The Weekly Wolf
I spent six years living with the wolves of
Each Monday, this page will feature a photograph and story
of these wolves or a fellow species from the gray wolf's ecosystem.
March 25, 2011
Nature is a wondrous, often frustrating, perpetually surprising thing. And this photo (yep, it's an honest-to-goodness photo, believe it or not) embodies all of these qualities. On the very last morning of my recent film shoot in Yellowstone, I arrived in the Lamar Valley to find the Lamar Canyon Pack had disappeared again overnight. With all hope of capturing an elk hunt for my movie dashed, I pulled off the road next to a couple of park visitors. Squinting against the bright sun and with binoculars raised, they pointed across the valley and assured me there were two wolves asleep in the snow - somewhere. Every wolf-watcher would inevitably recognize the fragmented conversation that followed:
Me: Where are they?
Visitor: Okay... see those tree over there?
Me: Umm... yeah... (thinking to myself that there's about a billion trees on the mountainside in front of us)
Visitor: Oh wait... dang, I lost them... there! Okay, keep going back until you see a dead tree that leans a little to the left,
to the right of that is a big rock, and a little bit past that are a couple of sticks, behind those is a black blob?
I think that's a wolf.
Me: Hmmm... (as I see the black blob morph into a a raven and fly away)
You can imagine how long this went on. I did eventually spot the two gray-colored wolves curled up in the snow under one of those cottonwood trees. The visitors soon lost interest in watching sleeping wolves from 1/2 a mile away and moved on. I settled in for a long afternoon of waiting. As the minutes and hours ticked away the sun climbed higher, the winter's snowpack melted faster, and the wolves occasionally lifted their heads to look around. I couldn't really blame them... it was turning out to be the first truly warm day in months and I'd have been sunbathing too if I didn't have a film to make. As the day waxed on, the chances that the wolves would move again before sunset quickly waned. When I studied animal behavior as a scientist, waiting for wildlife was one of the most tedious aspects of the job... and now I'm finding it's still true as a filmmaker. But you never know when your patience will pay off. That particular day I met a couple of enthusiastic families visiting Yellowstone for the first time - one from Norway, one from Japan, and one from Florida. It was great getting to help people from all over the world catch a glimpse of their first wild wolf, and to simultaneously hear squeals of excitement in three different languages when the two wolves suddenly stood up. The people's fascination with the wolves as they slowly trotted across the valley reaffirmed all of the reasons I started working in wolf education nearly 15 years ago.
I'm not sure exactly how they do it, but wolves seem to transfix everyone who sees them. Some people just can't contain their joy - dancing, crying and squealing with delight. Others literally shake in fear for the first few minutes, then slow smiles spread across their faces. And yet others refuse to look, furious with their families for dragging them here and convinced that all of the wolves should be shot on sight. I've never known another animal that can elicit that level of reaction, that kind of passion, from everyone they meet. And that's why I started the Weekly Wolf to begin with... to teach people about these enigmatic creatures... and because I've also fallen under their spell.
As the two wolves continued across the valley, they came closer and closer to us. Soon I could recognize one of them as 820, the beautiful female I'd spent a couple of days filming earlier in the week. I'd fallen in love with her striking face and bold disregard for us humans. Even with the Wolf Project's tracking plane circling overhead and nearly a hundred people piled up on the road nearby, 820 wasn't phased... she always seemed to look through us, focusing instead on the landscape she calls home. I can't help but worry about her. What will happen when she stands surveying the part of her domain that lies outside Yellowstone's boundaries and a hunter happens to walk past? Will she know the difference between the sound of a camera click and the sound of a rifle bullet clicking into place? And yet, nothing could tear me away from her graceful stride and delicate features. Even as I continued to film, I knew that the footage would be useless - the heat waves were just too intense - but I couldn't stop. And even now, weeks later, I find myself mesmerized by this particular image... a single video frame captured as a photograph, that looks like a watercolor painting of 820 and her sister.
March 18, 2013
Lamar Canyon Pack
I have spent much of the last month in Yellowstone National Park, shooting a film about the effect wolves have had on the ecosystem since their reintroduction. In the first three weeks of my trip, I was lucky enough to get footage of 6 different moose, coyotes fighting over an elk carcass with bald and golden eagles, an otter playing on the river ice, innumerable bighorn rams, a bugling bull elk, herds of bounding pronghorns, and hundreds of migrating bison. However, I only caught fleeting glimpses of the wolves. How on Earth was I supposed to make a 15-minute film about the trophic cascade without any wolves?
Then, out of the blue, they appeared. Just as I’d given up hope and started questioning my whole project, the Lamar Canyon pack seemingly materialized out of the ether. First one wolf, #820, showed up on a hillside just above the road. I spent the whole day mesmerized by her beautiful face and kept the camera rolling even as she curled up for an hours-long nap in the sun. As I rounded a bend in the road the next morning, a sea of cars, wolf-watchers and spotting scopes told me something unusual was going on. #820 was gone, but in her place stood the rest of the pack. Whipping out the camera and tripod, I joined the rest of the human crowd. Standing in hushed silence, we listened as the five wolves pictured above started howling. Then four more suddenly stood up from behind a rise even closer to us and joined in the haunting song now filling the valley. As the howls slowly faded, I heard excited whispers all around me… people were overjoyed to see the Lamar Canyon Pack again. When their alpha female, known across the world as 06 (oh-six), had been shot in Montana’s legal wolf hunt back in November, the entire pack fled the park. In the six months since, only the alpha male had returned to Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley. Now the whole pack was back, vociferously declaring that they were home.
