On April 14th I was driving through Yellowstone and happened upon one of those rare spots where AT&T Wireless customers can latch onto a cell phone signal. Nothing was really happening along the road that morning, so I pulled over to quickly check my email. Which is how I learned that the alpha female of Yellowstone’s Canyon Pack of wolves had died.
My initial feeling was not one of surprise or shock. I sort of expected this to happen soon 1. The Canyon alpha was an old wolf, having lived twelve years, much longer than the average lifespan of a Yellowstone wolf. She had also been seen wandering alone further north than many of her pack mates just a few days before her death. Though this wasn’t terribly surprising for a wolf that lived much of her life as a nomad, I had been feeling as though she was venturing out to find a place to pass on her own 2.
During my recent travels in the park, the alpha female had become a topic of conversation with friends and acquaintances… in part because she was my favorite wolf.
Beautiful and Unique
Unlike many Yellowstone regulars, I don’t get too attached to the park’s animals—I don’t view this death as “heartbreaking”—but I do have my favorites. Otters are my favorite animal to photograph in the park because they’re so vivacious and active. Great gray owls are my favorite Yellowstone birds, because it often requires an adventure and lots of hard work to find them in the forest. And the Canyon alpha female happened to be my favorite wolf.
I admired her for a few reasons, some of which made her a favorite of other park visitors too. Most notably, she was a white wolf. That may not be a rare thing in some other regions (Arctic wolves are predominantly white-furred, for example), but in Yellowstone it’s a bit of an oddity. Usually there are only a few white wolves found in the park at a given time. When she died, the Canyon alpha was one of three. One of those is her daughter, now the alpha female of the Wapiti Pack. And of course, the Canyon alpha was descended from another famous white wolf, the alpha female of the defunct Hayden Pack (more on that lineage later).
There have been very few white wolves of note in Yellowstone since the reintroduction of the species in 1995, and she lived longer than any of them. I am always intrigued by rare and unique animals, and in the confines of the park, this wolf certainly qualified. It’s because of her beauty that so many photographers and wildlife enthusiasts relished the opportunity to see and photograph her.
Of course, we were fortunate that she never wore a big ugly radio tracking collar. There’s a story out there that when it came time for the Yellowstone Wolf Project to collar Canyon Pack wolves, the project leader had to decide which of the alpha pair to track. He chose the black alpha male (designated 712M once he was collared), because “the photographers would kill me if we collared this beautiful white wolf.” I’m not sure how much truth there is to that story, but thankfully she remained collarless the rest of her life.
Another reason the Canyon Pack wolves were a favorite for many regulars was their—for lack of a better term—cooperative and tolerant nature. Over the years, members of the pack seemed much more comfortable around humans than other wolves in the park. This inevitably led to a lot more close encounters and great photo opportunities (which, for the most part, didn’t seem to affect the wolves negatively… I don’t recall many instances of vehicular deaths or fed wolves among the Canyons despite their seeming tolerance of tourists and vehicles). For many Yellowstone visitors, the Canyons provided the closest wolf encounter they’ve ever had because the wolves commuted along the park roads regularly.
Fighting for Survival
This close co-existence with people may have originally been bred by necessity. The story of the Canyon female and her pack is pretty remarkable, one that I like to relay to my photo tour clients from time to time.
The Canyon alpha was the daughter of the white Hayden alpha female, 540F. Five-forty was a wolf I only saw once, a pure white dot out in the middle of Hayden Valley. Back in the summer of 2007, I stopped by the Hayden Pack’s den site, which, in a stroke of luck, could be viewed by the public from the Otter Creek Picnic Area on the opposite side of the Yellowstone River. The Haydens had gone off to hunt. They left a lone gray adult to look after the pups, but I don’t believe it was the white daughter (who would have been two years old by then).
So I just missed my one opportunity to see her or her mother at close range before all hell broke loose that fall.
I returned to the park in September of that year, but it wasn’t until a month later that the wolf drama unfolded. The Mollies, a pack filled with big, tough bison-killing wolves, decided to come in from Pelican Valley and stake a temporary claim to Hayden Valley. This required driving off the resident Hayden wolves. In quick succession, the Mollies killed both alpha female 540F and her mate, and just like that, the Hayden Pack was finished 3.
The daughter of 540F escaped the onslaught. She didn’t emerge until the following spring, and by then she had befriended… a couple of ex-Mollies!
This was around the time when I first became aware of her. In May of 2008, the “Canyon Group” was just gaining a foothold in the middle of Yellowstone. I was fortunate to see a couple of them when a kill was made right near Canyon Junction. Gray male 587M, with his distinct round facial features, was accompanied by a dark black wolf when he visited the carcass early in the morning.
