Me & My Gal

Spitfire was chowing down on a bison that had tumbled over and died of natural causes.


Big Gray, with a full belly, was not far away.

big gray

He is the new alpha male of this splintered pack.

[See the postscript below if you are interested in the evolving dynamics of the Lamar Canyon wolves in the wake of some recent tragic events.]

On a hunch I separated myself from the ‘feeding frenzy’ of the wolf paparazzi and drove down the road a ways to a spot I hoped Spitfire might wander by on her way back up to the den area.

Patience is a virtue, they say; sure enough, in due time she came trotting toward me.


She was on an angle to skirt my presence by a reasonable distance. But I sensed a change in her demeanor as soon as she hopped up onto the road.


Her eyes locked on my camera lens and would not let go.


The angle between us shrunk a few degrees and Spitfire lowered her head. I was still under the impression that she was just slinking past me on her way up over the ridge.


And then suddenly…


“Oh my God!” a lady’s voice behind me exclaimed. “What should we do?”

spitfire“Don’t run,” I said, “wolves don’t attack people.”

I kept my eye glued to the viewfinder of my camera and continued firing away at 7-8 shots a second as she got closer and closer.

The irony did occur to me that I could have just uttered words that would be chiseled on my tombstone.

Ten yards in front of me Spitfire stopped beside a bush and in a universal language communicated loudly & clearly.


In the wild, scent marking with a raised leg is reserved for alpha wolves. In the male that is called, appropriately enough, a “raised leg urination” (RLU). Sub-dominant males squat to urinate.

Similarly, only the alpha female usually raises her leg to urinate. In her case, like Spitfire’s above, it is called a “flexed leg urination” (FLU).

The importance of noting this posturing in wolves is that from a distance one can begin to discern pack structure. In this case, with the Lamar Canyons, there are two females who are still working out their dominance relationship, although it is generally thought that Spitfire’s sister, Middle Gray (who recently gave birth to pups), has the upper hand.

middle gray

At any rate, this is one feisty gal who has indeed captured my heart.  I think she was just happy to see me!


I hate to leave my wolf friends here in Yellowstone but I am on my way to Miami to pick up my own little “wolf pup.” An 8-week old black & red German Shepherd with internationally titled WORLD-CLASS champions on both sides of her family tree.

Think I should name her ‘Spitfire’?

The Lamar Canyon Pack: A Brief Retrospective

The Lamar Canyon Pack was decimated last year by hunters.

Two male brothers, alpha 755M & beta 754M, dominated the pack along with the world-famous “rock star” female, alpha 832F (aka F-06).

alpha female 832 returning to den

754M, the 2nd-in-charge male, ventured outside the Park and was legally shot in Wyoming. Shortly thereafter, 832F, not known to wander but who may have been looking for the ‘lost’ 754M, was similarly gunned down in the same general area outside the Park.

Subsequently, alpha male 755 left the pack so as not to mate with his daughters. He has apparently hooked up with an unknown female and currently they travel in and out of the Park.

The deceased 832F’s two daughters, Middle Gray and The Black Lamar Female (aka, Spitfire) now form the nucleus of the once-thriving Lamar Canyon Pack. A male from outside the pack, known only as Big Gray, has taken over the alpha role. Middle Gray is pregnant but not by Big Gray.

Just recently another brother (859M) to the two Lamar females has returned to join the pack and seems to be tolerated by Big Gray. A few ‘dope slaps’ by his sisters and some intimidating looks from Big Gray, and the pecking order was instantly worked out, with 859 at the bottom.

Actually, it is never as simple as it sounds. First, this group of four does not rise to the level of a “Pack” anymore, since technically a wolf pack requires some of the members to be offspring of a breeding pair, and no one has seen the litter yet. Right now they are simply referred to by wolf biologists as the “Lamar Canyons.” That designation may change in short order.

No one even knows for sure who the sire is. Although, they know that it is not Big Gray. The location of the den – the same one used over and over again – is known from plane overflights, and many wolf watchers, including myself, have seen the sisters lugging chunks of food back to the den area.

