Photo from NSF website. Credit: Daniel Stahler/NPS.
Have you ever met a rock star? I have, his name is Rick Macintyre. No, he’s not a member of the Rolling Stones, but he is the foremost wolf expert in the world! If your spirit animal is the wolf, than Rick Macintyre is your guy. Actually if your spirit animal lives in Yellowstone, than Rick Macintyre is probably still your guy because wolves are a keystone species and impact the entire ecosystem as apex predators.
Picture it: 5am. 25 degrees. Dark. Wind whipping in the from northwest as you drive on snow-covered roads through the Lamar Valley hoping to sight a wolfie.
And by wolfie, I mean a member of a unified pack that’s been in existence since 1995. These individuals wake up at 3am every day and scan the wolf transmitters (many of the wolves are collared) to start tracking the wolves of Yellowstone and then drive out and set up the Swarovski scopes to observe one of the packs. We spotted Rick and his wolfie team on the east side of Lamar, as soon as we pulled up he hopped in his Prius shouting, “Meet me at Slough Creek, the Junction Butte pack made a kill last night!”
So back we drove to Slough Creek, we were the first ones there and got our scopes up while the rest of the wolfies arrived and set up. Everyone was bundled up in 3 or more layers against the morning cold and flurries fell as the sun began to light up the valley. Sure enough, up on a ridge was the entire pack, all eleven of them, four all black and seven gray wolves. They were tussling, playing with sticks, pouncing in the new snow, and exuding the joy associated with a full belly during a lean time of the year. They howled for a few minutes, perhaps in response to our presence or maybe to let another pack know of their success during the night. The sound of their howls across the valley was the epitome of wild Yellowstone, it was eerily gorgeous. As we watched the wolves, everyone was grinning and clapping with joy (or to try and restore blood flow to their fingertips), periodically you’d hear a giggle escape as someone had their face to a lens. There is nothing that compares to seeing wolves in their element, your heart pauses as your brain takes in the sight of such magnificent animals with their complex social hierarchy and acute intelligence.
Rick gathered us together to tell us some stories of the Yellowstone wolves and two stick out in my mind. Wolf 21 was born into a pack of two and shortly thereafter his father was killed leaving his mother alone to raise eight pups with no pack support. The park service decided it capture the mother and pups and pen them for a few months to give them a shot at survival (this was not too many years after reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone). After their release, 21’s mother took up with another wolf who was the runt of his litter and was not a particularly stellar physical specimen and within his own pack was the lowest ranking. But he was in the right place at the right time and he was willing to adopt her pups as his own and help raise them.
At this time there was a lot of internecine fighting going on resulting in the deaths of many wolves. 21’s step dad was attacked by an alpha male of another pack and despite the odds being against him, he fought to protect his new family and won the fight, but in front of his adopted pups he chose not to kill the loser, instead allowing the alpha male to return to his own pack.
21 grew up into one of the greatest wolves (according to Rick) in Yellowstone history. He was very large, very strong, and very intelligent. He became an alpha male of his own pack and had many offspring. He fought in many battles and never lost, in fact he is the only known wolf to have died of old age. But he had one unique quality, he never killed those he beat in battle, apparently etched in his memory was that day his stepfather protected the family but chose to be a merciful victor.
A grand-daughter of 21 is famous in wolf lore for a rare feat. 06 took down a grizzly bear alone and ate it. While it’s not unheard of for a pack of wolves to take down a grizzly (but rare as they prefer mule deer, elk, or bison calves) it is unheard of for a lone wolf to successfully subdue a full grown grizzly.
Interestingly, 21 was known for biting grizzlies on the behind to induce them to chase him when they tried to steal kills from the pack. This gave his family time to feed. So perhaps, 06 or her mother witnessed this fearless behavior and passed on a “do whatever it takes” attitude.
Photo taken through scope - six of the Junction Butte pack.
So who are you? A strong but merciful 21? Or a fearless, risk-taking 06? Today I’m an 06 because I’m about to head out to snowshoe through grizzly country as they come out of hibernation cranky and hungry.
Stay tuned for the final installment of #Yellowstone2016 and in the meantime check out the student blogs at: Ecology Project International.
About this Blog:
I am a former Teachers for Global Classrooms Fellow, a program of the U.S. Department of State. I have completed graduate level training in Global Education and traveled to Senegal in April with the program to explore their educational system. This blog is a piece of the global education guide I have created to support other teachers and students in globalizing their classrooms. My focus area is life and environmental science and understanding the interconnectedness of Earth. For more information on the fellowship please visit the IREX website.