The world of wolf watchers was created at Yellowstone National Park 25 years ago, when eight wolves captured in Alberta, Canada, arrived in cramped crates inside a big white truck, passing under the Roosevelt Arch to a crowd of onlookers on Jan. 12, 1995.
They were kept in pens for 10 weeks before release. By the next year, the National Park Service had brought 31 gray wolves to Yellowstone, reintroducing an animal that had fallen prey to hunting and had been eradicated about 70 years earlier.
I arrived in October 2012, planning to stay for six months and hoping to learn the truth about wolves and the ecosystem. My oldest son, an Idaho outdoorsman, wanted the wolves dead. Many ranchers and hunters had opposed bringing them back to the park because of fears of livestock predation and declining elk numbers. Biologists argued they were a crucial part of the ecosystem (and there were too many elk). I had no facts.
At the time, I was an aspiring photographer and writer. I would capture wolf images with my Nikon and wolf stories with my eyes. And then I would move on.
But once you start watching wolves, it is not so easy to stop. And more than seven years later, I am still here, living close to the park.
When 12 wolves were killed my first year here, during the hunting season of 2012-2013, by hunters just across Yellowstone’s northern boundary, wolf numbers plummeted in the park. They were seen less often, and I resorted to watching wolves from a distance — through a scope or binoculars. That was when my curiosity about their lives grew.
My tiny home in the center of Gardiner, Mont., is cold and silent at 4 a.m., when my mind goes from sound sleep to thoughts of the wolves. What will happen today? Will the wolves be far away or close? Wolf World, as I often call it, is nature’s real-life soap opera and I’m addicted to the story.
On a recent January morning, I put on warm clothes and rush out to meet minus-11 degree temperatures, fresh snow, icy roads. During my 45-minute drive to the epicenter of the wolves, the Wolf Moon — the January full moon — sits high in the west, lighting the landscape.
At Bob’s Knob in Slough Creek, I grab a camera with a big lens and a heavy tripod and walk out to see 17 tiny spots — 14 black and three gray — lined up on a snowy hill. All of Yellowstone’s wolves are the species known as the gray wolf, but they can also be white or black in color.
Wolves are usually named for their geographic locations, and this is the Junction Butte pack. They are missing a nearly 7-year-old adult gray female, radio collared as 969F. I knew that she was still alive because her collar was not emitting a mortality signal, according to the park’s wolf project. I hoped that she would meet up with other wolves with which she could mate and form a new pack. The happily-ever-after story for the wolves is rarely a reality.
I’ve known 969 since she and her sister, collared as 907F, were born in April 2013, shortly after the pack formed in mid-2012. The “sisters,” as I call them, have had a tempestuous life. Their mother, Ragged Tail, disappeared later the year that they were born.
In April 2012, several females from the famous Mollie’s pack and some males from the Blacktail Creek pack got together to form what would eventually become known as the Junction Butte pack, named for a nearby butte in their new territory. So the sisters had plenty of strong, tenacious aunts to watch over them when mom disappeared. The aunts’ alpha male and the sisters’ father, Puff, or 911M, was also on hand.
The Mollie’s pack is the only one still in existence from the reintroduction in 1995. The Mollie’s, originally known as the Crystal Creek pack, were renamed for Mollie Beattie, a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a strong advocate for the wolves, who died barely a year after they were brought back to Yellowstone.
Over the years, the Junction Butte pack has fluctuated from five to more than 20 pack members. Life and survival is difficult for wolves — their No. 1 cause of death is wolf-on-wolf fights over food, territory and mates. The Junctions over the past seven years have gone through several alphas, with the sisters each having served in the lead role at one time or another. Others have been killed in the Montana hunt, two hit by a car, some pups didn’t survive, and many were killed by pack members.
Just last summer, 969 killed her sister’s pups, supposedly in some sort of battle between the two wolves. The year before, a male member killed several pups, which was a situation not seen before. At one time, the pack consisted of mostly gray colored wolves, when Puff was its male leader. But, after his death, black males from another pack took over and this changed.
The first wolves were held in pens at Crystal Creek, under armed guard, feeding on carcasses brought to them a couple of times a week. Wolves don’t have to eat every day. Biologists sought to minimize their contact with the wolves to reduce the chance that they would become habituated to humans, until their release to the wild that March.
Biologists feared that the wolves would head “home,” back to Canada. Instead, the park’s unique landscape of valleys and vast forests became a natural highway and hunting grounds for the wolves, often within view of the roads. They became highly visible.
Thus began a new culture in Yellowstone of wolf watching. Over the years, thousands have come to the park in hopes of seeing wolves, along with other predators and wildlife, creating an economic boon for nearby communities and tour guides that exceeds the revenue from hunting and fishing in the states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
At first, I watched the wolves through clouded vision, seeing perfect animals. Over time, I recognized them as wild creatures filling a missing link in the ecosystem that was needed to return vegetation, decimated by large elk herds. This in turn would bring back the birds, beavers and moose.
I have been in the park long enough to watch moose and beaver populations grow, as the willows become more dense and grow taller.
I did not foresee getting to know individual wolves and letting them into my heart, only to lose them to a hunter’s bullet when they stepped out of the park.
One bullet depriving thousands of national park visitors of a famous and well-loved wolf — the 06 female in 2012, or her daughter 926, known as Spitfire, in 2018 — did not make sense to me. How could anyone hate so much?
I believed that informing wolf advocates, and even haters, about the real lives of the animals could ultimately be the key to helping some understand why these wild canines were needed in the ecosystem.
Wolf photography is hard. Park rules require you to keep at least 100 yards away from them. Some observers would like to see the rules changed to several hundred yards. Sometimes, visitors eager to see a wolf will run toward the animal or block its course of travel. A photographer has few good opportunities to capture an image each year — ultimately, there is bad light, terrible background, fast movements, heat waves and other factors. Some say it is the hardest type of wildlife photography. I agree.
On Jan. 11, 2020, the morning after seeing the Junctions strung out over the snow in the distance, I learned that 969 had died during the night. The news took me by surprise and I was filled with sadness and nostalgia. The “sisters” part of the story was over. But so were her difficulties of being picked on by her big sister, 907, which no doubt led to 969 leaving the pack.
When the Yellowstone Wolf Project crew retrieved her body that day, 969 was thin, weighing only 73 pounds compared with her sister’s 125 when she was re-collared last month.
She had what looked like a bite mark near her lung. Thankfully, she died of natural causes and not by a bullet, like so many of her pack mates and ancestors.
Today, we have about 100 wolves in Yellowstone. One less with the death of 969.
Wolf numbers in the park have fluctuated over the past 25 years, reaching about 200 and being as low as about 60. Elk numbers, once down to around 3,000 after the reintroduction, have increased to more than 7,000 in recent years, which scientists say is about all that the ecosystem can sustain.
And still I watch the wolves.
Each morning, I awake, wondering what the wolves will do today. The story of their lives and the hopes of that perfect image keep me going into the park nearly every day, under the cover of darkness, with the car window down, listening for howls, eyes searching for moving objects.