July 15, 2021
Aldo Leopold, one of the most influential ecologists of all times, experienced a moment that ultimately influenced the rest of his life during his tenure as a forest Service employee. After lunch one fall day, Leopold and his crew of surveyors opened fire on an old mother wolf and her six adolescent pups at the foot of a mountain. “In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf,” Leopold later said. “I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no more wolves would mean a hunters’ paradise.” But after seeing the “fierce green fire” in the wolf’s eyes die out, he wrote, “I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”
For the next 20 years, Aldo continued to advocate killing wolves, supporting a long-standing American tradition. He thought that less wolves meant better hunting as it would result in more deer and elk. By the 1930s, Aldo Leopold realized that predator eradication ultimately led to over population of these herds, which caused overgrazing of plant life and erosion. He remembered that “fierce green fire” and knew it was was necessary to find a way to keep this top dog as part of the circle of life. By 1930, wolves in this country were almost exterminated. What took years of collaboration, planning and court battles , finally resulted in the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone park in 1995 and 1996. This has been one of the greatest wildlife experiments of all time. The result has brought about controversy, an opportunity to learn more about ecosystem dynamics and how everything in wild ecosystems is connected to everything else. We have also recognized just how tolerant we humans can be of other species.
This experimental population of wolves has offered biologists, animal lovers, wildlife enthusiasts, photographers and story tellers fodder for so much understanding and recognition about the roles wolves play in the bigger communities of ecosystems. Every day since the wolves returned to Yellowstone, wolf watchers have been out in the park somewhere watching and recording movements and behavior. Many see how we can understand more about ourselves through watching wolves. Legends and research all suggest that humans may have picked up behaviors such as cooperative hunting, raising young, emotional intelligence and social bonding from wolves.
Doug Smith, who has been with the wolf project in Yellowstone from the beginning, is the lead scientist and public face of the reintroduction project. I heard him say one time, “no one ever made a decision simply because of numbers. They respond to stories.” And lots of stories have been told teaching us about the lives of wolves. One of my favorite I want to share with you now.
The cast includes members of 3 different packs who were part of the original re-introduction project. This involved trapping and collaring 5 packs of wolves in Alberta and British Columbia over 2 summer’s time. Members of each pack were collared; their “numbers” corresponded with the sequence of collaring. Each pack traveled back to Yellowstone individually, with each wolf in a separate crate. The pack was released into an acre size “enclosure” where they stayed for 2 months to help them get used to the sounds and smells and environment of what was hoped would be their new home. If they were set free immediately on arrival to Yellowstone, they could have been back to Canada in no time with their homing instinct. Volunteers and scientists brought them road killed meals a couple times a week attempting the hide the smell of humans so the wolves would not relate food with people. Each pack was placed in a different geographical drainage that was full of the prey they would ultimately hunt to keep the packs fed. This was mostly elk, but one pack, the Nez Perce pack, was placed in a Buffalo rich region in the Firehole River drainage. The Rose Creek pack was only 3 wolves, 10M (the alpha male), 9F (Alpha female) and 7F. The Crystal Creek pack was an alpha female 5F and male 4M and 4 younger members, one of who was 8F.
When the Rose Creek wolves emerged from the den 9F was carrying pups. The 2 Alphas immediately went up the the NE corner of the park and crossed the park boundary. Alpha M10 was shot illegally while 9F had her pups, who by then had no dad. Eventually the wolf managers captured this group again and brought them back to the original pen so she would have a better chance of raising those pups successfully. Meanwhile the younger siblings of Crystal Creek consisted of 3 larger males and the “gray colored “runt, 8M. He was picked on mercilessly as the runt and put up with a lot of teasing. Ultimately he left his pack and dispersed only to be accepted by 9F as the next alpha male of the Rose Creek pack. He took on this big role for a younger, smaller wolf and showed himself to be a super stepdad! He helped raise and train these pups, provide for them and protect them when the pack was challenged by rival packs. One of his “step sons”, 21M, and he seemed to be particularly connected. 21 was the big brother for many litters of pups to come and seemed to demonstrate empathy for the others. (some of this story is taken from interviews and a book by Rick Macintyre who spent almost everyday from the time of reintroduction observing and teaching visitors about these wild wolves.) Rick observed 21 join another pack, the Druids, and after their Alpha male died and do exactly what his stepdad had done, help raise these pups born to another male.
#21 at play below
From and interview with Rick McIntyre
From watching 8 and his adopted son, I learned how multiple adult wolves in a family cooperate to raise young and protect them from threats such as grizzlies and rival wolf packs. I saw that females are the true leaders of the packs, not the big alpha males. Maybe that’s a sign of intelligence level of wolves.
21 loved to play with his pups. At times he seemed to have a sense of humor. I studied the many games pups played among themselves and saw how these games, such as chasing and wrestling, prepared them for the adult responsibilities soon to come. I watched 8 exhibit extraordinary courage when he charged at a much bigger and stronger male wolf who was intending to attack 8s family. 8 pinned the rival wolf and could have killed him, but let him go. 21 was still with 8 at that time and witnessed the incident. When he grew up and became the alpha, he was invincible in battle but followed the role modeling of 8 and never killed a defeated opponent. The day eventually came when the alpha males of these 2 packs, the Rose Creek and the Druids, Father and Son, were on the opposite sides of a fierce battle. “21, the much larger and stronger wolf demonstrated his ability to make a reasoned, nuanced and compassionate decision. One that gracefully preserves his adopted father’s dignity. A big-hearted wolf respecting the kindred wolf’s big-hearted soul”. #8 escaped with his life. The much bigger story of this is told in Rick McIntyre’s books, “The Rise of Wolf 8” and the “Reign of Wolf 21”.
The day wolf 21’s mate #42 was killed by a rival pack of wolves, the Molly’s, found me in the Lamar Valley with a group. Never had I heard so much howling and wailing and what I later knew were mournful vocalizations back and forth across the valley. The Molly’s cheering about their success and the Druid’s calling out in vain for their alpha female, #42 who they would never see again. That winter day, the atmosphere is the valley was full of unknown and I’ll never forget when we learned later what had happened. These are the kinds of experiences that stay with us forever and help us understand other creatures than us have complex communication between individuals and strong social bonds.
Time in the Greater Yellowstone can change us. If we just slow down and take time to really observe and listen.
Happy Trails to you all,
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