A wolf’s life
by Erin Halcomb
WEIGHT AT RELEASE: 74 pounds
AT DEATH: 97 pounds
ESTIMATED WEIGHT IN HIS PRIME: 120 pounds
RELEASED: Indian Creek, Idaho, Jan. 20, 1995
ESTIMATED AGE: 13.75-14.75 years old
ORIGINAL PACK: The Oldman River, Alberta
KNOWN FOR: Being the last of the 29 wolves introduced into the U.S. from Canada in 1995
- Had dog-biting lice as a pup
- Flunked as a foster father: He killed two orphaned pups in an adoption experiment
- Got caught in a coyote trap
His lifeless body echoed an arduous existence: a forepaw minus toes, a mouth missing incisors, molars ground to the gums.
For weeks, Idaho’s icy temperatures had preserved the carcass. Then, in January, hunters stumbled upon it. The wolf’s long blanched legs were spread over river rock. The black pads of his blocky feet and the blood from his mouth stained the pale winter landscape.
The wolf was one of 15 gray wolves transferred from Canada to central Idaho in a 1995 recovery effort. Biologists called him B7, and estimate that he was 14 years old when he died.
“I’m willing to bet anything that he is the last,” says Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “There might be one more — but most wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains live less than four years.”
Even if B7 was not the last Canadian, he is still a legend.
His first forays are full of mystery. For seven months, the gangly yearling loped out of the transmission range of his radio collar. He reappeared near Painted Rocks, Mont., and soon began courting a notorious black wolf, B11, who crossed the Continental Divide after first passing by a Salmon, Idaho, Subway sandwich shop and schoolyard. The schoolchildren called her Blackfire.
The wolves courted in the Blue Joint meadows. They slept within a meter of each other, prancing and pawing. He followed her closely, and eventually she rested her black head on his broad gray back. They staked territory in the mountain basin of Big Hole, Mont. One distracted prey while the other attacked. They feasted on moose calves, cow elk, and deer. Then they bit into the forbidden bovine.
Because it was still so early in the recovery process, the cow killers were spared the aerial firing squad. Instead, they were sentenced to spend their first mating season pacing a pen on the upper Selway River at Running Creek Ranch.
Ranch caretaker Tony Wright noted in his journal how B7 ran up the fence and chewed the insulators. After just three days, the wolf leapt out of the pen. But he hung around howling plaintively, his loyalty to Blackfire wrestling with his homing instinct. After 10 days, he headed up the river toward Big Hole, 180 miles as the crow flies.
B7 hunted the territory alone, while Blackfire ran clockwise circles in the Running Creek pen, wearing a trail 4 to 6 inches deep. Biologists knew B7 and Blackfire had bonded, and wanted to give the pair a chance to reproduce. Besides, it was only a matter of time before B7 became a “lethally controlled” statistic. Over the years, the lure of stock in the Big Hole Valley has claimed members of the Battlefield, Black Canyon and Fox Creek packs.
B7 eluded the choppers for two months, but was finally darted and returned to Running Creek Ranch. He and Blackfire were captives for a total of 10 months. Hoping that confinement had cured their taste for beef and that they wouldn’t bee-line back to Big Hole, biologists set them free. Their radio signals traced a southeast trek: Snow Peak, Lolo Peak, Roaring Lion creek.
Enticed by bighorns traversing raw granite ridges and elk sheltered by larches, the pair settled in the Selway/Bitterroot Wilderness, the third largest in the Lower 48. And it was breeding season.
Five pups were born in March 1998. B7 hunted in high gear. He brought quarry to Blackfire and regurgitated meat to feed the frolicking pups. In ensuing litters, yearlings babysat the pups at rendezvous points cached with food, so B7 and Blackfire could hunt, or nap in summer shade.
B7 led the Big Hole pack for six years — twice as long as the average alpha’s reign. During that time, he led roughly 3,000 hunts. An estimated 22 offspring loped behind him over the years, learning to stalk, cull and kill.
“The alpha male leads the charge and as a consequence has a higher risk of being killed,” says Bangs. The 15 gray wolves released in Idaho are either dead or missing, and the 14 wolves that were released in Yellowstone in 1995 had all died by 2004.
On Jan. 8, B7 was found 100 miles from his Lolo Pass territory. Now a bleached-gray male with nubs for teeth, he survived on small game and roadkill. While crossing U.S. Highway 93, he was hit by a car.
The impact fractured his jaw. Still, B7 crawled 50 feet up a drainage, and there, at last, he died.
The author is an HCN intern.© High Country News