Return of the Wolf

An intimate look at the reintroduction of Yellowstone’s top predator.

I first encountered Wolf 760 in 2010, atop a massive three-fingered mountain in the remote southeast corner of the park known as the Trident—one of the wildest, most unfettered places imaginable. For some people this place, being so remote, holds an aura of legend. It was winter, and we were once again collaring wolves, this time looking for the Delta Pack. Of all the Yellowstone packs, this is the one that travels most widely, usually through such isolated country that sometimes simply finding them can be a huge challenge. Spotter plane pilot Roger Stradley finally located the pack on the stony flanks of the Trident, at which point he put out the call to bring us in with the helicopter. When helicopter pilot Bob Hawkins and I first saw the wolves, and more specifically, the craggy, rugged terrain they were crossing, we looked at each other and shook our heads.

Let’s get out of here, we agreed. There’s just no way this is gonna work.

At the last minute, though, on a whim I asked Bob to hold for a few seconds so we could watch and see what the wolves would do next. We’d fully expected them to go down the mountain, which was by far the best escape route. But instead they kept moving upslope, plowing through deep snow, pushing hard toward the relatively flat ten-thousand-foot summit of the Trident. Given that line of travel, I knew if they kept going this direction we might have a chance. Bob began circling the pack from a safe distance, not wanting to push them too hard, just keeping an eye on them. We hovered for a time at the rugged edges of the mountain, along stony cliffs plunging a thousand feet into the snowscape, me sitting in the open side door of the helicopter, blasted by frigid air, hardly able to believe the brilliant panorama tumbling all around me.

The wolves stayed on course, finally making it all the way to the open summit, onto a clean white slate of unbroken snow. The only problem for us was that they’d reached extreme elevation, some ten thousand feet high—the air so thin that the blades of a helicopter don’t have much to hold on to.

“There’s not much I can do up here,” Bob reminded me. “We’ll have to go straight in. If they give us any back and forth, I won’t be able to stay with them.”

Given that the wolves were right in front of us, lumbering through deep snow, I thought we should give it a try. Maybe because they were tired—having, after all, just finished a rather heroic bout of mountain climbing—they seemed not to have any extra energy for the usual “juke and jive” moves that wolves use to evade us. Bob was able to slide right in on the first wolf, and I landed a tranquilizer dart. Then it was out toward the edge of the plateau, where we managed another one, just as the pack was making a beeline into the rugged, loosely wooded folds of Escarpment Creek. It was the first time we’d caught the wolf known as 760. After placing the collar on him, I sat there on top of the Trident, waiting for Bob to come back in the helicopter and pick me up. I watched the wolf and then stared out into that wild country, spreading out in all directions.

A year passes. It’s 2011. Once again we’re flying in the southeast part of the park, trying to replace a nonfunctioning collar on one of the wolves in the Delta Pack. Spotter plane pilot Roger Stradley locates the group on Mountain Creek, roughly 1,500 feet below the towering Trident. The snow is especially deep—in fact, the deepest it’s been in several decades—and as we approach the wolves take to the frozen bed of Mountain Creek, where it’s easier going. As we move in, though, I make a mistake—one that to this day I can’t quite get my head around. Somehow I mis-identify wolf 760 as the animal whose collar has quit working. Bob swoops in and I dart him, then we get one of the pups.

Once on the ground, though, when I lay eyes on the adult wolf, I instantly realize it’s the wrong animal. Way too big. Gigantic, in fact. In a single year 760 has managed to put on an astonishing thirty pounds, achieving what still stands as the record weight for a Yellowstone wolf—a whopping 148 pounds. Weighing wolves is something of an inexact science, given that when we dart them they can be holding up to twenty pounds of meat in their stomachs. As it happens, 760 is slightly unsettled by the tranquilizer, and at one point vomits. (This is not an unusual reaction to tranquilizers. When it happens, we cradle the wolf’s head with our arms, making sure to keep its airway clear of any obstructions.) In the case of 760, though, nothing comes up but bile. Not a scrap of meat. Incredibly, he’s 148 pounds without any food in him.

Sitting here, I get a feeling that’s hard to describe. Having personally darted over two hundred of these animals, and handling several hundred more, there are times when I have to guard against ending up on “autopilot”; it’s especially easy to end up there on hectic days, when I get the collar on one wolf, take the necessary samples and measurements—all very methodically—then find myself pressing on to the next pack. Unfortunately, it seems such mechanical mind can creep in now and then when you make the study of nature your job. Sometimes the magic that came so easily in the early years of a scientist’s career, when every day brought a proper sense of awe and wonder, can on heavy work days begin to slip out of reach.

But big Number 760 wakes me up from this work-induced trance. What are he and his pack doing here out in deep snow, I start wondering, miles from a decent chance at a moose or bighorn sheep? I stand up and look around, noticing how the snow holds not a single track from another animal. Against that backdrop, suddenly I see 760 as something much more than just another wolf. He is Wolf with a capital letter. Here is the creature that caused so much turmoil in the western world—a strong, vigorous predator that fifteen hundred years ago was sold by popular religion as the symbol of evil, and incredibly, is today being sold that way again. Sitting in this quiet drainage, a stone’s throw from the most remote location in the continental United States, I worry about whether as a culture we can still embrace this thing called wilderness. Or if the day is coming when we’ll manage our last wild places more or less as farms, charged with growing crops of elk and deer for the autumn harvest.

Greater Yellowstone, like a handful of other precious places in the northern Rockies, is still wild enough to occasionally be inconvenient. Awkward. Unpredictable. Qualities that lie at the heart of any place worthy of the name wilderness. On this January day in the canyon, in the snow next to that beautiful, perfectly chiseled wolf, I’m thinking that unless we make room in our lives for such irregularity, for the messiness of big mystery, then the last wild places will fade to a pale shadow of what they once were. And of what they might yet be.


Reprinted with permission from Decade of the Wolf revised and updated edition: Returning the Wild to Yellowstone, by Douglas W. Smith and Gary Ferguson, published by Lyons Press. (c) 2012 Lyons Press. All rights reserved.

Douglas Smith, PhD, leader of the Yellowstone Gray Wolf Restoration Project, has studied wolves for decades and has worked on the reintroduction since its inception. He lives in Bozeman, Montana.

Gary Ferguson, an award-winning nature writer, has written eighteen books on nature and science, as well as for publications including Vanity Fair, Outside, and the Los Angeles Times. He lives in Red Lodge, Montana.

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