The Druid Peak Pack

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The Druid Peak Pack, a short history.

The Druid Peak Pack was probably the most viewed and watched wolf pack in the world. The park authorities estimate that in excess of 100,000 people have seen them, including me. This was at the beginning of 2009 before what appears to be the packs final decline and the rather poor image above is one of my only photos of the worlds most famous wolf pack. From the time of their arrival in 1996, to their rise as one of the biggest wolf packs ever recorded,their splintering fall and subsequent rise again to their eventual demise,in the 14 years their behaviour has been watched, recorded , speculated about and learnt from.

A brief introduction to how the wolves are identified may help clear some of the confusion later. Each radio collared wolf is given a number by the park biologists. A number is completely neutral, easier to use and counters any anthropomorphism in the study. When the wolves were first reintroduced the identification numbers started with the prefix letter R for a reintroduced wolf, or B for a wolf born in the Park. They also have a suffix M for males, and F for females. For example the long time alpha female of the Druid Peak pack was officially R42F and the male B21M. The prefix’s are no longer used as all the reintroduced wolves are now dead. This does not apply to the wolfers who give the uncollared wolves names mostly based on their description. Once collared they are given a number, hence Big Blaze (also known as Romeo) became 302M.A new Big Blaze was the alpha male of the Agate Creek Pack but has not been seen since a fight with the larger 641M of the Mollies Pack.

The Druid Peak pack arrived in Yellowstone in the second batch of translocated wolves after their capture in the Dawson Creek area of British Colombia, Canada in January 1996. After spending 10 weeks in the Rose Creek acclimation pen they were released into the park on 14th April. Formally the Besa Pack it consisted of an adult female, 39F and her yearling daughters 40F, 41F and 42F. An alpha male,38M from the Prophet pack was added to the group. This was a large individual who weighed in at 122lbs (55kg).

Grey wolf weight and size can vary greatly worldwide, tending to increase proportionally with latitude as predicted by Bergmans Rule. In general height varies from 24 to 37 inches at the shoulder. Wolf weight varies geographically and is generally an inaccurate indication of size because if the wolf has just fed, it could have an average of 8lbs (3.5kg), up to a maximum of 33lbs (15kg) of food in its stomach. North American wolves may weigh 79lbs (36kg), European wolves 85lbs (38.5kg) and Indian and Arabian wolves 55lbs (25kg) Although rarely encountered, extreme specimens of more than 170lbs (77kg) have been recored in Alaska, Canada and the former Soviet Union. The heaviest recorded wolf in North America was killed on the 70 mile River in east-central Alaska on 12th July 1939 and weighed 175lbs (79kg). While the heaviest recorded wolf in Eurasia was killed after World War II in the Kobelyakski Area of the Poltavaski Region of the Ukraine and weighed 189lbs (86kg). Females typically weigh 20% less than males.I should acknowledge that there is a story and photographs circulating on the internet from the hunting community of a huge wolf that was shot in the Dawson Creek area of Alberta,that allegedly weighed 230lbs.To date, I have been unable to verify any of the details of this story. But it is strange that a story of a wolf that big never made it into the press.

The pack lived under the shadow of Druid Peak, from where they took their name in the Lamar Valley on Yellowstone’s Northern Range. An ideal habitat and rich in wolf food - Elk. In early May 1996 the wolves found something else in the valley, the denning Crystal Creek Pack (released in 1995). No one witnessed the encounter but the outcome is known. The Druids killed the alpha male of the Crystal Creek Pack, 4M and injured the alpha female. No pups survived. The remaining two Crystal Creek wolves abandoned the northern part of their territory to the Druids and shifted south,using Pelican Valley as the core of their home range. They were later renamed Mollies Pack and specialise in hunting winter Bison, consequently, because of their prey, they now have some of the largest wolves in the park. The currant alpha male, 495M, is a huge 143lbs (65kg) and the biggest wolf in the park. All the males of the pack are big, brawny, Bison killers.

In mid-june the Druid wolves travelled west and encountered the Rose Creek Pack, also reintroduced in 1995. 38M led the charge at their rivals. But, the other pack was larger and the Rose Creak alpha male 8M, son of the Crystal Creek alpha male who the Druids had killed the previous month, decisively defeated 38M in the fight. The Druid Wolves fled the area after the fight. However the following day a mortality signal was picked up from the radio collar of a male Rose Creek yearling. He had made the mistake of chasing the Druids to far away from his pack on his own. The Druids turned round and killed him.

