Sunday, December 4, 2016

A Tribute to 06, the Smart and Strong Alpha Wolf

Photo by Leo Leckie
Across the snow-covered valley floor from the Lamar Buffalo Ranch, 06 and her Lamar Canyon pack encircle a bull elk. He has backed against a large, uprooted stump and has his front hooves in a shallow braid of Rose Creek. He is six-feet tall at the shoulder with 6 X 6 antlers and has several ways to kill a careless wolf. 



From where we wolfwatchers stand, the elk and wolves are less than a half-mile away, visible with the naked eye, and amazingly detailed through the spotting scope. The air buzzes with excited chatter about how this life-or-death drama may unfold; wolves succeed in only one of every five attempts. The Lamar’s last confirmed kill was three days ago. They must be famished; they have been gnawing on bones at old kill sites. Feasting on this elk who could weigh 700 pounds is crucial—but not guaranteed. 

This bull could be a good choice of prey by 06 for two reasons. First, a big elk means more meat for every member of her pack. Second, this bull is probably exhausted after last fall’s rut during which he may have collected a large harem, slept little, expended lots of energy, and not grazed enough to completely recharge. Now, after several months of below-freezing temperatures, deep snow, and poor grazing, he could be even more depleted, more vulnerable. 

The wolves crouch, charge, and nip at the elk’s legs. The elk, head up, charges at them. The wolves retreat. The elk backs into the creek. This give and take repeats several times, until 06 and her pack curl up in the snow in a long, loose line that starts near the elk and stretches eastward. Though the temperature is below freezing, each wolf looks like a dog sleeping on the hearth. All except for 06. Although at the end of the line and farthest from the elk, she never takes her eyes off of him. The elk, head high, still as a statue, glares right back.

When 06 finally stands and stretches, the alpha male, 755M; his larger brother, 754M; and two younger wolves join 06 and move toward the elk. With no hesitation, the elk charges, making the wolves dodge and feint. 06 moves to the elk’s front. She’s famous among wolf watchers for lunging at an elk’s neck, crushing its windpipe, and hanging on until the elk suffocates. Is that what she’s going to do now? 

Or is she trying to entice him to chase her? If he chases, his unprotected rear becomes a perfect target for the rest of the pack. Those bites would not kill him outright, but if he bleeds, he’ll weaken. That would make delivering the eventual death blow easier, and she and her pack would eat at last. But this elk is experienced; he stands his ground and protects his back. The wolves return to resting, again curling up in the snow. Score round two for the elk.

Photo by Karen Withrow
A while later, I can’t pull my eyes away from the scope as the elk backs up a few steps and then stops. He watches 06 and her pack. They don’t move. He backs away again. Stops. Stares. Three wolves raise their heads. None stand. The elk turns and with no pursuit strides away, a hundred yards, a quarter-mile, a half-mile. He stops. 

Amazing! Is 06 going to just let the bull escape? I notice that Rick McIntyre of the Yellowstone Wolf Project has arrived, and I decide to ask him what he thinks. I walk over and wait until he has finished whispering observations into his digital voice recorder. Then I ask if he thinks the elk has escaped, if the feast has fled. 

He studies the scene and then turns to me. “Oh, this isn’t over,” he says with a smile. “The pack will have no trouble tracking that elk later.”

I feel like smacking my forehead and yelling “Duh!” Of course these noses-on-four-legs can track this animal. Why didn't I think of that? Embarrassed but still curious, I ask, “Do you think the wolves know this elk?”

“Very likely they do. Either by scent or appearance. This is probably not his first encounter with the pack. He’s old enough to have had others. And he’s fit enough to survive this one, too.” 

McIntyre turns back to his scope, grabs the voice recorder, and whispers a few notes. As I turn to leave, somebody yells, “The wolves are up!” 

I snap my head toward the stand-off and see 06 and her pack, noses to the snow, drifting to where the bull stands, a cliff now protecting his rear. I sprint to my scope (as much as you can when wearing heavy, insulated boots) and zoom in. The wolves form a horseshoe around the elk who charges one; it scoots away, but a second leaps at his rear. The bull spins and lowers his head, shakes his thorny rack side to side. A wolf could die if an antler punctures an internal organ. The whole pack backs off and settles down to rest. The elk takes round three.

This match has been on for five hours this morning and who knows for how long last night. Though the elk seems to be standing his ground, I wonder if he is in fact losing ground. His body must be firing adrenaline and burning energy at a high rate, but we have yet to see him eat, drink, or rest. And 06 has her pack resting again; they may be winning this battle of energy attrition.

An hour or so later, the elk finally lies down. Instantly, 06 is on her feet, charging and nipping. The elk jumps up. Other pack members join in until there are eight of them, circling and snapping. 