In the week since their homecoming, the pack has changed the future of wolves in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley… reminding everyone of the melodrama that inevitably surrounds wolf packs. I’ll fill you in on the rest of the story next week – when the long, lost daughters came face-to-face with their new stepmother.
March 11, 2013
A firecracker from birth, Peaches never failed to keep us humans on our toes. I count myself lucky to have somehow fallen into her good graces when we first met. For the six years that I knew her, Peaches always flattened her ears and wagged her tail when I walked past her enclosure. I’d been warned that she occasionally singled out someone on the staff to harass, but she always greeted me with a goofy wolf smile.
Only twice, in all of my time at the refuge, did Peaches show her temperamental side… once with a volunteer from Switzerland and once a couple of years later with a teenage boy from Idaho. I still don’t know what set her off, or why she picked out those two, but I’m forever thankful that it wasn’t me. While Peaches was all love and affection with everyone else, she growled, snarled and charged at them.
Now, each of the staff members inevitably didn’t get along with one or two of the 40 wolves at the refuge. For reasons still unbeknownst to me, Whisper decided that I wanted to steal her mate and would promptly let me know what she thought of this whenever I came close. But at least for most of us, this wasn’t a huge problem… we could simply avoid that particular wolf’s enclosure and have someone else bring them their food or water. Being on Peaches’ bad side was another matter. She and her mate, Sabretooth, lived right next to the community kitchen. The rest of us enjoyed it when Peaches inquisitively peered at us through the window by the woodstove from just a few inches away, or when she would climb up on the kitchen roof to howl. For her intended victims, every meal was a nerve-wracking experience. Imagine trying to eat breakfast with a wolf staring bloody-murder at you through a Plexiglas window, or walking into a building with a growling wolf peering down at you from the roof. Peaches never took it further than trying to intimidate them, continuing just until they were unnerved before walking away… almost as if she found the whole thing rather entertaining.
I still don’t think I’ll ever understand what makes a wolf decide whether they like you or not. The two people Peaches picked out had nothing in common that we could ever see… one was a woman, the other was a boy; one she’d known for years before suddenly changing her mind about him, the other she couldn’t stand from the get-go. Watching her turn from the sweet, gentle girl I knew into a puffed-up beast in a matter of seconds taught me to always respect the wolves – and to never take their friendship for granted. If there’s anything you can count on from wolves, its that they are always independent creatures with opinions, agendas and boundaries all their own.
For more of Peaches' story, please visit the June 2010 Weekly Wolf page.
March 4, 2013
This seems to be a common theme in the Weekly Wolf’s species profiles, but it turns out that pronghorn antelope aren’t antelope at all! They are actually the last remaining species of a nearly extinct family of mammals from the Pleistocene. Endemic to western and central North America, pronghorn (Antilocapra Americana) are prehistoric relics of the last ice age. The second fastest land mammal in the world, able to hit top speeds of 55 mph and maintain an endless trot at 30 mph, pronghorn are only outpaced by today’s African cheetah. It’s almost comical to watch North America’s largest and fastest predators try to catch a full-grown pronghorn. Even month-old fawns can easily outrun a hungry wolf, grizzly or cougar. So why the ridiculous excess in the speed department? Pronghorn evolved with the now extinct American cheetah and giant sloth bear hot on their heels, and needed every ounce of speed they could find to escape these mega-predators.
Okay, are you ready for some of the wacky and weird adaptations that make pronghorn so unique? Here goes: Their 5-17 inch long “horns” are actually slender, flattened blades of bone that grow out of the skull. Like a giraffe, the bone is actually covered in skin. However, the part of the two-pronged horn you actually see is a thick keratinous (think fingernail material) sheath that they shed each year. A pronghorn’s gentle eyes actually bulge out of its skull to give it a 320-degree field of vision to watch for predators. They sport an extra large heart and set of lungs to support their habit of dashing prancing along at freeway speeds for up to four miles at a time. Scientists have documented 13 distinct gaits in these plucky animals, one of which can reach nearly 24 feet per stride. Pronghorn are capable of surviving off of cactus in the heat of the Mexican desert and regularly brave the bitterly cold winters of northern Yellowstone. And each May, pronghorn mothers always give birth to twins.
After hanging around the continent for 15,000 years, pronghorns were first noticed by Western science when the Lewis and Clark expedition stumbled across them in South Dakota. At the time, millions of these charismatic speed demons called the grasslands and deserts of southwestern Canada, the western US, and northern Mexico home. By the 1920’s overhunting had reduced the population to a mere 13,000. Today habitat protection and strict hunting laws have allowed pronghorn populations to rebound back to about 500,000. However, their recovery is still precarious. Pronghorn are one of the only land mammals left in North America to embark on long yearly migrations (some covering more than 160 miles). While the pronghorns’ incredible speed keeps them safe from natural predators, it also means that their bodies are not designed for jumping. Where deer and elk can bound over almost any fence that stands in their way, pronghorn are forced to awkwardly crawl under them. So, when a migrating pronghorn finds sheep fencing, low barbed wire, or wooden fencing cutting across the path, it’s halted in its tracks. With development running rampant across the pronghorn’s range, some of the migration routes reach bottlenecks that are only 200 yards wide. The National Parks Conservation Association looks for volunteers each year to work with landowners across the West to remove unnecessary fence blockades from the pronghorns’ range.