Written by Maggie Caldwell
At the end of November, a famous Yellowstone wolf nicknamed “Spitfire” was shot dead by a trophy hunter outside the park. Though the shooting was legal in Wyoming, the fate of Spitfire (who’s also known as “926”) is a warning of what could happen to wolves in places like California and the Northern Cascades if Congress and the Trump administration proceed with plans to strip Endangered Species Act protections from gray wolves across the nation.
In 2015, I had the opportunity to go wolf watching in Yellowstone and see Spitfire firsthand. One morning, I met Rick McIntyre, a veteran researcher with the national park’s Wolf Project, in the park’s Lamar Canyon, a verdant landscape filled with herds of buffalo and elk, where wolves are commonly observed.
McIntyre has been observing wolves’ behavior since they were reintroduced to the northern Rocky Mountains 20 years ago. Once he picked up a signal from the radio collar of Spitfire, the alpha female of the Lamar Canyon pack, he aimed his spotting scope on a small bluff beside the river about a quarter mile from where we stood and beckoned me to take a look. Through the scope, I spied a small black wolf with a collar followed by an uncollared larger male and an even smaller black wolf prancing in front of the male. Rick identified 926, along with her new alpha male companion, nicknamed Twin, and one of her yearling daughters who was showing off like a preteen.
It seemed like a warm, loving little family, but the story of this trio turned out to be much more complicated.
Just two months earlier, Rick observed 926, her original male partner, 925, and their six yearling pups in a stand-off with a rival group of wolves known as the Prospect Pack. Wolves are notoriously territorial and clashes among packs can be deadly. 926, who was pregnant, immediately sensed danger when she saw the pack and took off in the opposite direction. Her pups scattered soon after. But the alpha male 925 remained on the hill as 12 adult Prospect wolves charged up the slope toward him.
As the pack drew closer, 925 stood his ground, gaining precious time for his pregnant mate and their pups to escape. As the lead Prospect wolves poised to sink their teeth in, 925 darted straight down the hill, leading the rival pack on a chase away from his family.
After a short pursuit, the Prospect wolves overtook 925 and tore into him in a frenzy of yips, snarls, fur, and blood. Hearing their father’s cries, two of the Lamar yearling pups re-emerged and began to howl, eventually drawing the rival wolves toward them and allowing their injured father to limp away.
McIntyre said he then lost sight of 925 but that the wolf’s radio collar indicated he had descended to a creek where he could hide and recover. Later, 926’s collar signaled her approach to that same area to check on her mate and assess the situation. After a time, she returned to her den with her pups, but without her mate. The next day, the 925 collar gave off a mortality signal.
The alpha male had fought a courageous battle and had died a hero, but the situation was suddenly dire for the rest of the Lamar Canyon wolves. About two weeks after the fatal encounter with the Prospect wolves, McIntyre observed what he feared might be the final death knell of the Lamar pack. A collared wolf from the Prospect pack and three of his mates were seen sniffing around the Lamar den. 926 found herself face to face with members of the pack that had recently killed her mate.
926 was a small female, only weighing about 85 pounds compared to the 130 pound plus Prospect males. Hobbled by her pregnancy, with a motley pack of yearlings and a second litter on the way, 926 stared down death in the face… and then started wagging her tail.
The members of the Prospect pack started wagging their tails back. McIntyre later observed that the Prospect Pack had fully welcomed the small black wolf 926 into the fold. All but one of her yearlings, obviously confused by her new allegiance with the wolves who committed patricide, took off on his own.
In late April, 926 had her second set of pups, and it appears the Prospect wolves are helping to care for the new litter.
It all sounded tragic to me that this wolf would so easily give up her loyalties, but McIntyre explained her thought process. 926 would be reliant on a mate to hunt for the pack while she was pregnant and during the early weeks after the next litter was born. Her yearlings were still untested in hunting and if she didn’t feed her young, 926 would be faced with a potentially tragic end to her whole pack.
So she had been faced with a cruel choice: fend for her two litters of pups without a mate and face an almost certain death sentence by starvation, or try to forge a bitter alliance with the enemy for the survival of her clan. She chose the survival of her family.
Featured image: Lamar Canyon wolves in Yellowstone. In November 2018 a trophy hunter killed the Lamar Canyon pack’s alpha female, a wolf nicknamed “Spitfire.” Image courtesy of Tom Murphy.