A grim chorus of howls shattered the predawn stillness. As darkness gave way to dim light, a wolf emerged in a clearing.
He was charcoal gray, with a splash of black fur marking his snout and eyes. He sat up tall, his head thrown back in a long, desolate moan. His hot breath froze when it hit the air, leaving shards of ice dangling from his muzzle.
Two miles to the southwest, two other wolves howled excitedly from the crest of 9,000-foot Specimen Ridge. Their calls were answered by another group whose voices echoed from the direction of Tower Junction, near the Yellowstone River.
“There are three packs out there,” said wildlife biologist Greg Wright as he watched the animals through a high-powered lens. “You don’t usually hear this much howling. It could be a territorial dispute, but I’m not sure what’s going on.”
Soon, it would be clear. The gray lady -- the Cinderella wolf -- was missing.
When gray wolves returned to Yellowstone National Park nearly a decade ago, the park became one of the few places in the Lower 48 states where the secretive animals could be seen in the wild.
Their reappearance in Yellowstone after a nearly 70-year absence has rekindled an ancient fascination with Canis lupus, the planet’s largest wild dog. The wolves have inspired websites, books and a cult of wolf-watchers who monitor their activities from dawn to dusk.
Of 174 wolves in the park, two attained celebrity status: the female nicknamed Cinderella and her longtime mate, a charcoal gray male. Park researchers called the pair “the Hollywood wolves,” because of two National Geographic documentaries that focused on them and their family, the Druid Peak Pack. To many, they became the embodiment of Yellowstone’s wild wolf program.
So Cinderella’s absence and her mate’s disconsolate wails on that Sunday morning in February stirred special concern among the wolf-watchers.
Wolf populations in the western U.S. were wiped out in the late 1800s and early 1900s by settlers and bounty hunters. The last wolf in Yellowstone was shot in 1926. The animals were not reintroduced to the park until 1995 and 1996, when biologists captured 31 gray wolves in the Canadian Rockies and let them loose in Yellowstone.
Cinderella, then a jet-black pup, was part of this original group. She was later given the name 42, indicating that she was the 42nd Yellowstone wolf to be collared with a radio device. She was set free with her mother and two sisters, eventually becoming part of a pack in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley -- prime grazing ground for huge herds of elk and bison, prime hunting ground for wolves.
The Lamar is wide and open -- a long, glacier-scoured basin -- allowing anyone with a good pair of binoculars to see the wolves from the Lamar Valley road, near the park’s northern boundary and the Wyoming-Montana border.
“Wolves are the essence of wildness, but people can come to the Lamar Valley and within a few minutes see one running free,” said wildlife biologist Doug Smith, head of the Yellowstone Wolf Project, a team of National Park Service researchers who released the wolves and now monitor them. “People used to think it was amazing to see one wolf in the wild in their entire lives. But we’ve seen them here daily for more than 1,100 days.”
Supplementing the work of professional scientists are the observations of amateur wolf-watchers, who make yearly, monthly or even weekly pilgrimages to the park.
Arriving before dawn, they set up expensive spotting scopes, stay in touch with other “wolfies” by radio, and take detailed notes on the canines’ behavior. Thanks to their diligence, the Druid Peak Pack -- named for a nearby dome-shaped mountain -- has become the most closely observed wild pack in the world.
Some wolf-watchers form attachments to individual animals. “Our favorite is 42,” said Carol Yates, a radiation therapist from Scappoose, Ore., who spends about eight weeks in the park each year with her husband, Richard.
Their license plate is WOLF 42. Cinderella was their first sighting. “She’s a pretty special girl,” said Richard as the couple stood along the Lamar Valley road the day after the wolf’s disappearance. They were worried. “I hope she’s OK,” Carol said.
A Domineering Sibling
The Cinderella wolf got her nickname from the harsh treatment inflicted on her by her sister. The assaults were filmed by Montana cinematographer Bob Landis, who spent eight years working on the National Geographic documentaries.
In the complex social hierarchy of wolves, each pack has two leaders: an alpha male and an alpha female. The Cinderella wolf’s sister was the alpha female in the Druid pack.
“She was a fierce wolf who ruled with an iron fist,” Smith said. She eventually drove her mother and other sister out of the pack. Then she concentrated on Cinderella.
The documentaries, aired in 1999 and 2003, showed the alpha female tearing into her sister, leaving scars and bloody wounds. Then the Cinderella wolf’s litter of pups disappeared from her den, probably killed by the sister, Smith said.
A year later, after more beatings and the birth of another litter, the domineering sister visited Cinderella’s den one evening. This time, she met a whirlwind of violent resistance. Cinderella’s 6-week-old pups survived; the alpha female did not.
Cinderella assumed the role of alpha female of the Druids. She moved her seven puppies to her sister’s den, where there were another seven pups. She raised all of them.
The day before she went missing, Cinderella spent several hours lying in the afternoon sun on the flats near frozen Slough Creek, on the western edge of the Lamar Valley. To the north loomed the high, barren ridges of the Beartooth Range, including massive Granite Peak, 12,799 feet high.
Cinderella was big for a female -- 100 pounds -- and like her mate, who is known simply as 21, she had turned a silvery gray as she aged. Their charcoal coats distinguished them from the rest of the pack, most of whom are black or multicolored.
That afternoon, as usual, she was lying next to 21, a strapping 8-year-old alpha male. The pair had been inseparable for four years. They snuggled now and then in the clear, cold sunlight, licking each other’s face.
