Yellowstone’s Heroine Wolves
By Douglas S. Smith
Meet Five, Nine, and Fourteen.
This year, 2005, marks the tenth anniversary of the restoration of wolves to Yellowstone National Park. In 1995, amidst heated controversy, 14 gray wolves were captured in Canada and transported to Yellowstone to beget a new population. At that time, no wolves had roamed the park for close to 70 years. They had been extirpated under a federally-mandated predator control program designed to make the West safe for livestock and to appease deer and elk hunters. This anniversary celebrates a new beginning both for humanity and for wolves. Therefore, the time seems fitting to pay homage to the three femalesýknown simply as Five, Nine, and Fourteenýwho began the first packs in Yellowstone, packs that continue to anchor the parkýs wolf population to this day.
November 2000. The pilot circled low to the ground. Weýd narrowed the search for Fiveýs radio signal to an area of trees burned during the 1988 fires. Even though Iýd spent hundreds of hours in the air tracking radio-collared wolves, tension put me on the edge of my seat. I had followed Five every week for the past five years, but now she had become separated from the Crystal Creek pack. Perhaps her tenure as the packýs alpha female was over. The last time I saw her she didnýt look good. During the past winter, I would find her lagging behind her pack mates, struggling to keep up through the deep snow.
It didnýt take us long to spot the almost white form sharply contrasted against a charcoaled log. She looked big lying there on her side. At least she hasnýt starved, I thought to myself. We circled several times, trying to get her to lift her head, to give us some sign of hope that she wasnýt dead. That reassurance never came.
Five, Nine, and Fourteen represent the centerpiece wolves in the Yellowstone wolf recovery effort. They were the lead females in their respective packs. Alpha wolves: the breeders. Five was the first wolf ceremonially carried into the park by then Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, the late director of the Fish and Wildlife Service Mollie Beattie, and then park superintendent Michael Finley. Our plan called for a ten-week acclimation period inside one-acre pens before liberation into the wild, a strategy aimed at breaking the wolvesý homing instincts. We didnýt want any of them hightailing it back to Canada. No one expected the wolves to breed that first stressful year. But our pioneers proved us wrong. Nine, of the Rose Creek pack, and Fourteen, of the Soda Butte pack, were the first to give birth.
Nine had spent a week alone with her daughter, Seven, in the Rose Creek pen, before we introduced the big male, Ten. Cupidýs arrow hit its mark, and the two soon mated. When we gave the Rose Creek wolves their freedom on March 21, all three lingered for seven days in the penýs vicinity before Seven struck off on her own to become a lone wolf.
The mated pair ranged widely, traveling 30 miles or more beyond the parkýs northern boundary, as far as Red Lodge, Montana. There, in late April, Nine gave birth to a litter of pups under a tree; on the move, she didnýt take time to dig a den. Her situation was already complicated: The previous day, someone had shot and killed Ten. The man was later convicted of killing an endangered species, fined $10,000, and sentenced to six months in jail. His illegal act made Nine a single parent. She was alone in unfamiliar terrain, several miles from downtown Red Lodge. I kept tabs on her by hanging a radio antenna outside my hotel window. Shortly, Nine transferred her pups to a boulder-strewn field, where they crawled in between the rocks and hid. They emerged only to nurse.
Concerned that these pups would die with no father to help provide for them, we decided to recapture the family. Though the youngsters were only three weeks old that May, those balls of fur fought fiercely. With great difficulty, we managed to fish seven moaning, growling, squealing pups out from among the jumble of rocks. Seven was all, I thought, but a fellow biologist assured me that what I considered to be a hunk of mud up a dark, deep crevice was in fact an eighth pup. I could just touch the mud/pup with the tip of my finger, even with two of my colleagues pushing against my six-foot-two frame. Still, I needed to stretch a couple more inches to pull whatever was in there out. Our helicopter pilot came to the rescue with a pair of pliers. Back in I went, thrust forward by a boost of bruising urgency. I barely got ahold of something solid and extracted it by what turned out to be the skin of the pupýs headýthe eighth was rescued. Often, on tracking flights, I wonder whether that last hidden pup is the one that Iým looking down on.