By December 1996 the packs dynamics had changed. In November they had been joined by a beta male,31M,another 122lb wolf, reintroduced as part of the Chief Joseph pack and originally from the Kravac Pack in Canada (I bet He would have been useful in the fight with the Rose Creek Pack!) They also had a new alpha female ,40F.

The Druid pack began 1997 with five members. Two of the females, 41F and 42F produced pups in the spring which exposes the myth that only the alpha pair breed. In May the former alpha female 39F, rejoined the pack as a subordinate after spending 10 months as a lone wolf. She was not with the pack long and in November,after being driven out by her daughter,she dispersed along with wolf 41F.

In December 1997 the pack left the park and travelled up the south fork of Cache Creek into the Crandell Creek area of the North Absaroka Wilderness, east of Yellowstone. This designated wilderness is one of the deepest, least used by humans and remote places in the whole of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Nether the less someone shot 31M and wounded 38M while they were there. The body of radio collared wolf 31M was found in Crandell Creek. There was no livestock in the area. 38M’s story is a little more harrowing, after being wounded he made it across to Hoodoo Creek where he lingered for 11 days surviving on meat dropped to him by Doug Smith. He was at the bottom of a very rugged and remote gorge. However, he did manage to climb out of the gorge but died from his wounds.

After a week the surviving 3 adult females and 5 pups made it back to the Lamar valley. A few days later, a stranger appeared in the middle of Druid territory. It was 21M, a young male from the Rose Creel Pack, who acted friendly towards them. The adult females tested 21M by snapping at him but soon accepted him as the Druids second alpha male. The whole six hour encounter was visible from the road and filmed by cinematographer Bob Landis and witnessed by a wolf project field crew. It is believed to be the only footage of this type of behaviour anywhere in the world. This highly ritualized behaviour has since been witnessed with other packs in the park.

The Druid Peak pack were very aggressive in defending there territory and became notorious for killing other Wolves and Coyotes, which might have come from their alpha female, the beautiful but fierce, 40F . Doug Smith recorded that she was “all business”. So you now have some idea how dangerous it was for 21M, if he had failed the Druid females test, he would have been dead in an instant in spite of his size.

21M adopted the pups of 38M, just like 8M had adopted him. With at least 7 different females 21M sired many pups from 1998 to 2004 including 21 pups in 2000. Many of his offspring have dispersed to form new packs. He appeared to be a benevolent pack leader, play wrestling with the younger males and often letting other wolves feed first at a kill.(Doug Smith is convinced 21M was the last wolf pup he pulled from 9F’s den with the aid of a leatherman when she and her pups were recaptured after the illegal shooting of 10M but he can never be sure).He used his great size and strength to aid his pack. If the younger wolves were attacking an elk but could not bring it down, he would rush in and wrestle the Elk to the ground. As he grew older and slower, the ability to kill quickly enabled him to contribute to the packs welfare.

1998 was a fairly uneventful. Two females 40F and 42F had pups but only 2 pups were ever recorded and only 1, 163 survived. 42F’s litter were lost for unknown reasons (personally, given 40F’s history,I believe she may have been responsible). So the only pup came from 40F. However they did continue with their aggressive territorial defence by killing Rose Creek wolf 85F near to the territorial boundary between the two packs.

1999 continued much the same as the previous year. They had one litter of 6 pups but only 2 survived. 42F also denned but it unknown wether she gave birth or had a pseudopregnancy (apparently, not unknown amongst social canines) Not long after she denned, she was attacked by 40F which may have affected any pups she was tending. After the attack 42F abandoned the den hole and rejoined the main pack. An examination of the area by wolf project staff failed to find any evidence of pups. The pack consisted of 8 wolves at the end of the year.

“Death of a Queen. Yellowstone mutiny ends tyrannical rule over the Druid Pack”.
The headlines in International Wolf Magazine, winter 2000 issue, described a momentous year for the Druids. I quote from the article as the words of Rick Mcintyre and Doug Smith best describe what happened.

She was found near the park road, disorientated and bleeding, on the morning of 8th May 2000. Wolf 40F had been the undisputed alpha female of the Druid Peak Pack for the last 4 years, (since she drove her mother 39F out of the pack). Blood seeped from numerous bites on her body. One wound on her the back of her neck was especially deep. The injuries, blood lose and shock were too much for 40F and her life slipped away. The necropsy report confirmed what had been suspected, the bites had been made by other wolves. In life, 40F seemed indestructible. A fierce and aggressive defender of her pack, her territory and her alpha status. She had dominated her pack with the iron fist of a tyrant. Under her leadership the Druid Peak Pack were responsible for the deaths of a least 4 adults and numerous pups from other packs in neighboring territories.

