Rival gangs & neighborhood disputes, murder & revenge, attempted genocide – no, this is not a portrait of the inner city, of kids gone astray, or man at his worst.
This is a story of life in the wild where the only goal is survival, and the prevailing ethic is ‘might makes right’.
Wrong Time, Wrong Place
Two days ago a bison carcass was spotted lying undisturbed on Amethyst Bench, just across the Lamar River, about a mile or so from a popular vantage point alongside a busy road in the Northeast sector of Yellowstone National Park. There were no eyewitnesses but the bison, according to general consensus by those in-the-know, had most likely been gored while challenging a more established male for breeding rights, and bled to death.
Yesterday some coyotes nipped at the massive hulk but were unable to break through the thick hide, and left.
This morning a motley collection of five wolves known as “777’s Group” sniffed out the tantalizing flesh and ripped into it for a feeding frenzy. For one of the five, three year-old Mollie’s female 822F, this would be her last meal.
[Two-year-old males 777M and his brother “Puff” are ‘dispersers’ from the neighboring Blacktail Pack in search of breeding partners. The other three in this group of five were eligible females from the Mollies’ Pack. Dangerous Romeo & Juliet type liaisons occur frequently in the wild. In fact, one week later 777M, the “Romeo” interloper from the Blacktail Pack, would be killed by the disapproving older brothers of these very same flirtatious Mollies’ females.]
The Mollies are mortal enemies of the Lamar Canyon pack, and the Lamars had both a territory to protect and a score to settle.
Not In My Backyard
The Lamar Pack, when they got wind of this incursion into their territory, was not amused, and eight of them led by their alpha female (832F) came running tails-up from more than a mile away. The two Blacktails and the three Mollies, caught unaware while stuffing their bellies, bolted and sprinted for their lives. In the ensuing chase Mollies’ collared female 822F was quickly singled out, the 8-1 odds against her suddenly not good.
In desperation 822F plunged into the Lamar River, paddled across, emerged, raced several hundred yards to the road lined with spectators, sprinted across the asphalt and up a slight ridge. That’s where the eight Lamar’s tripped her up. 822F’s thick radio collar may have protected her somewhat, but not enough. She was mortally wounded in a matter of seconds.
I watched as she tried several times to rise but could only manage to drag herself a few feet along the trail. After a few minutes she tumbled into the sage brush and dropped out of sight.
Grizzly & Cub Discover the Carcass
Across the river, meanwhile, the Lamar Eight were alternately feeding and high-fivin’, but their jubilation was interrupted by a Grizzly sow with a cub heading straight toward the carcass.
Another brief chase ensued, wolves vs. bears. The cub of course was the most vulnerable, but made it back to the safety of a tree just in time.
On full stomachs the Lamars stretched out a short ways from the carcass to rest and keep an eye on their bounty.
A Mollie Returns
Incredibly, a lone Gray (uncollared) Mollie from the five who had just been chased off tried to sneak back up on the still-hefty carcass! But she was immediately spotted and with tails up the Lamars raced into action, once again the Mollie running for her life. S/he stumbled and tumbled down the steep Lamar River bank but quickly regained her footing. Two Lamars made contact, down went the Mollie into the sage, but it is not clear what happened next. Most think that she escaped.
The ‘Mort Signal’
When a collared wolf dies there is a protocol. It consists of waiting for the so-called ‘mort mode’ to kick in. After no movement on the part of the wolf for four hours the radio signal suddenly shifts into 8/4 time and the ‘beep-beep-beep-beep’ doubles in intensity. Then the biologists with directional signals bombarding the antennae held high over their heads find and retrieve the body.
In the case of 822F, of course, she was only a few yards away, but the four-hour “mortality” wait before she was approached was still observed.
Once recovered, 822F was laid out in the back of a Ranger’s truck for a viewing. I, unfortunately, had left by then. Ranger Rick McIntyre, a well-known wolf-project expert and enthusiast, pictured above, is said to have given a moving eulogy.
Below is Ranger Bill Wengeler recounting the story of the death of 822F a few days later to a rapt (off camera) audience of Yellowstone tourists. I was privileged to encounter Bill numerous times over the three months I was a regular in Lamar Canyon. A biology teacher from Santa Monica, Bill is remarkably gifted in both sorting through traffic jams and in sparking the imagination of listeners with tales of the great outdoors. I took the liberty of “enhancing” this image of Bill to so-called ‘heroic’ proportions.
