The bloody standoff was over in just a couple of seconds. The old wolf lunged at the cow elk’s neck, twisting his jaws at just the right second to deceive the elk about his trajectory. Offered just a glimmer of an opening, he clamped down with fifteen hundred pounds of pressure on her throat. In a moment it was done. The elk entered her death throes as her killer dragged her to shore.
The elk had fought a brave and shrewd battle. She had positioned herself belly-deep in the river, preventing the smaller wolf from gaining the purchase of the river bottom at his feet. As the contest unfolded, she had secured a couple of mighty blows to the wolf’s rump with her forelegs, weakening his hind-quarters. Unbeknownst to her, the wolf was also laboring against malnutrition and a broken jaw that had failed to heal from a previous encounter with an ungulate’s hoof .
All in all, she had come close to surviving the battle, only to fall in the end to the finely honed skills and incredible tenacity of one of the world’s most formidable hunters. With the conflict over, the wolf laid his aging and bruised body down on the riverbank to rest, comforted by the knowledge that he had finally secured some meat for the eight pups back home.
But as the wolf lay recuperating on the riverbank, the story was about to take an abrupt and vicious turn. Eight more wolves from a neighboring pack had watched the whole encounter unfold from a nearby knoll. Having spotted the vulnerable-looking elk earlier in the day, the pack had a sense of entitlement towards this animal. They weren’t going to let a lone, if brave, competitor steal what they regarded as theirs. As the old wolf rested, they forded the river together and approached the imposter.
The old wolf dragged himself to his feet to confront the oncoming threat. As the new pack surrounded him, he stood there snarling, ready to commit every ounce of his aching body to defend his kill. But the lone, elderly wolf was no match for eight younger animals who had spent the last hour resting as they watched him bring down the elk. As quickly as he had killed the elk, so did these eight kill him. The bright fire in the eyes of a remarkable Yellowstone wolf was abruptly snuffed out.
This story was told to a group of us recently by Rick McIntyre. McIntyre has spent more days out in the field watching Yellowstone wolves than anyone else alive. The details of this particular story are well documented and remain clear in McIntyre’s mind. A necropsy performed on the old wolf confirmed his frail and fractured state. The fact that this well-studied wolf achieved what he did before being killed was enough to cause a catch in McIntyre’s voice as he told us the story.
This case is one example of a basic fact about wolf ecology. The primary cause of mortality for Yellowstone wolves is other Yellowstone wolves. A battle as old as wolves themselves pits conspecifics against each other in a constant shaping of territories, social dynamics, and local ecology. Because this story of intra-species conflict is embedded in the genes of wolves, the total numbers of individuals in a protected place like Yellowstone remains relatively constant. There are only so many other wolves that the Yellowstone wolf population as a whole can tolerate. McIntyre estimates that number at about one hundred, roughly the same number of wolves as inhabited the region before they were persecuted out of existence in the middle of the twentieth century.
Outside of areas where wolves are protected from humans, a slightly different story is unfolding. Since dispersing out of Yellowstone and the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness where they were reintroduced in 1995 and 1996, wolves have enjoyed a spectacular recovery in the Northern Rockies. The reintroduced wolves soon joined wolves making their own way down from Canada to form a single, rapidly expanding population across several northern and western states. The original wolf recovery goals for the Northern Rockies mandated by the US Endangered Species Act were met in 2002. In 2011, wolves lost their Endangered Species Act protection and their management was handed back to the states. Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana quickly instituted hunting and trapping seasons for wolves.
Even as the wolf is continuing to enjoy a recovery and to explore new territories in Oregon, California, Nevada, and Utah, in the three Rocky Mountain states in which wolves have been delisted a different dynamic is unfolding. In Montana, for example, the total wolf population peaked in 2011 before the hunt was instigated and since then has come down about twenty-eight percent. (Numbers are taken from the 2016 Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Wolf Report). In the first year of the legal hunt, Montana sold more than 18,500 tags to people interested in trying to harvest a wolf. The popularity of wolf hunting and a more permissive attitude towards the removal of problem wolves means that overall numbers are settling down towards an equilibrium that is lower than what the land can support. A similar fall in wolf numbers can be expected in other states that institute hunting and trapping seasons.
One way to think about the difference between a protected population of wolves (such as exists in Yellowstone National Park) and a population that can be hunted (such as exists in the rest of Montana) is in terms of a difference in what determines overall numbers. To put it bluntly, in Yellowstone, the wolves make that call. In the rest of Montana, people do.
There is something significant about this difference. When the wolves make the call, the total wolf population is fixed and out of our hands. There is a ballpark number that the local ecology and the population dynamics can support. In Yellowstone, McIntyre pitches that number around one hundred.
When people make the call, the number is much more prone to fluctuation. After all, the socially acceptable number of wolves in the mid-twentieth century was zero. It is now considerably higher. The factors that determine what this number is are many. In Montana (as of 2016), the socially tolerated number officially stands at 477. People with a range of different interests are working hard to push that number up or down as much as they can.
The old and injured wolf that was killed in Yellowstone that day was bumping up against a necessity that was written into the landscape as certainly as evolution itself. A wolf outside a protected park confronts no such necessity. What she does confront is people and their tolerance levels.
In here lies the broader lesson for a world that might want to see more wildlife. Those who advocate for controversial species like wolves must put energy, money, and compassion into the cultural dynamics that determine how many individuals of a particular species people deem acceptable. Cultural tolerance of wildlife can, and does, fluctuate. If cultural tolerance can be made to increase, more animals will be able to enjoy longer lives on a wider array of landscapes. These social elements are as fundamental to the idea of rewilding landscapes with missing species as are the ecological ones.
Wildlife advocates owe this work on cultural tolerance, perhaps, to the wolf who died in Yellowstone that day. For he enjoyed no such possibility.
Yellowstone and Elk images by author Wolf by Denali National Park and Preserve