"We really don't know them as individuals," Randall says as we stomp over the frozen ground. "But now that they're tagged, we can see who sleeps together, patrols together, and hangs out at the den together. Remember that young female who's babysitting the pups at the den? She's at the age where it's time for her to move out and find her own pack. Now we'll find out where she goes, what pack she moves into, and if she has pups of her own."
The wolves we're following, now reddish specks in the distance, are trotting toward a rocky bluff about a mile away. Then the rocks give way to a grassy saddle, and the wolves make their way along the rocky shore of a bright blue pond, their images rippling on the water's surface. Two ducks lift into the air, but the pack ignores them and continues on to a high meadow that's dotted with giant lobelia—spiky, eight-foot-tall plants that tower over the windswept grasses. Here the wolves stop to circle and pee, and Randall maps the spot on her handheld GPS.
"This is one of their boundary points," she whispers. "The territory on the other side of this ridge belongs to the Batu pack," named for a nearby mountain peak. Our pack, the Quarry pack, trots along some invisible line of demarcation. With their ears pricked forward and noses down to catch a scent, they're keenly alert to any sign of their rivals. But the Batu wolves have apparently decided to patrol elsewhere, and the Quarry pack moves on; there won't be any rumbles or chases this morning. "They'd be a lot more agitated if there were other wolves around," says Randall. "The pack with the most wolves usually wins the border fights, and right now Batu is bigger than Quarry."
When Ethiopian wolves aren't patrolling, they're usually hunting, and the Quarry pack has now split up in search of breakfast. Unlike other wolf species, which typically hunt in groups, Ethiopian wolves are solitary hunters. They prey on the fat, bunny-size giant mole rats and grass rats that live in abundance on the high plains and meadows. From a boulder on the ridge we've climbed, Randall scans the meadow below and spots one of the males, now busy stalking rodents. "Let's follow him," she says.
But first she sweeps the far plains and hills with her binoculars, picking out the other hunting Quarry wolves and searching for, well, anything unusual. That's the other thing she does now on her morning patrols. She counts the living and looks for the dead.
Like many rare, isolated species, the Ethiopian wolf could vanish for any number of reasons: shrinking habitat, mating with domestic dogs, shooting. Yet the most immediate threat they face is disease, in particular disease introduced by dogs. The latest outbreak of rabies, like several others in the past, probably started when a rabid dog entered the park with its owner and a herd of cattle. "There's a lot of social chasing and biting and licking among the packs," Randall says. "So if one wolf is infected with rabies, it can easily spread the disease to several others."