Inside the Heart of Wolf Advocacy: The Yellowstone Story…

A Documentary film project that tells the stories of people working to preserve the legacy of wolves in Yellowstone National Park. A Wolves of Douglas County Wisconsin Film. Co Produced by Rachel Tilseth And Maaike Middleton and Directed by Rachel Tilseth. Donate Here to support this film project

There’s no better place to start the story of Inside the Heart of Wolf Advocacy than with the Yellowstone story of wolf advocate Ilona Popper.

In mid-life, Ilona Popper relocated to the edge of Yellowstone National Park to observe wildlife, especially wolves. She wanted to understand the animals through her own observations and experiences, first. Equally important to her is to live in wolf country among wolves, cougars, bears and all the animals Lewis and Clark encountered before European-American settlement. Ilona has followed wolf and cougar tracks near her home; once in awhile, she and her husband listen to wolf howls and cougar calls from their cabin.

Ilona was living in the Greater Yellowstone Area when wolf hunts were first allowed there in 2009. She saw firsthand how human hunting disrupted the social relationships between wolves, disbanded packs, and interfered with 20 years of prime wolf research. She entered wolf advocacy naively, believing that if people knew the nature of wolves and what science discovered about balances between predator and prey, they would not wish to hunt the animals.

Since then, Ilona has worked intensively on preserving wolves in the Yellowstone National Park (YNP) area and in Montana. She helped establish and served as chair for the Bear Creek Council Wolf Committee and was invited to sit on Finding Common Ground, a council called by Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks to bring together wildlife advocates and environmentalists with sportspeople and livestock producers. The participants were often at odds, especially about wolves, but she saw that “each person shared a love of wildlife and nature.”

Ilona didn’t start out in wildlife advocacy or even biology, though she spent much of her childhood in the woods. Her passions are writing and nature. She is the author of the poetry book, Break, of poems in numerous journals, and articles about the wildlife she observes. Education B.A. English, Georgetown University 1979. M.A. English Language and Literature, University of Virginia 1981.She has an M.A. in English and has worked for 40 years as an editor, writing coach, and teacher. She continues this work but has added volunteering and working as a biology field tech for studies of wolves, bears, plants, birds, and, most recently, a study of wolf howling and communication through Montana State University. She gives talks and lectures about wildlife and she works as a wildlife guide in YNP.
Ilona is writing a nonfiction book about wolves and people and a poetry manuscript about wildlife. Her website is ilonapopper.wordpress.org.

The following is an excerpt from Ilona’s blog…

A Bone to Pick: One Pack’s Drama Over Feeding an Old Wolf (excerpt)

We saw the wolves about a mile below us. They had killed an elk at the base of a long drainage and were eating at the carcass: the black breeding female; the gray breeding male, 685M; and several of their pups, only a month away from their first birthday. Soon, their mother would whelp a new litter.

It was a snowy March morning in 2009, and I had joined two crew members of the Yellowstone Wolf Project, Hilary and Josh, who were following the Everts wolf pack for the Wolf Project’s winter study. We had hiked into the Gallatin National Forest and set up our scopes high along a steep ravine that cut sharply down to the Yellowstone River. Across the river was Yellowstone National Park, where flats and hills rose up to Mount Everts.

The wolves tugged and chewed, side by side at the carcass.

“Wow,” Hilary exclaimed. “Can you believe that!?”

“Is he taking that to her?” asked Josh.

“Yes!”

Lifting my head, I shifted my scope in the direction the two were looking, higher up on Everts. I saw two wolves; one was the graying-black Old Everts Female (OEF), lying sphinxlike on an overlook above the carcass. I caught sight of her just after 685M, the breeding male, dropped an elk leg onto her forepaws. 685M had pulled the leg from the carcass, climbed the hill to where the old female lay, and brought her the meat.

“What a mensch!” Josh said.

“I knew he was a prince,” said Hilary.

685M stood looking down at the old wolf. The OEF was about 9 years old. When she was about 4 years old, her shoulder joint had been so badly injured that, for most of her life, she held that leg straight in front of her when she traveled.

Now the old wolf remained still, perhaps to make sure 685M had truly released the food. Then she grabbed the leg in her jaws, stood and began hopping up the mountain.

But the breeding male raced ahead of her and angled his body to block her way. She paused, faced his flank and stepped past him. Again, 685M ran ahead of her and turned to stand obliquely. What was he up to? He didn’t take back the leg, but he kept halting her.

The OEF held the leg tightly and wouldn’t lay it down to take a bite. I wondered why she was so bent on traveling up the mountain. After a couple rounds of this mute conversation, the male finally gave up and trotted back to the carcass below.

Wild wolves carry food and regurgitate to pups, but they don’t usually carry food to other adult wolves, with these exceptions: all pack members bring food to the nursing mother, who mostly stays in the den for the first week or so of the pups’ lives, warming and suckling them. (Usually this is the breeding female, but if there is good hunting, packs may support additional litters.) Rising hormones like oxytocin prime all the members of the pack to focus on raising pups, and this accounts for the other exception: before “denning up,” pregnant female wolves may solicit and receive food from their mates, as if to jump-start those nurturing hormones.

So, why was 685M bringing food to the OEF? The pups were grown, they weren’t even hers, and she wasn’t pregnant. And why didn’t she eat alongside the rest of the pack? The carcass was in plain view. What exactly was the OEF’s role in this pack? Read more at Ilona Popper’s Word Press Blog

To learn more go to “Inside the Heart of Wolf Advocacy-The Yellowstone Story”

To support the film project go to Plan B Foundation ” Inside the Heart of Wolf Advocacy” and donate

Featured image is of Ilona Popper

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