Decade of the Wolf


“Respectful and intriguing, this is an indispensable historical document of the West, all the more so for the elegance of the story told and the clarity of writing.”.

 -Rick Bass

Decade of the Wolf: Returning the Wild to Yellowstone
Decade Cover_1

Lyons Press
2005, paperback


Decade of the Wolf is an unforgettable account of the wolves themselves, as well as of the scientists who are faithfully following them through the wilds of Yellowstone. Published on the tenth anniversary of this historic endeavor, here are exciting new discoveries about wolf behavior, as well as the remarkable effects these animals are having on their environment. From bison to grizzly bears, beetles to bald eagles, willows to grasses, an astonishing range of species is being affected by the return of this powerful predator. As the book’s co-author biologist Douglas Smith describes it, “wolves are fast becoming to Yellowstone what water is to the Everglades.”


A Passion for Wolves

August 3, 2004. It’s been a hectic summer. Phone calls and faxes and e-mails, all of it coming in doses big enough to have kept me hobbled to the desk instead of out in the field. More than a month has passed since I squeezed into the backseat of the yellow Piper Super Cub parked down at Gardiner Airport, snapped the seat belt together, slipped on the headphones and went airborne, purring across the high country on a search for the fifteen wolf packs now making their homes in Yellowstone. If there’s any shred of consolation it’s only that up until recently the summer flying has been less than gratifying, what with the northern Rockies having been ravaged by six years of drought. Long ago the green swales of Yellowstone bled to brown, exposing dirt where once there were wildflowers and grasses; fires have roared across the backcountry—ten thousand, twenty thousand acres at a time. On more than one occasion I’ve peered down from the airplane and swore I could see the animals suffering.

As of late, though, there’s come to much of the park fine measures of rain. Grasses are tall and thick, flowers everywhere. And rising in me is a yearning to savor it all, this easy month of August. For these few weeks animals are free of the edginess that tends to grip them at other times of year. Wolves are relaxed, even oblivious, plopped down in the shade of their summer rendezvous sites. I’m wanting to slow down, too—take it all in, pay attention not just to wolves but to the nature that surrounds them. Match my pace with the pace of the season.

I meet pilot Roger Stradley at the usual time for summer flights, 6:30 in the morning. We start early because of the nearly constant promise of afternoon wind and thunderstorms—tough on pilots and passengers alike. Rising through the clear morning light we find the area around Gardiner still looking parched, desiccated. Yet by the time we’re past the foothills of the national park, crossing lands sitting at roughly 6,500 feet, the vegetation begins to perk up in a big way; by 7,000-foot Swan Lake Flats the place looks downright lush. It’s like flying into paradise.

Finding Yellowstone’s wolves is a matter of following signals given off by radio collars worn by certain animals from each pack. First up on the checklist are the Swan Lake wolves, just south of Mammoth. In no time at all we find the bulk of the group——six animals bedded down together and maybe a lone pup among them, though it’s hard to say, since by now the young have grown so big it’s tough to distinguish them from the adults. Continuing to check radio signals one-by-one we soon discover someone on our list is missing, only to locate him a few minutes later with two other wolves near a freshly killed bull elk. Not in possession of the carcass, though. Not even close. That privilege belongs to three grizzly bears, shaking their massive heads and slicing at the hide with their powerful paws. Though nowhere near as quick as the wolf the bear is far stronger. Long ago he figured he could hijack pretty much any wolf kill he wanted, reducing those who took the prize in the first place to little more than hungry bystanders.

Wolves in the snow

On we fly, tracking our way to the Geode Creek Pack (unable to find 392), then Rose Creek and Agate Creek (four black pups), on to Slough Creek (six pups along with 378 are missing), to Druid Peak (gone from the Lamar Valley, totally bumming out the wolf watchers), to Specimen Ridge (all huddled at 9,000 feet, so tightly bunched together we have a hard time counting the five pups). After all that it’s time for Mollie’s Pack. Living as they do in the Pelican Valley, far from the chaos of cars and tourists, free even of the bother of other wolf packs, home ground for Mollie’s Pack is serene. Far below us Pelican Creek does a quiet rumba through long runs of meadow grass, past hot springs, in no hurry at all to make its final plunge into the cold, blue waters of Yellowstone Lake. The first of the Mollie wolves we locate, Number 379, is by all appearances tuned in to much the same music, sacked out in the shade of a small cluster of fir and spruce, indifferent to the drone of our plane circling overhead.

Across the past decade my work as a wolf biologist has changed in subtle yet significant ways. During the first three years of the project we knew every single wolf intimately. Back then I’d fly over this landscape just as I’m doing today, but more often than not be consumed by specifics: whether or not wolf Number 9 could hang in there for another year, maybe have another litter of pups; or if Number 39, whose mate was shot by a poacher, would be able to hook up with another partner. If only we could get through another year, I often thought, get just one more batch of pups, then the population would be on its feet. Today it’s a different world. We know fairly well the fifty-five animals now collared—ten or fifteen of these we know really well—but there are plenty of others we don’t. Whereas once we thought only of the struggles of individuals and their packs to become anchored in this new home, now our thoughts rest in matters of population dynamics, of the links between predator and prey. The relationships that drive our work, in other words, are these days less anchored in the intimate, than the ecological.