In early February all of the five Druid females came into season. 21M was seen to breed 40F,42F and 106F. It is also assumed that he also mated 103F and 105F. When he mated with 42F and 106F, 40F was nearby but did not intervene. But, in the days that followed 40F repeatedly attacked 42F for no apparent reason.

By late March, 42F had localised in a forested area south of Rose Creek,about 4 miles west of 40F’s den. 42F’s daughter 105F and niece 103F joined her there and all three stayed away from 40F and her den, hardly surprising really. The other female, 106F, denned about three miles east of 40F’s den. 21M stayed mainly with 40F at her den,but did make regular visits to 42F’s den and possibly to 106F’s den. Wolf 40F visited 42F’s den site, briefly, on at least two occasions without incident.

On 1st May, pups were observed at 42F’s den, at least five blacks and one grey. During the first week of May, the behaviour patterns of 40F and 106F, indicated they probably had pups at their dens.

On the evening of 7th May, 42F and 105F left their den site and travelled east toward Chalcedony Creek on a hunt. 103F stayed behind as a babysitter. At about the same time 40F left her den with 21M, headed toward Chalcedony Creek. The two groups met and 40F immediately attacked 42F, much more severely than usual. 42F rolled on her back in submission and accepted the bites. 40F then did the same to 105F. All four wolves then moved west towards 42Fs den. It was then dark.

40F was found badly wounded the following morning. Before she died, the area was checked for the signals from non Druid wolves radio collars. There were no other radio collared wolves in the area. That meant the other Druid females had killed their alpha female. Previously unknown behaviour!

The best guess as to what happened is that 40F had followed 42F back to her den and probably attacked her or her pups. In the past 42F had always submitted to her fierce-some and tyrannical sister. However,this time something different happened. 42F fought back! What triggered this will never be known. This would have been totally unexpected and would likely have given 42F a momentary advantage. It is possible that 103F and 105F joined in the attack as 40F’s wounds were consistent with attacks from multiple wolves. 40F managed to escape but her wounds were to great.

After her death 21M continued to tend the pups at 40F’s den. A few days later he travelled to 42F’s den. She followed him back to 40F’s den, then, one by one, she carried all of her pups to that site. 106F also moved all of her pups to 40F’s den. The four adult females appeared to be caring for the three litters of pups, as a total of 21 pups had been seen at the den. Not long after 40F’s death 21M and 42F were seen performing double scent marks, clear evidence that 42F had assumed the alpha position. None of the other females disputed her promotion. 42F did not display any aggression to the other females and appeared to rule with a gentle touch. The fact all the females were working together to raise the pups seemed to indicate that they got along rather well. During her reign 40F was quite violent towards the other females in the pack. Her life and death could be summarised with he old phrase that applies to human tyrants: If you live by the sword, you may die by the sword.

The death of 40F had an unlikely outcome,it led to a population explosion in the Druid Peak Pack. By the end of the year 20 out of 21 pups were still alive.

2001 saw the Druid Peak pack as the largest in the Greater Yellowstone area. They had two females 42F and 103F reproduce and raise 11 pups to the years end. In august, 37 animals were observed in the pack making it one of the largest packs ever recorded. 42 wolves were counted together in Wood Buffalo National Park, Alberta, Canada in 1974 but it is not known if this was one pack or a loose affiliation of packs. One other pack that was recorded in Alaska in the 1960’s contained 36 animals.

Large pack size explains why the packs territory expanded westward to Cottonwood Creek,usurping the Rose Creek II packs territory. However, a pack this big is unsustainable and late in 2001 the pack had split into four sub groups. The main group with the alpha pair and 12 to 16 wolves. A group anchored by 106F and up to 7 other wolves. A group of variable numbers anchored by 105F and a group of 5 uncollared wolves. Pack dynamics are fluid and many of the associations were temporary with group compositions changing all the time. Several yearling wolves also dispersed further reducing the packs numbers.

2002 saw the pack decline from 37 down to 11 by the years end. But also gave rise to several new packs, 106F’s Geode Creek Pack, 103F and 251F’s Agate Creek Pack, and 105F’s Buffalo Fork Pack. The alpha wolves were aging by this time and were rarely seen hunting. Although 42F did produce pups along with an uncollared black female only three survived until the years end.

