He’s lost everything a wolf can lose, and still this resilient Yellowstone male thrives.
By Carl Safina
Eight years is a very long time to be a Yellowstone wolf; average life expectancy is only about 4. To avoid fatal injury while hunting elk, to endure gang-like fights with rival packs, to evade the human enemies who ring the park, to cope with the loss of your family—to do all this and survive eight years is exceptional.
Meet an exceptional wolf known as “755.” (His research collar number is his name.) He’d lost essentially everything a wolf can lose—except his life. Yet he’s put his pieces back together.
I would have bet against him. His survival seems a near miracle. But wolves don’t get miracles. They get luck. He’s had a lot of luck—most of it bad. Yet he’s thriving.
I chronicled the tumult of his early life in my book “Beyond Words,” in which the true stories of real wolves, elephants, orcas and others reveal them as individuals whose lives matter deeply to them. Dedicated wolf watchers Laurie Lyman and Doug McLaughlin have helped update me on recent events in the life one particularly amazing wolf. Here’s his story.
Years ago, as clumsy and hapless young two-year-old wolves, 755 and his brother got their big break in life. They met an extraordinary she-wolf born in 2006, whom wolf-watchers knew as ’06. Before she met 755 and his brother, she’d already turned down more talented and accomplished suitors. But over seemingly better competition (and, as often in human attraction, even she probably didn’t quite understand why), she chose 755 and his brother. And together they founded the Lamar Valley Pack.
The she-wolf, ’06, earned a reputation as both a super-hunter and master tactician. As matriarch of Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley Pack she became the world’s most famous wolf—so famous that The New York Times would eventually publish her obituary.
Yellowstone Park is really too small for its bigger animals. Its straight-edge boundaries were delineated for the tourist appeal of geysers and peaks. Animals weren’t much considered. The area needed by the park’s larger creatures, the “Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,” is eight times larger than the park. For deer, elk, and bison, the park is mainly high summer pasture, not year-round range. Winter at 7,000 feet is just too brutal.
Come autumn, the whole high interior plateau empties. Six of Yellowstone’s seven elk populations migrate out. Most deer and many bison drain into lower valleys and surrounding plains, for the food to sustain them through winter. But when they get there, they have walked into a place of bullets.
In 2012, a tougher-than-average winter began to lock down the park in November. Elk and deer migrated directly down to lower elevations seeking better food outside the park.
Seven Fifty-five, his brother, ’06, and their offspring ventured to their territorial borders. But they no longer found the resistance of other packs. They traveled unopposed to lower elevations, miles outside the park’s borders. It was all new terrain; they had never before in their lives been there. It was more profitable territory—a lot more elk.
The Lamars could not have known the reason they found no resistance from other wolves at the eastern borders of their usual territory: Congress had recently deleted the word “wolf” from the Endangered Species List. The Lamars had just gone from being protected by a national park to targets in a new open-season on wolves. The wolves hadn’t changed. Human promises had.
Because they’d lived in Yellowstone, the Lamars were used to seeing people, and weren’t particularly cautious to remain unseen.
On November 13, hunters thirteen miles outside the park, in Shoshone National Forest, shot a large male wolf weighing perhaps 130 pounds. He was 755’s brother.
The pack retreated to the park. But only briefly. The brothers had been together every day of their lives; his absence was obvious to the whole pack. The Lamars ventured out again—right near the place where 755’s brother was last alive.
On December 6th, someone killed ’06.
In the span of two bullets, Seven Fifty-five had lost his brother and his mate. Everything would now unravel.
Without their mother, the Lamar daughters descended into violent sibling rivalry. In seeming jealously they ejected their most precocious sister. Seven fifty-five’s daughters had attracted two prime males who would not tolerate 755 in his own territory.
Losing his mate and brother thus cost 755 his hunting support and his hunting territory. Seven Fifty-five had nothing left. An ironclad winter was about to deep-freeze the park. I’d have bet that he was doomed. I also would have bet that his precocious daughter would pick up her pieces. I was wrong. She left the park and was shot. He kept himself alive. (I wrote about watching him figuring out how to survive.)
