The Life and Times of Wolf No. 2

Author: Andrew H. Malcolm

This is the true story of a wolf named No. 2, a park named Yellowstone and a little-known society of wild things existing in obscure dignity far beyond most humans’ awareness.

No. 2 was born Canadian in the rugged wilds of western Alberta. One late winter day in the mid-’90s he was running with young siblings in the deep mountain snow of his first winter. Suddenly, a noisy machine appeared in the sky and hovered there with whirling wings unlike any bird ever seen. No. 2 brazenly stood his ground, watching, for a moment too long.

Then he tried to run, bounding through the snow toward tree cover. Though quite young, he already had learned by observing his pack’s behavior that nothing good rushes at you in the wild. But, being all black, No. 2 was an easy target amid all the white. No. 2 was caught in the telescopic sights of a man who was good at what he does. The man thought the wolf looked to be about the right young age. Amid the wild running and the noisy whirling, the wolf could not have heard the shot. But he felt it pierce his fur. He grew very tired very quickly. And went to sleep.

When No. 2 awoke, he was in another country, an involuntary immigrant to the American West. There he became part of a pioneering, controversial and unnatural re-introduction of wolves to the wildlife of Yellowstone National Park. Most of the 2.2 million acre park is located in Wyoming, although it stretches into Idaho and Montana.

It had been about 75 years since wolves roamed wildly there in the oldest national park, their chilling, inspiring howls ringing into the ears of lucky visitors. The wolves had all been poisoned or shot more lethally than by tranquilizer dart as part of a federal policy of extermination. The U.S. government was big on extermination in the earlier days of the 20th century. Grizzly bears were next on their wipe-out list and would have been erased, too, in the lower 48 had it not been for the defiance of Montana, which said it had lived with these large and treacherous creatures for decades and still could, thank you.

Wolves, like bears and sharks and lions and tigers, had suffered greatly over the centuries from poor public relations among humans. The culture is full of horrifying images, from “Little Red Riding Hood” and Peter and the Wolf to Nazi sub wolfpacks to what lascivious men were called while whistling at attractive women. And Lon Chaney didn’t do wolves any good either, turning all lethal and wolf-hairy during eerie midnight moments of moonlight.

Some might suggest that wolves suffered, too, from being a lot like humans, from mating pretty much for life, from joint parenting in a hierarchical society with one pack president, his influential female mate and a meandering parcel of underlings who sat farther down the “table” at dinnertime.

Wolves, like other large hunters, do kill for food. Like human hunters or warriors, they can kill viciously, attacking the unsuspecting, the slowest, the weakest. Death is not pretty under those circumstances. It’s vicious and noisy and not always quick. But it is final. And it is nature’s way, albeit a brutal way, of ensuring survival of the fittest. Those who can, do. Those who can’t, die. And their remains are recycled naturally.

No. 2 was very fit when captured and transported to a large acclimation pen within Yellowstone. Contact with humans was minimized, which is fine with wolves. Road-kill deer were surreptitiously delivered to the pen. No. 2’s local peers had been slowly repopulating isolated parts of the Rockies outside the park. Like most creatures, wolves who eat have a way of procreating, and youngsters have a way of setting out on their own, carving their own territories, lives and destinies.

Wolves prefer wild prey like deer, which they can run down, surround and attack from the rear. But they’ll take whatever is handy and vulnerable. Near winter’s end, when the pups are due and spring is coming and all those gawky newborn calves are stumbling about, the temptation has been great. And the financial damage to ranchers real.

Wolves do not know from No Hunting and No Trespassing signs. Nor do they recognize boundaries between public and private lands. So the idea of flying uninvited, unwilling wolves into wolf-free Yellowstone caused a good deal of human howling in the vast neighborhood, generally silenced over time by the courts and patient political leaders.

No. 2 was among the first batch of lupine imports from Alberta and British Columbia. Even as strangers in a pen, the creatures developed a social hierarchy. No. 2 was young but assertive. Physically, he was growing large, an imposing black with an unusually bushy tail and a carriage that seemed more confident to human eyes.

