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In Memoriam: Well-Known Yellowstone White Wolf Dies Unnatural Death

Twelve-year-old alpha female deserved a wild end to her wild life, but that was not to be

Officials at Yellowstone National Park first shared the sad news in mid-April: A well-known white wolf in the park had been found severely injured and was later euthanized. Then on May 11, after a necropsy by the US Fish and Wildlife Service forensics laboratory in Oregon, they shared the real shocking news: This wolf, the alpha female of the Canyon Pack, had “suffered from a gunshot wound.”

Details are still emerging on what happened, when and where; the investigation remains active.

female white wolf walking in forest Photo Neal Herbert/National Park Service The wolf, pictured above, was one of three rare white wolves in the park and had 14 living pups. Park officials are offering a $5,000 reward for information on who might have shot her.

It all began on April 11, when hikers discovered “a severely injured” alpha female wolf, according to a press release from Yellowstone National Park. The white wolf, well-known among wolf enthusiasts and park officials, was seen near Gardiner, Montana, the town at the north entrance to the iconic park.

Staff eventually found the wolf in “shock and dying from the injuries,” and made the difficult decision to euthanize the majestic canine. The necropsy confirmed the animal had suffered from a gunshot wound, and park officials believe the incident took place near Gardiner or the Old Yellowstone Trail, located along the park’s northern boundary. The shooting likely occurred on April 10 or 11.

“Due to the serious nature of this incident, a reward of up to $5,000.00 is offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the individual(s) responsible for this criminal act,” Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk said in a press release.

When the Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf, which can be gray, black or white in color, was taken off the endangered species list a few years ago, states were given the authority to set up their own wolf management plans. In 2015, Montana saw 210 wolves hunted or trapped. Yellowstone, which is nationally protected, is mostly in Wyoming with slivers of land in Montana and Idaho. Hunting and discharge of firearms are prohibited in the park.

There are approximately 100 wolves in Yellowstone, which is an impressive number given that the canids were once extirpated from the local wilderness. In 1995, wild wolves were released into Yellowstone National Park as part of an extensive recovery program. The population took hold, and now the park features several packs that fluctuate in numbers. The oasis that is Yellowstone is often seen as the best place in the world to view wild wolves.

Of the nearly 100 wolves in the park, only three were known to be white in color. The white wolf who was euthanized in April was 12 years old, twice the average age of a wolf in Yellowstone. She was a leader of the Canyon Pack and could be seen in many areas of the park. “For these reasons, the wolf was one of the most recognizable and sought after by visitors to view and photograph,” the press release states.

I think I saw that alpha female during a wintertime visit in January of this year. Of course, it’s difficult to 100 percent confirm that the sighting was of the Canyon Pack alpha female, but all signs point to this impressive 12-year-old animal being the one.

a white wolf walking in the snow by a buildingPhoto John SoltesThe writer took this photograph of a wolf walking by the gift shop near the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel in January. He believes it was the alpha female who was shot.

It was a brisk morning in Gardiner when my brother and I decided to head into the park for one last drive before heading off to Bozeman to catch a flight back home. Like many winter visitors to Yellowstone, we had come to see the wildlife that was wintering in the northern range, specifically the Lamar Valley, which is accessible by a road from Gardiner to Cooke City, Montana. The previous three days had been filled with wondrous wolf sightings, mostly from far distances, plus photo-worthy scenes of bull moose breathing in the mist, bighorn sheep dangling on a hillside, bison brushing the snow away with their enormous heads, and a snowshoe hare hiding under the boardwalks of Mammoth Hot Springs.

On this final morning, we headed into the park and quickly passed from Montana into Wyoming. At a bend in the road between the Mammoth Hot Springs campground and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, we saw a car pulled over and people training their binoculars on a nearby hill. We looked in the distance, and, sure enough, a pack of wolves made their way from the treeline to the naked top of the hill, offering exquisite photo opportunities in the early morning light.

What a way to finish a trip to Yellowstone. We had come for the wolves and other animals, and here was a pack bidding us adieu.

It got better.

We headed a little deeper into the park and eventually turned around, knowing that the drive to Bozeman would take 90 minutes through Paradise Valley, Montana. We made one final stop at the gift shop near the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, but arrived so early that the shop wasn’t open yet, so we had to wait in the parking lot for a few minutes. We parked the car in between the hotel complex and store — perhaps the least wild part of northern Yellowstone. We weren’t expecting to see anything except maybe wandering bison, which at times seem more numerous than the human visitors in the Mammoth area.

My brother was behind the wheel; I was in the passenger seat of our rental vehicle. There was a pause in our conversation, perhaps a sigh, a chill in the air from the pervasive cold … and then my brother screamed, “John, look!”

He pointed out his driver’s side window at a large white animal that walked as nonchalantly as a domesticated dog. She loped within feet of the vehicle, slowly ambling and limping her way down the driveway, occasionally looking back, but generally paying no mind to us.

The wolf’s fur was something to behold. She was an eggshell off-white color all the way from her perked-up ears to her dangling tail. The fur on her legs and rump were a few shades darker, letting her stand out from the mounds of snow in the parking lot. The alpha female was silent as she walked, traveling with determination but not fierceness.

As quickly as she had entered our view, she returned to the wild — a haunting, fleeting image that was burned into our memories and preserved on our memory card.

We sat silent as the sun continued to rise and the nearby gift shop finally opened. Was it real? Did this just happen? Aren’t wolf sightings in Yellowstone supposed to happen from far distances?

We exited the car and found her relatively large paw prints in the snow. We stopped in at the local ranger station and let them know of the scene that had just transpired in front of our eyes. A wolf enthusiast who pulled up shortly after the white wolf had left told us it was probably the alpha female of the Canyon Pack, a local favorite.

The 12-year-old animal will be missed. She survived harsh winters and difficult odds for a dozen years. She deserved a wild end to her wild life, instead, her life ended because of an illegally fired gunshot.

John Soltes
John Soltes is an award-winning journalist who has written previously on wolves, turkeys, ticks, bears, bats, and resplendent quetzals. Oh my!

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Animals are people, too, just as people are animals.

By Ellie on Wed, May 24, 2017 at 1:30 am

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