Who Rang The Dinner Bell?
But the day was not over yet for the Lamar wolves. While still on the scene I suddenly spotted a grizzly boar running full speed nose-up left to right across the valley, five to six hundred yards away, directly toward the bison carcass. The Lamars were quickly up and running to meet the challenge head-on. What an unimaginable thrill to watch a clash of National Geographic/Animal Planet proportions play out in front of your eyes! A hundred or so lucky onlookers were glued breathlessly to their scopes. One or two photographers with the big-boy 500-600mm lenses may have gotten some good images, but the action was too far away for me to even try.
The grizzly was not intimidated or deterred. The charging wolves parted like the Red Sea and the single-minded bear, pausing just long enough to rise up to full height and pirouette once in a menacing 360 degrees, continued non-stop to the carcass.
She ate undisturbed for a few minutes, then scampered off.
Several more bears made approaches over the next few hours, including the sow and her cub again. Each breathtaking encounter transformed me more and more into a lupophile.
Yes, it had been a rough day for some of the Mollies. But the backstory is that the Mollies are the bad boyz in the ‘hood, and the fate of 822F was sweet revenge for the Lamar Canyon Pack.
The Mollie’s Pack, I am told, consists of some 16-19 wolves, typically among the biggest in Yellowstone, apparently because as a formidable group they are actually able to bring down a full grown bison. They are currently without an alpha male and hence there are no pups this year to tie them to a den location. Which may account for why they so often rove and encroach; they are fearless when it comes to wandering into neighboring territories, and have been chasing and killing rival wolves on sight – including the alpha female and a male of the Agate Pack, as well as a member of the Blacktail Pack. Sometimes they split into smaller groups, and it may be that such a large pack is in the process of reorganizing.
But all of them got together for a home-invasion on the Lamar Pack’s den just a few months earlier.
Five days after the birth of the Lamar Canyon Pack’s pups 16 Mollies brazenly raided their den.
The Lamar pack is led by the famous 6-year-old gray alpha female, 832F. (Along with a 4-year-old black alpha male, 755M.) Formerly known as “The ’06 Female,” she is savvy and courageous with a reputation for quick and decisive action.
832F immediately raced out of the den site to lure the 16 invading Mollies away from the pups. At her age she did not have the advantage of speed, but she knew the terrain, and she had a plan.
Some distance away 832F paused at the brink of a steep cliff. The Mollies with hackles raised closed in on her, sensing a kill. Suddenly 832F disappeared over the ledge and dropped out of sight. She took advantage of a treacherous but navigable route down the rocky slope and correctly calculated that the Mollies would be too intimidated to chance the unfamiliar terrain.
As the bewildered Mollies regrouped and turned back toward the den, 832F’s two-year-old daughter suddenly arrived on the scene. She bravely charged straight toward the 16 Mollies to get their attention, and then lured them further away on another chase.
Young and fit, in the prime of her life, the daughter easily outran the Mollies.
Thanks to a coordinated effort by 832F and her daughter, the 9 members of the Lamar Canyon Pack and their 4 pups, though heavily outnumbered by the invading Mollies, were safe and sound.
Alpha Female 832F, despite her age, or maybe because of it, is a consummate professional at what she does – which is to protect and guide the Lamar Canyon Pack from one generation to the next in a land wild and unforgiving.
Crafty and courageous, 832F has a dedicated cadre of enthusiasts who faithfully chronicle her every move, such as they can. Wolf-watching is addictive. I went to Yellowstone in June for a two-week visit and ended up staying three months. And while I was never part of the “inner circle” of lupophiles, I quickly found myself crawling out of bed day after day at 4am and driving an hour and a half in the dark to be on site at sunrise. All for the slim chance of spotting a wolf usually too far away for a decent photograph.
I’ll be back next summer, Yellowstone!
1. I was not privileged to personally witness each of the events chronicled above, having instead to rely on conversations with others to piece together the narratives. Factual errors are solely my responsibility; corrections welcome.
2. Should you be interested in learning more about wolves & wildlife in general, and Yellowstone wolves in particular, a good place to visit is:
3. By far the best Yellowstone wolf-reporter that I have encountered is Kathie Lynch. Her updates are informative, insightful, and – hey, I grade papers for a living, I notice these things – superbly written: