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the Yellowstone Wolves

By Joel Sartore and Nathan Varley

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Wolf 34 prowls at night, by Joel Sartore.  Prints may be purchased at

Nathan: (August 2000) The words and images for this piece have been in preparation for several years. With the deaths of Wolves 16 and 8 I felt it time to remember both, and few other Yellowstone wolves, with this long-in-coming tribute.

Joel’s images are the best collection of Yellowstone wolf images of which I know.   While other quality images exist, the collection we acquired during seven long weeks in 1997 still hold exceptional value to this day. With time, certain images have gained even greater importance in my estimation…

The ghostly image of Wolf 34 was a concoction of snowstorms and brake lights. We had been watching the now-famous gray male during his fateful escapade in Lamar Valley, 1997. Tailing him closely, we surmised where he would be on his evening jaunt when night fell. His sudden appearance from out of a blinding snowstorm, in the dark, was better than lucky. Preparing a strobe, Joel turned the driving over to me where I would soon add the pink light ingredient among the large, downy flakes. To our surprise, Wolf 34 decided to cross the road directly behind us. I tapped the brake petals to cast the warm light through the murk to where it would find the teeth and eyes of the wolf. Joel’s shutter clicked repeatedly between flashes of the strobe.

As the recent deaths of Wolves 8 and 16 come to pass, I recall a day we had spent with the Rose Creek Pack from which came what has become my favorite image of the shoot. During hours of mayhem, Wolf 8 attempted to lead several members of the pack across the road without great success. At one moment four wolves paused at the top of a hill surveying,and seemed to pose for a mere moment. In the resulting image, the lone gray is Wolf 8, of great legend. The 3 black wolves are difficult to distinguish, however many suspect the middle black to be Wolf 21, the current proud alpha male of the Druid Peak Pack. He would have been 21 months of age at this time, so many of his markings that characterize him today were then present, such as the ears that point inward ever so slightly. The other blacks are probably females, two being of three possibilities: 16, 18 or 19. Wolf 16 went on to have a long and tumultuous life ending in July 2000 as the alpha female of the Sheep Mountain Pack. Wolf 19 died in the spring of 1997, not long after the photograph was taken, an apparent victim of the Druid Peak Pack. Wolf 18 is currently the alpha female of the Rose Creek Pack and roams long stretches of the Yellowstone to this day.

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Members of the Rose Creek Pack pause before a raven, by Joel Sartore.  Prints may be purchased at

Joel: Your typical day photographing gray wolves in the wild:

  1. Get up at a small town motel way too early.
  2. Watch several dots sleep on various mountaintops from dawn to dusk.
  3. Freeze solid
  4. Drive back to your small town motel too late to get anything to eat
  5. Curse the day you were born.

That pretty much covers it. With plenty of long days, I had time to think about why I'd taken this assignment in the first place. As a contract photographer for National Geographic, I’d taken up the credo, "save the earth" and had been doing articles on endangered species and land use issues for several years. A chance to photograph this country's supreme predator sounded great. Not many photos exist of wild wolves, so anything I got in Yellowstone could become a visual "first." It was also a chance for me personally to help the wolf. I felt euphoria; a feeling that lasted until the actual work began.

When I went to Yellowstone, I was excited but worried, mainly afraid to fail. I ordered 300 rolls of film, several of the longest, heaviest lenses available, and lots of lithium batteries. I lined up Nathan Varley as my wolf guide. This guy grew up in the park and was a wolf fanatic. He kept personal journals about every kind of wolf movements he'd ever seen, including but certainly not limited to, their bowel movements. He also made very good sandwiches, with the exception of the time he used too much spicy mustard.

Nathan: I did not know what to expect when I met Joel. A National Geographic photographer summons a certain image for most people. I was picturing a real serious guy fussing over his equipment, maybe a little arrogant, but certainly not patient enough to work with wild wolves. I had to admit I was charmed by the Geographic moniker, though, and would guide anyone they sent me. Thankfully it was Joel, and not the person I expected. To save gas, he offered on our first day in the field to have me ride in his rental, a Ford Expedition, Eddie Bauer Edition. Tempted as I was, I told him I preferred to ride in my own car for access to my gear—we would caravan. At the next stop he was climbing in with me, loading in lenses worth more than my car. I was thinking, "this guy really does want to save the earth."

But could he get into a rhythm with wolves? I’ve met a lot of pro’s that weren’t ready for the dedication and hardship involved with adopting the canine routine. I could take him to the best locations in the park, spot wolves day after day, load film, carry heavy lenses, even make his sandwiches, but I couldn’t help him wait. Eventually the rare moment would come and for a very brief time a very narrow window of opportunity would open. If we’re in sync, he might expose some film before the window closes. His job was to be ready, then wait. My job was the synchronicity.

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Wolf 33 walks across Fountain Flats, by Joel Sartore.  Prints may be purchased at

Joel: The first and worst thing I faced was a hard winter in Yellowstone, one of the most severe in decades. I didn’t just buy a winter coat. No, the outfit I bought was so expensive it was called a "warmth system" by the salesman who used expensive descriptions to help customers cope with the hideous cost. A thousand dollars later, I’m head-to-toe in some sort of black and blue, layered spandex superhero outfit that is supposed to wick moisture away from my body at a torrent rate so I don't freeze to death.