UPDATE: two black wolf pups have just been sighted! It is still not clear who their sire is but we now know proof positive that it is not Big Gray, as two grays cannot produce black pups. The mystery continues…


cunningham cabin

Secrets & Strategies

There is a widespread notion that wildlife photographers must go traipsing through the brush and put themselves at risk to capture images of dangerous animals.


Admittedly I am only an amateur, but that has not been my experience.

There are 92 trailheads in Yellowstone National Park leading to 1,000 miles of pristine backcountry excursions.  Hiking and exploring any one them can no doubt enlighten you with epiphanies galore.

As a landscape photographer, yes, you will stumble upon unimaginably splendid vistas, particularly if you catch the ‘golden moments’ at dawn and dusk – more so if you are willing to brave inclement weather. Angry skies add drama to an image.

grand tetons

But as to encountering bears and wolves – no. The chance of consistently getting close enough for an award-winning photo is slim-to-none.


Because these animals typically avoid the sight, sound, and smell of humans.

What’s the best strategy for a photographer, then?

Grizzly 610 with cubs

Very simple…

As any Park Ranger or professional photographer will tell you, just climb in your car and drive.  Critters use the roads, too; some will even try to hitch a ride.🙂

In Yellowstone there are 466 miles of roads, 310 of them paved, covering 3472 square miles (larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined).

Vehicles are like a natural (albeit moving) blind, and most animals have learned to tolerate them.

Wolves are exceptions in that they are leery not only of people but cars and roads too; yearlings often sit and howl and stubbornly refuse to cross a road even when their elders have seemingly found a safe passage – but sometimes they have to bite the bullet to get back to their den or rendezvous site.

832 crossing road

If you are a first-timer out prowling Yellowstone for pictures, look for traffic jams, gawkers holding up their cell phone cameras. If you are a bit more discriminating, look for those with binoculars and spotting scopes and monster cameras on tripods.

grizzly paparazzi in the Tetons

🙂 photographing a grizzly from a platform on the roof of a car 🙂

It should go without saying that the serious photographer needs to get out & about early, stay late, and carry plenty of fresh batteries.

wolfers at sunrise in Lamar Valley

Bears & Cars & People

So now you know the secret to photographing wild animals in YNP: play your cards right & they will come to you!

That’s not to say that it doesn’t take patience and dedication.  And, of course, be sure to ‘airbrush’ the paved road out of the frame and let the world think you are an intrepid soul indeed!

That second black bear close to the road in the video above?  You zoom in close and make eye contact and the world will never suspect how easy it was to capture an image of this ‘dangerous’ beast.

black bear

There is probably now a fatwa on my head for ‘whistleblowing’ sacred secrets of successful wildlife photography on the streets of Yellowstone.

🙂 SEEKING Asylum, Please!🙂

spitfire header


Some have taken to calling this feisty Black Lamar Canyon Female, “Spitfire.” And therein lies the rub – who gets to name a wolf?

Researchers reserve the right to name radio (or GPS) collared wolves alphanumerically – e.g., 832F.

Uncollared wolves often get tagged with nicknames from the general public – e.g., Casanova, Puff, Spitfire.

Currently there is some bickering online as to whether or not we should be “allowed” to call this beautiful wolf, Spitfire.


“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked.


If a “rose is a rose is a rose” that would smell as sweet by any other name, then perhaps a wolf is a wolf is a wolf who will continue to intrigue us and get into mischief no matter what.


A wolf doth something every week to keep him from Church on Sunday

– olde english proverb

spitfire header w. coyote pup

Sisters Kill Three, Eat One!

Middle Grey and her sister (the so-called “Black Lamar Female”) raided a coyote den yesterday. The distraught coyote parents yipped and barked and howled from a short distance away but they were no match for the two Lamar Canyon wolves.

Actually, a third member of the Lamar pack was also on the scene, a male called Big Grey.  But mostly he sat and watched and kept the coyotes at bay.  For a few comic-relief minutes a bull bison sauntered over and chased the wolves from the den, apparently lending support to the coyotes.

After an hour of digging like tunnel rats through roots and rocks in what was obviously a tight place (the wolf would disappear underground completely from view) three pups were dragged out one at a time and quickly dispatched.