“This might be it!” a woman shouts. 

The elk lashes out with a front hoof. A hoof to a wolf’s head can mean instant death, and one to a wolf’s side can mean slow death from internal bleeding. The wolves give ground. The elk takes round four.

At 6 p.m., eleven hours since we set up our scopes, 06 stands and saunters past the elk and down the valley. It’s a determined walk, one that tells her pack that this hunt is over. Perhaps—as McIntyre said—she knows this bull and has decided that bringing him down right now isn’t worth the energy or risk. Whatever her motive, her family falls in line and follows. The elk, defiant to the last, charges a couple of youngsters who come too close as they pass. 

The wolves’ stomachs must be growling as they climb a slope and leave the valley floor after another day without food. But at the ridge top, 06 and her pack join in a rough-and-tumble reunion.

The elk stands and watches them before he meanders a short distance to graze where dried grass pokes through snow. I’m surprised that he makes no attempt to leave this dangerous area. Does he figure that the danger has left him? Or is he just too drained?

Early the next morning, my wife Mary and I slip and slide up the muddy, snowy, and rocky flank of Ranger Hill, beside the Lamar Buffalo Ranch. Last night through our cabin window--we live at the ranch all winter while volunteering there--we heard a lot of wolf howling. At breakfast we learned that a conspiracy of ravens and an eagle were circling in the area of yesterday’s stand-off. Was it a victory chorus by 06 and her pack? We’re climbing for a view, to see if there’s a carcass and some meat-drunk wolves. 

Halfway up the hill, Mary stops and searches with binoculars. A moment later, she whispers that she sees lots of wolves on a kill. 

Photo by Leo Leckie
I follow her directions and zoom the spotting scope in on 06, pulling a strip of meat from a carcass that’s halfway submerged in Rose Creek. A raven perches on the antlers. I count twelve points. This must be the big guy from yesterday, the one who shook that rack defiantly at the pack.

Though it had appeared the battle was over when 06 led her pack away from the valiant elk, she was just preparing her next move. She and her pack had drawn blood, and none of her family were injured. Though they hadn’t feasted, she knew there was another day; she could find the bull later by the scent from his bloody wounds. And time would give her an advantage. So she left, gave the elk a false sense of security, and then she circled back. She did not let the bull rest; he must have been very tired from the stand-off. She did not let the bull recuperate; he had lost blood from the pack's earlier bites. Instead, 06 did what she was famous for: used her experience and leadership to once again feed her family.

***
On a winter day in 2012, O6, led her family out of Yellowstone and toward the rising sun. No one knows why she chose to travel fifteen miles east of the park and into a Wyoming’s Wolf Trophy Game Management Area. Maybe she went in search of migrating elk. Maybe she went in search of 754M, her alpha male’s brother, a wolf with which she had also mated. Several weeks earlier in the area to which she was heading, he had become a fatality in a legal Wyoming wolf hunt. Whatever drew her, she never returned. On December 6, 2012, 06 became a trophy. 

The deaths of 06 and 754M disrupted the delicate family structure of the Lamar Canyon pack. They were not the only Yellowstone wolves killed in the 2012-13 wolf hunt. A total of twelve park wolves were killed. Six of them wore collars that provided valuable scientific information. Data from 06’s collar shows that she spent ninety-five percent of her time within the park. She was used to the presence of people—she had been observed by thousands and thousands of park visitors—and this would have made her an easy target outside Yellowstone.

While hunting wolves is not currently allowed in Wyoming, special interest groups are fighting tooth and nail to bring back the Wyoming wolf hunt. In Montana, there are two hunting districts just outside Yellowstone’s northern border where wolves can be taken, disrupting other wolf families and forcing numerous wolves to choose new leaders, new roles, new lives.

Perhaps the best tribute we can pay to 06 is to keep fighting to stop the hunting of wolves everywhere.

This tribute adapted from a chapter of In the Temple of Wolves.



In the Temple of Wolves
by Rick Lamplugh

More than 250 Five-Star Reviews
Amazon Best Seller






6 comments:

  1. Thank you for this beautifully written account of your personal connection to 06, Rick, and for reminding us how precious and threatened such connections have been and can become again.

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    1. Thanks, Leo, for your kind words and for the two great photos of 06. I've received many positive comments on the photos.

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  2. Aashcho Rick, Honorable & Finite Wisdom Can Always Be Learned From One Of Our Creator's Magnificent Creations. Such Amazing Spiritual Connections. Ah key yeh, Bah Litah...Aho 🙏 👏😊🐾🐾🐾 Your Book Is A Wonderful Read. Thanks Again!!!

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    1. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! Rick

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  3. Beautifully written; my heart cried when 06 was taken... I can't wait to read your book and am only sorry I'm just now learning about it!

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