New Heathens

Mourning an Alpha Female

The third in what turned out to be a series.


By Nate Schweber

As I reported on Sunday in The Times, Yellowstone National Park’s best-known wolf was shot and killed last week outside the park’s borders. A large gray alpha female known as 832F, she had been fitted by researchers with a GPS collar that allowed them to track her movements.

The wolf wowed scientists and tourists alike with her size and a strength so great that she could “take down animals on her own,” said Daniel Stahler, a park wildlife biologist.

She also led the pack in Yellowstone’s northeastern Lamar Valley, an area rich in bison and elk that has a road offering vantage points for wildlife watchers equipped with cameras and spotting scopes. The Lamar Canyon pack could be counted on to roam the valley near dawn and dusk, allowing scientists and tourists to observe wolf behavior at a level of detail rarely seen outside National Geographic specials.

Marc Cooke, a member of the advocacy group Wolves of the Rockies, said he was moved by the way that 832F cared for her pups, bringing them food and snarling ferociously at animals that posed any threat to them.

“She was an amazing mother,” Mr. Cooke said. “When I heard she died, I felt like I lost a family member.”

The hunting prowess and fecundity that made 832F a fan favorite also stirred animosity among the many people who want to see fewer wolves in the northern Rockies. Robert Fanning, co-founder of the group Friends of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd, which opposes wolf protections, said he knew one hunter who shot a popular wolf from Yellowstone and then boasted of the feat on his vanity license plates.

Mr. Fanning unfavorably compares empathizing with wolves because of the supposedly human traits they display to “what pagans did in ancient cultures.”

Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, likened the admiration for 832F to romanticizing “a psychotic predator stalking Central Park and slitting the throats of unwary visitors.”

But Diane Bentivegna of WolfWatcher, a coalition devoted to preserving the wolf and its historic range, said that 832F’s high profile helped to bring more attention to the important role that predators play in wild landscapes.

“We’re not looking to call it a rock star,” she said of 832F. “But we’re hoping to use it to educate about the vital equilibrium wolves bring to the ecosystem.”

On Monday morning, wildlife officials in Montana are scheduled to hear a report about wolf mortality and could opt to place stricter regulations on areas surrounding Yellowstone, a measure supported by several wildlife advocacy groups, including the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Wolves of the Rockies. Such action could prevent more deaths of collared wolves.

Park biologists have expressed frustration at the loss of these animals, in which much money and time had been invested. And some wildlife officials in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have called these wolves an effective way to monitor pack movements, though no state has outlawed killing them.

“They’re not research wolves, they’re wolves,” said Ron Moody, a Montana wildlife commissioner.

This fall, Wyoming allowed wolf hunting on lands bordering Yellowstone for the first time. The wolf 832F is the eighth and final wolf that hunters will be allowed to shoot there this year, officials said. Elsewhere in Wyoming, wolves are classified as predators that can be shot on sight.

Advocacy groups, including the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, are petitioning Wyoming, Montana and Idaho to set stricter regulations in the regions bordering Yellowstone to reduce the number of collared wolves killed by hunters.

A majority of Yellowstone wolves killed outside the park this year had been collared by researchers; 832F’s GPS collar showed that she spent 95 percent of her time inside the park, biologists say. Another collared member of that pack, 754, was shot in Wyoming in mid-November.

Biologists say there more than 80 wolves are still living in Yellowstone, a healthy population from the standpoint of species preservation. But that that number is likely to drop as hunting and trapping continue outside the park. So far this season, at least 87 wolves were shot in Montana, 120 were shot or trapped in Idaho and 58 were shot in Wyoming.

Dr. Stahler said the Lamar Canyon pack might be able to carry on if another alpha female joins it. Otherwise, the wolves may disperse and join other packs, he said. “Wolves are pretty good at filling vacancies,” he said.

A little comedy. On Sunday the news aggregator website The Raw Story ran an article from the Guardian UK that cited my wolf reporting, only they ran it with a photo of a coyote.
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