GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
Sometimes I have small thoughts - tiny little thoughts, and I think to myself, not today, not right now. I don't want to write the great American novel anymore. I don't want to go to Mars today, Lord. I just want to get through the next three hours of this conference call so I can go home, drink a glass of wine, maybe watch some Netflix. That's all. That's all I want of the world - small things. But some people, they keep their eye on the prize. They don't bend to the world's dictates. The world's got to bend to theirs. And they have tales to tell.
Today on SNAP JUDGMENT from PRX and NPR, we probably present "Legendary." Amazing stories from real people bound and determined to burn their mark onto this big blue marble. My name is Glynn Washington. Go ahead, hang up on your conference call. Tell them, no, you can't call back later 'cause you're listening to SNAP JUDGMENT.
Now we're going to start off today's episode in one of the wildest places left in the lower 48, a place where the hunter and the hunted go round and round in an eternal struggle. And our hero - our heroine has four legs. SNAP JUDGMENT's Joe Rosenberg has only the two.
DOUG SMITH: Well, I very much subscribe to the idea - and maybe I'm spoiled or ruined - that country without wolves isn't really good country. It's incomplete. It doesn't have its full spirit.
JOE ROSENBERG, BYLINE: Doug Smith is a biologist with the National Park Service, and 20 years ago he was asked to help reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park.
SMITH: And so when I got to Yellowstone in 1994, I walked the landscape, and it felt flat, dull. Without wolves, it just didn't crackle. And I know that sounds odd for a scientist to say that, but you get this feeling that you get no other place - is when you're on a landscape that has wolves. So we took Yellowstone, and we dropped maybe the biggest symbol of wilderness in the world in the middle of it. And that symbol did well.
ROSENBERG: The wolves took to Yellowstone like they'd been born there. And Doug and his team were able to study them up close in a way wolves had never really been studied before.
SMITH: I mean, we knew them intimately. We knew their stories, we knew their pups, we knew their battles, we knew their - you know, loves, losses, everything. But more and more, I began just to hear about this one wolf, this female. I would go out in the field, and people would come up to me and tell me their stories. And they were tingling. I mean, they were excited. I couldn't shut them up.
RICK MCINTYRE: She was the Angelina Jolie of wolves in Yellowstone.
ROSENBERG: This is park biological technician, Rick McIntyre. And the wolf he's describing was known as the '06 Female - '06 because that's the year she was born. People often remarked on her beautiful gray coat, but also her unusual size for a female.
MCINTYRE: And I think in terms of the Yellowstone male wolves, from their perspective, she was drop-dead gorgeous. But in her case, it wasn't really until she left home when she was about 2 years old that we really began to figure out that there was something special about her.
ROSENBERG: Rick says that when a wolf leaves home, normally the top priority is to find a mate and start raising pups.
MCINTYRE: But she was in no rush at all. And one particular mating season, she had five different male suitors - as far as I know, that's a world record for a wild wolf - and dumped every one of them. None of them met her standards. So it was like she was waiting for the time to be right for something to happen.
ROSENBERG: One of the reasons the '06 Female could afford to take her time and also one of the other reasons she was the Angelina Jolie of wolves was that she had, in addition to her good looks, another gift.
SMITH: We've pretty much worked out how wolves hunt, and we have found that the most efficient group size for hunting is four. And the division of labor is young males and females select and chase and grab. And big males come in and use their size and strength for the takedown. '06 did the whole thing by herself repeatedly.
MCINTYRE: And her technique was a dangerous one. Normally, wolves want the elk or the deer to run away from them, but what she preferred would be to have a standoff with an elk where it was face-to-face direct combat to the death. And a bull elk can be 700 pounds. And so if you're facing an elk, they can charge forward, rear up like a stallion and trample you into the ground or send you sailing into the air and gore you to death.
So she would get in the most dangerous position, and she would dodge the attack very agilely. And then when the moment was right, she'd make her move. She'd run directly at the elk, jump as high as she could in the air, turn her jaws to the side and grab the throat. So that was her gift when it came to hunting. It was just a masterfully impressive endeavor. So I just never got tired of watching her in action.
ROSENBERG: Another thing that made '06 a joy to watch in the wild was that unlike a lot of other wolves in Yellowstone, she didn't sport one of those ungainly radio collars, even though radio collars helped Doug and his team track the wolves, study them and ultimately protect them.