Camera equipment was not really up to snuff back then to capture good images in such dark conditions, but I came away with my first photos of the Canyons. These were the ex-Mollies.
While photographing these scenes, I heard from friends that the day before, “the white wolf” had visited the carcass. But I never did see her on that trip.
The Canyon Group—they had not yet achieved “Pack” status because they had not successfully raised pups, according to unofficial scientific rules—lived a tenuous existence. The problem was that they were surrounded by several larger, more established wolf packs. The Mollies, which even to this day no pack wants to tangle with, were to the south and east. The Agates were to the north, and the Gibbon Pack (25 wolves at the time!) occupied the center of the park directly south of Canyon territory. Even the Blacktail Pack, which would form in late 2008, soon became a threat to the north.
So the small group of Canyon wolves was forced into a nomadic existence in order to feed themselves. They ranged far and wide, sneaking into neighboring pack territory overnight, quickly disappearing and showing up in another pack’s territory several miles away the next day. They avoided conflicts by using the park road system, something other wolves were hesitant to do. Friends of mine encountered Canyon wolves on the road south of Mammoth one morning, only to see them on the road near Canyon Junction later that afternoon. They had covered well over 20 miles in a few hours.
To this day, the pack is known for traveling long distances. Their most recent territory has been based closer to Old Faithful, but they still wander all the way to Mammoth and back in winter, just as they did nearly a decade ago.
It took a long time for the Canyons to build any sort of momentum back then. The first couple years they’d be seen with pups in spring and summer, but by the end of winter the youngsters had not survived. This happened a couple years in a row, and eventually the wolf people ignored their own rules about “pack status” and started referring to the wolves as the Canyon Pack even without surviving pups.
Finally, a few years after they first joined and after scrounging a living on the road over several seasons, the Canyons emerged one spring with their yearling pups in tow. Emboldened by greater numbers, they returned to the alpha female’s old family stomping grounds in Hayden Valley and found a home (even if they would still wander away from it now and again).
Wolf fanatics like this species in part because of the human-like drama it endures throughout a lifetime. There are complicated family dynamics, wars, rejection, acceptance, playfulness, caring, death and survival. It’s a soap opera at times. The story of the Canyon alpha female and her pack is one of survival. Unlike some of the more popular and storied packs in Yellowstone, they were born of death and conflict and had to scrape by for years before establishing territory and expanding their family. That’s another big reason I admired her so much.
In the fall of 2008 I saw the white wolf for the first time.
On the morning of September 24th, I was on my way south. I had decided to leave the park early, heading toward Utah for another unique photography opportunity 4. The night before my departure, I’d heard the Canyons had made a kill along the western corridor, and fortunately this was along my route out of the park.
When I arrived at Twin Lakes it was a madhouse, even though it was still early and somewhat dark. The kill had been made in a heavily-treed area, making it very difficult to get a clear view. Photographers (there must have been about fifty) had to claim their territory early and firmly plant themselves there for the next several hours, lest someone steal their narrow window looking down into the meadow below. With limited views between the pines and a belated sunrise caused by flanking ridgelines above us, the photo conditions weren’t ideal. But we had wolves!
The Canyon Group, by then, had expanded to five members. Ex-Mollie 587M, whom I’d seen in the spring, was back. I thought he was the alpha male at that point, since he was the most visible and prominent of the wolves during both of my encounters that year. But it turned out that the black wolf from May was, in fact, the pack’s alpha male.
He was the eventual 712M, and he and the white female would lead the Canyons for nearly a decade together 5.
In addition to the two ex-Mollies, there was a handsome gray, which the wolf folks eventually deemed to be the Beta male. And, of course, the white female. By September, the group’s lone surviving pup had joined them as they roamed the park’s central and western territories hunting elk and other game.
Five-eighty-seven dominated most of the early action that morning, providing many of the better photo ops as he came in to work the elk kill. The black alpha male hung back a lot, offering very few photo opportunities. It took a while, but the white female finally came to the forefront. This is my first photo of her.
She did attract attention from her packmates, and there were some brief moments when we were able to witness some of the social behavior wolves are known for. The Beta male and the pup in particular took a liking to her.
The wolves continued to pick at the carcass, dragging it back and forth out of sight. With so many foreground trees, it was very difficult getting a clear shot of a whole wolf.
The sun finally rose as the action was dying down. My best opportunity to photograph her alone in the sunlight late in the morning was marred by some foreground branches (moving left or right was impossible in the crowded photographer pool!), but her beauty was apparent.
This was my first time seeing her, and she was still sporting a lot of gray and streaks of black on her back. As the white wolf aged, her fur became even lighter, and she became even more beautiful.
New Year’s Eve
Over the next few years, I’d continue to hear about Canyon Pack sightings. They were still wandering anywhere between Hayden Valley and Mammoth, and had a few more heavily-photographed kill sites along the west road (one of these carcasses was famously taken over by a grizzly bear while photographers were present).
