The western ridge above Slough Creek glows with the rising sun. Bird songs punctuate the shallow murmur of the creek. As the valley awakens, eight wolves silently crest the ridge and descend into the valley. The alpha male is in the front of the pack, muscles rippling beneath his sleek, white, grey and black fur. The alpha female trails closely behind her six yearlings. Her fur is jet black, her eyes an emerald green, and a radio collar is fixed around her neck. She is known to wolf biologists in Yellowstone National Park as “Nine Twenty-Six F”, and she is the leader of the Lamar Canyon Pack.
Down in the valley, a man is crouched over a Swarovski scope, left eye closed, and right eye following the single-file procession of wolves. A “Yellowstone National Park” patch is sewn onto the shoulder of his dark olive jacket, and his leather hiking boots are caked in mud. Two radios are strapped across his chest, and a radio telemetry receiver lies discarded at his feet. The man’s name is Rick Mackintire, a wolf biologist for the park, and every muscle in his body is tense with the knowledge that he is not the only one carefully tracking the pack’s every move.
Through his spotting scope, Mackintire sees 926 freeze mid-step. Something is not right. She whirls around and sprints back towards the ridge, tail tucked under her body. The yearlings, trained well by their mother, follow closely on her heels and disappear over the ridge. What happens next haunts Mackintire to this day. The alpha male, known as 925, refuses to follow his family. He stares calmly ahead, his entire body relaxed, as twelve massive wolves burst out of their hiding place, ambushing the lone wolf.
Rick would later describe the events in a hushed tone, tears running down his flushed cheeks. In the valley, the twelve wolves close the gap with alarming speed. 925 stands his ground, as calm and composed as a glassy lake before a storm.
Just as the wolves are nearly upon him, 925 does something entirely unexpected. Instead of running away and leading the twelve wolves to his family, he charges the wolf pack. Moments before colliding with the pack, he cuts to the right and runs past them. The pack is forced to turn around, giving 925 precious seconds and a convincing lead.
Too soon, the pack closes the gap. A 130 pound male lunges and latches onto 925’s flank, and the rest of the pack pulls him down. Rick watches helplessly as the twelve wolves tear and bite every piece of 925 that they can reach. The attack lasts five minutes, and with each minute that passes, Mackintire’s heart sinks deeper and deeper towards the ground.
Three minutes into the attack, a howl cuts across the valley. One of 925’s daughters stands on the ridge, howling fiercely. Three of the wolves attacking her father give chase, disappearing over the ridge. The biggest and strongest male yearling appears further down the ridge, howls, and draws three more wolves away from 925. Finally, a third yearling howls, and the last of the wolves give chase. Mackintire scans the grey-green sagebrush, but 925 is nowhere to be found. Mackintire imagines the once sleek, grey body of the wolf, now bloody, matted and torn, huddled against a sagebrush.
Soon, the pack of twelve wolves returns to the valley. Somewhere over the ridge, 926 and her yearlings are safe, for now. The wolves trot back towards the spot where they took down 925. But when they get there, they look confused. 926 is nowhere to be found. After combing the sagebrush, the pack gives up the search, with the exception of one black yearling. Soon, the wolf picks up a scent. Mackintire tracks the wolf with his scope, leading him straight to 925.
The sight is mortifying. The alpha male of the Lamar Canyon Pack is limping, with blood soaking through his coat and covering his face. The black yearling lunges for 925’s hind leg. With all of the energy he could muster, 925 whirls around and nips the black wolf. The yearling tucks his tail under his body and flees. His energy waning, 925 limps away, disappearing into rolling hills and meadows of sagebrush. The martyr’s family would live to see another day, but sadly, he would not.
In the spring of 2015, a year before 925 made his great sacrifice, I stood at the Hitching Post in Lamar Valley and watched 926 and 925 feed on an elk carcass on the edge of the Lamar River. 926 tore hungrily at the carcass, and once she had enough food, she ran across the road and up the hill to her den, where she was nursing six pups. Meanwhile, 925 ate so much meat that his body looked swollen and bloated, his stomach stretched to the limit. I had never seen wolves so close before, and 926’s emerald green eyes still burn in my memory.
Even though they were only a pack of two adult wolves, 926’s bloodline marked her as a magnificent wolf, and her hunting prowess would have made her ancestors proud. Her lineage stretches back to “O-Nine” (09), the most successful and famous of the first generation of wolves that were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995. And 926’s reign did not end with the death of her mate in May 2016. A wild turn of events would strengthen her pack, and also surprise anyone lucky enough to hear her story.
When 926 fled over the ridge, the yearling’s safety was not the only thing on her mind; she was pregnant. The sacrifice of her mate saved her, the yearlings, and the unborn pups. Although the attack was brutal, it was not unprompted. To feed their soon-to-be growing numbers, 926 and her mate had been hunting on the boarders of their territory. When the Lamar Canyon Pack started testing the boarders of their territory, the Prospect Peak Pack (the twelve wolves that attacked 926’s family) responded ferociously.
To Mackintire, the aftermath was just as fascinating, surprising, and heart-wrenching as the battle. Days after 925 was attacked, Mackintire was at the Hitching Post, once again peering through a spotting scope. He had just picked up two radio-collar signals from the hills. 926 was the only collared wolf in the Lamar Canyon Pack, which meant that the Prospector Peak Pack had found her den. Rick watched as 926 and three of her yearlings cowered against a cliff. Out of the trees, four dark figures approached. 926 began to yip, a call that wolves only use when they are distressed. Her yearlings picked up on her distress, and they ran. 926 fled the scene.
Mackintire tracked 926’s movements with his radio telemetry receiver. The next time he found her, she was standing on the side of the road, completely still, and staring with undivided focus. Rick followed her gaze, and his heart stopped. Across the road stood a 120-pound male from the Prospect Peak Pack.
926 did not have many options. She was weak from nursing her pups, and her yearlings were too young to help her hunt. She had not been eating enough to stay strong, and she would not survive a fight with this wolf. As Mackintire watched, 926 did the one thing she could think of. Cautiously, slowly, she began to wave her tail back and forth. After a tense moment, the massive male began to wave his tail. 926 ran across the road, and began to court the male, licking his face and jumping all over him. The male led her to three other members of his pack, and she performed the same ritual for all of them. On that day, the ranks of the Lamar Canyon Pack grew, filling with the very wolves that killed 926’s mate.
926 led the wolves to her den, where the new members of the pack accepted the yearlings, as well as the newborn pups; however, three of 926’s yearlings refused to accept the wolves that killed 925, and they ran away.
A few months later, I stood at the hitching post, crouched over a scope and watching two wolves weave through the sagebrush. One wolf was jet black, and one was grey, and they occasionally howled back and forth to one another. Both were once members of the Prospect Peak Pack, but today, they had been hunting to feed the mate, yearlings, and newborn pups of the wolf they had killed, just weeks before. As the sun sank below the horizon, painting the clouds pink, orange, and purple, the wolves crossed Lamar River, disappearing into the woods and returning to the den, 926, and her pups.