After we secured the family, a late July windstorm sent ten trees crashing down on their Rose Creek pen. All the pups escaped, but Nine, ever the wary wolf, chose not to slip out. When I arrived with food, her pups were frolicking just outside the downed fence. We had to recover them. First we repaired the pen. Then, with much effort, we succeeded in apprehending six of the energetic pups. I almost injured myself diving with an outstretched net at one pup who joyfully outran me. He was one of two that we failed to catch, but without the company of their mom and siblings, they wouldnýt go far. To this day, Eighteen, one of those elusive wolvesýnow eight years old and the alpha female of the Rose Creek II packýconsistently evades our attempts to capture and radio-collar her. Fortunately her distinctive markings make it easy for us to identify her.
In October, several days before we reunited Nine and her pups with the two renegades, a yearling maleýEight, from the nearby Crystal Creek packýjoined the two youngsters outside Rose Creek pen to wait for the release of their mother. Actually, it surprised me that Nine attracted only one suitor. The “new dad” had to put up with two very rambunctious, happy-to-have-company pups. He readily obliged, and when we freed Nine and the other six pups, they formed one big happy family. Eight and Nine produced pups together for four seasons, from 1996 to 1999.
Nine lived in the same pack with her daughter, Eighteen, until 2000, when conflict between the two led Nine to travel east of the park to the Absaroka wilderness. Nine bred again in 2000, but no pups survived, possibly due to her advanced age. Wild wolves are known to live up to 13 years. No one knows the maximum breeding age for females, but Nine kept on trying. In 2001 she must have been at least nine years old, probably older, and her black fur had turned so gray it appeared white. Our genetic analyses indicate that 79 percent of the Yellowstone wolves alive in 1999 were descended from Nine. If any wolf could be credited with standing this population on its feet, it would be Nine. Over the years, many people have contacted us, wanting to contribute money to commission a statue in her honor. Since spring 2001, Nineýs radio signal has been silent. It seems appropriate that she has vanished into the Yellowstone wilds.
Fourteen, of the Soda Butte pack, was the youngest of the three heroines. Unlike Nine, she did not produce a bevy of pups in 1995; in fact, only one of her pups survived that year. In 1996 she denned on a 13,000-acre ranch north of Yellowstone. Despite the fact that the Soda Butte pack never once preyed on livestockýa ranch cowboy even commented that “it was nice to see ýem [the wolves] out there with the elk”ýthere were death threats. That meant we had to step in and transfer four adults and four pups back to the park. This time the capture required no diving acrobatics in pursuit of wily pups. These little ones had sheltered deep inside a burrow, and we merely had to inch our way into a dark hole with a flashlight to retrieve them. We released the pack of eight in October 1996 along the southeast arm of Yellowstone Lake, one of the most remote areas in the continental United States. It was almost exactly one year after we freed the Rose Creek wolves. In 1997 Fourteen gave birth to new pups near beautiful Heart Lake.
Tragedy struck in 1997. Fourteenýs mate, Thirteen, was much older than she. Like Nine, his fur had turned from black to gray. By February, we commonly found him at the rear of the pack. In March, his collar emitted the accelerated series of beeps that signals a dead wolf.
After that, Fourteen took off, leaving her offspring from two litters behind. She traveled west through inhospitable terrain that she had never ventured into before. We followed her for miles from the air; pristine snowfields made the tracking easy. Alone on the windblown Pitchstone Plateau, she halted for a moment just to peer up at our plane, then she continued west for 25 more miles.
Eventually, Fourteen made her way back to her family. Her strange movements so perplexed me that I called colleagues to see if anyone had ever recorded such behavior. No one had. And no one, including myself, wanted to suggest that she had traveled alone so far because she was mourning the loss of her mate. But she never bred again even though she consorted with other mature males.
