I recently went on a winter holiday – looking for wolves in Yellowstone National Park. We saw elk, deer, moose, bald eagles, foxes and coyotes, but no wolves. The wolves of Yellowstone are one of the largest concentrations of wolves in North America, numbering around five hundred, but, as we discovered, they can still be elusive. They are pack animals, an average pack in Yellowstone is ten wolves. As we moved up and down the Lamar valley our guides managed to get one of the most experienced wolf experts in the park to chat to us about the wolves and their behaviour. He uses GPS systems to track them and advised us that the Junction Pack were currently feeding on a kill on the other side of the hill we were all staring at – we had to take his word for it.
He spoke about the wolves with great affection as if discussing his family, describing unruly teenagers, adulterous parents and the break-up of families and the creation of new relationships. He talked about the wolves as individuals, each one having been given a unique number to allow them to be identified. He then got onto to the legendary Druid Pack which had grown to 37 wolves, an unprecedented number for those who study and research wolf behaviour. The alpha male of the druid pack was wolf 21 who he described as ‘the alpha male of all alpha males’. He never lost a fight and had never once killed the defeated challenger, unusual behaviour for an alpha male. One of our party asked if he’d ever noticed anything unusual about 21 when he was a pup, something that had marked him out as a future leader. He paused, deep in thought, for a couple of minutes and then smiled. ‘In the litter one of 21’s siblings was a little fellow who wasn’t doing so well. He was different, and that often means the rest of the pack avoid him, perhaps he may have a contagious disease, so it’s a natural behaviour. One day we were observing the pack and 21, then an adolescent pup, was very agitated, pacing back and forth. We couldn’t understand what was bothering him. All his siblings were very relaxed. Wolves don’t have any predators, perhaps a mountain lion may attack small cubs, but they really have nothing to worry about, so we couldn’t understand why he was behaving in this way. Suddenly he stood up straight and his tail started wagging. It was the little guy, somehow he’d got separated from the pack and had made his way back, 21 went over to greet him. So that was it, he was looking out for the little guy, not something I had ever seen before, but I think that was what marked him out, it was clearly something that wolves look for in their leaders.’
I may not have managed to see a wolf in the wild, but I learnt a lot. The great thing about not having seen a wolf this time is that I now have the perfect excuse to go back.