In the early winter of 1994, on the edge of Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, a healthy young wolf with a caramel-colored silvery gray and white coat and heavily muscled shoulders and legs, was following the trail of a moose with calf, shadowed by his gang of hefty bodyguards, when he was snared by a trapper hired by Yellowstone National Park. Canadian trappers were paid $2000 for every live uninjured wolf they could provide the park, which was finally beginning its wolf reintroduction program after twenty years of negotiating with the livestock industry. Surprised and indignant, the big wolf broke two syringes of Ketamine before the trapper jabbed the third into his flank. The dazed wolf was wrapped up in a quilt and carried by three men to a helicopter. In the air, he strained to hear the long low wails of his bewildered pack-mates below the treetops.
In a maintenance building near the park, he was checked over for any abnormalities. The trapper, along with veterinarians, bureaucrats and biologists were deeply impressed by this animal’s extraordinary physique, huge testicles and fearless indifferent manner. His furry paws were six inches across. A sense of greatness permeated the room as he lay there on the cold stainless steel table.
Emerging from a drugged stupor, the wolf’s immense head was supported by a biologist as the animal struggled to raise himself and regain his inherent self-assurance. Though his wide-set golden eyes were cold and detached, he did not show fear or anger. He seemed amused by all the people groping him with awe. Somebody called him Arnold. The biologist called him the Big Guy. The local trapper had never seen anything like this wolf in all his years of swearing, drinking, killing and skinning. Wolf Number 10, as he eventually came to be known, had met up with the crew from Yellowstone who had long dreamed of the day when wolves would lope across the Lamar Valley again, after being exterminated 70 years ago.
Also captured in the same area along with her daughter, was a dark charcoal black female, three year old wolf Number Nine. A few weeks later she and her daughter Number Seven were shipped in new aluminum containers to Yellowstone. Brawny Number 10 made the same journey a week later and joined the sooty dark female and her ten month old daughter in a one-acre chain-link pen across from Rose Creek in the northwest part of the park. The female had been brutally kidnapped away from her former mate and from their four cubs and was grieving and distraught. So when Number Ten made a vaulting leap and landed stiff-legged and dominating in front of her, she was horrified and aghast. When he laid his head along her back to consolidate his superiority, the beautiful black fur of her winter coat rose up along her spine. She pulled back her lips and showed two-inch fangs. He may have impressed every human with his ripped muscularity, but she despised his bad manners and right away they got into it. Mortified, he immediately recognized his grave mistake. She was an Alpha female of the first order and he had violated the inflexible protocol to which she was accustomed.
The winter of ’95 was cold, windy and foggy from blowing snow. Every two weeks, an elk or a bison carcass would be hauled into one end of the pen. The small pack of three would retreat to the other end to escape the offensive human smell. Otherwise, they were left alone in the forsaken spot so far away from the black spruce forest of their Canadian home. They howled day and night, listening for a response. Blizzards of snow drifted through the pen. The wind never ceased. To their relief, no other wolves responded to their howls, a sign that if they ever escaped this enclosure, they would not be immediately killed by a rival pack.
With no traveling to plan, no adventures to pursue, no big projects to accomplish, no prey to hunt down, the Rose Creek wolves become passive and subdued. Number 10 was embarrassed he could not free his companions from this absurd confinement. It was troubling. Staring sleepily through flaky torrents of snow, waiting for he knew not what, the collar a disturbing burden, he realized somewhere in his wild soul that never again would he be free of the meddling of our race.
Born in the wilderness of British Columbia in the last unspoiled forest remaining in North America, he had been his pack’s most precious possession. The entire pack had taken part in raising and feeding him and he had grown up into an unusually proud, confident adventurous wolf who loved to wander and who had dispersed hundreds of miles into Jasper National Park, ending up outside Hinton. That he was now trapped inside this compressed suffocating space was inconceivable. Everything bad that had ever happened to him was suffused with the taint of human creatures.
