The White Wolf Dies

A couple months ago I made a mid-winter trip to Yellowstone National Park. Like many people who go to Yellowstone in January, I went there to see and photograph the famous Lamar Valley, home to an incredible variety of winter wildlife.

Because the valley is wide and open, without a great deal of big timber, the vistas are long and the critters are relatively easy to find.

471F, the alpha female of the Agate Creek pack, in the Lamar Valley in January, 2012.

This is especially true of the Lamar wolves. You may have to view them from a long way off, but if you go to Lamar in the winter, you are very likely to see wild wolves.

For years that has made the Lamar Valley the best place in the world to watch wolves interact with each other and with their prey.

This past Yellowstone winter, however, was unusual for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the limited snowfall.

When I visited Yellowstone in late April 2011,  the snow levels in the park had to be witnessed to be believed. The Lamar Valley looked like high arctic tundra. This year the opposite is true. For the majority of this past winter much of Yellowstone had snow free slopes, and therefore abundant forage for the ungulates.

Healthy prey creates an interesting dynamic among the park’s wolves. As you might expect, the wolves prefer their meals to succumb meekly. When a pack’s traditional prey isn’t stressed by deep snows and sub-zero temperatures, the wolves go looking elsewhere.  For the Mollies–a park interior pack that specializes in preying on bison– “elsewhere” turned out to be Lamar.

The Mollies showed up in the Lamar Valley early in the winter, crowding out and fighting with the Lamar Valley resident packs: the Agate Creek pack, the Lamar Canyon pack, and the Blacktail pack.

In short, the Lamar Valley and the surrounding ridges were an unusually busy place for wolves this winter.

When the Mollies, physically and numerically the park’s largest wolves, got to Lamar in December, they immediately shook things up. Wolves invading other wolves’ territories does that, and the results are rarely pretty.  In the past few months the big, numerous Mollies have killed or seriously injured wolves from all three resident Lamar packs.

Early this week, it looks like they got one of the oldest and most well-known wolves in Yellowstone–the white Agate Creek alpha female, known by her official number, 471F.

A radio telemetry collar is visible on 471F as she moves through the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park.

Wolves killing wolves is hardly a unique event. Game-rich territories like the Lamar Valley are highly prized and aggressively protected by the various packs that ebb and flow through wolf country.

The death of a single wolf is just that. Although it can dramatically change the organization and cohesiveness of an individual pack, it’s a common occurrence and a time-tested system.

The only reason I am writing about this today is because 471F was one of the few wolves I got fairly close to back in January. The Agate Creek pack, which at the time consisted of three animals, all females, hung around in an area known as Little America. That made them fairly easy to find and photograph.

They had added a couple dispersing males from the Blacktail pack during the February mating period, and appeared to be coping with the other packs in the valley, including the Mollies.

At nine years of age, 471F was quite old for a wild wolf. You don’t survive nine years of wild Yellowstone without being pretty smart, or pretty lucky.

It looks like 471F ran out of luck when the Mollies caught up with her on Tuesday. Whether it truly was the Mollies that got her will never be known, but given where 471 was found, and where the Mollies were at the time, the odds are good.

What is clear is that for 471F it was a violent end–as they usually are. Wolves, like most wild things, rarely die of old age.

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