The pack ended 2003 with 17 wolves. Many visitors come to Yellowstone to see the Druid Peak Pack and specifically 21M and 42F, the leaders of the pack since 1997 and 2000 respectively. At least 2 and possible 3 litters were born as 13 pups were observed and 9 survived until the years end. It is at this point,that notorious flirt Romeo,wolf 302M makes his first appearance in the Druid Peak Packs history. He is the probable father of all the pups not belonging to 42F.

On 17th January two uncollared Druid Females were seen engaged in a playful encounter with two uncollared black males who had boldly entered the Lamar Valley. The Druid females were attracted to the dashing newcomers, not so their father, old 21M. In spite of his many efforts to thwart the young suitors persuasive advances on his daughters,he was never successful in stopping the courtship behaviour. The intense chasing and physical attacks, one resulting in a blood stained hind quarter, that Romeo indured from 21M and the other Druids over the next few days did not deter his hormone driven commitment to winning mates.

Through out the 2003 breeding season Romeo and his presumed brother 301M formed an association with 3 Druid females and was seen breeding with 2 of them. During this time he continued to avoid what could have been fatal encounters with the rest of the Druids, despite his risky behaviour of scavenging from their kills, shadowing their movements and breeding with their females.

After the breeding season, Romeo, his brother and the Druid females seemed to be on track to form a new pack. However after two days of aggressive encounters with the Goede Creek Pack, a Druid offshoot, and the Slough Creek Pack, Romeo’s group were run out of the area. The Druid females then returned to their pack, opting for the security of one of the largest packs in the park.

At the time of the first encounters 301M and 302M were an unknown rogue duo who appeared in Druid territory. 301M became a wolf of unknown fate,but Romeo revealed his true identity when at the end of March he was amicably received by the Leopold Pack and remained with them all summer.

253M had been returned from his long distance wanderings. He had been captured in Utah, a straight line distance of 220 miles from Yellowstone. After he was released back into the park, it was expected that he would disperse again but he settled down to become the packs beta male.

2004 was another momentous year for the pack and one tinged with sadness for all the wolf watchers. As it was in this year that the pack lost its long time alpha pair.

42F died of natural causes on 1st February. Her body was found at the west end of Specimen Ridge, near a bull Elk carcass. It appeared that other wolves had killed her, probably Mollies pack, whose territory centres around Pelican Valley. The Druid and Mollies wolves probably encountered each other at the carcass site and fought. Nearly nine years old at the time of her death. She was the last of the reintroduced Canadian wolves still living in the park. When 42F’s sister was shot in a control action for preying on livestock in Sunlight Basin two weeks later, all the original reintroduced wolves were dead. 21M and all the younger wolves made it safely back to their territory. There was some evidence that 21M did not know what had happened to 42F. Over the next few days he did more howling than usual and travelled extensively to the packs most commonly used areas including their highly visible den site at the east end of the valley, indicating that he may have been searching for her. After 42F’s death 21M carried on with the pack. He mated with 286F a young pack member that was not his daughter. She returned to the traditional den site and had a litter of about 6 pups. As he had for so many other litters of pups 21M worked hard to feed and care for them. Those that were watching him on the morning 11th June, the last day he was seen alive, new he was very old for a wild wolf and that he may not last much longer. Later that day the pack went to their rendezvous site and bedded down. A bull Elk walked into the meadow and several wolves chased it. 21 jumped up with the other wolves but did not join the chase. Over the next few days, the Druid wolves were seen but not 21M. His radio collar was no longer working which meant his fate might never be known.

In July an outfitter contacted park rangers to report a dead radio collared wolf high on Specimen Ridge. He had bought the radio collar down with him and gave it to a ranger. It was 21M’s. Yellowstone wolf project staff rode out to find his body. 21M had died at one of the packs summer rendezvous site. His remains were found under a tree at the edge of a meadow. There were no signs of a struggle or violence and although the cause of his death was undetermined, it appeared natural. 42F had died only a few miles west of that meadow on the same ridge. Both 21 and 42 were unusually long lived wolves,each around 9 years old. The average life span for a wild wolf is 6-8 years, however some have livid as long as 13 years. But the average life span in Yellowstone is 3.4 years. During their years together the two were rarely apart, and when they were separated they found each other again quickly. They may be gone, but their legacy, passed on through their DNA, will live on.

