Deby Dixon Phtotography, elk, families, gray wolves, hate, howling, hunters, hunting, killing, lies, memories, Montana, nature, predators, puppies, wildlife, wolfe, Wyoming, wyoming hunters, Yellowstone
Three seasons have passed now, Winter, Spring and Summer, since that cold December evening when I stood beneath a hill and watched as a family of wolves spread out on a ledge. Unsure of what was happening, I watched breathlessly as one by one the wolves took their places. Suddenly one head lifted towards the sky and a mournful song commenced. The others joined in and for several minutes, this family, minus their mother and their father’s mate, howled what sounded like their last goodbyes. Not only to her but the life that they once knew in the valley.
I had never heard the howl of a wolf before and I remember standing there, my knees buckling, my lips quivering and with salty tears on my cheeks. There is nothing more real or honest than a howling wolf and I felt as though the hand and lips of a higher being had surely touched my soul. It was agony and bliss, all rolled into one.
[I used my recording of the wolves howling on that day in a slideshow that I made of their sister/daughter after she was killed by a bullet, just two weeks ago - you are hearing my first wolf howling experience]
I had never really met these wolves before that day, because I was new to wolf world in Yellowstone. And, because this pack of wolves had just returned to the park after they were baited across the boundary so that one man could put a bullet into their mother. This was the one and only time I ever saw what was left of the pack because, soon after, they left to look for the mother and the uncle they had lost to Wyoming hunters, and the pack began to disperse in the following weeks.
This memorable time of seeing wolves and listening to them howl was also my introduction to a hatred for which there are no word to describe.
Both the mother and the uncle (the alpha female had two men in her life and they were brothers) wore collars that were put on them by the wolf project in Yellowstone National Park and they played a very big role in the ongoing research of the gray wolves that had been reintroduced into the park. Not only were these wolves important to research but they were favorites of many of thousands of people who had watched them grow from pups into adults that had pups of their own. The female was considered the most famous wolf in all of the world and her devastating death made international headlines. The one man, who put one bullet into this famous wolf and eradicated her forever, was never man enough to tell us who he is or what his story was. One man, one bullet.
The hatred that I speak of is a venomous rage towards the wolves. Much of that rage is based on lies that are spread around with such vigor that they taint the minds of others. For some, wolves were forced upon them by “The man,” and they are a symbol of government interference in their lives. For others there is fear and the myth of the Big Bad Wolf. And then there are the ranchers who claim that wolves prey on their livestock, but many refuse to take responsibility in keeping their animals safe from the predators that have just as much right to be here as they do. And the hunters. Elk numbers are down, which was one of the goals of Yellowstone when the wolves were reintroduced. Elk had multiplied far beyond what the eco-system could handle and much of it had been destroyed by over-grazing and standing around like cows, instead of wild animals. Hunters blame the wolves, totally and completely, for the decline in the elk they used to be able to shoot without much effort. But, other factors figure in, such as hunters in Gardiner, MT, killing 400 prime bull elk in one season, drought, tough winters and adapting to the presence of predators. The elk no longer stand around, out in the open, because it is no longer safe. There are many lies and some half truths but to hear these people tell it, wolves are to blame for nearly everything.
And so, the most incomprehensible acts of all take place during wolf hunting season in the communities surrounding Yellowstone. Hunters target Yellowstone wolves, that rarely leave the park and have never preyed on their livestock. The most hateful of these hunters salivate when a wolf is killed near the park, hoping that it is a collared Yellowstone wolf because that would be considered a prize. Why anyone would target an animal that meant so much to their communities in economic sustainability due to the thousands of people who come to the park hoping to see a wolf, is beyond me. Why they would want to take an animal that brings so much joy into so many lives is a question I can not answer. I worry that hate is a growing epidemic amongst us and that there will be no end.
The wolf family left the following day and returned to the area where their mom was shot. A couple of weeks later the alpha male and two of his daughters returned to the park, one of which met a couple of guys of her own and formed her own pack outside of the park, complete with puppies, and the other was recently killed, leaving behind two puppies. Except that when hunting season began, an intrepid hunter took his/her bow and arrow and killed one of the wolf’s 40lb pups. I wonder if there was joy in killing that puppy? The threesome stayed in the park for about a week, trying to chew on a frozen bison carcass and trying to learn how to hunt. Their alpha female had been a mighty provider and was able to take prey down by herself – grabbing them in the neck and killing the animal quickly. And then they left.
