Life and Death Among Yellowstone’s Wolves

Photo courtesy of NPS
Photos courtesy of NPS

The big screen fills with images. A lone male wolf looks up a snowy slope. On that slope stand the seven wolves of the Lamar Canyon pack, staring back at him. Suddenly, the three Lamar adults and four pups, tails raised, sprint down the hillside toward the loner.

The big screen fills with images. A lone male wolf looks up a snowy slope. On that slope stand the seven wolves of the Lamar Canyon pack, staring back at him. Suddenly, the three Lamar adults and four pups, tails raised, sprint down the hillside toward the loner.

Kira Cassidy of the Yellowstone Wolf Project, the presenter of the video, reveals that the lone wolf had been approaching the Lamars for a few hours. Wolves are territorial, don’t like intruders, and post plenty of KEEP OUT signs. One of those signs, their scent marks, can last as long as three weeks in the wild. Cassidy has observed wolves digging through deep snow to uncover a scent mark. Wolves also howl to claim territory. She speculates that wolves may hear a howl ten to fifteen miles away.

Did this lone wolf miss the scent marks or howling? Did he disregard them? Was he trying to join the pack? Did he have his eyes on one of the females?

Only he knows why he chose to approach, but when he sees the seven charging wolves, he knows that it’s time to split. He bounds away through deep snow. The Lamars, following in his tracks, quickly gain on him. Two black males lead the chase. One is 755M, the alpha male. The other, 754M, is his bigger brother. Next come the pups, two males and two females. Bringing up the rear is the pack’s famous alpha female, called 06 (oh-six) by wolf watchers.

I am viewing this video with about 75 people, many of them avid watchers of Yellowstone’s wolves. Cassidy, who has worked with the Yellowstone Wolf Project since 2007, says that she has watched this video over and over, often one frame at a time so that she could study the behavior of each wolf. She discovered that 06, running behind the pack, is not focused on the lone wolf. Instead, 06 is looking up and down the valley, making sure that her pack will not be surprised if more wolves are nearby. A murmur of agreement comes from the audience. Many of them had observed firsthand the ample intelligence and strong leadership of 06—before she was killed in December of 2012 in a legal Wyoming wolf hunt.

On the screen, brothers 754M and 755M reach the lone wolf but hesitate to attack. The intruder is bigger than either of them. The pups arrive, glancing at the two adults for cues. Almost as large as the adults, the pups are now traveling with the pack as full-fledged members. But they are inexperienced. This may be their first battle.

Cassidy has studied how levels of aggression change as a wolf grows from pup to adult. For females, the level stays the same over the course of the animal’s life. For males, on the other hand, the level increases: males are more and more likely to be a part of an aggressive chase as they mature.

Suddenly, the brothers attack the lone wolf with no mercy. The pups join in, with the males more active than the females. 06 joins the fray and all seven wolves ravage the loner, now on his back in the snow, his body covered by a writhing mass of biting wolves.

In the packed, darkened meeting room scattered exclamations reveal how others are as unsettled as I am by this fierce, seven-against-one assault.

The tide finally turns for the loner when he sits up and bites one of the pups on the head. All four pups back off, leaving the two brothers and 06, and she wasn’t that involved in the attack to begin with. She had continued scanning for other wolves.

Finding some room to breathe, the lone wolf remains seated, presenting his back to his attackers so he can protect his face. Then, for no apparent reason, the attack grinds to a halt. The loner stands and starts walking away.

As I breathe a sigh of relief, questions fill my head. How can he even move? Is it possible that the Lamars pulled their punches? Was there just not enough biting power?
In the fatal interactions Cassidy has recorded, the killing was usually accomplished by a group of at least four wolves. In this battle, there were three adults and four pups. But perhaps, she says, the unskilled pups didn’t count for much. Perhaps just three adults were not enough to kill that big lone wolf.

Or maybe he was just lucky. Cassidy has studied data from 1995 to 2011 on 292 aggressive chases. Seventy-two of the chases escalated to physical attack. Only thirteen of the attacks resulted in a wolf being killed; many wolves have escaped what could have been fatal encounters.

Photo courtesy NPS

For a moment, the Lamars watch the loner leave. As his walk turns to a trot, the two male pups follow but make no contact. They may have been confident enough to escort him out of the area because they knew the pack’s adults were nearby and ready.

Territoriality and aggression like we are watching has long fascinated humans. Cassidy notes that Aristotle wrote about bird territoriality. Darwin wrote on the subjects. In the 1800s, experiments were conducted with the hypothesis that aggression builds up inside—like a ticking time bomb—until the animal, even a human, explodes and attacks. Later, scientists came to believe that aggression is a reaction to something the animal experiences externally. More recently, scientists developed a theory that being aggressive must provide more benefits than it costs.

While aggression has long been studied, it wasn’t until the 1930s and 1940s that scientists began studying individual wolves and packs in the wild. Biologists would follow a single pack on the ground for months or even years. But few ever witnessed such an encounter as the one that has us nailed to the seats of our folding chairs.

All that changed in 1995. With the reintroduction of wolves, Yellowstone became the best place in the world to study wolves. Unlike many other areas where wolves are hard to see in forests, Yellowstone has wide-open, grass-filled valleys that draw elk. Hungry wolves follow. Winter snow makes this life and death drama even easier to spot and film, as renowned videographer Bob Landis did several years ago with the encounter we are watching.

As the lone wolf distances himself from the Lamar pack, he shows no obvious sign that he has even been attacked. This surprises me but not Cassidy. She has studied a number of wolves killed by other wolves. From the outside there often appears to be little damage. There is hardly any blood. But when investigators peel back the fur of the wolf, they find a lot of hemorrhaging; damage from the attackers’ canine teeth. Those canines can even puncture a skull.

This wolf was indeed lucky. Cassidy says that up to 70% of the known natural causes of wolf death in Yellowstone are wolves killing other wolves. During the years right after wolf reintroduction, when the population was small, there were few aggressive encounters. The number of attacks increased as the population of wolves in Yellowstone’s northern range grew. Cassidy says that once there is a jump in wolf population, the very next year there is a jump in aggressive interactions.

The pack stands and watches as the lone wolf crosses the Lamar River and leaves their territory. When Cassidy says that the loner survived and continued roaming Yellowstone, sighs of relief flow from the audience.

Several days passed before my mind stopped replaying troubling scenes from the video. I struggled to accept that such a ferocious and one-sided assault is the natural way of things. But as a species, wolves have roamed this earth for millennia. And In all that time they have behaved just as we saw them, as they protected their young, food, and hard-won territory from intruders. Wolves die in the process, but the species survives. This is just as it should be, regardless of how difficult it may be for us to watch.

Rick Lamplugh lives near Yellowstone’s north gate and is the author of the Amazon Bestseller In the Temple of Wolves: A Winter’s Immersion in Wild Yellowstone. Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from the author.

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