When the wolves’ human handlers decided it was release time in 1995, they left the pen gate open. None of the wolves tried to escape. The humans worried. Had they provided too much food? Too comfortable an exile? Created an accidental zoo of welfare wolves?

Then they realized their mistake. The gate was too associated with humans. So the workers cut an opening in the far fence. Whoosh, those sneaky wolves were gone in a scurrying second. Unbeknownst to the escapees, the sturdy collars they’d become accustomed to wearing for weeks beeped coded radio signals to studious naturalists, betraying their positions every few seconds.

Free once again to roam and forage among abundant prey, the wolves coalesced into temporary packs, basically hunting teams to get by while reconnoitering the area. In those days there were no established wolf territories. There was ample room to draw territorial lines by marking pack boundaries not with graffiti or guardposts but with their own odoriferous urine.

In the highly social communities of wolves, a wolf alone is nothing admirable or desirable. A lone wolf by definition is an outcast for some reason — illness, weakness, unsociability. Nothing personal, just the business of nature. He or she who is alone is an alien threat to any pack leader’s dominance and the pack’s food supply, breeding and pure bloodlines. Being alone and in a pack’s private hunting territory makes hunting — and survival — infinitely harder. Wolves hunting alone quickly become the hunted.

After a few months living with what was dubbed the Crystal Creek Pack, No. 2 broke away with a few pals and took up with No. 7, a strong, outgoing female from another pack whose genes would assure a new mix. They were a handsome, confident pair, in the eyes of those who saw them from afar. In spring 1996, No. 7 settled on a den in the northwest portion of the park. And there No. 2 and No. 7 produced the first batch of Yellowstone wolf pups in decades.

They had formed what would become known as the Leopold Pack, a stable, healthy band of 12 to 15 wolves who behaved well by human standards. They made no trouble. They hunted nearby. They raised their young ones quietly and dutifully. And they never left the park’s boundaries to create friction with human neighbors.

Every spring No. 7 would produce a healthy litter of new wolves. Only No. 2 and No. 7 bred each year, because No. 7 belonged to No. 2; no other male would dare approach her. And, as dominant female wolves do, each midwinter mating season No. 7 would bite the genitals of all other female wolves to prevent any from accepting at their fertile time the unauthorized advances of her mate or of any weaker male. It’s a rough kind of pack birth control but ensures that only the dominant, strongest pack pair produces heirs.

And produce heirs the Leopold Pack did, efficiently. Not all their pups survived; any infants in the wild are vulnerable, part of the harsh balancing act. But in seven years at least 29 of the offspring of No. 2 and No. 7 did survive. Thanks to the pack’s hunting instincts and prowess and No. 2’s unchallenged leadership, the offspring ate well, according to their position in the pack’s rankings. They grew strong and had excellent role models.

The young wolves hung with their parental pack a year or so. A few stayed on as subservient pack members, apprenticing the social roles they would assume at maturity. But most of the pair’s children took their strong genes and one day, unannounced, tearlessly trotted out on their own to discover new vistas in Yellowstone’s vastness, to found their own pack and territory, to mix the gene pool even more and to start more brief dynasties.

After nearly eight decades without alpha wolves ruling the roost, with only disease, age, coyotes and automobiles as threats to life and limb, Yellowstone’s supply of prey was ample, for wolves anyway. The coyotes were no longer top of the food chain, and their population declined. This was a natural cycle that reassured the naturalists who surveyed by radio and binoculars from afar. Each week they’d fly over the park and use their antennas to track the movements of the wild collars below. Today, less than a decade after the tentative re-introduction of Yellowstone wolves, more than 143 wander the woods there, half of them with radio collars.

Occasionally, a news feature about Yellowstone wildlife will drift to the outside world. But these are not big stories, as the distant world of humans measures news. Wolf lives are not wars, not diplomatic summits nor politics, not budgets or playoffs, not bombs or bombast. The civilized world of humans does its things, oblivious to the wild, save for a summer vacation drive. And the wild creatures do their best to avoid any contact with such visitors.

But every once in a while, according to an unpredictable calendar of unscheduled events, something happens that sets off a series of somethings, all very natural — and very poignant.