SMITH: And if you can only have one wolf collared, you want her. We catch the wolves by shooting them with a tranquilizing dart. I've personally darted probably over 300 wolves, but '06 was a mix of speed and intelligence that I've rarely seen. I would see her in the field, I would see her from the airplane, and most vividly I would see her from the helicopter, and she would look at me with disdain. And most other wolves just ran. They got out of there. But what she would do is she would look at me and our eyes would connect. And the look she would give would be, I don't like you at all, and I'm going to outsmart you. And I'd tell the pilot, get that one. Get that gal.
And then he'd start nosing in on her and maybe even juice the throttle a little bit to pick up a little speed. And somehow - and I can't explain it - you know, she'd use stuff to her advantage. A few times she used the trees, and a few times she actually used some rocks. But we could never catch her in a bad spot. And it began about a three-year period where I couldn't get her.
ROSENBERG: It was around this same time that '06 finally decided to form a pack, mating with two young brothers.
MCINTYRE: And they - they didn't know anything. And we certainly were wondering why after all the other big, tough, impressive male wolves that had courted her did she want to end up with these inexperienced brothers? To us it really didn't make sense because she had to do the lion's share of work to make sure that her pups were going to survive.
So when they were a few weeks old, she had recovered enough from having given birth, and she was able to go out and hunt. And after maybe 10 minutes leaving the den side, she had already killed two elk.
SMITH: The two brothers would almost stand aside and look on like, why should we do it 'cause she's going to do it? In fact, there's some evidence that she taught those two males how to hunt period. And because of her provisioning, she raised 13 pups to a full year of age. That's way above the average.
MCINTYRE: And in 2012, there was a pretty major incident that happened that really showed what '06 was capable of in terms of being the ultimate survivor. She was down in the den nursing her newborn pups not really recovered from having given birth, and there was a problem that was approaching; and that was their rival pack - their deadliest enemy, the Mollie's wolves.
Sixteen adult wolves were heading straight for her den site, and her side was totally outnumbered. And a few minutes after the Mollie's wolves went into the thick forest, we saw a whole bunch of wolves running out of the trees. And out in front was the '06 Female running desperately for her life. All 16 of the rival wolves were chasing her. And she was not able to run fast because of having just had her pups, so she was in a desperate situation. What made it worse was that she was running toward the top of a cliff. It was almost like an Indiana Jones movie, and she would have to stop at the top of the cliff, turn around. And even for the '06 Female, as great a fighter as she was, there was nothing that she could do if she was attacked simultaneously by 16 rival wolves.
So as I was watching this, I was resigned to the fact that I was going to see her torn apart. But I underestimated her because what I didn't know and the other wolves didn't know was that there was a little bit of a gully that she could run down. The Mollie's wolves were confused. They didn't know what happened. They were looking around for her. But there was still a major problem; they were between her and her den site, and all they had to do was follow her scent trail backwards and kill all of her pups.
Well, all those years of training that she had put into her family paid off at that moment. One of her adult daughters came into totally plain sight, put herself in extreme danger because there was no way that the Mollie's wolves could not see her. She ran to the east, which meant that she was leading them away from the pups. And that particular daughter was the fastest wolf in '06's family. She just left them in the dust. And after just a couple of minutes of the chase, the Mollie's wolves just gave up in frustration. And they went home, and they never bothered '06's family again.
(SOUNDBITE OF WOLVES HOWLING)
ROSENBERG: After that, '06's packs thrived. She had overcome every obstacle thrown her way and she was now the undisputed queen of Yellowstone.
SMITH: And so despite what I said before, I kind of quit wanting to get her. We all like an underdog, and when you get to know an individual of another species like we all did her, you just begin to kind of respect that individual; in this case, that wolf, because she was worthy of just being left alone. And so catching her ended up being a mistake, and it was a mistake that she made that I can't believe she did.
We were out February 2012 darting wolves like we've done a hundred times, and I just wanted to catch two wolves. And any two won't be her, guaranteed. And the pilot, he goes, how about that one? And he spots this wolf right there out of the side of helicopter. I forget how far it was, but it was in one of those big openings that, you know, me, the guy trying to catch them, really relishes. And I had a split-second thought where I thought, I don't want to get the '06 Female, but there's no way she'd do that. She's on her way to the trees or she's taking a gully out. And I knew her daughter was in a lot of ways a look-alike daughter to her mama. And so I thought, well, this is probably her. So I said to the pilot, great, go after that wolf.
We moved her down to the river which was completely frozen over with ice, and I waited for that moment. And she came out on the ice, and I landed a dart right in her back - all great. And we landed, rotor blades going. I got out. I walk up to the wolf, and I see a smudge of blood under her tail - that's the vulva area of a wolf. That's an indication that this wolf is a breeder.