Still, even now it’s hard to overstate the impact of working with this animal. I recall several years ago flying fairly low in the spotter plane, when we crossed directly over a wolf. As it looked up I could see its eyes, and they were magnificent, bright and burning. While a lot of animals would in that sort of circumstance be nearly overcome with fear, here was one tossing out a stare that seemed brimming with confidence. The wolf looked hard at us, following us with its gaze for a couple of seconds. Then it merely stepped away, back into its element. The encounter was so vivid that the pilot, like me, seemed barely able to contain himself. “Whoo-hoo!” he shouted. “That was big stuff!” Admittedly, such meetings don’t happen often—I’ve been flying wolves for twenty-five years, and have seen such things maybe only a half-dozen times. But it’s something that sticks with you long afterward.

We work the nearby forest for a while, sure that hiding under the branches are four or five pups, then slide over to find the aged alpha male, Number 193, in a snooze fest of his own some four hundred yards away. His aging mate, the alpha female, is out in the valley, bedded down but clearly alert. Next comes Number 378, splayed in grass so deep it takes two circles in the plane to finally figure out that there really is a wolf in there. Given he’s from a pack living well to the north—or at least was collared with them—finding him here at all is a bit of a surprise. But Mollie’s Pack was this wolf’s original family, the group he was born to back in 2001. He probably still feels a certain kinship with them—ties that even now, three years later, keep calling.

Not far from the alpha female young wolf Number 343 starts “wanging in”—a term we use for strong radio signals, telling us an animal is very close. Before actually seeing him, though, we glimpse something else: six grizzlies, including two big boys pushing 500 pounds, as well as a sow with a cub-of-the-year—the entire crew gathered around a dead bull elk. For his part Wolf 343 has wisely decided to remain above the fray, bedding down nearby on a small cut in a grass-covered bank. What’s unusual about this sighting is the presence of a sow grizzly with cub. Female bears with young typically avoid such get-togethers, given that both wolves as well as male bears have a reputation for killing their young. Even now the little one is clearly agitated, standing on his hind legs and looking in on the carcass, but not daring to go any closer. On our next pass I notice still another bruin bedded down not ten yards from 343, waiting his own turn at the table, each unconcerned about the other. In fact from my vantage point both bear and wolf appear to be wearing that wistful, faraway look that comes easily on the heels of summer in Yellowstone.

* * * *

They were once among the most abundant predators in all of North America—at least five subspecies of wolves, perhaps two million animals, spread across the continent from coast to coast. Hunting whitetails in the lowland forests of the East, where now stand the skyscrapers of Boston and New York; howling in the dark of long, unbroken runs of chestnut and hickory in the central Midwest. Running the shores of the Great Lakes, slipping through the big trees of the Pacific Northwest, hunting in the cool of night in the arid deserts of Arizona and New Mexico. But despite their numbers, despite their speed and strength and remarkable cleverness, it took just a couple centuries for us to wipe them from well over 95 percent of their former range in the conterminous United States. By the time I came into the world there were a mere five hundred left, mostly cornered in the remote regions of the upper Midwest. In part, of course, the extermination can be said to be a triumph of man’s astonishing ability to kill that which either frightens or inconveniences him. But in a very real sense it’s also a reflection of the fact that, unlike coyotes and mountain lions and even black bear, all of which have found ways to more or less co-exist with human beings, wolves have shown no such inclination. Instead they’re prone always to stand their ground, not bending for the sake of living amicably alongside humans.

Which makes it all the more striking to think that in the ten years since wolves came home to Yellowstone, they’ve become for thousands of people a symbol of a wilderness ideal, a fascination kindled amidst growing threats to America’s last untrammeled places. Today less than 5 percent of the nation is protected wilderness. Of these places not even a handful are big enough to support healthy populations of large carnivores. Wildlife winter range in the Rockies is being lost to development at a staggering pace; in parts of Colorado alone land is being subdivided at the rate of ten acres every hour. Despite the dramatic success of the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction, originally launched under the directives contained within the federal Endangered Species Act, no one can say for sure how these animals will fare here in the long run. Their fates, after all, like the fates of most creatures, are connected to strands in the web of life over which they have no control.

© 2005 by Gary Ferguson and Doug Smith, all rights reserved.


For millions of people around the world, the image of wolves running free through Yellowstone National Park has become the ultimate symbol of the American wilderness. The release of thirty-one Canadian gray wolves in 1995 and 1996 began what is arguably the most successful, and at the same time controversial feat of conservation in our nation’s history.

Decade of the Wolf is an unforgettable account of the wolves themselves, as well as of the scientists who are faithfully following them through the wilds of Yellowstone. Here are exciting new discoveries about wolf behavior, as well as the remarkable effects these animals are having on their environment. From bison to grizzly bears, beetles to bald eagles, willows to grasses, an astonishing range of species is being affected by the return of this powerful predator. As the book’s co-author biologist Douglas Smith describes it, “wolves are fast becoming to Yellowstone what water is to the Everglades.”

Complete with more than 50 full-color photographs—many never seen before—here is a book to mark the end of the opening act of this inspired, often tumultuous tale of preservation.