Meanwhile: One of 755’s daughters, wolf 926, was a pup when her uncle and her famous mother got shot and her father 755 got banished by her older siblings’ new suitors. Now 926 is matriarch of her own Lamar Valley family. But as always for wolves—life ain’t easy.
In the spring of 2015, she and her mate, male 925, and their pups from 2014 were all, “strong and strappy,” according to veteran wolf watcher Laurie Lyman. They were awaiting birth of her second litter.
One day after they had traveled a bit outside their usual territory, Laurie says, “926 made a spectacular kill, driving an elk off of a high cliff.” The family feasted. Then they headed for home.
Little did they know where their route home was taking them. But the wolf-watchers could see: the Lamars were heading right towards a rival pack, the Prospects.
They stumbled upon the Prospects. The Prospects might have thought this was an attack. They might have felt that they had to defend themselves. It might all have been a misunderstanding. It was bad timing and bad luck. Immediately several big Prospect males charged. Pregnant 926 ran for her life. Their year-old pups scattered in all directions.
The Prospect males caught 925. “I am not sure if 925 put himself at risk to protect his family, or if he was just the slowest, ” Laurie says. In seconds he was fighting furiously for his life.
The year-old pups rushed back to the fight, got the Prospect males to chase them, thus set their father free.
But poor 925 didn’t get far. The next day, he died of his wounds. Nine twenty-six visited her mate at the spot of his death. The following day she and her pups returned to their den area, their home.
“The grief was all over them,” Laurie wrote to me. “I have never seen such a thing in all my years watching wolves. The incredible sadness. All 926 could do was lie down. It was something. Her yearlings went off to the west and she was on her own. It was so sad watching her have to get food for herself. And it looked as if she would give birth alone.” If that happened, her pups would most likely not survive.
A week or so later, four males who had killed 925 showed up. But the dynamic was entirely different. A male called Twin, about six years old, had come courting. She became smitten and accepted him. They became a new pack. Her two female one-year-olds returned to her. But her year-old males either weren’t tolerated by the new males or just didn’t want to be around them. They headed north out of the park. There, they were killed by bullets.
These new males, especially Twin and one named Mottled, hunted and provided for 926. But then the mite-caused disease called mange ravaged the pack. All of them with the exception of Twin got mange. “It was horrible,” Laurie remembers. “Some lost almost all their fur.” Her pups disappeared.
That wasn’t all. Mottled got killed by the Junction Butte wolves, whose large territory abuts the Lamars’ west border. And then Twin disappeared. Laurie observes sympathetically, “Nine twenty-six’s life has been a nightmare since her mother was shot, and yet she trudges on.”
So you see, it really is amazing that 755 has survived. After nearly two years of false starts, 755 has found a new place in Yellowstone, and a new mate. His pack is called the Wapiti Lake pack. And for the second year in a row he again has pups.
His mate is a beautiful almost-white female who herself was born in the den she now uses. (Her grandmother was white and her mother is white. And 755 who was strikingly two-toned when I watched him cope in 2013, has turned white with age.) In each year 2015 and 2016 she gave birth to two black and two grey pups. Of the four 2015 pups only a grey female yearling is with the pack. The other three disappeared. They’re in a part of the park with tough winters, and luck did not favor those pups.
Despite his age and how difficult it is to be a Yellowstone wolf, 755 is still hard-charging. Recently he killed an elk solo, prompting Laurie to write that ’06 “would be proud. She taught him well.”
So that’s the way it is with wolves. They don’t’ get miracles; they get luck. Some of it is bad. But sometimes their luck is so good it seems miraculous.
Carl Safina’s most recent book, “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” is newly out in paperback. Through true stories of real free-living wolves, elephants, killer whales and others, the book reveals animals as individuals whose vivid lives matter deeply to them.
His work has been recognized with MacArthur, Pew, and Guggenheim Fellowships, and his writing has won Orion, Lannan, and National Academies literary awards and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. He has a PhD in ecology from Rutgers University. Safina is the inaugural holder of the endowed chair for nature and humanity at Stony Brook University, where he co-chairs the steering committee of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and is founding president of the not-for-profit organization, The Safina Center. He hosted the 10-part PBS series Saving the Ocean with Carl Safina. His writing appears in The New York Times, National Geographic, Audubon, Orion, and other periodicals.