The rest of the Druid pack -- three adults and nine pups -- were napping nearby, two of them curled in tight circles with their tails wrapped around their bodies for warmth.
Like other alpha pairs, the Cinderella wolf and 21 made all the decisions for their pack: when to rest, where and when to hunt, where to live. The alpha pair usually are the only wolves that breed. The entire pack raises the pups, which are born each April.
“Their thick winter coats glistened in the sun that day,” said Carol Rickman, who watched them with other wolfies from a roadside vantage point. “She never looked more beautiful than this winter.”
Rickman and her husband, Mark, an anesthesiologist, live in Pueblo, Colo., and make the 15-hour drive to Yellowstone three or four times a year.
“We’ve been infatuated with wolves since we were young,” said Carol, a medical technologist. “We persecuted the wolf for so long and yet they’re playful, intelligent and devoted to their families.”
Another wolfie, Diane Hargreaves of Bozeman, Mont., was impressed by the closeness of the alpha pair. “Even though she was a strong wolf in her own right, he always seemed to want to protect her,” she said. “And when there were pups, he always played with them and brought food to the den for them. He’d even bring sticks and other things for them to play with.”
Hargreaves and her husband, Steve, took courses on wolves at the nonprofit Yellowstone Assn. Institute and became so devoted to the animals that they moved from Denver to Bozeman to be closer to them.
“We were hooked,” she said, laughing. A photographer, she spends six months in the park each year. “The Druids have almost become family members. You assume they’ll always be there.”
Rick McIntyre, a wildlife technician with the Yellowstone Wolf Project, can be found on the Lamar Valley road even on his days off, dictating observations on wolf behavior into a tape recorder.
He was the first to notice something was wrong that gray Sunday morning.
He’d seen the wolves howling atop Specimen Ridge. They were from Mollie’s Pack, archrivals of the Druids. Later, McIntyre spotted the Druid pack about two miles away on a low, snow-covered hill north of the Lamar River.
The alpha male, 21, was howling. Other members of the pack were there. But the Cinderella wolf wasn’t.
“That never happens. She’s always with the pack,” McIntyre said. “You never see 21 without 42. He’s never more than a couple of steps away from her.”
McIntyre pointed a homing antenna in various directions, trying to pick up a signal from Cinderella’s collar. When he couldn’t, he climbed into his truck and drove seven miles to Elk Creek, where transmission is usually better. He received a weak signal that seemed to come from Specimen Ridge.
The Killing Season
Winter is the killing season in the Lamar Valley. Deepening snow in the Rocky Mountain high country forces elk and bison into the basin, where they try to find enough grass and other forage to survive until spring. Temperatures sometimes reach 50 below, devastating for the old or weak.
But the Druids and their rival packs delight in the cold. Their wide paws carry them across the snow with a loping grace. Usually, elk are faster than wolves, and their strong kicks can kill the pursuing canines. But in deep winter, the wolves’ odds are better.
The Lamar’s easy hunting grounds make it attractive to other wolf packs too. Mollie’s Pack settled in the Lamar in 1995, but a year later the Druids forced it out. The wolves retreated to Pelican Valley, an 8,000-foot-high meadow that offers little prey for wolves in winter.
“The Mollies would love to claim the Lamar Valley as their territory again,” said Smith, the head of the Wolf Project. “But they need to drive the Druids out to get it. They’d kill to get it.”
By Monday morning, members of the project team were gravely worried about Cinderella. On the Lamar Valley road, the regulars were somber.
McIntyre told the group that a researcher and a pilot were going up in the “Wolf Plane,” a yellow, single-engine Piper Super Cub used to monitor canines in the deeper reaches of the park. “They’ll try to pick up her signal from the air,” he said.
Although he didn’t tell the wolf-watchers, he had started to receive a mortality signal from 42’s collar -- an indicator that she hadn’t moved in several hours. “But it doesn’t always mean anything,” he said. “Sometimes there’s a glitch or the collar falls off and that sets it off.”
This time there was no glitch. From the plane, a researcher spotted the Cinderella wolf’s bloody body on high, windy Specimen Ridge.
Smith climbed to the top of the mountain to confirm her death.
“This was incredibly difficult for me,” he said. “I remembered her as a pup. She was the last of the original wolves still in the park. A lot of my life has been spent with these wolves, and she’s always been here.”
Smith struggled for a positive note: “She died in one of the most scenic spots I’ve ever seen -- 9,000 feet high, overlooking the Yellowstone River.”
It was left to McIntyre to break the news to the wolf-watchers. They had gathered on a hillside overlooking Slough Creek. Below were 21 and the rest of the Druid family, again lying in the afternoon sun.
In a calm, low tone, McIntyre told the watchers that 42 had been killed. “We’re trying to put it all together now, but it probably was the Mollies,” he said.
Carol Yates cried softly. “I guess we’re glad we were here when it happened,” said Richard Yates. “It’s the way of the wolf. A least she wasn’t shot.”
Mate’s Lonely Howl
On Tuesday morning, 21, the big gray wolf, went to the den site he’d shared with Cinderella in a wooded glen. Together they’d reared two dozen pups, most of them born here. The Druids’ top dog sat in the snow and howled. His deep moans filled the Lamar Valley for days.
“He howled his guts out,” Smith said. “People say they heard him howl more since she died than he did in the five years before that.”
Was 21 in mourning?
“I can’t say that wolves mourn,” Smith said. “I’m a scientist and that’s not a scientific thing to say. But I do know he acted differently than he ever did before. You can draw your own conclusions.”