Days turn into weeks. Number Ten recovers from the painful memories and shock of his capture and conquers his fierce nostalgia for his former hunting companions. He returns to his calm, proud, regal and unflappable self. Finding a piece of bison hide, he plays tug of war with Nine’s daughter for hours. He canters briskly around the perimeter of the pen at every opportunity, desperate for exercise. His innate zest for sociality and responsibility, the essence of every wolf, emerges once more.
He notes happily that the beautiful dark female, eyes sparkling, often trails slightly behind him wagging her tail with enthusiasm. Nine projects a smoky dangerousness. Seriously female, she is a moody complicated being and he is careful to assume a gentle forbearing indifference in her presence which enchants her and gives her peace. She haunches down beside him when he is enjoying quiet time studying clouds or crossly monitoring a pair of ravens furtively trying to get at the carrion. Day after day, they watch these two ravens perching side by side on top of the acclimation pen, one bird preening the other. Enviously, they consider the freedom of a great horned owl who lands on top of the enclosure and rests there before gliding away on snow-covered wings. His courtship hoot has been answered by a far distant hoot. One freezing night the black wolf creeps close to the sleeping Ten, their bodies intertwine under the stars and every morning for the rest of their lives together he licks her violet gray muzzle immediately upon awakening.
Ten weeks pass in this way. Somehow, they cope with their captivity. Number 10 has kept close track of the subtle changes in the activity of birds around their pen. He observes pairs of geese more frequently. He sees the early arrival of a mountain blue bird who peers through the wire at him. Trumpeter swans fly high overhead; their harsh cries float over the snowy landscape. Spots of bare earth appear. Though severe winter conditions still predominate, he knows it is the beginning of spring. It is almost too much to bear.
Inexplicably, one night the front gate to the Rose Creek pen is cut away. The wolves do not go near the sudden opening. The human smell is too offensive. Only after the rear pen is cut away, does Ten slip out. In a swirling snowstorm, the wind blowing madly through his coat, he appears like an apparition on a neighboring ridge and sings for his dusky black mate to follow. His song rises slowly, softly, tenderly on a wintry breeze to a high note of longing and sadness, and then descends to an almost imperceptible lower register, then rises again, calling Nine to join him, share the beauty of life with him, love him, and wander with him forever. Over and over he sings his song. All of Yellowstone, the elk and bison, deer and moose, bighorn sheep and snowshoe rabbit, especially the young calves and fawns and babies of all creatures become still and listen, their hearts beating fast with fear, awe, and dread. In a day or two, when it dawns bright and sunny and her daughter overcomes her fear of leaving the familiar pen, Nine leaves and all three wolves disappear, only the constant clicking of their radio collars on a receiver in the Mammoth Springs Hotel, the piece of chewed up bison hide and a few bones, evidence that they have ever been in Rose Creek at all.
The three wolves head northwest. Their world is filled with the fragrance of sage and pine and the songs of rosy finches returning. Elk, bison and deer stare down at them from the melting hills. They hunt at night and sleep and play during the day. Nine is pregnant. They are searching for the best place to den. They leave their tracks alongside coyote, weasel, and rabbit tracks. Euphoric, Ten is finally in his element. He is skillful as a mate. Nine is the light of his life.
Released from attachment to her former mate, she has become gay, optimistic and cheerful, joyously leaping high into the air for no reason. Their sunny new home is so different from the dark spruce forests of the North. Ten kills several snowshoe rabbits and an injured bison calf the first two weeks they are free and leads his little family to these carcasses where he sits aside while they eat. They take short wolf-naps between meals and demonstrate affection for each other at every opportunity, particularly before going to sleep and upon waking up. Rolling on their backs in the snow drifts, wiping their paws free from blood, they are proud to be great wolves living out their destiny in a great place.
Eventually, Seven, after licking the muzzles of both her mother and Ten, and full of the confidence these two wolves have instilled into her, leaves to find her own pack, heading toward the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Nine and Ten trot off past the boundary of the park toward the town of Red Lodge, Montana.
