It’s been a long winter for the wolves of Yellowstone National Park, and in the Lamar Valley, Alpha 21 and his Druid pack received their final, killing blow.
The Druid wolf pack contained the most famous grey wolves in the park, and possibly the world. Descended from captured Canadian wolves, they were reintroduced into Yellowstone in 1996 and became the most dominant pack in the park for 14 years. By 2001, their members swelled to 37 and they became possibly the largest wolf pack in history. In a park teeming with wildlife, they commanded the spotlight, and park officials estimate over 100,000 visitors viewed the pack. (BACKPACKER correspondent Michael Behar visited the Lamar Valley in October's "Vanishing Act.")
Wolf pack numbers fluctuate from year to year, depending on factors like competing packs, food supply, and disease. But the last breeding season seemed promising, and as recently as last summer the pack numbered 18 wolves. But all that can change fast in the wild. Mange, a skin infection caused by tiny mites, spread through the pack with devastating results.
“All of the pups had the disease, we believe nine over all,” avid wolf watcher Laurie Lyman tells Backpacker. “It (mange) really depletes them and their ability to hunt. The itching will cause bleeding, which causes infection, it becomes dangerous in winter.”
In the -40 degree winters in Yellowstone, wolves can’t afford to lose their fur. According to Lyman, the pack was forced to sleep standing up because lying in the snow would cause frostbite. Many packs contract mange, but the consequences vary depending on the situation. If a pack has members healthy enough to hunt, they may be able to overcome the infection by being fed and rested. Those who become malnourished and stressed, like the Druids, can’t fight it off.
The end of January is the height of mating season for wolves, and this inevitably leads to more confrontation between wolf packs. On Wednesday, February 2nd, Druid Alpha Female 42 was found dead on the south side of Specimen Ridge with wounds typical of a rival wolf attack. Only a few days earlier, she and the Druid pack were observed feeding on a bison calf, and she was seen even mating with the alpha male.
Violence between wolves is not uncommon, sometimes even within the same pack. In 2000, the Druid pack provided another first for researchers as three subordinate females killed the pack’s alpha female. This is the first case of intra-pack killing within the park.
Alpha Female 42 and Alpha Male 21 could be considered a celebrity couple in Yellowstone’s wild. In an interview with NPR, Yellowstone biologist Doug Smith explained, “They were a classic couple - people loved to anthropomorphize about them. Geez, look how much they love each other, how they care for each other, how good mom and dad they are. I would go out some days and there would be 300 or 400 people on the roadside just lapping this up, you know, real nature - we don't get anymore. And they provided it.”
In 2003, researchers watched a 6-hour song-and-dance ritual performed by an ascendant Alpha Male 21, which resulted in his joining the pack as the breeding male.
The death of Alpha Female 42 left Alpha Male 21 with just his daughters, none of whom he could breed with. After a time, the leader grew tired of fighting off healthy males looking to breed, and he abandoned the pack to the suiting healthy male and later, its brother. Unfortunately, the remaining females were too sick to breed.
“They didn’t have enough body fat for estrus and were in such a bad health state,” said Lyman. “They couldn’t run, [they became] disoriented, undernourished—their hip bones were sticking out.”
As other females became interested in the healthy males, the depleted Druids would use all of their energy chasing them off. The competing female eventually won the male, and at the expense of one or more Druids lives. The remaining Druids separated.
“The crowning blow was losing Alpha Female—if one alpha is lost, the whole pack becomes scattered,” Lyman said. She last saw a Druid on March 24. The lone female was alone, very malnourished, and being chased by wolves.
This is not the first time Yellowstone has lost a pack. Mange also played a part in the disappearance of the Leopold and Oxbow packs years ago. Several packs are already moving in on the Druid’s old territory in the Lamar Valley, including the Black Tail pack, the Silver Pack, and a new trio of wolves expected to become a pack once they have pups.
Lyman and many scientists believe wolves control their numbers on their own. Park-wide, the wolf population is down from 170 two years ago, to 85 today. This number is closer to what most experts believe Yellowstone can sustain.
“When you’re out here, it’s like a huge soap opera. It’s watching a society, not individuals. It’s how they interact within the pack, and between packs. A lot of wolves still have druid bloodline, so we say, they’ll always be here in one way shape or form,” said Lyman.