Wolf 21M,

My Favorite Wolf?

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By Jason Wilson and Debbie Lineweaver

 

We had spent the morning trying to identify a pair of unknown wolves whom we first found deep in Druid territory and followed until they disappeared in a boundary area. At the moment, we were perched on a boulder soaking up some rare April sunshine and talking wolves. What else do you talk about? Suddenly, with no warning, Deanna Dawn, a wolf project intern, popped the question, and I've wished a hundred times since that she hadn't.

"Who's your favorite wolf?" she asked.  I said, well, I didn't know, and tried to move on. But Deb tried an answer and it wouldn't be left alone, so pretty soon I was in there trying to pick my "most favorite" wolf.

There was #5, the Crystal Creek female, the very first free-ranging wolf I ever saw.  It was she and her pack who spent part of almost every day of '95 within our view, teaching us Wolves 101.  Then in the spring of '96, in one fierce confrontation she lost her mate, her den (probably with pups), and very nearly her own life.  Needless to say, she also lost the rich and beautiful Lamar Valley and hobbled away to the Pelican Valley where winter conditions will severely test any meat-eater. We never expected to hear from her again. Well, here we are three years later, and #5 runs the second biggest wolf pack in Yellowstone.

Then, of course, you have to think of #9, that wonderfully adaptive and prolific old she-wolf whose genes will flow forever through many Yellowstone wolves. Or there was #39, our magnificent old white wolf who came home to baby-sit and mentor the first Druid pups in the spring of '97. When she was driven from the pack in October of that year by #40 (who did not make my short list), her grief was so palpable that I think every person who witnessed her exile felt a measure of that grief.   Having, so to speak, lived through this ordeal with her, the news of her death a short while later hit like a sledgehammer. We could all see her standing there in the beam of that spotlight, gazing trustingly at a man who thought she was a 130-pound, white coyote.   She nor any other wolf had ever done anything to this fine citizen.

But if you had me down in a hammer-lock, I'd confess that #21 is my all-time favorite. We first made his acquaintance, you might say, as we watched the helicopter deliver him and his mother, #9, and seven littermates from their birth place near Red Lodge to the Rose Creek holding pen, his father having just been executed for the heinous crime of being seen. Of course, at that time and for the next year he was lost in the anonymity of eight growing pups.

He was actually well into his second year when he began to stand out as the obvious beta male of the growing Rose Creek Pack.  In the spring of '97, we began to see not just another beta male but, rather, a surrogate alpha.

You may remember 1997 as the year #9 produced her ill-fated litter of seven pups south of the park road in Little America, and #8, the alpha male, discovered that the downside of a free-wheeling sex life is more kids than you can count or feed. Seamlessly, it appeared to me, #21 slid into the role of provider and father figure for #9's den.My memory is full of #21 stories from those days.

There was the evening when he single-handedly killed two cow elk within 500 yards of the den. The two kills required less than 20 minutes, whereupon he opened cow #2, removed a fetus and delivered it to mama at the den. One day after all that meat was gone, he had made a kill about five miles from the den and was packing home what looked to be a 20-pound chunk of meat. The day was hot, and he was slowing by the mile. At one point, he entered a small copse of trees but didn't emerge for 30 minutes or so. When he did, his chunk was about half the size it had been, his having no doubt, "redistributed" his load!

Best of all from that time period was his relationship with the little pup we called "Stubalong."  Stubalong was born with something sadly wrong: feet and brain seemed to be out-of-touch, and his efforts to walk resulted in a pathetic little shuffle that left him far behind when the other pups tumbled down the hill to meet incoming adults. Whenever #21 returned, touching off one of these pup stampedes, he would without fail detach himself from the mob and go to meet Stubalong. There the two would sit and "visit" for some time, after which Stubalong would shuffle back to the den rock. Within a few days Stubalong disappeared, never to be seen again, but not before he'd had some quality time with what we imagined was his hero.

The rest of that year, #21, while never known to have come into conflict with #8, seemed to have assumed near alpha status and responsibility. Accordingly, we were not at all surprised when in December he left hearth and home, and quickly became alpha of his own full-blown pack. The shocker was that his new pack was what was left of the neighboring Druid Peak Pack, the Druid alpha and beta males, #38 and #31, respectively, having just been slaughtered by some fine specimen of human waste, who is no doubt proud of himself, and would tell you in a second that he is a sportsman.

We were not privileged to witness in person his first meeting and acceptance as the new Druid alpha, but I have watched the Landis tape over and over, and I am always impressed with his quiet confidence and sense of purpose. There was never a moment, even during the times when good sense dictated a retreat, that he projected himself as anything other than an alpha animal. For the last two years, we've been able to spend untold hours observing #21 as he goes about the business of running Yellowstone's "tourist pack."

He quickly became a master at getting himself and the pack across the road.  His judgment always seems good, and I've never seen him panic. Sometimes the carloads of wolf lovers are too much for the more timid pack members;  at such times, if prolonged howling fails, I've seen him re-cross the road, instigate a greeting, and then, when excitement was at a peak, charge the road taking everybody with him for the evening hunt!

These days, Deb and I spend part of most every day trying to find out what #21 and his growing tribe are doing. Most days we see him somewhere taking care of business, and I always feel as though I've just seen an old friend. He must recognize our scent, but he treats us with complete indifference.

The other day I watched #21 for two miles or more as he trotted along in his distinctive travel gait, carrying a chew toy (an old elk rib) home to his pups. I thought to myself, with any luck at all, I'll be able to know and observe this old dog for the rest of his days. Long live "da man!"

Written by Jason Wilson and Debbie Lineweaver

Photograph of Druid Peak Pack members (left to right) 21, 163, and 40 crossing stream by Bill Wengeler

 

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