A week later, one month after his release from the acclimation pen, Ten stands silhouetted on a ridge against a bitterly cold and windy morning sky. His fox-like tail waves straight out with confidence. He senses two men beneath him but continues to stand boldly on the ridge. He is not about to be controlled or coerced or managed any more by these unwelcome creatures. He will not be forced off this ridge with the cold wind blowing so lovingly over him. He is at the peak of his powers, soon to be a father with serious responsibilities, and he deserves to lounge dreamily on this hillside and show these obnoxious meddling creatures just who really owns it.
After the rifle shot, the pride of Yellowstone takes two rasping breaths before the shrapnel from the bullet shreds his lungs and liver. His golden eyes glaze over. It is very, very hard for Ten to leave his wonderful life. Wistful and far away, he whines softly. Twice, his muscular legs twitch, and then lie still.
Two ravens who have followed the wolves all the way from the Rose Creek pen, fluttering wildly around their benefactors, trying to cash in on their hunting skills, now sit quietly in a stunted aspen grove, looking down as the hunter cuts off Ten’s head and slashes and hacks the caramel and silver white coat off and throws it all bloody and mud-stained, into the back of his truck. Two old coyotes, unnoticed by the men, appear on the scene. They too have benefitted from the kills of this big amiable wolf and his beautiful mate. They watch intently as his wet blue glistening carcass is flung down the slope where it lands in a gully between a bush and a steep red clay bank. It is an evil sight and the ravens appear unnaturally melancholy as if shocked by the glistening bloody corpse with the huge furry blood-drenched paws lying helplessly amid the dry sage and wild grass, and at Ten’s wondrous pelt and great head tossed on top of the trash and garbage of the truck bed to be hosed down later and stuffed in a mattress bag. They fly away screaming the dreadful news to every creature within a hundred miles. It is too much for the wise old coyotes and they back off.
A few hours later, alone and without help or companionship, anxious Nine discovers the mutilated body of her mate and digs a deep den beside it in the red clay bank. In a few hours, suspicious of the old pair of coyotes who are bedded down in the snow nearby, and in a miasma of grief, she nudges the body of her mate one last time and tenderly licks his paws before moving to a stand of spruces uphill on Mount Maurice to give birth on exposed bare ground to Ten’s pups: four females and four males, Numbers 16-23 in the jargon of Yellowstone’s biologists. At about the same time, both coyotes and the two ravens move in to get one last meal from their neighborly benefactor who had been, only hours before, so perfect in his happiness. A mechanic looking for shed antlers later found Ten’s carcass, the entire rib cage stripped bare.
In the end, five of the eight pups born to Ten and his beloved mate would themselves go on to breed, including all his daughters 16, 17, 18, and 19. Ten’s one son who managed to survive to breeding age, the confident and muscular Number 21, became the most beloved and famous wolf in the world. Hundreds of visitors to Yellowstone watched 21 through spotting scopes playing with his pups and tearing dinner off an elk. Over the years his coat faded from black to gray. He was a born leader, the Alpha male of the Druid Peak pack, the largest most successful wolf pack ever observed, with thirty-seven members at its peak. He lived nine years, a long life for a wolf, and was a devoted mate to Number 42 and a loving and patient father to his many offspring. His father’s genes were transferred to perhaps as many as one hundred wolves sired by this exceptional son who was finally killed on an elk hunt in 2004.
In 2003, the batteries in Nine’s collar went dead. The last time anyone saw the Grand Matriarch of Yellowstone’s wolves, she was alone and walking slowly in a remote section of the park. She has long since vanished into the vast wilderness. Today, over seventy-nine percent of the total wolf population in the Yellowstone ecosystem descends directly from her. Number 18 was the only Alpha female wolf in all of Yellowstone who resisted capture during the yearly collaring efforts. In 1999, she replaced Nine as the Alpha female of the Rose Creek pack. Looking very much like her mother, black with a silvery grey tint, she disappeared into the mountains of the Northern Range in 2003. It is interesting to note that she possessed huge furry paws, six inches across, unusual for a female wolf. In this, and in her passion to be free of human meddling, she was her father’s daughter.
©2010 Linda Clarke Volume 9 Issue 3