The Message of the Wolves
We’ve all heard of the magic and uniqueness of Yellowstone National Park. And about the most successful restoration of the balance by reintroducing wolves.
It has become an extraordinary study for scientists. Also, a huge benefit for tourism, and for the economic value of the surrounding populated areas.
As the world-famous wolf biologist, L. Dave Mech stated 16 years ago: You can learn more about wolves in Yellowstone in a year using the methods there than you can in 20 years in other places he worked.
The re-emergence of wolves has been so successful that breathtaking stories of different individuals have begun to open the eyes of those who themselves have become open to seeing this “new but old” wonder.
It also highlights the diversity of individuals to a greater extent. And therefore, also the diversity of families of individuals, in their reactions and habits.
It has given us a better understanding of what a wolf really is.
The observations also show us that the life of a wolf is no Little Red Riding Hood story. They are much more victims of man than we humans are theirs.
In reality, the world of the Wolves has a huge message for our selfish, ambitious, exploitative human world. A message that people today no longer hear. The message that today’s rushing modern urban world is having a hard time getting its head around.
That is why I am sharing with you one of my own wolf stories that I witnessed 6 years ago, which for me was eye-opening.
It was a beautiful day in Lamar Valley.
The Prospect Peak Pack left their territory and chased an elk cow in the Lamar River early in the morning.
After the unsuccessful hunt, they marched up on the south hillsides, chewed on some old bison bones, then bedded down for the afternoon.
We learned some members of the Junction Butte family had appeared on a hilltop on the north side of the valley. And from there they were howling.
The Prospect Peak family answered from the valley’s southern hilltops. This went on for a few minutes, and then suddenly the Junction Butte alpha male moved down into the valley.
He crossed the road, straight towards the elk in the river. We arrived there after this happened.
The alpha male’s collar number was 911M.
From May to September, many of us watched him and his family raising pups at the den.
In May, he returned from a hunt to the den very lame. Later, he was losing weight. But as if nothing had happened, he was living the family life of a wolf.
No one knew how badly he had been injured.
He kept his alpha role until this September day. By this time, he was extremely emaciated and had 3 legs injured; he was in extremely poor condition.
The wounded elk cow was still in the river.
911M tried his hunt several times, then came up from the river and laid down to rest and regain his strength.
We were in a position where we could no longer see the elk, only the splashes of water from the river, and see 911M when he came up from behind a huge log and shook himself several times.
Wolf biologist Rick McIntyre was nearby with a few others. They saw as he finally made his kill.
We were totally stunned; we could hardly believe it.
911M was extremely exhausted. He had a few bites to eat and then came up from the river to rest.
His fur was glistening in the last of the light before the sun disappeared behind the mountains.
Then he walked again down to the river and began to eat.
Then the drama began that we had been afraid of the whole afternoon.
Shortly before dark, the Prospect Peak family woke up and started the rally down the valley after their family greeting.
A black Prospect wolf rushed straight to the carcass, where 911M tried to back away.
Meanwhile, the Prospect Peak adults were heading straight there.
The alpha female, collared as 821F rushed towards him and stopped, surrounded by a few other family members.
She watched as 911M stumbled ahead of them on the north side of the river.
The other family members were watching the body language of the alpha female and stopped. They all let the injured rival alpha male go.
821F just watched, and stood there majestically with her tail up, like the mistress of the valley.
911M laid down first facing his rivals. Then stood up, circled around then laid down again, now with his back to his rivals.
It was all such an incredible sight and feeling, indescribable.
The alpha female moved to the carcass, followed by the rest of the family.
Even then 911M was left alone.
After the adult members of the family had their fill, they moved together to the other side of the river, to a grassy clearing a little further away, where the family’s three four-and-a-half-month-old grey pups were waiting.
Greetings were exchanged, some feeding was done, and then the entire Prospect Peak family made their way to the carcass.
Meanwhile, 911M noticed that the carcass was unoccupied, and stumbled over to the carcass for a “quick” meal.
Just as he was about to swallow a few bites, the Prospect Peak family headed towards him, and one of the blacks quickly appeared.
911M came into our line of sight at the big log, and we saw him turn at the black Prospect wolf there, with his tail tucked, but showing his teeth. And that triggered the other rivals.
They ran towards him, and 911M ran into the river, but the others quickly caught up, surrounded him, and pulled him down.
We saw 911M trying to defend himself until the last second, to bite back.
Like a wounded warrior fighting back with his last breath against a huge overwhelming force.
But he was so outnumbered and in his weak, exhausted, injured condition, he had no chance to fight for long, and certainly no chance to escape. They killed him.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it, it was a terribly tragic sight. Especially because we knew him so well.
At the same time, I must always remind myself of the truth of the reality of Nature. The Wild Raw Nature.
But he was relieved from the slow process of further suffering.
He left Life as a wild wolf.
The biologists from the Wolf Project went down to 911M’s carcass a few days later, examined it, and took the head.
I felt a sense of deep sadness but also respect at the same time.
For the alpha male whose last hunt and last fight I saw, when he was injured, helpless, and alone. I will never ever forget.
A year later, around my birthday, Dr. Doug Smith, head of the Yellowstone Wolf Project, called me into his office. He said he was going to show me something that would blow my mind.
