How a runt wolf from Canada became a hero

A new book tells the story of the greatest wolf who ever lived, and the one greater than him
This 1999 photo of the pack shows 8 and 9 with raised tails. (Douglas W. Smith/NPS)

When the wolves returned to America’s first wilderness park a quarter-century ago, humans began to flock by the hundreds to Yellowstone National Park to see the 31 newcomers from Alberta and British Columbia. Rick McIntyre, the wolf watcher’s wolf watcher, was among the visitors almost daily, sharing his long-distance scope with anyone who requested it—including an excited Ted Turner who politely asked, as Jane Fonda ambled over, if his wife might also have a glimpse—and telling a lifetime of wolf stories.

The reintroduction of an apex predator after 70 years was always going to be a crowd-pleaser. But the ongoing nature of that fascination—the steady stream of visitors, documentaries and books, including McIntyre’s new The Rise of Wolf 8: Witnessing the Triumph of Yellowstone’s Underdog, the first in a planned trilogy on some of the most successful Canadian emigrants ever to the U.S.—is more unexpected. McIntyre, 70, the Massachusetts-born son of a Canadian and a wolf obsessive since he first followed them as a park naturalist in Alaska, has a persuasive explanation.

“When I first started working at Denali [National Park] in Alaska, I was really taken with the grizzlies.” But after a while, says McIntyre, the majestic bears are, well, boring: “eating berries, eating grass, digging up roots, sleeping, over and over.” The wolves were entirely different. “The way they earn their living as predators is an exciting thing to witness because of their very high failure rate, up to 95 per cent. It’s very difficult for them to make a kill, and they really have to work at it together. But what’s really interesting is that when they are not hunting they spend a lot of time in social activity, interacting and playing every type of game imaginable.” From the viewpoint of a Park Service naturalist charged with explaining wildlife behaviour to visitors, wolves offered far more to work with than grizzlies.

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But speaking of wolves’ professional usefulness is simply professional courtesy on McIntyre’s part. What he truly found fascinating was that they “are social animals that live in extended families in ways very similar to the way humans do.” He points out that wolves and humans are among the three to five per cent of mammalian species that pair-bond, and the less than one per cent that engage in multi-generational co-operative breeding and communal nursing, with a female wolf caring for any pup in need as well as her own. And he’s watched yearling pups—preteens in human terms—play ambush with one another or catch-me-if-you-can or tug-of-war with bones. “There are just endless similarities between how wolves behave with each other and what anyone would recognize as human behaviour.” McIntyre loves wolves for the same reason he believes his fellow humans do, because wolves are at the same time unfathomably alien and very much like us.

Thereby hangs a tale, or rather an abundance of them. And McIntyre, who loves storytelling scarcely less than he loves wolves, is the man to tell them. According to Doug Smith, Yellowstone’s senior wildlife biologist and the head of the Wolf Restoration Project, no one in history has spent more time observing wolves in the wild than McIntyre. Before an illness broke his streak, the naturalist recorded a stretch of 6,175 consecutive days of looking for Yellowstone wolves, and at one point managed to find them for 892 days in a row. In January of this year he recorded his 100,000th wolf sighting. McIntyre’s meticulously recorded observations have enhanced the scientists’ research, Smith adds: “Rick has come as close as anyone to understanding the thoughts of a wolf.”

That explains, according to McIntyre, the Shakespearean flourishes he applies to his stories. “What works well for Shakespeare, who knew a lot about human behaviour,” laughs McIntyre, “works well with wolves.” Three packs—Crystal Creek, Rose Creek and Druid Peak—supply the numbered wolves that feature most prominently in The Rise of Wolf 8. Crystal Creek came from Alberta in 1995: alpha female 5, alpha male 4 and four male pups, 2, 3, 6 and 8. The last of those was gray while the others, like their huge father, were jet-black, and he was the runt of the litter, smaller than any other male from Canada. After introducing his dramatis personae, McIntyre channels Macbeth’s witches: “Three of these young sons will become mighty alpha males, control vast territories and have many sons and daughters. One son will die young and in great disgrace. One is destined to be considered greater than the greatest wolf who ever lived. This book will tell the story of two wolves: the greatest wolf who ever lived and the one that was greater than him.”

McIntyre (Cannon Photography LLC/Alamy)

After that cryptic attention-grabber, McIntyre turns to more matter-of-fact observations: how 8 was, unsurprisingly, harshly bullied by his bigger brothers in the acclimatization pen; how, surprisingly, he faced down on his own an angry grizzly after the pack’s release into the wild; how he was the first of the offspring to strike off alone in search of a mate. Meanwhile, the Rose Creek wolves faced an existential threat when its alpha male, 10, was illegally shot the day the alpha female, 9, gave birth to eight pups. Worried the pups could not survive without two adult caregivers, the park rangers recaptured them all. Two pups eventually managed to get out of their pen, although they stayed near their mother, and the rangers could keep them fed by dropping meat nearby.

