Quirks and Quarks

The triumphant life of an 'under-wolf' in Yellowstone

Wolf researcher Rick McIntyre's book tell the story of one of the first reintroduced wolves in Yellowstone park

Wolf researcher Rick McIntyre's writes of one of the first reintroduced wolves in Yellowstone

Gray wolves like this one were restored to Yellowstone in 1995 (NPS)

Originally published on November 30, 2019.

In 1995 biologists and park officials in Yellowstone park began an ambitious project to reintroduce wolves to a landscape they'd been missing from for most of a century. In a new book naturalist and wolf researcher Rick McIntyre tells the story of one of those wolves. Wolf 8 was the runt of a litter who grew to become a courageous provider for an adopted family, and an icon of the successful reintroduction program. 

Wolves had been eliminated from the US's best known and oldest park in the 1920s by human hunters. The result was an ecosystem that was out of balance, as the elk population multiplied and their heavier browsing changed the plant life in the park.That in turn had an impact on other herbivorous animals and their predators.

The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone also had a Canadian connection as wild wolves were captured from Alberta and BC to repopulate the park. 

One of the first wolves from Canada to be released in Yellowstone as part of the reintroduction program in 1995 (NPS)

McIntrye was a witness to all of this in the 29 years he spent observing wolves in the park. He is now retired from the U.S. National Park Service and is an Affiliate Faculty member at the University of Montana's Environmental Philosophy Department. His new book is "The Rise of Wolf 8 - Witnessing the Triumph of Yellowstone's Underdog."

Here is part of his conversation with Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.

(Greystone Books)

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bob McDonald: Before we get to the story of Wolf 8, has the program to return wolves to Yellowstone being successful?

Rick McIntyre: Yes very much so. In fact a lot of people would say it's the most successful wildlife restoration program that's ever been accomplished. 

BM: Tell me about the first time you saw Wolf 8.

RM: They arrived from Alberta on January 12th of 1995. There were three packs altogether. They were kept in three separate acclimation pens. One of the packs was known as the Crystal Creek pack. It was the alpha male the alpha female and four male pups.  During the two months or so that that family was in the pen he [Wolf 8] was really picked on and bullied quite a bit. The other three pups were all males, all brothers. They were much bigger and stronger than he was and they they would team up and go after him repeatedly. So he had a tough time, kind of like the littlest kid in a school that's picked on by a lot of the bigger kids.

Wolf 8 (behind tree) with his family, the Crystal Creek Pack in their acclimation pen. The black wolf to his right is his father, the light grey wolf is his mother. (NPS)

BM: He got bullied and picked on but you quote the character Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, 'even the smallest person can change the course of the future'. So how does this apply to this particular wolf, number 8?

RM: Well something happened that really changed everything and it was really the beginning of me understanding that there was really something special about this wolf. He was with two of his brothers. They ran as fast as they could into a stand of trees and then a minute or two later one of the black wolves ran out with an elk calf in his jaws. The other black wolf ran out behind him, and then last as always because he was the slowest was 8.

But it turned out it wasn't their kill because another animal ran out and was chasing them, and it was a grizzly bear. So the bear had killed the elk calf and the brothers had stolen it from him. Now the big problem was the bear was gaining on 8 and getting closer and closer and it looked like the bear is probably going to grab him and it would only take one blow or one bite for the bear to kill this little wolf.

And then this is what Wolf 8 did. He just suddenly stopped. He turned around and stood up to that grizzly bear, totally unexpected. As he did that, his two brothers kept on running away. I can't explain it but the grizzly turned around and walked the other way. I knew something was going on with this wolf and that he had more than we ever gave him credit for.

The skull of wolf 8 indicates a lot of damage from his many battles with much bigger opponents. This image shows a missing incisor, likely the result of a kick from an elk (James Halfpenny)

BM: Wow. How did this story play out?

RM: A few months later, one of the other families brought down from Alberta was known as the Rose Creek Pack. It was the alpha male and the alpha female. And she had a litter of eight pups. But the day that she had that litter of eight the father wolf was illegally shot and killed. The problem was she was now a single mother and it would be impossible for her on her own to keep those pups alive.

And that's where Wolf 8 comes back in the picture. At that time in his life, he had been spending most of his time alone or away from the problem of his brothers picking on him.

He probably had been hearing howling from that particular area, and we think what happened was he just wandered up there by himself just to see something that he had never seen before in his life. What he saw were two of those pups. He had no idea that there even existed any kind of a wolf that was smaller than him.

Instantly an instinct kicked him for him to befriend those pups. He went over and played with them and shared some food. The mother wolf was watching from a distance, and even though he was not an ideal candidate to be the new alpha male for that family, he was there, he was available and he had this kind disposition to those pups. So that very day she accepted him into the Rose Creek Pack and suddenly he was the big shot alpha male of his own family.

The alpha female wolf from the Lamar Canyon Pack in Yellowstone in pursuit of a cow elk (NPS)

Produced and written by Mark Crawley