Nathan: The harsh winter brought the elk to the lower slopes of the valley. The wolves soon followed, and I was anticipating encounters of a reasonably close proximity, perhaps the opportunity we hoped for. The crust on the snow was bulletproof—large herds were forced to islands of wind blown slopes, the tops of hills, and rocky outcrops. Daily circuits would take the wolves to each of these islands where the ones in an aggressive mood, often Wolf 40, Wolf 42 and Wolf 31, would charge into the herd pushing them into seas of crust that broke like boards beneath their hooves. Often there was a weak one in the herd, and often the wolves would find it. When the first indications of spring arrived the slopes were littered with carcasses, some resulting from the wolf visits, others simply succumbed to the conditions sooner than the wolves were able to get to them. The route of the Druid wolves became known as "the killing fields" after the path of carcasses left behind. While at times the deaths appeared wanton, all were consumed eventually.

On the morning the temperature gage, part of the Eddie Bauer interior, read minus 47 degrees Fahrenheit the Druid Peak Pack were at it in force. Going from one to the next, Wolf 31 casually ran through a herd pulling down by the neck the teetering bags-of-bones. Unlike the wolves, we could not function at that temperature and were unable to leave the protective shell of the Explorer. Using a window mount, Joel trained his lens on the action from the backseat.

"I can’t focus, I don’t know why," he had said in utter frustration. Soon we realized that a difference of greater than one hundred degrees separated the temperature of the air inside from the air outside the vehicle. The heat waves pulsing out of his window were projecting tropical islands and similar mirages, not to mention blurring his photographs. Like the elk falling in "the killing fields," we were next to helpless, and foiled again.

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Wolf 31 silhouetted against the dawn sky, by Joel Sartore.  Prints may be purchased at

Joel: I proceeded to go out with Nathan, day after day, only to get "SKUNKED." If we saw wolves at all, they were rarely close enough to photograph. Adding in the wind chill factor, I found myself registering a temperature of extremely depressed. About a week into the story, I called my boss at the Geographic.

"John, this is Joel."


"Joel Sartore. Say, I've been here over a week and these wolves are absolutely going to be impossible to photograph."

"Why is that?"

"Because whenever there is light, they sleep. And they usually make their beds in places so far away they're behind me. I’m wasting your money."

"Well, we knew it would be tough. Give it another week. Chill out."

From my payphone in a snowdrift with wind whipping my face—my face being the only part exposed through the warmth system—I found his last suggestion easy to comply with. I resolved to keep going. Three days after that phone call, several members of the Rose Creek Pack decided to play near the road for a little while. I shot as much as I could before they trotted away again, leaving me hopeful that I could after all make graven images of these creatures.

Nathan: We had at least kept contact with wolves on most days, and despite the long odds I was enjoying myself. It was one thing to be happy watching at distances of up to 3 miles, but entirely another to capture these elusive, wild creatures, full frame, on 35mm film. So while Joel cursed and fretted his way through the days, I gobbled up our time with the wolves with indulgence equal to the gobbling of the ghastly array of junk food we consumed.

After a week had gone by our break-through came with the Rose Creek Pack. Early in the morning the pack had been split by the road, half to the north and half to the south. To be reunited with his mate, Number 9, and their pups, Number 8 had to lead his contingency across the road. The problem was the groups’ members that included yearling wolves 21, 18, and 16 varied in their attitude toward the road. Some were afraid to set foot on pavement as if contact would burn their pads, while others crossed back and forth at will. With wolves near, the scene was quickly turning into chaos. People were riding on the roofs of pick-ups and vans and weaving among other vehicles parked haphazardly along the road. Oddly indifferent were a few lone wolves trotting among the frenzied spectators bustling to get a look at them.

Being the pack leader he is, Wolf 8 worked with his companions not just to get the courageous across the road but also the timid. His approach stands in my mind as perhaps the most cognitive wolf behavior I have yet witnessed. Selectively he antagonized wolves that were reticent to approach the road. If they avoided him, he rejoined the effort with measured temerity. Their eventual response to his pestering would be to retaliate; and once the tables were turned, Number 8, the alpha of alphas, would tuck his tail and run away. Readily the wolves chased him and always his direction of escape was toward the road. Time and again, he got them to chase him to crumbling asphalt, the very brink, but at that moment they would suddenly remember their fear of the road and turn back. Despite exceptional pluck on his part, Number 8 and his crafty artifice failed. A growing human barrier eventually fortified the road to a state of a buzzing throng. It became impenetrable.

Fortunately, during the commotion Number 9 and the pups slipped to the south side unobserved. By sunset the entire pack reunited in a howling chorus. As the light of that day finally faded, I was loading yet another roll of film and sharing in Joel’s relief. Finally, he had images to show for our efforts.

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Wolf 8 provokes a pack mate in a crafty effort to lead his pack across the road, by Joel Sartore.  Prints may be purchased at

Joel: The reasons wolves are so hard to photograph in the wild are simple. They are extremely intelligent and wary and have terrific senses of smell, eyesight, and hearing. You can't stalk them or wait in a blind. They're fast in deep snow, able to use snowshoe paws to stay on top of Yellowstone's expansive white blanket. Since they don't care for humans, they avoid the roads where we wait patiently praying for the day they forget that inclination. The wolves decided what I would get and they chose their moments few and far between. Looking back on my seven weeks in the park, I realized I had had only a half-dozen close encounters with wolves. Most lasted only a few seconds, often separated by days of nothing but blowing snow and junk food.

Despite it all, I'm very grateful to have what I have. The frame of the gray wolf chasing elk may be the first reasonably good image of it's kind. Along with the others accompanying this article and those appearing in National Geographic (May 1998) and Defenders (Summer 1999), this image represents hundreds of rolls of film, weeks of time in the field, and plenty of worrying. But as with all natural history stories I've done, the most precious image is born from the dedication and patience I give to it. In this case, wolves would not be rushed. Period.

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Wolf 31 chases a herd of elk, by Joel Sartore.   Prints may be purchased at


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