The Story of Yellowstone Wolf 8: From Underdog to Alpha Male

An interview with Rick McIntyre, author of "The Rise of Wolf 8."

Posted Oct 14, 2019

Update: For another interview with Rick about his latest book The Reign of Wolf 21: The Saga of Yellowstone's Legendary Druid Pack please see The Reign of Wolf 21, Yellowstone's Benevolent Alpha Male

iRick McIntyre's new book titled The Rise of Wolf 8: Witnessing the Triumph of Yellowstone's Underdog is an incredibly detailed account of wolf behavior and the social dynamics within and between Yellowstone wolf packs. The amount of time Rick spent watching these amazing beings is staggering. From June 2000 to August 2015 he went out into the field for 6,175 consecutive days, and by the end of the day of February 27, 2019, he had 100,000 wolf sightings. He also has compiled more than 12,000 pages of detailed notes.  

Rick's meticulous long-term observations and stories of identified individuals he knew well and followed for many years are unprecedented. For many years I've thought of Rick as the "go-to-guy" for all things wolf, and The Rise of Wolf 8 amply confirms my belief. It's a must read, to which I'll return many times, for anyone interested in wolves and these magnificent beings are lucky to have Rick as their spokesman. 

In a previous post, "The Wolves of Yellowstone Love to Play—Just Like Dogs," I wrote about Rick's detailed observations of the games that wolves play. Now, it's my pleasure to offer an interview with him about many different aspects of wolf behavior.

Why did you write The Rise of Wolf 8 and how did it emerge from your long-term interests and first-hand experience with the wolves of Yellowstone?

After working for the National Park Service for many years as a naturalist, I transferred to Yellowstone National Park in 1994 and was designated the park’s Wolf Interpreter.  All my talks for the public were on the proposed wolf reintroduction and wolf behavior.  I switched over to doing wolf research after the wolves were released and worked for Doug Smith, a brilliant field biologist and project leader for the Yellowstone Gray Wolf Restoration Project.  The wolf packs were highly visible from the road corridor, which no one had expected, and over the next two and a half decades I saw wolves nearly every day and witnessed behavior that had never been documented before. I feel grateful to the wolves for giving me the gift of seeing so much of their private lives and feel it is my obligation to share what I have learned from them through a series of books.

Greystone Books
Source: Greystone Books

Who is the intended audience?

I mainly want to reach regular people, but researchers and students of animal behavior will also get a lot out of my experiences and observations.

What are some of the main messages that come from Wolf 8’s story and that of other wolves?

Wolf 8 was the smallest of all the male wolves released into Yellowstone and probably was the least likely to become a successful alpha male.  When he was a yearling, equivalent to a teenager in human years, he came across a mother wolf and her eight pups.  The father of the pups had been illegally shot, and the single mother needed a lot of help.  She accepted 8 into her family and he suddenly became an alpha male with a lot of responsibilities, such as helping to raise, train and protect a large litter of pups. He rose to the occasion, never backing down when his family was threatened by rival packs despite his youth and inexperience. 

One of the pups he raised was wolf 21 and he and 8 had an especially close relationship.  When 21 was older he helped his mother and 8 care for several litters of pups, and I saw how he demonstrated empathy for a sickly pup that was being shunned by the other pups.  21 later joined a neighboring pack as their alpha male after their previous alpha male had died, and like 8 had done for 21 and his siblings, he raised pups born to another male. 

From watching 8 and his adopted son, 21, I learned how multiple adult wolves in a family cooperate to raise young and protect them from threats such as grizzlies and rival wolf packs. I saw that alpha females are the true leaders of the pack, not the big alpha males.  Wolves have a matriarchal society and males seem to totally accept that.  Maybe that is a sign of the intelligence level of wolves.  I also witnessed how male wolves accept rejection from females in the breeding season, give preference to pregnant females at kills they made, and work tirelessly to feed and protect pups. 

