|photo by Leo Leckie|
Across the snow-covered valley floor from the Lamar Buffalo Ranch, 06, the famous alpha wolf and her Lamar Canyon pack encircle a bull elk. He has backed up against a large, uprooted stump and stands with his front hooves in a shallow braid of Rose Creek. He's six-feet tall at the shoulder with huge antlers. He’s far from defenseless.
The elk and wolves are close, visible with the naked eye and amazingly detailed through the spotting scope. The air buzzes with excited chatter among us wolf watchers. How will this life-or-death drama unfold? Wolves succeed in only one of every five attempts. The Lamar’s last confirmed kill was three days ago. They’ve been gnawing on bones at old kill sites, and must be famished. Feasting on this 700-pound elk is crucial—but not guaranteed.
This bull could be a good choice by 06 for two reasons. First, a big elk means more meat for her pack. Second, this bull is probably exhausted after last fall’s rut during which he may have collected a large harem of cows, 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. 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 near the elk in a long, loose line that stretches eastward. Though the temperature is below freezing, they look like dogs sleeping on the hearth. All except for 06. Although farthest from the elk, she never takes her eyes off him. The elk, head high, still as a statue, stares right back.
When 06 finally stands and stretches, the black alpha male, 755; his black larger brother, 754; and two younger wolves join 06 and move toward the elk. The elk charges. 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. Their bites would not kill him outright, but when 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 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, but none stand. The elk—with no pursuit—strides away, a hundred yards, a quarter mile, a half mile. He stops.
I wonder if 06 is going to let the bull leave. I notice that Rick McIntyre has just arrived and I decide to ask him what he thinks will happen. I join him and wait until he has finished whispering observations into his digital voice recorder. 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. 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 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 sprint when wearing heavy, insulated boots) and zoom in. The wolves form a horseshoe around the elk who charges one; it scoots away. 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 even rest. But 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 lead to 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, the other wolves fall in line behind her. 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 yet 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, Mary and I slip and slide up the muddy, snowy, and rocky flank of Ranger Hill, just beside the Lamar Buffalo Ranch. Last night, from our cabin, 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. Had we heard a victory chorus of 06 and her pack? We’re climbing for a view and to see if there’s a carcass.
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 in a spotting scope on 06 pulling a strip of meat from a carcass halfway submerged in Rose Creek. A raven perches on a big antler rack. This must be the big guy from yesterday, the one who shook those antlers 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 for the next attack. She and her pack had drawn blood, and none of her family was 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 led her pack away, gave the elk a false sense of security, and then 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 earlier bites by the pack. Instead, 06 did what she was famous for: she 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 Wyoming’s Wolf Trophy Game Management Area. Maybe she went in search of migrating elk. Maybe she went in search of 754, 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, 06 never returned. On December 6, 2012, she became a trophy.
The deaths of 06 and 754 disrupted the family structure of the Lamar Canyon pack. Those were not the only Yellowstone wolves killed in the 2012-13 wolf hunt. A total of twelve park wolves were killed. The majority 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 the park.
Hunting is currently allowed in Wyoming. 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 action we can take to remember 06 is to keep fighting to stop the hunting of wolves.
This tribute adapted from a chapter of In the Temple of Wolves.
This tribute adapted from a chapter of In the Temple of Wolves.