After four decades on the federal endangered species list, the gray wolves’ population has officially recovered, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. This month, the agency proposed turning over management of the wolves to the states’ wildlife departments—even those states where the canids have yet to show up. The decision is based solely on numbers, and so it misses what is increasingly evident to wildlife biologists and conservationists: the importance of individual animals.
I learned this firsthand during a visit to Yellowstone National Park last winter, where wolf-watchers pointed out to me through their spotting scopes the forlorn figure of a male wolf known to park biologists as755M. He was curled up tightly on a snowy hillside, and lay so still he looked more like a stone or downed log. Most unlike a wolf, he was alone.
Does the death of one wolf matter? From a purely demographic standpoint, biologists say no. If there are sufficient numbers of wolves to breed, then the species is fine, so the old way of thinking goes. But for 755M and his pack, and for other Yellowstone wolves, the death of 832F has had enormous repercussions, which continue to this day.
People were drawn to 832F because she was an unusual female wolf—saucy, independent, powerful and wily enough to bring down a bull elk alone, and unwilling to be anything other than the leader of her pack. She’d scorned all her suitors until she met a pair of malleable males, the black-and-silver furred brothers, 755M and 754M. They were younger than she was, and were mediocre hunters at best, but the trio formed a pack, which the brothers wisely let her lead. By 2012, they had grown to 13 strong, and were the indisputable rulers of the Lamar River Valley with its herds of elk and buffalo. All that changed, though, in early December 2012, when 832F was killed 15 miles from the park’s eastern boundary.
Some said 832F had guided her pack out of the park to hunt elk, which also migrate beyond the park’s boundaries in the winter. But two weeks before her death, the pack’s beta male, 754M, had also been shot and killed in the same area.
“I can’t prove it, but I think that’s why 832 led her pack back there,” Rick McIntyre, a biological technician for the Yellowstone Wolf Project, told me. McIntyre has followed the canids daily since they were reintroduced to the park in 1995, and knows the individual wolves better than anyone. “Even though 754 wasn’t the alpha male, he was her favorite. I think she went looking for him.”
After the death of 832F, officials emphasized that the parks’ wolf population was still viable; there were plenty of wolves for people to see with more than 80 remaining. And that is true. The death of one or two, or even a dozen Yellowstone park wolves (the number of park wolves believed to have been shot or trapped outside its boundaries in the 2012-2013 hunting season) does not mean that the population is doomed. Wolf biologists emphasize how resilient the animals are. Packs may vanish, but others will take their place; there are pups this spring.
But the numbers overlook the social consequences of these deaths. Not so long ago biologists didn’t concern themselves with such matters. Animals were regarded more or less like cogs in a wheel; one dies, another one takes its place. Long-term studies of elephants, chimpanzees, dolphins, and other species tell a different story, though.
We know now that animals have personalities (some are shy, others are bold) that affect their reproductive success. Researchers have shown that elephant herds with the most offspring are led by the oldest and wisest females, and that young male elephants need the guidance and discipline of older bulls. They’ve discovered that male dolphins and chimpanzees constantly strategize about their social relationships, and that cougar and wolf societies are more congenial and stable when elders lead.
From Rob Wielgus’s research at the Large Carnivore Conservation Laboratory at Washington State University in Pullman, we’ve learned that senior male cougars (those four and older) patrol and protect their territories, and keep the younger males in check. Cougar societies that aren’t actively hunted—and so have the oldest males and females—also cause fewer problems for people. The older cats are wise, and know to avoid us.
Similarly, wolf packs with aging alphas (over four years) are not as good as hunting as those with younger leaders. They bring down fewer elk, a study in Yellowstone has shown, because the older animals don’t have the stamina needed for a hard chase. Yet, they’re key in other ways, says Dan MacNulty, the Utah State University biologist who led this study. “The wolf population on the landscape is not a homogeneous block,” he told the Billings Gazette in 2009. “That seems obvious, but I think it sometimes gets lost.”
For most of the 20th century, scientists were taught to regard animals as mindless beings lacking thoughts or emotions. But that attitude, too, has been swept aside as researchers with a more evolutionary perspective have revealed that species from fish and turtles to rats and lions have mental skills not so dissimilar from our own. Many animals—not just human animals-- love and laugh and grieve.
So it made sense that 832F had journeyed outside the park in search of her favorite mate, 754M. She wanted to know what had become of him, McIntyre said, just as we would if we became separated from our family members.
If I had any doubts about wolves behaving in this manner, they were silenced one evening as we listened to another pack’s plaintive howls. One of their members had fallen behind, and the others called to her, and listened for her reply. It came from far away, a single note of loneliness that hung in the air. Found! Her pack mates tipped back their heads, and howled again, longer, louder. We are here. We will wait for you.
After 832F was killed, her mate 755M returned alone to the Lamar Valley. That was how we saw him. Not as the proud alpha male of a formidable pack, but as a lone wolf, so weary from his journey, he lay motionless for hours. When he finally stood, he limped uphill like a beaten prize-fighter. 755M wore a radio-collar, and McIntyre knew from tracking his signal that he’d spent the last few days traveling through the territories of two other packs, scavenging off their old kills. One pack had chased him back to his turf before breaking off their pursuit to return to their own land. If they had managed to catch up with him, they likely would have killed him.
What would become of 755M? McIntyre was uncertain. He knew from the wolf’s behavior that he had “abdicated” his alpha role. His sons and daughters in his old pack would have to find their own way in the world now.
Later, after returning home, we learned that 755M had lured away a young female from one of the neighboring packs. They had mated and moved into the den he’d shared with 832F. For a time, it looked like 755M’s world was back to normal. He was once again an alpha or breeding male, and would soon be a father to a new litter of pups.
We all love happy endings and, like many others who follow the Yellowstone wolves, I rooted for 755M and his new mate. It was not to be. His old pack, made up of his daughters and their new male partners, came roaring back to the Lamar Valley in mid-March. They swooped down on 755M’s den, attacked his consort, and chased the pair away. The two staggered into the forest, 755M’s mate leaving a trail of blood in the snow. She died that night.
And what of 755M? He’s rarely seen these days. He wanders in the borderlands between other packs, hunted and haunted – a lone wolf, bereft of all.