21 loved to play with his pups and would let little pups beat him in wrestling matches.  At times he seemed to have a sense of humor. While running around with pups he would do what looked like a pratfall.  I got the sense that he liked to pretend he was a low-ranking wolf when with younger pack members, a type of role reversal.  21’s concept of being an alpha male was the exact opposite of what we think of in humans as an aggressive, dominating alpha male personality

I studied the many types of games pups played among themselves and saw how those games, such as chasing and wrestling, prepared them for their adult responsibilities of hunting and protecting their families from other wolves.

I watched wolf 8 exhibit extraordinary courage when he charged at a much bigger and stronger male wolf who was intending to attack 8’s family.  8 pinned the rival wolf and could have killed him but let him go.  21 was still with 8 at that time and witnessed the incident.  When he grew up and became an alpha male 21 was invincible in battle but followed the role modeling of 8 and never killed a defeated opponent.

What are some surprises about the behavior of these amazing nonhumans?

There is so much to say on that subject, but in addition to what I have already said on other aspects of wolf behavior, let me speak about how they use teamwork to feed their families. In Yellowstone, elk and bison are the main prey animals hunted by wolves.  A big bull elk can weigh 700 pounds while a bison bull could be 2,000 pounds.  Both species are normally faster than wolves and are very skilled at fighting back against predators.  The average weight of an adult wolf is about 100 pounds, so pack members have to work together to chase, attack and finish off such large, powerful opponents.  Young females tend to be the fastest wolves and their job is to catch up with an elk, bite into a hind leg and act as a drag.  That could enable a big male like 21 to catch up and make a killing bite by getting in front of the elk, then leaping up and biting its throat.  But all of that is extremely dangerous because a prey animal can kill or cripple a wolf by kicking it, trampling it, or goring it with its horns or antlers. I once saw a wolf get kicked so hard by a bison that it made an arc in the air, then crash landed.  It jumped right up and resumed the chase. For wolves, hunting is not a sport, it is face-to-face combat.

I like how you weave in personal stories about some of the wolves and blend in solid science. Are you hopeful that by doing this you will help people learn more about these wonderful beings and also that they will work harder to protect them?

Anyone who has the privilege to watch and study wolves cannot help but develop great respect and admiration for how they live their lives.  I often thought that many of the wolves I have known were better at being a wolf than I am at being a person.  My mission is to share what I have learned from having over 100,000 wolf sightings.

What will it take to give wolves more respect and protection and to alter myths about who they are and what they do?

For centuries humans have hated wolves and exterminated them from most of their original range, which had been all of North America, Europe, and Asia.  An example of that was how early Yellowstone rangers killed off the original native population of wolves in 1926.  I once heard someone say, “It is hard to hate someone if you know their story.” If I can tell the story of wolves like 8 and 21, I hope to help people see them like I do and therefore treat them with the respect they deserve.

What are some of your current projects?

I still go out prior to dawn every day to study wolves, then go home to write my trilogy about the Yellowstone wolves. My second book will continue the story of 21 and how he and his mate wolf 42 went on to lead the biggest wolf pack ever known. The third book will be about 21's nephew, wolf 302—despite their relatedness, they were polar opposites in personality and character.  After 21's death, 302 took over as the alpha male of his pack, but failed to live up to his responsibilities, and a much younger male had to step up and serve as alpha. Years later, after many more setbacks, 302 turned his life around and became a classic alpha male who died in a heroic manner. From watching 302 live out his long life, I learned that each wolf is an individual who constantly makes choices on how to behave.

Is there anything else you would like to tell readers?

I have known wolves that were vastly different in behavior and personality. One alpha female probably could have been diagnosed as a psychopath. Other wolves, without hesitation, risked their lives to rescue companions. Some adult wolves are content to be mid-level in their pack’s hierarchy. Others are more ambitious and leave the safety of their family’s territory to try to establish their own pack, a gamble that has a high fatality rate.

It is not that I am saying that wolves are like us. What I have learned from watching and studying wild wolves for over 40 years is that we are like each other.

Wolves and other animals need all the help they can get, and The Rise of Wolf 8 is a much-needed step in the right direction. I hope it enjoys a global audience.