In the spring of 2010, I suffered an inglorious week thanks in part to the Canyons. They were being seen consistently across from Otter Creek, at the site of the old Hayden Pack den. Each day, I’d arrive at the picnic area in hopes of catching the wolves coming or going. And each day it was a case of either “you just missed them” or “they showed up right after you left.” The alpha female made an appearance once or twice. I missed all of it. Finally, after about six consecutive days marked by bad timing, I vowed to do something I never did: I’d conduct a stakeout.
I generally prefer to move around when exploring the park, rather than sitting and waiting. I figure I’m covering more ground that way, so unless I have a very specific goal in mind or know that an animal must make an appearance (at a den site or a carcass), I won’t linger too long. In this case I obviously had a specific goal, and the wolves had appeared daily for nearly a week, possibly due to the presence of a nearby carcass.
So I sat at Otter Creek for ten hours. And for the first time in a week, they never showed. On the plus side, I met and chatted with a lot of nice people that day.
It was over three years before I’d see her again. And once again, a stakeout was required.
By 2011, we had built our first cabin in Silver Gate. As expected, this gave me an excellent excuse to spend more time in the park, and we started making annual trips out the week after Christmas. The year before, New Year’s Eve had provided one of my all-time Yellowstone wildlife moments. Little did I know that lightning would strike again, 365 days later.
It was one of the last days of the trip before we planned to head home. Jenn and I were exploring the northern range when we ran into an acquaintance at Roosevelt, who mentioned a new wolf kill in Gardiner Canyon. It sounded like we had already missed the main show that morning, but we were heading in that direction anyway, so we drove over to check on the proceedings.
When we arrived, we discovered that the freshly-killed elk was in a perfect spot. The wolves had taken it down on the opposite side of the Gardiner River, right across from a stretch of road that has two long shoulders. So several cars could park safely off the road and folks could wait out the wolves inside the comfort of their vehicles… a necessity on a cold, winter day. And because the carcass was on the opposite side of the river, park rangers couldn’t drag it away as they normally would when a kill was so close to the road 6.
So we had an ideal situation. A kill that had not yet been picked clean, stationed only 25 yards or so across the river from us, in a spot we could stake out in our vehicles with a full view of the surrounding hillsides. Now we just needed the wolves to return.
After several hours, they finally did. It began with a black silhouette on the upper ridgeline. Eventually, the black reappeared lower down the hill. And that’s when the white wolf emerged near the river. Well ahead of the rest of the pack and approaching the carcass… and us!
This is where the years of her travels along roads, getting acclimated to vehicles and people, paid off for everyone who was watching. Unlike some of the younger members of the pack, the alpha female wasn’t tentative at all as she walked in for her evening meal.
She worked her way through the bright red and orange willows above the river. The thick vegetation made it difficult to get clear shots, but the combination of white on a fiery background sure was beautiful.
Finally, she made it down to the river and dug in. Carcass photos aren’t necessarily pretty, but this was the closest and clearest view of this beautiful wolf that I’d ever have.
Eventually, three other members of the pack followed, including alpha male 712M. He was doing his best to emulate his mate’s white look by then, though he still had a long ways to go. The jet black coat from 2008 had been replaced by stately mix of gray with darker accents.
His yearling daughter, already known as a rambunctious trouble-maker, joined him. She obviously inherited her father’s genes.
The final Canyon wolf on that day was another yearling. One of the more handsome gray wolves I’ve seen. Though he never came all the way to the carcass, he provided perhaps the best wolf portrait opportunity I’ve ever had in the park.
Ultimately, it was the white female who put on the longest and best show for us. That she brought her family along was a huge bonus and made for my best Yellowstone wolf encounter to date.
A Final Visit
Fast forward another couple years, and things had changed for the Canyons. They had shifted from their traditional confines in Hayden Valley westward, and were no longer being seen as consistently by park visitors. The roads in the southwest part of Yellowstone are flanked by dense forest, including a lot of thick regrowth from the 1988 fires. So there are fewer open places to potentially land a wolf sighting. The Canyons were occasionally seen around Fountain Flats, but as usual, most of the sightings of the pack occurred along the road when they left their home base. I heard relatively little news about the Canyons during this time, and there were few details available on their status.
In the spring of 2014, some wolf activity was being reported just south of Norris Junction. A light gray had been seen a couple times at Elk Park. This is a spot that I generally dismiss when it comes to wildlife viewing. It’s a short open stretch of meadow along the Gibbon River that may yield an odd elk, bison or coyote sighting, but not much else in the last couple decades. I rarely drove through this stretch of the loop.
