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by David Cowan 

"Number 24 was just another young, nondescript, non-breeding, female," recalls Mike Phillips. It has been four summers and thousands of fly-overs and phone calls since the former leader of Yellowstone's Wolf Project was tracking the helter-skelter movements of the Soda Butte Pack.

Memories focus and Phillips turns euphoric. "We'd been flying up and down the Stillwater drainage not finding the alpha female. Then it became clear: the only thing that holds a pack to an area is a den!"

Some 170 wolves now call Greater Yellowstone home. Number 24 is first generation Yellowstone. Officially she remains a "non-essential" specimen facing certain death should the decision to remove Yellowstone's experimental wolf population be upheld in court. Off the record she's growing on us. She's the underdog who's beaten the odds.

The prospects for wolf recovery weren't so rosy back in 1995.

In January the Wyoming Farm Bureau had sought an injunction to keep Number 24's parents and twelve other Canadian transplants out of Yellowstone. Though the tactic failed, future shipments of Canadian wolves were questionable.  Each wolf already on the ground was vital to the success of the recovery program.

That spring the Rose and Crystal packs captured the headlines. An indigent wolf-hater shot and skinned the Rose alpha male outside  Red Lodge, leading to a highly-publicized transfer of the wolf's vulnerable mate and newborn pups. Meanwhile the Crystal pack hunted elk in Lamar Valley, howled in the trees, and thrilled thousands of curious park visitors.

Far from the limelight, the five wolves of the Soda Butte pack roamed into the rugged wilderness north of Yellowstone, perhaps on a fast track toward their Canadian home. At the mining complex near Nye, Montana, they reeled around and then settled in the snow-free canyon to the south. There, the Soda pack found tree cover, verdant meadows, and elk. And there, they brought to the Yellowstone ecosystem a litter of one-a jet black female, Number 24.

The Soda Butte wolves spent early summer moving between rendezvous sites deep in the Absaroka-Beartooth and then ventured back into the park to stay until early winter. By then, Number 24's older brother and sister from Canada had dispersed southward. A ranch hand shot the female near Meeteetse, Wyoming. The male was shot southeast of Jackson, near Daniel.

By spring of 1996 the wolves resided on a private ranch near the Beartooth Front. Here, Number 24's mother gave birth to a litter of three pups.

"Wolf Recovery was never intended as just a park project," exhorts Phillips, hinting that population stability depended, in large measure, on wolf/rancher coexistence. "From an ecological perspective, the effort was to restore wolves to the fabric that is the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem."

On the ranch, cattle and sheep sang right under the Soda Butte wolves' noses, yet the informal peace accord held firmly until the wolves killed a scent-tracking lion hound. Anti-wolf ire flared, forcing Wolf Project staff to move the Soda pack first to a pen on Yellowstone's Northern Range and then to a "vacancy" at the Trail Creek enclosure in the remote and wolfless southeast corner of the park.

Though the transfer would prove to be sound strategy from a population perspective, individuals of the Soda pack did not fare as well. Number 24's second Canadian brother eluded capture and soon became a marked sheep-killer in Paradise Valley. Also, one of the wolves born that year would die in the pen while another would be killed by the Crystal pack three years later.

Upon release from the pen in early October, 1996, the Soda Butte wolves darted to Heart Lake, a place where deep snows force out most of summer's prey. During the harsh winter that followed, the Soda Butte patriarch-oldest of the first Canadian transplants-died of natural causes. In May his last progeny were born.

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The Soda Butte Pack began frequenting the Heart Lake area in southern Yellowstone after their release from the Trail Creek acclimation pen in the autumn of 1996. Photo by Nathan Varley

In the fall of 1997 the pack began to explore new territory. It ranged southeast into the Washakie Wilderness and then back to Heart Lake; to the Teton Wilderness and then out again into the spotlight near Moran Junction, Wyoming. After return trips to Heart Lake and Trail Creek during the spring and summer of 1998, Number 24 broke from her Soda Butte family to be on her own.

Last fall she bonded with a survivor of the Washakie pack whose alpha pair had been killed for depredating cattle near Dubois. By spring the "Teton Duo" had established a den near a rich elk-calving area within Grand Teton Park, the first wolf den there in over 50 years.

Just when Number 24 appeared to be entering a mid-life groove this summer, the Park Service announced its plan to graze 950 cow-calf pairs on a permitted pasture within two miles of the pack's rendezvous site. Her mate, the family bread-winner, would be sorely tempted to feed veal cutlets to his rapidly growing offspring. But when a vehicle hit him on Highway 287, Number 24 was left as the sole provider for five tiny pups.

According to Colin Campbell, Chief Ranger at Grand Teton, "It was a very sensitive situation. We tried our best to leave her alone."  But while out hunting to feed her pups, Number 24 was caught in a bear snare. When project officials rescued her she was in poor condition, down 20 pounds, with three broken canine teeth. She was returned to her pack's rendezvous site in luxury class-in the open interior of a pickup camper.

Today wolf Number 24 is healthy thanks, in part, to supplemental feedings of road-killed elk and deer. The third-generation pups she whelped are now ready to venture into the wilds of Greater Yellowstone where they will face the same monumental challenges of subsistence and prejudice that beset their mother and her Soda Butte kin.

The pups have a tough act to follow. Their mother may well be the only wolf in history to have traveled by helicopter, boat, and truck and lived in two national parks, three designated wilderness areas, and three acclimation pens. Then again, as experimental, non-essential wolf lives go, maybe hers will prove to be ordinary.

"Number 24 was the first generation of wolves conceived in captivity," declares Phillips. "She was proof positive that acclimation worked. and that we were going to get wolf recovery done."

At four and a half, Number 24 is now the grande dame of Greater Yellowstone's newest family of wolves, the Teton Pack. "Number 24 will have an adult structure around her soon," Campbell says. He pauses, then adds with a burst of admiration: "She's one tough lady."

 

David Cowan is with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Bozeman, Montana.  This article was originally printed in GYC's autumn newsletter and is posted with permission granted by the author.  Visit GYC's site to learn more about the efforts this organization is making to keep the ecosystem healthy and whole.

 

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