BRIDGER — In the dry sagebrush foothills west of here, sheltered in the rain shadow of the imposing Beartooth Mountains, lives an unusual bit of Pennsylvania history — 35 descendants of the McCleery buffalo wolves.
“It’s just a fascinating story, the history of these animals,” said Diane Gallegos, executive director of Wolf Haven International, a Tenino, Washington-based wolf rescue group.
Gallegos’ foundation became the new owners of the captive wolves this year, taking over a legacy that dates back to 1921. That’s when Edward McCleery — a Kane, Pennsylvania, physician — began buying wolf pups as animals were being exterminated across the West for killing livestock. His first purchase was of a captive 9-month-old wolf from a Sheridan, Wyoming, zoo.
The next four pups were reportedly offspring of Lady Snowdrift and Old Snowdrift, two white wolves that once roamed the Highwood Mountains of Montana. “They evaded ranchers and trappers until Lady Snowdrift was finally shot on Dexter Creek in 1923,” according to the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest’s website. “Soon after that, Old Snowdrift was caught in a trap baited with her scent.”
“He had them living right in town to begin with,” said Dennis Driscoll, a retired teacher involved with the Kane history group. “That pack could be the last of the pure wolves left in America.”
McCleery wanted to preserve the animals’ bloodline from extinction. In doing so, he tied the community’s identity to the animals with a public zoo. The school’s mascot is a wolf. Old yearbooks feature photos of a McCleery wolf at the football games.
Over the years, to ensure the captive animals’ survival, they interbred to the point that some of the descendants from the original wolves now carry genetic defects like underbites.
“They are super inbred,” said Wendy Spencer, director of operations for Wolf Haven and now the McCleery wolves’ caretaker.
“He was also unintentionally breeding for docility,” and would kill more aggressive wolves, Spencer said.
In 1972 the wolves moved with new caretakers Jack and Marjorie Lynch to Gardiner, Washington, where they were displayed in a wolf park called LoboLand USA. Lynch had given up his Wisconsin construction job, knowing nothing about wolves, for the life-changing move. Five years later, with the business verging on failure along with his marriage, Jack Lynch was nursed back to health by Mary Wheeler.
The two eventually wed and in 1980 moved their wolves to property they purchased outside the Paradise Valley community of Emigrant, just north of Yellowstone National Park.
“I wanted to find a place where Mary and I could just live with the wolves, learn about them, and spend less damn time being hassled by people,” Jack told the Missoulian in a 1987 story.
That was 15 years before the federal government would reintroduce wolves to the park, a plan the captive wolf keepers opposed.
Two years after Jack died in 2006, Mary — with the help of her son Ed Wheeler — moved the wolves to property she purchased outside of Bridger where they now reside. When Mary died in 2016, her son Ed and his wife Terry took over guardianship of the wolves while seeking a new home for the animals.
“We had dreams of bringing them back to Pennsylvania,” Driscoll said, after Wheeler reached out to some townsfolk who hadn’t known the wolves were still alive.
Wolf Haven International stepped into the picture even though Gallegos said her foundation’s board was cautious about taking care of more wolves — the Washington facility contains 58 animals. Eventually the board approved the project although it is required to be funded separately. In June Spencer moved to the Bridger property.
“Philosophically we had different ideas” with previous owners, Spencer said. “We don’t support breeding in captivity. Wolves shouldn’t be in captivity, period.”
Driscoll said some residents of Kane, Pennsylvania, were concerned when they found out the McCleery wolves would eventually all die. After all, the physician is seen by locals as the father of the endangered species movement.
The compromise was to preserve some of the male animals’ sperm and to test the wolves’ genetics to find out how or if they differ from wild wolves still living in North America.
“They’ve lasted a century longer than they would have” if McCleery had not preserved the animals, Driscoll noted.
Although no new wolves will be born to the captives, Wolf Haven will have to open its checkbook to care for the animals for perhaps the next 20 years — the length of time a wolf in captivity may live. Four pups were born earlier this summer. The oldest inhabitants, big males with massive white and silver heads, may be 15 to 17 years old.
“We want these wolves to live out their lives,” Spencer said.
Wolf Haven International will soon shed its low profile in Bridger in an attempt to raise about $120,000 annually to care for the captive wolves. That shouldn’t be too difficult, Gallegos said.
“There are folks who have a connection to wolves, there’s something about this animal that just has an impact on people,” she said.
That won’t mean exposing the animals to public tours, though. The wolves are not socialized to visitors like those in a zoo. It’s evident when three of the wolves run nervously around a den in a large circle — frightened and alarmed — as unknown humans approach. Because there’s no public access, Wolf Haven isn’t required to have a menagerie or zoo license from the state. The animals are, however, required to be tattooed so they can be identified should one escape.
“It’s really important that we come in and show people we want to be good community members and introduce them to our philosophy — we don’t believe in captivity and realize that wolves are challenging to live with,” Spencer said.
That last fact seems even more pertinent in her new home along the Beartooth Front, where wild wolves, coyotes, grizzly and black bears occasionally dine on cattle, sheep and other livestock. Although born on the East Coast, Spencer said she feels at home in the barren scrubland of Montana, a property powered by solar panels, propane and a constantly churning wind charger, and infested by an abundance of rattlesnakes and ravens.
Alex Pospisil, meat manager at the Valley Foods store in Bridger where Spencer buys 400 pounds of meat a week to feed the wolves, said he’s heard no negative comments from his clients and neighbors about Wolf Haven, Spencer or the captive animals.
“They’re not getting out,” he said.
As Wolf Haven settles in to its new quarters, Spencer said the future could position the facility and its staff to work on the “human dimension of wildlife conflict,” to establish a “peaceful coexistence” of wolves and humans.
“There are some people who want wolves no matter what,” she said. “That doesn’t serve anyone in the long run.
“But there are also hunters who think there’s no place for wolves on the landscape. It’s really all about the social tolerance if you care about large carnivores persisting on the landscape.”
Gallegos said Wolf Haven’s staff and board look forward to being in Montana. “Some of the most forward-thinking folks of living with wolves are in Montana.”
Even some residents of Kane, Pennsylvania, are looking forward to the McCleery wolves’ reappearance from the shadows into living representatives of their town’s unique history.
“I think they’re really in great hands with Wolf Haven International,” Driscoll said. “Everyone involved has their best interest at heart.”