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MT: One wolf’s journey from survivor to star, and what her death says about our appetite for the wild

In late October 2007, a white wolf died in Yellowstone National Park. The story had all the trappings of a Jack London novel: a turf war between rival packs pitting tooth against tooth with deadly consequences. The Hayden Valley pack had been living an increasingly hardscrabble life in the core of the park, sandwiched between the territories of two larger packs and ranging widely in search of food. They had denned for years in full sight of Yellowstone’s Otter Creek picnic area and wandered throughout the broad Hayden Valley, occasionally weaving in and out of traffic as visitors stopped to watch. Dozens and sometimes hundreds of tourists and veteran wolf watchers would convene along the pullouts on the Grand Loop and train their eyes on the far side of the Yellowstone River, hoping to spot the pack and its pups. Most prized was a glimpse of the white alpha female, a wolf known as 540, whose light-colored coat was rare among gray wolves.

There were no eyewitness accounts of that fall clash near Canyon Village, but the incident was well documented in the park’s 2007 annual wolf report. Members of the larger, distinctively darker Mollie’s pack—accomplished bison hunters all—had moved in on the Haydens from the Pelican Valley to the southeast with intent. The Haydens, always a notably small pack, were outmatched and outnumbered. When park staff later followed a blood trail through the Canyon Junction area, they discovered it had taken the white wolf hours to die. Her alpha mate, 541, was also killed in the skirmish. His body was found in Cascade Meadow just west of Canyon Junction.

A narrative of the incident in the park’s 2007 report concluded with a poetic flourish that bordered on the prophetic. “Maybe one of [her] pups will turn white,” it read, “and return someday to Hayden Valley.”

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In fact one Hayden female and five pups did survive their 2007 battle, and they fled to the northwest with the Mollie’s in pursuit. A clash with the Gibbons Meadow pack near Old Faithful claimed one pup. Accounts by Ralph Maughan, then president of the Wolf Recovery Foundation, posted to the website Wildlife News, tracked the Hayden survivors’ movements, and by mid-November he had located them near Seven Mile Bridge, roughly 10 miles east of West Yellowstone. They wandered, according to the 2007 report, “like a pack without territory.”

The white wolf’s surviving daughter left the pack, bred, and returned to give birth to two litters, neither of which survived. By spring 2008, that same female and two males from the Mollie’s pack had joined to form what biologists named the Canyon pack, settling into a territory adjacent to and overlapping the Haydens’ former claim. The color increasingly faded from the new alpha female’s coat, and the resemblance to her dead mother grew with each season. Veteran wolf watchers soon gave her a name. She became the White Lady.

Many Yellowstone wolves are assigned numbers, a convention that assists biologists in their research. Few get names. Names are most often given not by scientists, but by fans—members of an engaged public whose appetite for iconic animals is seemingly insatiable. So it was for Scarface, Yellowstone’s famously tattered old grizzly, and for the Lamar Canyon pack’s iconic alpha female, 06, so named for the year of her birth, who is now the subject of the book American Wolf, scheduled for publication in October and already optioned for Hollywood by Leonardo DiCaprio.

And so it was for the White Lady.

On April 11, not quite a decade after the death of her mother, the injured White Lady was discovered by hikers inside the park boundary near Gardiner. The park released a statement saying she’d been mortally wounded by a gunshot. She was euthanized by park staff, and her body was sent to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service forensic lab in Ashland, Oregon. The park posted a $5,000 reward for information.

The death of this second-generation white wolf quickly made headlines as far away as France, a sign of the celebrity she’d gained in her years as the head of the Canyon pack. The Center for Biological Diversity and the nonprofit Wolves of the Rockies added their own $5,000 rewards to the pot. The community group Heart of the Wild Yellowstone launched an online petition that has so far raised $7,820 for the effort. Including a GoFundMe campaign, the money offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the White Lady’s killer is in excess of $24,000.

Since the park’s initial April press release, Yellowstone officials have released scant information about the case. Multiple requests for details about the story all met with the same response: the investigation is ongoing, and for now, no park personnel are available for interviews.

