The howl and death of Yellowstone wolf 926F

A researcher’s mission to document the wild records the song of a famous Yellowstone canine.

 

926F, the alpha female of the Lamar Canyon Pack, stands at edge of the Lamar River during the winter of 2016.
Melissa DiNino

Two shadows slipped across the frozen landscape and away from a freshly killed elk. Their movements quick and light as they navigated a maze of sagebrush, the pair of wolves made their way toward me. The darker one led the other, a younger wolf in the pack, just as she had done during the hunt.

As I watched, they moved closer, their warm breath momentarily visible in the cold air. Soon, I could hear their rhythmic footfalls on crunching snow.

It was my third trip to Yellowstone National Park, my second as a natural sounds recordist, and my first in search of wolves. I’d come to document the sounds of these animals in January 2016, in order to preserve their voices for the park archives and for use in displays and stories for the public.

If the pair I watched knew I was present, they gave no sign of it. Instead, they greeted a third individual off to my right with brief sniffing and posturing. Then, as the light faded and darkness slowly overtook the day, these three members of the Lamar Canyon wolf pack spent the next 20 minutes in what can best be described as play. Just as I have seen my own domestic dogs do countless times before, these three very wild dogs ran, jumped and wrestled with each other, tails wagging as they brought the day to a close. Though millennia of evolution separate our domestic dogs from these wild ones, I saw the evolutionary links between them in their evening play.

Had it ended there, it would have been the memory of a lifetime. But as evening fully set in, the three broke off their play. They stood still in the darkness and, along with the rest of the pack hidden in the hills, sang out in a prolonged chorus which hung impossibly long in the cold night air. Luckily, I’d hit “record.”

I work as a natural sounds recordist for moments like these. My mission is to create an aural history of the sounds of our wild lands, in sad anticipation of the future loss of species and the changes to ecological communities caused by human impact on the planet. At best, these recordings help inspire support for the conservation of species and ecosystems. At worst, I create acoustic fossils of animals and landscapes that are gone too soon. I believe in the importance of my work, but sometimes I wish it wasn’t so damn necessary.

That January sighting was my very first glimpse of a wolf pack, and a remarkable one at that. The dark leader was the famous alpha female known to park biologists as 926F — affectionately named “Spitfire” by wolf watchers. In the two years since, this memory had faded, the details blurring, leaving me with just the unforgettable outlines.

In November, 926F was legally killed by a hunter just outside park boundaries in Montana. When I first saw the story, it was just another headline noting the loss of another famous animal at the hands of a trophy hunter. Her even more famous mother had met the same fate six years prior. But then, a note of recognition rang, and my stomach slowly sank.

I scrambled around, searching through old pictures and leafing through my field notes. It was her: my first wolf, and a prominent figure in my first field recording of a truly wild and iconic predator. She was gone and her voice silenced. I sat alone in disbelief in my basement office, everything still except the humming of the ventilation system. I’d listened to her howl hundreds of times from this same spot, fondly reliving our encounter.

In my recordings, 926F’s voice is forever preserved. I wanted to be upset at the hunter and angry at the hunting laws that allowed her death, but I couldn’t move past grief. For comfort, I put her recording on repeat. As howls filled the room, I drifted back to that January day in the park where our paths first crossed, and I remembered the sounds of a group of wild creatures at play.

Jacob Job is a natural sounds recordist working for the Sound and Light Ecology Team at Colorado State University. He has recorded wilderness soundscapes in national parks across the Western United States, as well as natural areas in the Caribbean and Central America. Listen to his recordings here.

Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Central Colorado Conservancy, located in Salida, Colorado, is seeking a Conservation Program Manager dedicated to managing the Conservancy's land protection program which includes developing and...
  • PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a candidate with excellent communication skills and a commitment to environmental conservation for the position of Public Lands Program Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.