Kathie Lynch: Yellowstone wolf report on 20th anniversary

Twenty Year Anniversary of Wolf Restoration
Gray Wolves Returned January 12, 1995-

Twenty years! January 12, 2015, marks the 20-year anniversary of the return of gray wolves to their rightful place and vital role in the Northern Rockies ecosystem!On that fateful date in 1995, eight wolves from Alberta, Canada, arrived in Yellowstone National Park. They were the first gray wolves in Yellowstone since they were extirpated in 1926—an absence of 69 years.On January 19, 1995, six more wolves arrived in Yellowstone, bringing the total to 14. Also in January 1995, 15 wolves were released in central Idaho. A year later, in January 1996, 17 more wolves arrived in Yellowstone from British Columbia, Canada, and another 20 were released in central Idaho.

At the end of 2013, 1691 gray wolves roamed the Northern Rocky Mountains, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Gray wolf populations now live in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. A few intrepid dispersers have even made it as far as Utah, California and Colorado.

Wolf restoration has been called the greatest conservation success story in America’s history. Over these 20 years, scientists and a worldwide audience of admirers have had the unique opportunity to watch, study, learn about, and appreciate this important apex predator and the gray wolves’ role in maintaining a healthy and complete ecosystem.

While Idaho’s wolves remained elusive in the forest, the wide-open spaces of Yellowstone National Park proved to be the perfect showcase for studying wolves.

From Yellowstone’s first three packs (Rose Creek, Crystal Creek, and Soda Butte) to just some of the famous packs that followed (Leopold, Nez Perce, Chief Joseph, Druid Peak, Agate Creek, Mollies, Slough Creek, Hayden Valley, Blacktail Plateau), the names ring out like a roll call of legends.

A watcher in Yellowstone today may follow the lives of wolves in a favorite pack, perhaps Lamar Canyon, Junction Butte, Prospect Peak, or Canyon. It is an ever changing, challenging, and dangerous world out there for a wolf in the wild.

The 8-member Lamar Canyon pack continues to be a big attraction in the Lamar and Soda Butte Valleys. This pack is amazing for several reasons, not the least of which is that alpha female 926F is the daughter of the famous “’06 Female” (832F), who was shot and killed in the legal Wyoming wolf hunt in 2012.

Black 926F and her gray mate 925M successfully raised six pups in 2014, five blacks and one gray. One black pup was recently collared as 967M. He weighed in at 98 pounds at 8 months of age, a testament to these lucky pups’ parents’ skills as hunters and providers.

The Lamar Canyons have been hunting lately in the Lamar Valley. One recent day, a bull elk stood quietly in the Lamar River, hoping to escape unnoticed, while the pack surrounded a spike elk that had taken a defensive position on a cliff. Both of those elk eventually got away, although another was not so fortunate. For two days, winter visitors had the chance to see the daily life of a wolf pack as the wolves napped around a carcass site.

Observers used to seeing the aggressive behavior of captive wolves on TV or in movies are usually surprised to see the relatively calm scene around a carcass in the wild. Without the stress of captivity, even when feeding on the carcass, there is very little tension and turmoil.

However, tension and turmoil are the key words these days for the Junction Butte pack, as an almost unbelievable coup seems to have taken place. It’s possible that last year’s alpha pair, 890M and 870F, has been ousted by interloper 911M and the former Junction Butte “Black Female,” 970F.

One recent morning at Slough Creek, we watched an amazing scene unfold as Junction Butte alpha 890M walked across the flats with a gray female pup. The pup left him and went to her mother, 870F. In a surprising turnabout, 870F was the submissive one, soliciting and receiving a regurgitation feeding from her pup!

The pup then left 870F, and, together with another pup (black 968F) and the three gray yearlings (907F, 969F, and the beautiful dark male with the huge black tip on his tail), rallied around apparent new alphas 911M and 970F, who had appeared on the scene with high, waving tails!

The pups seemed especially confused by it all and wanted to go between their parents (old alphas 890M and 870F) and the apparent new alphas (911M and 970F). To add to the mystery, apparently deposed alphas 890M and 870F didn’t pay any attention to each other and didn’t even seem to be together.

Since then, 890M has been seen somewhat near the main pack. However, 870F is most often alone, although it is hoped that one or more of her pups may at times be with her.

Prior to the day of the coup, alphas 890M and 870F had not been seen for over a week. The pack had previously run into trouble with other wolves, and 870F had been injured. Perhaps that’s when 970F (who at one time had held the beta rank in the Junction Butte pack) saw her opportunity to seize the alpha position.

Sadly, of the five 2014 Junction Butte pups, probably only three remain (one gray female, black 968F, and one black male). The black male pup had a bad gash injury on its right rear in December. He has been seen following the pack occasionally but usually stays a distance away.

Also in December, one Junction Butte gray male pup was found dead, (likely killed by other wolves, possibly the Mollies), and another gray pup went missing. Also, one of the gray female yearlings was legally shot in the Montana wolf hunt. The bottom line is that it’s not easy growing up (or even just living life) as a wolf in the wild.

The 8 Mile pack, which had 13 pups in 2014 and 18-20 members in the early fall, is now down to just 8 wolves (6 blacks, 2 grays). The 8 Mile alpha male, 871M, was killed by the Cougar Creek pack in early November.

Eight Mile alpha female 909F (a sister of the Prospect Peak pack’s alpha 821F) was subsequently briefly seen with the Cougar Creek pack and 910M, but little is known about how things will settle out or who the new 8 Mile alphas are or will be.

The upshot of the Cougar Creek/8 Mile altercation was that some wolves may have left each of those packs and ended up joining the Prospect Peak pack (which was originally an offshoot of the 8 Mile pack last year).

Consequently, the Prospect Peak pack (which ranges from the Blacktail Plateau through Hellroaring and east to Slough Creek) has now grown to usually 14 wolves (8 blacks, 6 grays).

However, the numbers and groupings fluctuate, and the whole thing is very confusing. Of the 14, some are adults (graying black alpha 763M, gray alpha 821F, black male “Twin”—who looks like 763M, gray 965M, and a thin black male) and many are pups (three of which might be actual Prospect Peak pack pups and others who are probably 8 Mile refugees). Perhaps some day when the DNA is sorted out for the collared individuals (gray pup 964M, gray adult 965M, gray pup 966M), it will all make more sense.

To add to the confusion, the wolf we had been watching all fall, thinking that it was “Third Sister” (the second mother wolf in the Prospect Peak pack last spring), actually turned out to be a huge, 120-pound adult male when he was collared as 965M!

Sometimes you just have to give up trying to figure things out and enjoy what you are seeing. On a sparkling New Year’s Day morning, we were treated to a beautiful sight as 13 Prospect Peak wolves wound their way in a single file line up, up, up the steep, rocky cliffs above the Slough Creek campground road. When they reached the top, they rallied briefly on the sunlit snow and then appeared silhouetted on the skyline before dropping over the top and out of sight.

The Canyon pack, which summers in Hayden Valley, finally made their annual holiday trek north to Mammoth and the Blacktail Plateau. The aging alphas (the white female and graying black 712M), who will each soon be 10 years old, both look great. Their gray female yearling has stuck with them, but she may be tempted to find a suitor in the coming February breeding season.

Starting last summer, her 4-year-old very light gray sister has often been seen with former Lamar Canyon alpha 755M (who was the mate of the late, great “’06 Female”). They make a striking pair, with 755M’s distinguished silvery-black coat and her creamy white one.

No Yellowstone winter would be complete without a visit to the Northern Range by the Mollies pack. It currently includes black alpha 779F, a gray alpha male, four yearlings and six 2014 pups.

All 12 Mollies (9 blacks, 3 grays) recently made the trek north from their home in the Pelican Valley to visit Lamar Valley and Slough Creek. The Mollies only stayed a couple of days, but, as usual, it was long enough to cause some havoc. They may have been responsible for killing the Junction Butte gray pup who was found dead.

It seems appropriate to end this story with the Mollies pack—a pack that traces its start way back to that great day, January 12, 1995, when gray wolves returned home to Yellowstone. One of the people who helped to carry a wolf in a kennel crate on January 12, 1995, was Mollie Beattie, the Director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Beattie died of cancer less than two years later, and the original Crystal Creek pack was renamed the Mollies pack to honor her. Mollies pack is the only one of the original packs to have survived throughout these 20 years.

The only other person to be honored with a pack name was famous conservationist Aldo Leopold. In 1944, Leopold was the first to suggest restoring wolves to Yellowstone. It took another 51 years and the devoted efforts of countless people to make Leopold’s incredible vision a reality.

Anyone who has been lucky enough to experience any part of these last 20 years has come to know and understand the valuable role wolves play as keystone contributors to a complete, healthy ecosystem.

Every Yellowstone wolf pack has had unforgettable individuals who inspired people the world over to care about and feel connected to wolves and the wild. Countless park visitors have stood in awe, many moved to tears, by the unique opportunity Yellowstone offers to experience the lives of wild wolves.

Through the door that opened 20 years ago, Yellowstone’s wolves stepped into the wild to reclaim their rightful place in America’s West. The story of their success will continue to inspire future generations as we fight to preserve wolves, all wildlife, and wilderness itself.

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Story Copyright Kathie Lynch 2015.
No reproduction in any form without permission.


  1. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    After twenty years and 1000 radio collared wolves, it is time to leave Yellowstone wolves alone. Get the collars off of Yellowstone’s wolves!!!

    1. Joanne Favazza Avatar
      Joanne Favazza

      Agreed, Larry. No more collaring! A collared wolf is no longer truly wild, and as we have seen, collared wolves are often targeted by hunters and poachers.

  2. Joanne Favazza Avatar
    Joanne Favazza

    Thanks for the update. I’m so glad to hear that the Canyon Pack alphas are still doing well, despite their age. I had the great privilege of being able to observe the Canyon Pack on a regular basis when I worked in the park in 2011-2012, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. While attending the Speak For Wolves event last June, I spent some time in Hayden Valley and was fortunate enough to see the pack again. Long live the Canyons!

  3. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Yes, it does seem like there’s enough internal upheaval on their own, without that brought on by human interference!

    1. Ed Loosli Avatar
      Ed Loosli

      Amen to that.


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Kathie Lynch