones. The old adults would hang back on the bluff, just out of sight, letting last year's pups monitor the elk.Donald M. Jones: donaldmjones.com
These juvenile wolves would sometimes try to enter the water, but the bull would charge them, and so they generally kept to the bank. The wolves didn't want to get wet battling the elk in the creek.Donald M. Jones: donaldmjones.com
The temperature was 20 degrees below zero.Donald M. Jones: donaldmjones.com
Eventually the wolves would lose interest, and the bull would walk out of the water, but instead of trying to sneak by the wolves, for some reason he would head toward the pack.Donald M. Jones: donaldmjones.com
The wolves would then chase the bull back to the exact same spot in the creek, and he would have to fend them off again. This happened four times over the course of four hours that morning.Donald M. Jones: donaldmjones.com
A lot of elk die in this type of situation. Most elk can't wait out the cold, and the wolves kill them when they come back onto land. But this was a very fat, healthy bull.Donald M. Jones: donaldmjones.com
"He was never bleeding," Jones said. "He was a fit elk, defending himself and doing a fine job of it."Donald M. Jones: donaldmjones.com
Jones said it was one of the most amazing things he had ever watched.Donald M. Jones: donaldmjones.com
After the third round of being chased from the woods back to the water, most of the pack retreated to the forest to get out of the wind and cold, leaving only a single juvenile on the bluff to watch the elk.Donald M. Jones: donaldmjones.com
It was snowing, and that young wolf lay down and curled up into a ball. Again the bull left the creek and headed straight up the bluff toward the wolf. The wolf looked at the elk, but this time just curled its head back into its body.Donald M. Jones: donaldmjones.com
"I think he just wanted to sleep," Jones said. "And the rest of the pack had no visual."Donald M. Jones: donaldmjones.com
So the elk walked past and into the woods. When the pack returned, they appeared agitated...letting the elk go had apparently not been part of the plan. They walked down to the creek, sniffed along the bank, and eventually trailed the bull to the woods and were lost to sight.Donald M. Jones: donaldmjones.com
"I thought they were going to kill him," Jones said. "But they didn't."Donald M. Jones: donaldmjones.com
The next morning, Jones found the wolves on the other side of the road with a dead cow elk instead.Donald M. Jones: donaldmjones.com

Wildlife photographer Don Jones captured these dramatic photos of a pack of wolves wearing down a healthy bull elk by pinning the animal in the cold water of Yellowstone's Lamar River.