Many people consider the tireless fieldworker and former national park ranger Rick McIntyre to be the most knowledgeable wolf expert in the world. McIntyre has watched and studied the Yellowstone wolves for over 25 years, ever since 1994 when he was hired at Yellowstone National Park to be the Wolf Interpreter. That was a year before the landmark reintroduction of wolves to a wilderness they’d been eradicated from seven decades prior.

When the wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995, it was a milestone for conservation that gave biologists a unique opportunity to study what happens when a top predator returns to an ecosystem. McIntyre’s job then switched from explaining the program to park visitors to studying the wolves’ social behavior as part of the Wolf Project, the park’s research group that presently receives a majority of its funding from Yellowstone Forever, the park’s official non-profit partner (and an organization JMM also collaborates with and supports).

Having watched and studied the Yellowstone wolves for over 25 years now, McIntyre has accumulated more time documenting extensive long-term observations than anyone else, with unprecedented details of individual wolves that he’d followed for many years. This includes the beloved Wolf 21, known among wild wolf fans for his unwavering bravery, his unusual benevolence (he never lost a fight with another male wolf, but unlike other alphas, always spared the rival’s life), and his fierce commitment to his mate, Wolf 42.

McIntyre shares what he’s learned and experienced through a number of books, including The Rise of Wolf 8 (2019), The Reign of Wolf 21 (2020), and The Redemption of Wolf 302 (2021) , a trilogy that spans decades and wolf generations, shining a light on their personalities, the complexity of their social relationships, and the similarities they share with a different, deeply misunderstood species: humans.

JMM: Describe your normal day at Yellowstone.
R.M.: I get up about an hour and 45 minutes before sunrise so I can get ready and drive out to where the wolves are by first light. In the early summer that would mean getting up at 3:15 AM. I use a spotting scope to find the wolves and watch their behavior. Wolves are normally very active in the early morning hours then take a break in the mid-day hours. They resume being active in the evening. Due to that, I usually took a mid-day break then headed back out in the evening.

How would you describe the health/vitality of Yellowstone’s wilderness and wildlife?
The wolf population is doing very well in Yellowstone right now. The main pack I study, the Junction Butte Pack, has eight pups and they all are very active and healthy. The average wolf population in the park tends to be around 100 or so with an average of ten packs.

What have you seen over the last 18 months that you finds especially positive? What would you say especially concerns you?
A big positive for me is the large numbers of people that get to see wild wolves in Yellowstone. It is an unforgettable experience and it tends to cause people to be advocates for wolves. Right now wolves need all the friends they can get for many states are increasing wolf hunting and trapping limits, including the states surrounding the park.

Among the wolf packs you're observing, are there any new standouts (like a Wolf 8 or 21) with inspiring stories?
The wolf I currently especially like to follow is Junction Butte female 907. She formerly was the pack's alpha female but was overthrown by a younger female. 907 had eight pups this spring and all of them are doing very well. The wolf that overthrew her lost her pups but she is helped 907 with her litter, including nursing her pups. That is a great example of how wolves who have been rivals can later work together for the good of the pack.

What’s the best piece of advice we can extract from the amazing relationship between Wolf 21 and his mate?
21 was an alpha male but he was smart enough to know the alpha female is really in charge. That was wolf 42 and she had a gift for organization. She ran the pack and all 21 had to do was protect the family from rival wolves and lead the hunts. Those things were easy for him. He needed 42 to be the real leader of the pack. I think he really valued all the things that she did for him and the family and always was very affectionate with her. Their relationship was so deep and important to him that when she passed away he was never the same. He died not long after she was gone. One woman who knew 21 told me: "Why can't I find a man like 21!" That sums up 21’s dedication to his mate.

Why are wolves numbered instead of named?
Only wolves with radio collars have numbers. Most of our wolves are uncollared. We want to avoid calling a wolf by a human name because that might cause park visitors to regard them as tame animals. We try to refer to uncollared wolves by something that relates to their appearance. Examples of that would be wolves known to us as: Big Blaze, Small Blaze, Light Gray, Dark Gray, etc.

Describe your scariest encounter with an animal in the wild.
In Alaska I had a grizzly chase me when I was on my bike. I stopped, stepped behind the bike, and took out my bear spray. Luckily my stopping caused the bear to realize that I was not a prey animal running from it, but a human. It turned around and walked off.

Do you have an all-time favorite encounter with wolves? What was it?
My favorite memories are of alpha male 21, the toughest wolf we ever had, playing with his pups. He was a great father who loved to let his little pups beat him in wrestling matches and catch him in chasing games.

What's the most misunderstood thing about wolves?
What comes to mind is how hard it is for wolves to earn their living by hunting. An average wolf is about 100 pounds but they have to catch and defeat prey animals that can weigh from 300 to 2,000 pounds. It is a very hard and dangerous way to feed your family. But the key to the success of wolves as a species is how well they work together as a team.

What is the most important message about wolves that people should to know?
I always like to convey the thought that there are no two species on earth that are so similar in social and family behavior as wolves and humans. The proof of that is how well the domestic version of the wolf, the dog, fits into a human family. Everyone loves dogs so I try to convey to people that all the admirable qualities that dogs have come from their wolf ancestors.

Written by Andrew Pogany.

Tags: JacquesMarieMage , YellowstoneForever , Wolves

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