It was a dramatic scene, and even Dr. Doug Smith, the biologist responsible for the reintroduction of wolves back into YNP since 1995 was in attendance. He told me that since the den was located smack in the middle of Lamar Valley, the home turf of the Lamar Canyon Pack, this killing was probably not food related so much as the asserting of territorial rights by wolves whose typical prey preference somewhat overlaps that of the coyotes.

Even so, we watched the wolves eat at least one coyote pup on the spot, and then the Black Lamar Female trotted the mile or so back to their den with a dead pup in her mouth.  (Her sister, Middle Grey, has a litter of pups up in the hills.)

spitfire w. coyote pup

All three of the Lamar wolves split up and were returning to their den via circuitous routes, apparently to confuse the coyotes.  I lost track of two of them but was snapping pictures of the Black Female with her prize as she made her way home, stopping every few minutes and dropping her bounty to rest and look around.

Suddenly not twenty yards from me out of the corner of my eye I caught a rush of movement.  Still peering through the viewfinder I whirled and started shooting, everything unfolding so fast that it wasn’t until later looking at the images on a computer that I could figure out what happened.

Middle Grey darted by lickety-split.

middle grey Lamar wolfShe plunged rather unceremoniously into a briar patch.

middle grey Lamar wolfThen came the coyotes in hot pursuit.  First the male – and he was flying, legs barely touching the ground!

coyote chasing middle greyI had been told that this coyote suffered terribly from mange all winter and you can still see some bare patches on his side and tail.

Note that the coyotes are drenched from having just chased Middle Grey through the fast-moving Lamar River.

coyote chasing middle grey Then came the female.  She has just helplessly watched her den decimated and her three pups killed and yet she is in brave pursuit of an alpha wolf twice her size.

coyote chasing middle greyYes, Nature is “red in tooth and claw,” as Charles Darwin observed.  But if we refrain from moralizing and resist the urge to anthropomorphize, Nature regulates and balances herself just fine.


middle grey wolf header

‘Middle Grey’ Makes My Day!

It is difficult to convey the thrill of seeing a wolf in the wild.  Especially when they engage you directly, one on one.

middle grey lamar canyon wolfIt is said, rightfully so, that a wolf doesn’t look ‘at you’ so much as ‘through you.’

middle grey lamar canyon wolfThis gal’s name is ‘Middle Grey.’  She has pups in a den not far from here, across the Lamar River, but no one has seen them yet.

They are just about 8 weeks old and ready to be moved to a ‘rendezvous site’ – which is a kind of roving ‘nursery’ where they hang out and are even babysat by one of the adults while the others are out hunting.

[The competition as you might imagine is fierce amongst photographers to witness the move and get pictures of the pups.]

middle grey lamar canyon wolfIn these photos Middle Grey is out & about with her sister (a black female, not shown) while a third adult is most likely back at the den watching the pups.

It is thought that she might be noting places in the river safe enough for her pups to cross when the time comes to move them.

I don’t have the kind of long expensive lens (those so bulky you have to fasten them to a tripod) that the ‘big boys’ have, so these images suffer a bit by comparison.

middle grey lamar canyon wolfBut even a fuzzy shot of a Lamar Canyon Wolf makes my day!


mexican wolf

El lobo

The Mexican gray wolf is a subspecies of the gray wolf, and is the most endangered type of wolf in the world. Commonly referred to as “El lobo,” its coat is a combination of brown, gray, rust, and tan. Its tail, legs, and ears are often highlighted with black.

mexican wolf


Mexican wolves mostly eat ungulates (large hoofed mammals) like elk, white-tailed deer, and mule deer. They are also known to eat smaller mammals like javelinas, rabbits, ground squirrels and mice.


After being wiped out in the United States and with only a few animals remaining in Mexico, Mexican wolves were bred in captivity and reintroduced to the wild in Arizona beginning in 1998. There are only about 300 Mexican wolves in captivity. The goal of the reintroduction program was to restore at least 100 wolves to the wild by 2006; unfortunately, at the end of 2010 there were only approximately 50.


Mexican wolves once ranged widely from central Mexico throughout the southwestern US. Today, the Mexican wolf has been reintroduced to the Apache National Forest in southeastern Arizona and may move into the adjacent Gila National Forest in western New Mexico as the population expands.


