The Weekly Wolf

I spent six years living with the wolves of Mission:Wolf.
Each Monday, this page will feature a photograph and story
of these wolves or a fellow species from the gray wolf's ecosystem.

April 8, 2013



A Story of Tragedy and Hope in a Human Dominated Landscape

It’s been a long, dark winter for wolves. For the first time in generations, wolf hunting was opened on all sides of Yellowstone National Park. Since the snow started falling last September, 628 wolves have been legally killed in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. The tally is so high that Wyoming Game and Fish just proposed cutting their quota in half next year to keep their wolves from being re-instated on the Endangered Species List. Conversely, Montana just approved a trapping season and the use of electronic calling that imitates wolves or injured prey to lure unsuspecting wild wolves into hunters’ gun sights. And Idaho plans to reduce their wolf population from about 1,000 to the federal minimum of 150 through the near-year-round use of rifle hunting, trapping, snaring, and other lethal control actions.

So what do all of the numbers and political posturing add up to? Perhaps we should ask 755. No one knows for sure where he came from… the Yellowstone Wolf Project officially lists him as “unknown origin.” Until the moment in 2010 when he was darted and radio-collared, he was just a black wolf roaming the park, defined only by his wildness and wilyness. In that moment though, we stepped in and gave him a number – 755 – that became his name. Now people across the world follow his exploits, smiling at his triumphs and weeping at his sorrows.

He started out last winter as the powerful alpha male of one of the most famous wolf packs in the entire world – the Lamar Canyon Pack. With his loyal brother, 754, and fiery mate (known as 06) by his side, 755 was the undisputed king of Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley. Three litters of daughter and sons followed where he led. However, despite a profound chill in the air, the normally deep winter snows never arrived. And the elk herds that usually flee the high country for the shelter of the Lamar Valley never appeared. So, 755 and 06 led their family east out of the valley in search of food, never knowing that they’d left the protection of the park.

You’ve probably heard what happened next. First 754, the loyal and fun-loving brother, and then 06, the beautiful and feisty alpha female, fell to the hunter’s guns. In the grand numbers game, their deaths meant little – 2% of Yellowstone’s wolf population, a mere 0.001% of the estimated 1650 wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. But what about the effect on 755 and his pups? With the heart of their pack lying still in the bloody snow, the tight-knit family fell apart. Forlorn, 755 returned to the Lamar Valley alone while his sons and daughters lingered in Wyoming. Perhaps he was searching for a new mate. And as the world looked on, he found one… a lanky, shy female known as 759. We all hoped that this meant a happy ending to the tragic story.

But alas, 754 and 06’s deaths were to reverberate through the Lamar Valley yet again. Just as 755 and his new mate were settling down at a den site in preparation for their coming pups, some of his daughters reappeared in the valley with two huge new males. Chaos shattered the dawn as 755 and his new mate were attacked by his own pack. While a few youngsters joyously reunited with their long-lost father, his eldest daughters were intent on driving the new female out of their territory. A day later, 759, the lanky, shy new female we’d all just started to know passed away from her injuries. 755 feld the valley howling in grief and bewilderment.

Chaos and question marks still reign in the Lamar today, nearly a month later. The remaining Lamar Canyon Pack has splintered even further. In their mother’s absence, it seems all of the adult daughters bred with transient males this winter and are vying for the alpha position. A long road lies ahead for the daughters: 776, 820, “Middle Gray,” and “Butterface.” And what about 755? As resilient as ever, he seems to have picked himself up once again and has recently been spotted feasting on a winter-killed bison carcass with two unknown gray females.

So what’s the moral of the story? Yes, life goes on and new pups will soon banish these convoluted events to the recesses of our thoughts. And yes, in the grand scheme of the numbers game the death of a few wolves means little. But on the personal, emotional, psychological and ethical scales, one man’s decision kill a wolf has profound and lasting impacts.

April 1, 2013

Grizzly Bear 

Grizzy Bear

It’s April! And that means three things… grizzly bears are just emerging from their dens across Canada and the northwestern US, litters of tiny wolf pups are about to come into the world, and college students (particularly graduate film students like me) are hopefully and fearfully counting down the days to finals week. All three are time-honored signs of the changing season. Across the northland snow is receding, the days are getting longer, and animals of all kinds are feeling frisky. In Yellowstone, rangers and visitors alike impatiently await word of the first grizzly bear sighting of the year – sure to be a feeding frenzy of ravenous photographers and excited families. As the bears slowly stretch their great muscles and peek their seemingly prehensile noses out into the fresh spring air, new baby bison scamper for cover under their shaggy mothers and brilliant flocks of mountain bluebirds gather in the aspens.

On the formidable heels of their mothers, fuzzy grizzly bear cubs take their first hesitant steps into the wide world. Born in the den, the cubs weighed less then a pound at birth and spent their earliest months curled up safe and snug at mother’s side. Now, these bundles of boundless energy rough-and-tumble across the meadows and mountain hillsides they call home. They’ll stick close to their mother, learning all of the complicated facets of a grizzly bear’s life, for the next two to three years. She’ll show them the best places to look for miller moths (they account for nearly half of the yearly caloric intake of Yellowstone’s grizzlies), along with tasty huckleberry and buffalo berry patches, tubers, white bark pine nuts, ladybugs, bees and legumes. She’ll teach them how to follow the sound of raven cries and pungent scent trails to winter-killed bison and wolf-killed elk carcasses. She’ll shield them from the crowds of summer tourists sure to descend whenever they cross a road, and she’ll defend them from the always present threat of adult male bears that can weigh up to 800 lbs (more than twice her size). When the blush of the brief Rocky Mountain summer wears off, and frosty autumn mornings hint at the cold winter nights to come, she and her cubs will scramble to gather the last mouthfuls of moths before climbing back into their secluded den. There they’ll while away the long, dark hours until the sweet song of the mountain bluebird herald springtime once again.

For information on how to distinguish a grizzly bear from it’s smaller cousin, the black bear, take a look at this handy-dandy chart provided by The Get Bear Smart Society.

Get a closer look at grizzlies and their remarkable recovery in Yellowstone on Nature’s episode: The Good, the Bad, and the Grizzly.