I went in and he brought out a wolf skull.
And as he held it in his hand, he looked at me in silence first. Then he said: “I just got back 911M’s cleaned skull. I wanted you to see it, because I knew you loved this wolf. And we have the videos of his last hours from you.”
That’s when he showed me the “miracle” he called me in for.
911M’s left jaw was broken.
The bone tissue had been trying to heal, to fuse, for some time, but it couldn’t.
He ate, drank, hunted, chased a grizzly bear away from the den, chased coyotes, played with pups and fed them all summer with the pain of a broken jaw.
It felt like I’d been struck by lightning…
The realization simply made the reality of this animal more unbelievable and extraordinary.
We kept saying: 911M lived the last 4 and a half months with a broken jaw.
Then, right there in front of us, he killed his last elk and fought one of the most successful rival families of that time in Yellowstone.
It all hit me so suddenly, I couldn’t speak at first.
Doug’s voice weakened but could tell his striking realization wasn’t less than mine.
We literally were almost speechless.
No imagination could capture the pain and survival instinct this animal had been in until that September day.
As Mike Phillips, a member of the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction project always says: “It is very hard to make a living with your teeth in the woods.”
This is how wolves were created and survived many thousands of years.
The hunting success rate of wolves is only between 10-20% on average. If they fail to hunt after repeated attempts in a day, they stay hungry for that day.
In a small family with few adults, this can go on for several days. They can’t waste too much energy, because that increases the chances of making a mistake or the chance of injury.
Which there always is, but a tired animal is just as likely to suffer a fatal injury as we humans are if we get into the car when we’re tired and sleepless.
If I had any doubts about what extraordinary ‘creatures’ wolves are until I witnessed this day, and learned more about this wolf after his death, 911M’s story has swept away every shred of doubt.
Since then, I have seen and experienced so many more amazing individual and family stories. If more people would see them, they would think it is like a Brazilian soap opera. But it’s not. This is the reality of Nature.
And what is the message in this?
For me, it’s that we humans can’t imagine what wolves go through in real life. And in different ways all species of wilderness.
It is almost unseen or only a fraction of what we can see and perceive, what challenges, illnesses, and injuries they survive or try to survive.
For them, too, every day is a working day. Watching out, hunting, caring for, protecting pups, family, roaming and protecting the territory.
But not for gold, for earthly treasures, for oil, and not for sporting battles, trying to win. They simply want to survive.
From day one, as soon as they emerge from the den, they prepare to assert their family position, strengthen their muscles, train to hunt, stay fit, run as fast as possible, escape, or chase.
They master as many tactics as possible to hunt as many types of game they find in their area, and learn to be successful without suffering any injury, or at least serious injury.
And when the time comes, they should be able to raise, feed, protect and pass on to their pups the skills that will help them survive as a family.
I think all these facts deserve respect.
All this shows us that we need to understand again the Nature that remains, the Wild Animals, the interconnections that bind them all together, but also the extraordinary differences.
Because in our ever-accelerating Humanism we have become completely detached from the ‘reality’ of the living world of our time.
We need to relearn to see more than just bloodthirsty predators.
We need to see again, they are much more than just a pelt on the wall or the floor, as they are highly social creatures with families.
We need to master again, how to coexist with them, not always just thinking about how many of our unguarded livestock will be taken by an animal that is struggling to survive.
Their species has had its place in Nature for tens of thousands of years, just like the prey species we so love or try to protect to fill up our freezer.
We need to understand again, what our ancestors of old understood.
Because what we don’t understand, or we half-understand, we kill, we exterminate, we oppose with every ounce of our being, in order to truly “see.”
For me, the countless individual or family stories of wolves have shown, and continue to show, the “Possible in the Impossible.”
For me, these animals have truly shown the real power of survival skills, extraordinary strength, intelligence, and resilience.
Nobility in the challenges of Nature.
And, indeed, what a connecting link wolves are to species, vegetation, and everything else they are present in.
For me, this is the Call of the Wild.
The video below shows the former alpha male of the Junction Butte family, Wolf 911M’s strenuous but successful hunt despite his weakened condition, and the beginning of his meeting with the rival pack that would later lead to a confrontation and his death.
Author’s Note: Please note that the photographs were taken from a great distance and the lighting changed throughout the day. They have been edited to show the best detail possible. Please click on any image to view it larger. Thank you to James Smith for letting me use your equipment that day to take photos and videos. Thank you, Doug Smith, so much for all your work for and with the wolves and for your constant encouragement and support over the years. All photos (c) Krisztina Gayler unless noted otherwise.
Krisztina Gayler has been wolf watching in Yellowstone since 2013. She has also been: Colorado Representative at National Wolfwatcher Coalition since 2016; Coalition Member at Rocky Mountain Wolf Project 2017; Crew member at The 06 Legacy Nonprofit Wolf Advocate group 2018; Contractor at MoRak Farm & Ranch LLC 2016; Former Director 10 years at ReMounts Equine and Land LLC – Training horses, range rider, cattle work; Former Volunteer at Campaign for Yellowstone Wolves. (Photo: Krisztina at Yellowstone, September 2020. (c) Heidi Pinkerton)