The struggles facing Yellowstone’s wolves unfold largely beyond the view of visitors: the tough winters, the battle for control of territory or elk migration corridors (the leading cause of death among park wolves is other wolves). But some of these stories can be pieced together from research reports and the observations of devoted wolf watchers. And when the wolf in question is an icon scrutinized by near-constant public observation, it’s possible to piece together a picture of the White Lady’s life, and a sense of why her death sent shockwaves around the globe.

The crunch of bone

On a wintry day near Yellowstone headquarters in Mammoth, Nathan Varley steered a busload of tourists to the side of the road. Varley doesn’t remember the date. Sometime in 2008 or 2009, he says. What he does remember, vividly, are the sounds he heard through the open windows.

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Varley, a former biologist who runs multi-day trips through Wild Side Wildlife Tours, picked the spot in hopes of giving his group a chance to see some scavengers. Area wolves had recently made a kill close to the road, and the carcass was almost picked clean. As they waited for coyotes or carrion birds, a group of furry bodies came into view. It was the Canyon pack, and the White Lady was unmistakable.

“It was such a magical sighting that you could actually hear them gnawing on the bone,” Varley says. “For us, given the general distances that we’re dealing with, there’s not that audio part of the experience … so to actually hear them gnawing on bones right across the road, we were all awestruck.”

Varley considers that moment of intense proximity a gift from the White Lady. He became involved in the Yellowstone Wolf Project after the species’ reintroduction to Yellowstone in the mid-1990s, and he earned a PhD in ecological sciences researching wolf-prey interactions in the region. For Varley and his wife, Linda Thurston, the wolf-watching business evolved slowly in response to demand among park visitors for exposure to wolves. No pack offered better opportunities than the Canyons.

Unlike the Mollie’s and many other Yellowstone packs, the Canyons spent significant time in the public eye. In 2009the year Montana and Idaho first legalized hunting wolves outside the park after the species’ delisting—the Canyons were denning just outside Mammoth, feeding on elk and using the park’s road system to weave between the territories of other wolf packs. The Canyons’ habit of navigating those road corridors became a defining characteristic of their presence in Yellowstone. Few wolves feel comfortable so close to the park’s human visitors, but for the White Lady and her packmates, proximity seemed almost like a key to survival.

Veteran wildlife photographer and Yellowstone regular Max Waugh detailed the tactic in a memorial piece about the White Lady on his website shortly after her death.

“They ranged far and wide, sneaking into neighboring pack territory overnight, quickly disappearing and showing up in another pack’s territory several miles away the next day,” Waugh wrote. “They avoided conflicts by using the park road system, something other wolves were hesitant to do. Friends of mine encountered Canyon wolves on the road south of Mammoth one morning, only to see them on the road near Canyon junction later that afternoon. They had covered well over 20 miles in a few hours.”

Despite the Canyons’ savvy, their early years as a pack were tenuous. The White Lady and her alpha companion—a black ex-Mollie’s male known as 712produced several litters, but they failed to raise any pups to yearlings until 2010. The pack’s comfort in developed areas, though a boon for the public, forced park staff to remove carcasses and haze the wolves away. Yellowstone’s strictures against allowing animals to become too accustomed to or dependent on humans frequently prompts such hazings, which can include yelling, horn honking and the use of bean bag rounds and shell crackers. Animals that don’t respond to hazing efforts may be “removed” lethally.

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The Canyons temporarily settled in the Canyon area at the Hayden Valley pack’s old den and established a rendezvous site in the Hayden Valley a comfortable distance from public viewing areas. As 2011 approached, however, their nomadic tendencies kicked in again and they headed back toward Mammoth. The neighboring Blacktail Plateau pack killed one female Canyon pup, and in spring 2011 a female yearling was seen being fed by park visitors. According to that year’s report, the park responded by hazing her to “halt its behavior of approaching people.”

New Year’s Eve 2011 proved fruitful for Waugh, whose write-up documents his visit to a Canyon pack kill near the Gardiner River. The accompanying photos capture the alpha female and her jet-black mate feasting in grisly but beautiful fashion. That professional photographers and casual tourists alike could capture such images underscores the role the Canyons played in the park experience. That a member of the very pack that had killed her parents should become the White Lady’s mate shed light on, in Varley’s words, the “Shakespearean existence” of wolves.