Mexican wolves prefer to live in mountain forests, grasslands and shrublands, and are very social animals. They live in packs, which are complex social structures that include the breeding adult pair (the alpha male and female) and their offspring. A hierarchy of dominant and subordinate animals within the pack help it to work as a unit.


Mating Season: Mid February-mid March.

Gestation: 63 days.

Litter size: 4-7 pups.

Pups are born blind and defenseless. The pack cares for the pups until they mature at about 10 months of age.

© Jim Clark / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

mexican wolfmexican wolfmexican wolfmexican wolfmexican wolf

[Note: photos taken at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum]

alpha female '06

Alpha Female 832F of Lamar Canyon Pack Shot & Killed

In the past two months an estimated 8-10 Yellowstone wolves have been legally murdered for no reason other than straying across the invisible borders of the Park into Wyoming and Montana.

Two days ago the collared ’06 alpha female (also known as 832F) of Lamar Valley was shot and killed by a hunter in an area some 16 miles East of YNP near where her pack mate 754M was trophy-bagged a few weeks earlier.

Perhaps the most famous of all wolves, ’06 had been seen and loved by an estimated one million viewers. I, myself, was enchanted with her, and would like to take this opportunity in tribute to reblog a portion of a recently-published anecdote from her remarkable life…

The Raid

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.

alpha female 832 returning to den– Lamar Canyon Alpha Female 832F –

2006 – 2012

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.

lamar canyon wolf

Young and fit, in the prime of her life, the daughter easily outran the Mollies.

lamar canyon wolf

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.


wolfers at sunrise

😦 Good-bye, alpha ’06😦

alpha female 832F crossing road

[Click here for my original blog about the killing of a member of the Mollies Pack by ’06 and the Lamar Canyon Pack]

The Wolf That Changed America

How famous was 832F?  Well, it is probably safe to say that she is the only Canis lupus to have her obituary published in the New York Times.

‘Famous’ Wolf Is Killed Outside Yellowstone


Published: December 8, 2012

Yellowstone National Park’s best-known wolf, beloved by many tourists and valued by scientists who tracked its movements, was shot and killed on Thursday outside the park’s boundaries, Wyoming wildlife officials reported.

The wolf that researchers called 832F, left, was shot on Thursday. The alpha female of the Lamar Canyon pack, she wore a tracking collar. The wolf with her, known as 754, was killed last month.

The wolf, known as 832F to researchers, was the alpha female of the park’s highly visible Lamar Canyon pack and had become so well known that some wildlife watchers referred to her as a “rock star.” The animal had been a tourist favorite for most of the past six years.

The wolf was fitted with a $4,000 collar with GPS tracking technology, which is being returned, said Daniel Stahler, a project director for Yellowstone’s wolf program. Based on data from the wolf’s collar, researchers knew that her pack rarely ventured outside the park, and then only for brief periods, Dr. Stahler said.

This year’s hunting season in the northern Rockies has been especially controversial because of the high numbers of popular wolves and wolves fitted with research collars that have been killed just outside Yellowstone in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

Wolf hunts, sanctioned by recent federal and state rules applying to the northern Rockies, have been fiercely debated in the region.

The wolf population has rebounded since they were reintroduced in the mid-1990s to counter their extirpation a few years earlier.

Many ranchers and hunters say the wolf hunts are a reasonable way to reduce attacks on livestock and protect big game populations.

This fall, the first wolf hunts in decades were authorized in Wyoming. The wolf killed last week was the eighth collared by researchers that was shot this year after leaving the park’s boundary.

The deaths have dismayed scientists who track wolves to study their habits, population spread and threats to their survival. Still, some found 832F’s death to be particularly disheartening.

“She is the most famous wolf in the world,” said Jimmy Jones, a wildlife photographer who lives in Los Angeles and whose portrait of 832F appears in the current issue of the magazine American Scientist.

Wildlife advocates say that the wolf populations are not large enough to withstand state-sanctioned harvests and that the animals attract tourist money. Yellowstone’s scenic Lamar Valley has been one of the most reliable places to view wolves in the northern Rockies, and it attracts scores of visitors every year.


Doug Smith, leader of the Yellowstone Wolf Project, speaks out in a radio interview about the death of 832F.