ROSENBERG: In other words, it was an indication that this was the pack's alpha female, '06.
SMITH: So bang, when I saw that blood I went, oh, no. And I've handled over 500 wolves, and all of them to me are beautiful. I mean, that's just a bias I have, but she was a beautiful gray. And there's nothing like a beautiful female gray wolf. And I didn't want to collar her. I dreaded it. But there was just so much at stake because from the perspective of science, from the perspective of knowledge, of learning about these animals that we so much want to help, this is the number one wolf you want to get. And here we got her. And so that's how she came to be collared.
ROSENBERG: The collar allowed them to track '06's movements. But when they did, they saw her do something that to their knowledge she had never done before.
MCINTYRE: At a certain point, the family crossed the park border. And they didn't know it, but they were in a section of Wyoming where wolf hunting was very legal. And in mid-November, the pack was seen by a hunter - I don't know who it was. And the biggest wolf in the pack was shot and killed.
ROSENBERG: The wolf that had been shot was the seventh wolf killed that season in an area of Wyoming that permitted eight wolves to be killed. The quota had been agreed to by the National Park Service as a way to keep wolf numbers down outside of Yellowstone. It had been one of the compromises with the surrounding communities that allowed wolves to remain in the park at all. '06, of course, had no way of knowing any of this. In her mind, everywhere was like Yellowstone.
SMITH: So one wolf left on the quota, and I think everybody was worried that another wolf from that pack would get shot. But through all of that, I thought she wouldn't get shot just because it was her. Heck, I tried to shoot her with a helicopter flying above her, and I couldn't get that done for three straight years. And so I didn't think she'd get shot with a rifle by someone on the ground.
ROSENBERG: To Doug and Rick's relief, after her mate was killed, '06 and the rest of her family hightailed it back to the park.
SMITH: So we thought when they came back to the park, that would be it. They've kind of quote, "learned their lesson." But they went right back out.
MCINTYRE: And then I remember one evening getting a call from a coworker where he had gotten word from Wyoming that the eighth wolf was dead. And I think the wording was that it was a gray female, which would have been a description of '06. So I went to bed that night realizing that it may well be her. And then as I was driving in before sunrise the next morning, I got a text. And it was confirmation that, yes, it was '06. And unfortunately at that point, my job was to tell everyone that had known her so well that she had died. And that was pretty hard.
SMITH: I didn't think they'd get her, and they did. And why they did, I don't know. I thought she was immune. But it's naive to think that we have a wolf running around in Yellowstone that's untouched by humans. And there is a part of me that wishes that was true, that wolves like '06 could be forever wild. So it's painful to confront it and say, we just don't live in that kind of world anymore.
ROSENBERG: In other words, collar or no collar, hunting quota or no hunting quota, wolves only live in Yellowstone so long as we want them there. And that was very much on Rick's mind the next spring when he was asked to give a talk to some school kids in a neighboring town.
MCINTYRE: And so the teacher and the kids join me - there are only a few of them, it was a very small school. But before I could say anything, one of the kindergarten boys started to talk, and this is what he said - I know the man that shot that famous wolf. And, of course, he was talking about the '06 Female; everyone was talking about her. And I understand how young boys are. I wanted to move on. I wanted to get into my talk. But before I could do that, the same boy opened his mouth, and he said, my dad just bought a license to kill a wolf. And once again, man, what can you say to that? Wolf hunting is legal, and I just didn't know how to handle the situation. And I was kind of getting mad at myself for being at the mercy of this 5-year-old boy, but he had one more thing to say. And I was thinking to myself, oh, man, I might as well just go home. I can't deal with this. It's too hard. So after saying I know the man that shot that famous wolf, my daddy just bought a license to kill a wolf, this was his next statement - but I hope he doesn't. He hopes that his dad doesn't kill that wolf that he has the license for. So I like to think of that as being one of the most important parts of the legacy of the '06 Female.
WASHINGTON: Now, just in case you were wondering, Doug Smith and Rick McIntyre both say that '06's pack is continuing to do well in the Lamar Valley region of Yellowstone National Park. Big thanks to both Doug and Rick.
That story was produced by Joe Rosenberg, the sound design by Renzo Gorrio. When SNAP JUDGMENT continues, we meet a guy that actually has songs written about his exploits and at long last, finally, we celebrate the marketing department, when SNAP JUDGMENT, the "Legendary" episode continues. Stay tuned.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.