The alpha male was forced to tell his family goodbye and he returned to the park and found another mate. The two wolves were living the Romeo and Juliette dream of the quiet life, far away from people, and high on the hills. That is until his daughters returned to the park and killed his new mate because she was from a rival pack that had gone on a killing rampage the year before. Breeding season was over and the male was once again left on his own. I watched as his family told him goodbye and continued to watch as he sat on the valley floor and howled and howled for those he loved, while was mate was dying in the forest. Eventually, the male turned tail and headed west for a long time.
The remainder of the family was in turmoil. Three of the daughters, that we know of, had bred, quite possibly to the same unknown male, and they all needed to go their separate ways. Only one daughter had a pack, the remainder of the siblings and the two males she had taken on, while the other two were on their own.
For what seemed like forever, there were no wolves to see. It began to look like all of the females would be denning in other locations and that we would not see many wolves for a long time. But, then, one day, I found one of the females hunting an elk calf. What a tormenting experience that was, as I was rooting for both animals. A pregnant mother who was quite hungry and on her own and a calf that had been orphaned several weeks before. The wolf got her meal and decided to stay and have her pups. Quite soon she was joined by one of her sisters and an unknown gray male. They had a pack of three. Another sister came, along with another unknown, but they were soon chased away by their older sister when she returned one last time before going into her own den.
I watched this family disintegrate into their own survival modes. A young female wolf who so badly wanted to be with her family but was chased away each time she returned. The father loosing his second mate in only a few months, along with his brother and his children. I watched wolves howl for their families but their voices were never heard.
Some days were pure joy while others were completely agonizing. Most days there were no wolves to be seen and other people told me about the times, the year before, when there were wolves everywhere. I had arrived at the wrong time. Or, was it the right time?
The young mother who had hunted the elk calf by herself, went to her den and was not seen for several weeks. Her younger sister sacrificed herself to feed mother and pups. Constantly running food back to the den, either in chunks or in her belly, to be regurgitated later, and she became skin and bones. I saw the workings of the wolf family and how dependent they are on one another. Because of the hunt, many pups were born to mothers who were on their own and many died. Everything is connected but when they experience loss, they move forward. Their whole lives are about survival but wolves have a playful side to them also. To see wolves running together, tails and heads held high, is a sight that one does not soon forget.
We know that the young mother had at least two pups but we do not know their fate as they have not been seen in quite some time. Maybe one was seen recently but it was dark and hard to tell. A young brother joined the pack for awhile, and played the good uncle to the pups – another necessary part of the whole development of the wolf family. Unfortunately he has moved on, and so have the others, but in different directions.
This is a story that is hard to tell because there are so many twists and turns that it is impossible to tell them all here. And we do not yet know the end of this story or if it will end now. The Montana hunt is on and the hunters are allowed to use any means necessary to lure the wolves over the park boundary to kill them. Hunting park wolves is similar to shooting a pet dog because they are used to being around humans and they don’t know that they should be afraid. Some of these wolves will be looking straight into the eyes of the person who shoots them, never flinching until the trigger is pulled. An easy kill and a devastating loss for science and visitors to a national park. Somehow, we need to get a buffer zone around Yellowstone, so that these losses no longer take place. No government has any business pandering to the level of hate that has been displayed by some of the people who target collared wolves that live in a park.
Here are several random images that I have taken of wolves during the past nine months – all wolves reside in Yellowstone
I have one last story to tell, for now. One full-moon afternoon, or late evening, I had been watching the wolves off in the distance when they disappeared. A full moon began to rise over the mountains and I pulled into a place next to a steep, high hill, to shoot the moon with my camera. When I made to leave, I looked up to see a wolf sitting on the ledge directly above me. She looked down at me for awhile and then she lifted her head to the moon. Just her and I and she howled for me and for those she loved. She stayed there for quite some time, looking down at me and all around, and it felt like I had been given the gift of a lifetime. Below are two images from that night.