Ousted from their traditional territory by the much larger Slough Creek Pack. The Druid Peak Pack suffered a significant decline in 2005. Not only did they lose a lot of territory, they also lost a lot of wolves. Six pups were born but none survived. 375F was killed by the Slough Creek pack and 255F died in Calfree Creek, the cause of death was unknown. The location and status of 286F was also unknown. At the years end the pack numbered 4 wolves, alpha male 480M and two yearling females and Romeo, wolf 302M. Who had finally succeeded in his ambition of joining the Druids. The alpha male breed with both females while Romeo only bred with the alpha female. The pack now had its territory in the eastern part of its former range.

The Druids recovered a little from their decline in 2006 ending the year with 11 wolves. Both females in the pack bred producing a total of 12 pups. 8 survived until the end of the year. With more wolves they were able to push back against the Slough Creek pack and reclaim some of their traditional territory in Soda Butte and Lamar Valley.

2007 was another uneventful year for the Druids although they continued in the habit of killing other wolves. This time it was two wolves from the Slough Creek Pack as they reclaimed more of their lost territory. One of their victims, 621F had a broken and healed foot which may have meant she was not fast enough to escape. They had a successful breeding season with all 7 pups surviving. 570M dispersed leaving the pack with two adult males 480M and Romeo,7 adult females and 7 pups.

The pack fared fairly well in 2008 led by alphas 480M and 569F. But it was a year riven by intraspecific strife. The pack greatly expanded its territory killing several wolves in the process. In two separate clashes with the Agate Creek Pack, they killed 643F and 644F (the Agate Creek Pack had formed from the old Druid Pack). They also killed two wolves 526F and probably 631F from the Slough Creek Pack. In November that famous old lover boy, Romeo and 5 yearling males dispersed and joined 4 Agate females creating the Black-tail Deer Plateau pack.

A short note here from the biologists, until a group has produced pups its not called a pack, for example 527F’s group and 471F’s group. But at the time of my visit in February 2009, Romeo’s group, officially 302M’s group, was already called the Black-Tailed Deer Pack without producing any pups. Doug Smith was convinced that the pack would have pups in the up coming breeding season,and with Romeo in charge, I have to agree.

As it has unfolded, 2009 could be the last year of the Druid Peak Pack. They are in a really terrible situation. The alpha female 569F was killed by other wolves up the Lamar River. Leaving 480M a problem. He is the father or uncle of all 7 Druid females. To avoid breeding with one of his daughters he will have to disperse to a new pack. His daughters and nieces are attracting a lot of attention from wandering males looking for a breeding opportunities. 480M has been kept busy chasing off one particularly bold black male. They are all suffering from severe mange having pencil tales and bold patches from scratching at the mite. With winter temperatures frequently double digit below zero, the wolves are so cold they can’t lie down and appear to try to sleep standing up. There is a ray of hope, if they don’t die from hypothermia or infection, wolves with a strong immune system do recover as the Mollies and Black-tailed Packs did. All of this drama happened after my visit, in February they all looked fine and in good health and it happened very quickly.

March 2010 and the situation is really grim for the Druids. Two months ago there were 11 wolves in the pack. The alpha male has dispersed and 6 of the 7 females have either died from mange or been killed by other wolves. Down to one sole survivor, 690F, a black yearling, mange-ridden and alone. Her future does not look good. Rick Mcintyre is not yet ready to say the pack is gone, noting that the alpha male and other dispersers could return.

The Druids could rise again.

A postscript to the above story, Wolf 690F is now dead. She was shot by a rancher for attacking cattle near Butte, Montana. Weakened by disease and repeatedly attacked by other wolves, she had wandered away from Yellowstone looking for a new pack and home. She was last seen in Yellowstone on 10th March. A piece of good news however,the "Black Female"has been seen again. She had not been seen since 9th March and was seen again on 17th April sharing a carcass with a Grizzly. She has mange, but it is hoped with the warmer weather,she will recover.

7th December 2011.
A further update on the Druid Peak Pack. The pack would now appear to be totally gone. The information I received from Kathy Lynch tells me that the "Black Female" has not been seen again. The last possible survivor of the Druid Peak Pack may be "Dull Bar" who, its is believed went on to become the alpha female of the Cottonwood Pack. The Pack have no radio collars and are never seen. But the packs territory is mostly outside the parks boundaries in the Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness, where hunting is allowed. So we can only hope she avoids the hunters bullets and continues to live as a totally wild wolf.