“There’s no sense of holding a grudge or maintaining a rivalry over time,” Varley says. “If you can’t beat ‘em, you join ‘em.”

The Canyon pack count was up to eight in 2012, the first year that photographer Deby Dixon encountered the White Lady. She hadn’t yet heard of the pack, or its distinctive matriarch, when she spotted three elk running toward the Yellowstone River south of Hayden Valley. As she prepared to photograph the ungulates, she noticed a trio of wolves close on their heels. She set up her tripod and, as the elk entered the river, started firing frames of the wolves watching their would-be prey from the riverbank.

“It was just one of those experiences that was out of the blue, and you couldn’t have hoped to get, really,” Dixon says.

Later, Dixon began to hear stories about the by-then fabled white wolf, who in 2012 was nearing seven years old (the average lifespan of a Yellowstone wolf is four to five years). The park observed that her pack’s movements through Yellowstone seemed driven primarily by prey availability, and park personnel continued to discourage the wolves’ interactions with humans “due to their high tolerance and frequent proximity to visitors.” Even so, Dixon says, the visibility of the White Lady and her pack helped to draw a new wave of scope-toting wolf advocates to the Hayden Valley.

“You can see them hunt, you can see them playing, you can see them sleeping, which they do a lot, and yet have that chance that they might just come and swim the river and cross the road,” Dixon says. “It was sort of an intimate fishbowl in which you could observe the wolves safely without too much disturbance of them, and a lot of people got to see that.”

Star of the show

Among the mortalities listed in the park’s 2013 wolf report was an adult female of the Canyon pack, a black-furred, two-year-old daughter of the White Lady. Yellowstone wolf biologist Doug Smith told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that the wolf had shown “dispersal behavior,” leaving the pack, returning, and leaving again. She’d been shot, legally, by a Gardiner landowner who had lost more than a dozen sheep to wolves and been granted a shoot-on-sight permit by the state. Biologists concluded that the female, collared at the time and known as 831, had not been responsible for the sheep kills. Smith characterized her presence on the shooter’s property as being in the “wrong place at the wrong time.”

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That incident, which played out not far from where the White Lady was eventually shot, fanned the flames of the region’s ongoing wolf debate. Some mourned the wolf’s death on Facebook. Others celebrated with photos of 831’s corpse. According to the Chronicle, one such post included the phrase “Keep up the good work Montana.” The park classified 831’s death as a “control action.”

Back in the park, the Canyon pack had expanded its territory to the southwest following the disbanding of the neighboring Mary Mountain pack. The White Lady and 712 were getting on in years, and sightings were increasingly being greeted as potentially the last. The uproar over 831’s untimely demise came as yet another indication of the devoted following that had developed around the Canyons. In summer 2014, Dixon observed another dramatic moment in the Canyons’ lives. A former alpha male of the Lamar Canyon pack called 755, whose mate, the well-known wolf 06, had been killed by a hunter outside the park in 2012, had come to court one of the White Lady’s sub-adult daughters. The reactions of the two Canyon alphas drove home to Dixon how different individual wolves’ personalities can be. The White Lady had never appeared to be an affectionate mother, and, by Dixon’s recollection, she was hardly fazed by her daughter’s departure. Her mate, 712, his fur now graying, was quite the opposite.

“He was sitting there howling forever,” Dixon says. “It’d been going on for a couple of days, and it was obviously the final goodbye. He was really devastated by it, but [the White Lady] just kept on going.”

A year later, park reports identified the new couple and their four pups as the Wapiti Lake pack, occupying a portion of the Canyons’ territory, namely the Hayden Valley. The White Lady’s daughter was also turning white

That summer was also the first time Dixon noticed the White Lady’s limp—the result, she speculates, of a broken right front leg. The limp persisted throughout the coming years, but as many of her fans noted, she endured with the same resourcefulness that allowed her pack to flourish in the near-constant company of onlookers.

