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QUEEN DETHRONED

no9_2.JPG (36590 bytes)

Rose Creek Pack

no longer has a place

for an aging matriarch

 

By MICHAEL MILSTEIN
Billings Gazette Wyoming Bureau

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK - By every measure, Yellowstone wolf No. 9 was a great success. One of the original [14] wolves imported to Yellowstone from Canada in 1995, No. 9 was the first to give birth - dramatically producing eight pups outside Red Lodge just as her mate was illegally shot nearby.

At the time, those eight pups represented 40 percent of all the Yellowstone wolves. At least five went on to breed, adding to the fledgling Yellowstone wolf population.

No. 9 herself became the leading, or alpha, female of the park's Rose Creek wolf pack and gave birth to four more litters, probably spreading genes more widely through the Yellowstone region than any other wolf.

She was even fed by President Clinton.

"She's a remarkable wolf, really," said park wolf biologist Doug Smith. "Not many wolves have made that big of a contribution. Really she is the poster child of the Yellowstone wolf program."

But after all her prolific years in Yellowstone, No. 9 now lives alone and probably will die that way. Sometime last fall, the Rose Creek pack evidently drove her off. She has been wandering by herself in the Pilot Creek region east of Cooke City ever since.

"She's going to live out her days by herself as best she can," Smith said. "Frankly, I don't expect her to last much longer."

In wolf society, there's nothing very unusual about No. 9's fate. Wolf packs sometimes tolerate aging members, allowing them to scrounge remains from the pack's kills. But many times when a previously subordinate wolf - in this case, No. 9's daughter - assumes the pack's ranking position, it's time for the senior citizen to go.

No. 9 is now graying from age and is at least 8 years old, Smith said - "very old for a wolf."

"She got kicked out by her daughter," he said. "It was her time to go."

Even biologists who try not to judge wildlife in human terms betray sympathy for a wolf they have admired since she first leapt from her transport kennel in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley.

"It is sad because she was everybody's favorite wolf," said John Varley, head of the park's resource management division. "We can't look entirely dispassionately on these sorts of things."

Following years of emotional debate over wolf reintroduction, Yellowstone's wolf program could hardly have had a more dramatic first season, due in large part to No. 9 and her Red Lodge litter.

Of the 14 wolves that arrived in Yellowstone in early 1995, attention quickly focused on No. 9 and the female pup, No. 7, that had arrived in the park with her. When a second bunch of wolves arrived a week later, biologists played matchmaker and put No. 9 and her pup with a large male wolf, known as No. 10, in an acclimation pen on Rose Creek.

wolf9.jpg (26950 bytes)

National Park Service photo
Wolf No. 9 paces in an acclimation pen before her release into Yellowstone Park in 1995.

 

They didn't know if the match would take, but it did and when biologists let the wolves loose, No. 9 and 10 took off together toward Red Lodge. No. 7 joined another pack.

Shortly after that, Chad McKittrick of Red Lodge shot and killed No. 10 in the dusty draws east of Red Lodge, a federal crime for which he was later convicted. Biologists tracking No. 9 by signals from her radio collar happened onto her in the woods west of town and, to their surprise, she was hovering over the first litter of pups born in the Yellowstone region since wolves were exterminated in the early 1900s.

"Ten was the martyr - she was the queen," Varley said.

Biologists gathered up the queen and her pups and spirited them back to an acclimation pen in Yellowstone for safety. Swooping down in a helicopter fleet while on vacation later that spring, President Clinton and his daughter Chelsea helped haul road-killed meat up to the Lamar Valley pen to feed No. 9 and her litter.

Once the wolves were freed from the pen, No. 9 and her pups joined with a younger male wolf, known as No. 8, from [the Crystal Creek Pack] to form the Rose Creek Pack. No. 9 gave birth to litters fathered by 8 in each of the next four years.

"That's a tremendous reproductive output," Smith said. "I don't know if you could find a case in the literature of a wolf with that kind of production."

Ed Bangs, head of the federal wolf recovery program, said No. 9 may have boosted the Yellowstone population - now numbering about 120 wolves - more than any other wolf.

"Her genes are probably as widespread as anybody's," he said. "Some of these wolves lead interesting lives and this one was like a mini soap opera."

It wasn't always an easy life. In 1997, none of No. 9's pups survived. Then, sometime before last summer, No. 9 lost her position of dominance as the pack's alpha female to her daughter, No. 18.

No. 9 gave birth to a litter of pups last year, but most probably died because the rest of the pack devoted its attention to 18's litter.

"She couldn't raise them on their own," Smith said.

In the fall, No. 9 pulled out of her longtime pack for good.

"We can't say that her daughter made her leave," Smith said. "Probably 9 made the decision, but she probably made it because her daughter beat her up so much and she just said, 'I don't like this anymore and I'm leaving.' "

Biologists following the signal from No. 9's radio collar have spotted her most often around Pilot Creek east of Cooke City, although she occasionally makes brief forays back into the park. If she were to intrude on her old pack, those wolves might drive her off or kill her.

"When you're out there by yourself, especially at that age, it's harder to hang on," Bangs said. "She could get kicked by an elk, another pack could kill her or she could just starve."

It's always possible she could join up with another wolf to form a new pack, but biologists believe that's unlikely.

"There is quite a story for her," said Smith, who heads the park's wolf recovery program. "Wildlife management depends on populations, whereas restoration and recovery depends on individuals. And she was a remarkable individual."

Michael Milstein reports for the Billings Gazette on Wyoming issues and can be reached at gazette@wavecom.net


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