When 9 and her other six pups were released, she found that 8 had already befriended the missing two, protecting them and probably supplementing their ranger-supplied food. McIntyre believes that moved their mother, and although 8 was only half her age and an unimpressive physical specimen, 9 pair-bonded with him. In turn, 8, in the first documented case of what biologists would come to recognize as standard wolf behaviour when a new alpha male joins a pack, looked after 9’s pups as though they were his own, a phenomenon far from usual among carnivores—male lions, for instance, kill a departed rival’s offspring. “The right wolf showed up at the right time,” McIntyre says, and Rose Creek began to flourish.

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One of 9’s pups, 21—later the most famous male wolf in Yellowstone history—formed a particularly close bond with his stepfather, in a relationship McIntyre paid close attention to for years. “It’s so tough to figure out whether 21 would have become the wolf he did without 8 as a role model. Nature versus nurture, and how much of each? Think of it in human terms—a bunch of young kids suddenly fatherless and out of nowhere comes an adult male who … protects them, feeds them. Wouldn’t there be some hero worship there? And 8 really showed 21 how a male alpha should behave at the Battle of Slough Creek.”

That involved the third of the book’s key packs, the Druid Peak wolves from B.C., who came out of their acclimatization pen in the spring of 1996 like “a band of outlaws riding into town to take over,” in McIntyre’s words, aggressively seeking to acquire territory occupied by the earlier Albertan arrivals. Led by their large alpha male, 38, the aptly named Druids had already decimated Crystal Creek, killing 8’s father, 4, in the process. That June, as 8 and seven Rose Creek yearlings were feasting on an elk carcass, 38 and three adult Druid females charged downhill at them. To protect the yearlings, 8 charged directly at the Druids. To McIntyre, who was watching, the situation looked hopeless for 8: he was smaller and less aggressive than 38, and running uphill to boot. But when 8 and 38 smashed into each other, it was 8 who emerged victorious by sheer determination, straddling 38 and biting him at will before stepping back long enough for 38 to run away. For an astonished McIntyre it was David beating Goliath, and the reason 21 acted the same way for the rest of his life, always defending his family and never exacting a toll on his enemies that was more than required.

A Druid Peak pack female rests with her cubs in 2005, nine years after the Battle of Slough Creek (Dan Stahlers/National Park Service/CP)

Another of McIntyre’s famous observations helped cement the relatively late realization—“male bias” is McIntyre’s laconic explanation for how long it took scientists to figure it out—that a pack’s leader was its alpha female, not its alpha male. Watching 21 in his new pack, where he was alpha male, McIntyre says, “I saw him get up and try to lead the others on a hunt to the east. No one followed. He tried eight times and everyone ignored him every time. Then the alpha female, wolf 40, got up, and when she wanted to go on a hunt to the west, everybody immediately followed, with 21 last in line.”

Wolf sexual politics particularly intrigue McIntyre. The strength differential between the sexes seems to be accompanied by an innate male deference to female decision-making. “I saw 21 one mating season become interested in a young, much smaller female,” says the naturalist. “But she didn’t want anything to do with him, just kept lunging and snapping at him, and he accepted that. I’ve seen more wolf matings than anyone, and that’s the pattern. Females have the absolute right of refusal. I’ve never seen a male force a female.” And the males stand by, observing but not interfering, when an alpha female abuses lower-ranked females, as 21’s first mate, 40, constantly did to her sister 42, even to the extent of killing 42’s pups, two years in a row.

The park wolves have died in a variety of ways—from the dangers of the hunt (one alpha female was impaled by a tree branch during a struggle with an elk) to being shot (legally or otherwise) to being run over by a delivery van—but by far the most common cause of death is battles with rival packs. Now that the wolves have integrated with the park environment, their numbers have stabilized at about 100, says McIntyre, and their lifespans at an average of four or five years. “We think that 100 was the original population, as estimated by the rangers who finished killing them off in 1926. They kept very good records of how many they shot, where they were, how many dens they found, how many pups they killed, etc. Yellowstone is [almost 9,000 sq. km] and we tend to have about 10 packs with 10 members each. So wolves need a large territory with a lot of prey animals to support their families, and they’re willing to fight for it. That’s a huge factor in limiting their population. They pretty much limit themselves.“

All that, observation and biological research alike, is the backdrop to the climax of The Rise of Wolf 8. Some of its Macbeth-like opening prophecy has already unfolded: one of 8’s brothers took to killing livestock over the park’s borders and was shot by rangers, becoming the one to die in disgrace, while the other three had indeed become alphas with numerous offspring—8 alone had fathered a park-record 54 pups. But who was the greatest wolf and who somehow greater still was not clear in January 2000 when 21—by a twist of fate now the Druids’ alpha male—and an aging 8 faced off against each other at the Battle of Specimen Ridge. What happened there was like nothing McIntyre had ever seen or could have imagined. The explanation he eventually reached probably took a lifetime of wolf observation; certainly, reader acceptance of it requires every bit of the trust he’s built up as the man who understands wolf thinking. But McIntyre succeeds in making his story plausible, almost certain, and he tells it beautifully.

This article appears in print in the November 2019 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “How a runt wolf from Canada became a hero.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.