“She still had to confront bison and elk and strategize her way around other wolf packs in the park,” Varley says. “But yet she adapted very well to literally thousands or millions of visitors streaming through on the roadway and looking for her. She could kind of live in both of those worlds quite well, and was really emblematic of the whole Yellowstone wolf-watching scene. Star of the show.”

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Dixon found herself somewhat fearful in the early months of 2017. She’d become aware of numerous sightings in February suggesting that the White Lady had separated from her pack. There were rumors that, at age 12, she was starting to suffer from canine dementia. The last day Dixon saw her, though, the White Lady had reunited with the other Canyons. They had a carcass near Mammoth, Dixon remembers, and Dixon made a guess about where they’d be bedded down.

“All of a sudden I looked up and there she was, standing on the ridge,” she says. “She came down to the road, and it was basically just me. People had been looking, but they’d given up and gone inside. The rest of the pack didn’t want to follow, so she eventually turned around and went back up.”

Dixon was grateful for this last bit of time with the White Lady. Weeks later, she learned of the shooting and felt a “profound sense of loss.” That it happened so close to her own hometown of Gardiner only deepened her sadness.

“When Scarface was shot I was almost relieved, because I’d seen him looking so terrible,” Dixon says, referencing the famed grizzly that was shot to death near Gardiner in 2015. “In contrast to that, she did not look terrible the last time I saw her. She looked really good, she looked very alert, aware of her surroundings, she was really loving with her family. … She still had some time left.”

Double-edged fame

On June 22, the online news outlet Yellowstone Insider disclosed new details about the death of Scarface drawn from an FWS investigative report released under a Freedom of Information Act request. The story revealed that an investigator with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks had interviewed an elk hunter at his camp in November 2015 after the hunter called the agency to report having shot a grizzly the night before. The hunter disclosed that he’d fired on the bear with a rifle on the evening of Nov. 18, after the bear appeared in the light of his headlamp about 10 feet away. Federal officials closed the case without charges in July 2016.

As with Scarface, the public attention to the White Lady’s killing can be largely attributed to the wolf’s highly public profile. Given the polarizing nature of wolves, Dixon isn’t shy about speculating about the killer’s motives. And she questions whether elevating individual animals to celebrity status puts them in greater danger.

“When we celebrate them and they become, in the hunter’s or the hater’s mind, the be-all of Yellowstone, they resent it,” Dixon says. “Some of these guys love to kill what we love, and they want the trophy, they want the wolf with the status, they want the attention that comes from killing a famous wolf. Even if they’re not going to reveal who they are, whoever shot this wolf I feel for certain knew who he was shooting and watches the reactions.”

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Bethany Cotton, the Missoula-based wildlife program director for the nonprofit WildEarth Guardians, hinted at this same conundrum in a recent commentary for High Country News. Her piece touches on the deaths of Scarface, a Grand Canyon wolf named Echo that was killed by a hunter in Utah in 2015, and the first wolverine to visit North Dakota in 150 years, which was shot dead by a rancher last year. Talking to the Indy, Cotton acknowledges that there’s a line between appreciating wildlife and “anthropomorphizing animals and attributing emotions to them.” At the same time, she doesn’t discount the power that individual animals like the White Lady have to draw people closer to the species.

“People get to see her and feel this connection with an animal that was absent for so long,” Cotton says, “and that helps people understand the importance of conservation work in general, of the Endangered Species Act in particular … and really brings to ground these concepts of what’s been called ‘America’s greatest idea,’ our public lands network.”

Varley agrees that the fame that attaches to the White Lady and other charismatic animals is a double-edged sword. Making her a symbol of wolf resilience may well have increased the temptation for someone to attack that symbol. Still, Varley thinks, the downside of the White Lady’s fame is outweighed by the power of her legacy. If there’s one thing humans can identify with, he says, it’s a martyr.

“The story gets through, it breaks through with an individual, when it often fails as a population,” he says. “The African lions are really having a hard time. Does anyone really care, is anyone really noticing lions are disappearing? But when Cecil the lion gets shot and killed—boom—everyone is excited and understands.”

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