The Last Wolves by Dr. Jane Goodall

THE WASHINGTON POST  |  Noted conservationist Jane Goodall says state and federal government actions are threatening wolf packs in Denali, Yellowstone and elsewhere. Photographs by Thomas D. Mangelsen —

 

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A gray wolf from the Grant Creek pack in Denali National Park, Alaska, in 2012.
© Thomas D. Mangelsen

I went to Denali in August in search of wild wolves. It was my first trip to the national park, and I was especially looking forward to seeing the descendants of the pack that biologist Adolph Murie had come to know so well. Murie’s study, begun in 1939 and continuing today, is the source of much of what we know about wolves in their natural habitat.

 

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Grant Creek pack wolves stretch before patrolling in 2006.
© Thomas D. Mangelsen

Wolves are highly intelligent, have a rich emotional life and are an intensely social species. They remain with their parents for at least three years, learning how to be good pack members, and they are likely to grieve over the death or disappearance of a companion.

 

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In this image from 2006, a young Grant Creek pack wolf plays catch-up.
© Thomas D. Mangelsen

Wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen (whose images you see here) had told me countless stories about the Denali wolves, and during our four days in the Alaska park he drove me to all the places he has watched and photographed them.

 

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Jane Goodall and Tom Mangelsen on the porch of Murie Cabin, used by Adolph Murie during his landmark studies. Photo by Susana Name

It was a marvelous experience: Grizzly bears, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, a red fox and other wildlife provided a great show. But we did not see or hear a single wolf. The removal just four years ago of a buffer zone prohibiting the hunting of wolves outside the park is having a devastating impact.

 

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A wolf feeds on a Dall sheep in Denali’s Taklat River in 1990.
© Thomas D. Mangelsen

Wolves travel long distances in search of prey, and they do not understand that they may be killed if they stray over invisible boundaries.

 

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A Grant Creek pack wolf photographed in 2009.
© Thomas D. Mangelsen

Those responsible for managing wolf populations typically think in terms of the species as a whole; they calculate the number of wolves that an environment can support or lose. But it is important to remember that each pack is composed of bonded individuals. When leaders are killed, the pack and its traditions may disintegrate. When breeders are killed, the pack’s survival is threatened even more directly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A pup howls to its Grant Creek pack mates in 2008. © Thomas D. Mangelsen

That’s what happened to Denali’s Grant Creek pack. A pregnant female and another wolf from the pack were ensnared in 2012 by trappers who had set out a horse carcass as bait. The only other breeding female of the pack was found dead a short time later. There have been no pups since. Tom showed me the Murie den site that the pack had occupied since the 1940s — and abandoned after the deaths. It is believed that there are only a few scattered members left from what was once the most famous wolf pack on Earth.

 

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Tourists watch a Grant Creek pack wolf lazing in the road in 2006.
© Thomas D. Mangelsen

Overall in Denali, only 59 wolves were seen in the last count. The National Park Service boasts that Denali is one of the best places in the world for people to see wolves in the wild. Just a few years ago, a visitor’s chance of seeing a wolf there was nearly 45 percent; today it is less than 12 percent.

 

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A wolf in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley in 2009. © Thomas D. Mangelsen

Yellowstone National Park may be headed toward a similar future.

 

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The Druid Peak pack on patrol in 2008.
© Thomas D. Mangelsen

 

It was during a 2001 trip to Yellowstone that Tom showed me my first wild wolves, in the distance, through a spotting scope. I loved the fact that I was looking at a species that was moving back into its ancient territory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A similar group of wolf-watchers gathers near Yellowstone’s Slough Creek
in 2008. © Thomas D. Mangelsen

It was a very cold day, but numerous people were there, dressed in warm clothes, eager to identify individual wolves by their markings, colors and behavior.

 

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The Druid Peak pack howls on a ridge in 2008. © Thomas D. Mangelsen

In October 2012, however, Wyoming’s gray wolves were removed from the endangered species list. So now, if a wolf roams outside Yellowstone, it can be killed legally. A limited trophy-hunting season is in effect immediately outside the park from October through February. Beyond that perimeter, wolves are considered “predatory animals” and can be killed year-round — trapped, poisoned or even shot from the air. A competition last weekend across state lines in Idaho offered $1,000 to the person who killed the biggest wolf.

 

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The Druid Peak pack tests a bull bison in 2008. © Thomas D. Mangelsen

Already, at least 119 gray wolves have been killed since the delisting in Wyoming. Eight of these were Yellowstone wolves that biologists had fitted with radio collars to study their behavior. And among those was a wolf known to visitors as 06, for the year she was born. Her death shocked and saddened the scientists and tourists who had come to respect this wise breeding female.

 

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Two Druid Peak wolves cross the snowy landscape of Yellowstone’s
Lamar Valley in 2008. © Thomas D. Mangelsen

Hunting eradicated wolves from the Yellowstone area once before — back in 1926. Reintroduction involved a huge effort, but it was beneficial to the ecosystem, research and the tourism industry. Now, unless the federal government reconsiders the delisting of Wyoming’s gray wolves, or the state changes its management policies, all of that stands to be lost.

 

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A Grant Creek wolf surveys the Denali tundra, searching for other members
of its pack in 2006. © Thomas D. Mangelsen

Jane Goodall is an ethologist and conservationist known for her work with chimpanzees and other endangered species. Tom Mangelsen is a wildlife photographer.

Read Dr. Jane Goodall’s full letter titled  “TheWolf.”