But during a short period in May, Elk Park was a hot spot. The light gray wolf that had been seen was identified as a member of the Canyon Pack. She was light in color, but still sort of grayish or beigeish, unlike her distinctly white-furred mother. I saw her on the other side of the river, lounging about one morning, and others had happened upon her quite close to the road and come away with some lovely photos. A Canyon true and true, working the roads like an expert. In the days and weeks to come, this light gray female would wander off to scout Hayden Valley—her mother’s and grandmother’s old territory—where she’d eventually meet the venerable 755M (the only wolf to be alpha male of two Yellowstone packs) and form the Wapiti Pack. And she would grower whiter and whiter as the years went by.
During this visit, the Canyons had killed an elk in the meadow, and the young female had returned by herself to pick it over. A few days later they made another kill in Elk Park, so I continued to revisit the area in hopes of seeing the rest of the pack.
On May 20th Jenn and I arrived to join a throng of photographers. While we were waiting for wolves, someone told me about an otter sighting a couple miles down the road at Gibbon Meadows. A good wolf photo op is a rare thing these days, but c’mon… otters. I’ve already admitted that otters are my favorite Yellowstone animal to photograph, so you must understand that I couldn’t resist the urge to find them.
We were in luck, catching sight of a trio of the romping aquatic mustelids as they worked their way upriver past the Gibbon Meadows Picnic Area. Jenn and I circled back and caught them again a short ways up the road. They kept following the river northward… toward Elk Park.
So we returned to the wolf stakeout with the rest of the photographers, and warned them that they may get a bonus otter sighting. It took a while, but the otters did finally appear as predicted. They swam in the Gibbon and hopped along the river bank.
Just as they were starting to pass in front of us, the wolves suddenly emerged from the far tree line.
The bright white coat flaring in the midday sun was unmistakable. I was seeing the alpha female again, and 712 was with her. The old couple came out together, approaching their kill with a slow, deliberate pace. They even paused to rest for a short while before proceeding across the meadow.
She had a noticeable limp. Injuries are commonplace among wolves, a risk that comes with bringing down big game. But they recover remarkably fast and are pretty resilient. And the Canyon alpha was probably the best example of a resilient wolf. At the time, folks worried about the limp and how it might affect her ability to hunt and keep up with the pack. She never fully recovered from that injury, but as usual, she survived. Even in early 2017, she still had the same limp… by then she’d managed to endure nearly three years with that injury.
Since that 2014 encounter, I continued to hold out hope that I’d see the Canyons again before the alpha female passed, but they were firmly entrenched in the southwest corner much of the year. The best viewing opportunities seemed to come from random winter snow coach tours that would encounter the Canyons along the park’s groomed roads. Especially in winter, the roads remained the best and easiest way for the Canyons to make their long treks to and from Mammoth.
Last spring I just missed her, once again not too far from Elk Park and Gibbon Meadows. The Canyons had made a kill, but I arrived too late to view them before they disappeared into the trees. That was my last, best chance.
During my latest Yellowstone trip, friends had scoped her near Mammoth, but I figured my chances of seeing her before the end were unlikely. And then the email came.
A couple hours later, I was driving back through Mammoth when a wolf crossed the road in front of us. It was black, not white, but was probably a Canyon wolf. Maybe one of the sons or daughters of the white female and 712M roaming far and wide, as taught by its parents, no doubt.
The Canyon alpha female lived twelve years, which is an eternity for a Yellowstone park wolf. Between interpack conflict, violent clashes with large prey animals, disease such as mange and parvo, and the increased trophy hunting allowances in the states surrounding Yellowstone, the average lifespan of a park wolf is not that long.
But she and her mate endured. Perhaps more than any other wolf in Yellowstone’s recent history, she overcame adversity to establish a new family and an expansive home turf, while still adhering to the adventurous, nomadic spirit that kept her alive earlier in life. Her passing isn’t a tragedy. Instead it’s a good reason to look back and marvel at the remarkable life she led. If people want to look for “success stories” tied to the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction, there’s no better example than the white alpha female of the Canyon Pack.
A reward of over $20,000 is being offered for information that leads to the arrest of the poacher who shot the Canyon alpha female. Please call 888-653-0009 if you have information pertinent to the incident.
- Though perhaps not at the hands of man. News was finally released stating that she was shot. ↩
- Even long time wolf watchers thought she was exhibiting unusual behavior. ↩
- Photographer Tim Springer and writer Christine Baleshta documented the final days of the Haydens with some great reports and remarkable photos in their fall 2007 trip report. ↩
- Where I’d land my favorite wildlife encounter to date. ↩
- As of this writing, 712M has not been seen in several weeks and his collar is no longer functioning, so he too may have passed. ↩
- Of course, these days the entire area would probably be designated a No Stopping Zone. ↩