One evening in spring 2002, some weeks after delivering her latest brood and starting to wean them, No. 7 was walking near the pack’s territorial edge, not that far from the den. She was ambushed by something wild. Eight years is merely half a childhood for humans but a long life for wild wolves. No. 7’s hearing may have been failing, her survival instincts somehow weakened, maybe her strength not yet regained after birthing so her internal alarms weren’t sufficiently sharp. Whatever. No. 7 was set upon by something stronger and faster and was slain after a brief skirmish.

The newly widowed No. 2 and his pack carried on without their queen. Each member helped feed, train and protect No. 7’s pups through their vulnerable first weeks and months. Observers thought No. 2 looked less active, distracted. He seemed to sleep more. The radio signals betrayed little movement from the den. Could a widowed wolf be depressed?

Without his mate’s strong support and backing, the pack’s longtime leader appeared vulnerable. Nature abhors vulnerability. Another male, perhaps even one of his own sons, challenged No. 2 that fall. There may have been growling, snarling, some scuffling. No human witnessed the coup. Apparently there was no major battle, no injuries, just a relinquished role and a new alpha. For the first time ever the Leopold Pack had a new leader. No. 2 was out. A lone wolf.

Controllers tracked his movements for nearly two months in the same general vicinity, which No. 2 knew well. Lon Chaney aside, wolves are social creatures. They do not like being alone. At times No. 2 was spotted trotting along amicably with other wolves, perhaps his youngest offspring visiting and hunting jointly a time or two. The retired pack leader looked healthy, his black tail as bushy as ever, and well-fed, which meant steady hunting success even on his own.

But the territory of northern Yellowstone Park is pretty well divvied up among packs now. The offspring of the pioneer wolf transplants have settled most liveable large areas. So it’s hard to go anywhere without trespassing on someone’s turf. Would No. 2 find an open corner, maybe find a new mate and start another pack?

Late on the afternoon of the last day of 2002 came a puzzling signal, strong but ominous. Instead of its usual steady slow beeps, No. 2’s radio collar began beeping rapidly, as it was originally programmed to do if it had not moved for five hours. Wolf trackers, who had come to admire the quiet prowess and silent dignity of a wolf they knew only through their imaginations and binoculars, feared the worst. They set out to investigate.

In three days the hiking biologists had neared the site of the still-beeping radio collar. No. 2 had never left the park he was placed in. Hiking through a steep, snowy ravine on a gray midwinter’s afternoon, the trio of humans suddenly came upon an open scene in an area the size of a modest backyard. It contained stunning natural devastation — disrupted snow, countless paw prints, broken branches, torn vegetation, fistfuls of flesh and fur. And everywhere the white snow was starkly strewn with red blood.

The humans surveyed the battle zone, suspecting and fearing what had happened. They then followed the trail of blood maybe 50 yards down a deerpath. There, on his side, they found the first arrival and last surviving wolf transplant, No. 2, asleep now forever. He was still more than 130 pounds at the end, and a sturdy 32 inches tall at his shoulders. He had grayed some around his muzzle. Scavengers had already begun the recycling.

No. 2 had obviously fought long and hard. But he was one against many, wiser than the attackers who found him on their turf but older and a little slower. He had succumbed to countless stabbings by teeth.

The biologists removed No. 2’s collar. For several minutes they stood alone together in silence. They left No. 2’s body beneath the sheltering fir he had chosen as his final resting place. And they walked away slowly.

By today, several seasons away, the crows and eagles, the coyotes and ants have all done their assigned work. Nothing goes to waste in the wild. Even field mice get nutrition from gnawing bone bits. No. 2’s final spot remains unmarked and unnoted. Unbeknownst to No. 2’s progeny, his genes live on in them far away as they fight their own fights for survival. But nothing remains of his remains.

Nothing, except the true story of a wolf named No. 2 in a park named Yellowstone.

Andrew H. Malcolm is a member of the editorial board of The Los Angeles Times_, a veteran newspaper correspondent and editor and author of 10 nonfiction books. He resides with his family near Los Angeles and spends as much time as possible in a log house deep in the Montana woods._

(October 2003)