The Soda Butte pack carried on despite losing their alpha male. Late snows in 1997 delayed the elk migration until December. When the elk left, the wolves did too, penetrating deep into the territory of the Thorofare pack to follow their prey. The Thorofares consisted of two introduced adults and the six pups they produced after their release. Being older and more experienced, the Soda Butte wolves (four adults and four pups) had the edge in case of confrontation. Clash the packs did, and the Soda Buttes killed Thorofareýs alpha male and chased the alpha female and one of her pups into a snow-packed valley, triggering a huge avalanche. Days later we tried in vain to dig through the ice and snow to retrieve their carcasses. Not until August, when we could ride in by horseback, did we recover the bodies of the Thorofare wolves. Fourteenýs pack now claimed all of the area south of Yellowstone Lake.
In April 2000 tragedy struck again. On a routine tracking flight on the south side of Yellowstone Lake, we discovered Fourteenýs carcass with a golden eagle feeding on it. A hundred yards away, we spotted a partially consumed moose. Their state of decay suggested both had died at the same time. It seemed likely that Fourteen, at age six, had lost her life in a fight with the moose. Later, our pilot observed a grizzly bear covering the dead wolf with debris as if it had made the kill. We discussed hiring a helicopter to retrieve Fourteen, but with scavengers already at work, weýd be unlikely to find out anything moreýand I knew my true reasons for wanting to go back in there were sentimental.
That summer, I rode in on horseback. Ecological agents of all kinds had entirely devoured the moose. And except for bones and hide, not much remained of Fourteen. I discovered that since the last time I had handled her, she had broken her leg and the bone had healed with a slight bend to it. Watching her from the air, I never detected anything amiss. As I knelt beside the tatters of her carcass, a slight breeze whispered through the tall grass. I felt at peace in the quiet of this isolated spot.
Finally, thereýs Fiveýs story to finish. She had no pups that first year. Though she excavated several dens, she never used them. In 1996 she gave birth, but the Druid pack, made up of a released Canadian pair and their three offspring, killed her pups. During this raid, Fiveýs mate, Four, was also killed, and Five suffered serious injuries. Only the young male, Six, survived. The shattered Crystal Creek pack left the lush Lamar Valley for the more remote Pelican Valleyýa Garden of Eden for wolves in summer, when elk and bison congregate to eat the nutrient-rich grass. But winter snows and freezing temperatures transform Eden into one of the harshest environments in North America. Only a few bison overwinter. They scrape out a bitter existence around thermal hot springs that melt the snow and uncover scant forage. To stay alive, the bison stir as little as possible and rely on their stored body fat for fuel. Some grow weak before spring and must face the wolves. The battles sometimes reach epic proportions despite the bisonsý debilitated state. In 1999 I watched Five and her pack mates make two successful bison kills, one involving 14 wolves and lasting nine hours.
In winter 2000, now only four wolves strong, the pack killed two more bison. In one battle, Five contributed what she had left in her old age to help bring down an ailing victim. Five was now aloneýher second mate had cut his femoral artery in a fight with a bull elk and died.
The last time I looked into Fiveýs eyes, before that fateful day by the log, she was walking away from an elk her pack had killed. The Crystal Creek wolves were traveling faster than she could manage. It was January, and she was alone in deep snow. As we flew overhead, she looked up at us, as she always did. But the look she gave me had changed. To gaze into the eyes of a wild wolf is one of the holiest of grails for lovers of nature; some say what you see is untamed, unspoiled wildness. American conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote eloquently of the “green fire” in a dying wolfýs eyes. That day in January, something had gone out of Fiveýs eyes; she looked worried. Always before, her gaze had been defiant.
I still sometimes tune into Fiveýs radio frequency, hoping to hear the unique signal that belonged to her. Biologists who spend years radio-tracking suffer from the same occupational hazardýhearing “ghost” beepsýespecially when wanting to hear one response so badly.
When I make my weekly flights over the vacant stretches of Yellowstone, I contemplate the big picture of the wolvesý return to this vast landscape and the ever-widening ecological ripples that have resulted. Then, three wolves take over my thoughts. Iýll never know what happened to Nine, or to Five. But I do know this a good place for a wolfýor any creatureýto live and to die.