In late October 2007, a white wolf died in Yellowstone National Park. The story had all the trappings of a Jack London novel: a turf war between rival packs pitting tooth against tooth with deadly consequences. The Hayden Valley pack had been living an increasingly hardscrabble life in the core of the park, sandwiched between the territories of two larger packs and ranging widely in search of food. They had denned for years in full sight of Yellowstone's Otter Creek picnic area and wandered throughout the broad Hayden Valley, occasionally weaving in and out of traffic as visitors stopped to watch. Dozens and sometimes hundreds of tourists and veteran wolf watchers would convene along the pullouts on the Grand Loop and train their eyes on the far side of the Yellowstone River, hoping to spot the pack and its pups. Most prized was a glimpse of the white alpha female, a wolf known as 540, whose light-colored coat was rare among gray wolves.
There were no eyewitness accounts of that fall clash near Canyon Village, but the incident was well documented in the park's 2007 annual wolf report. Members of the larger, distinctively darker Mollie's pack—accomplished bison hunters all—had moved in on the Haydens from the Pelican Valley to the southeast with intent. The Haydens, always a notably small pack, were outmatched and outnumbered. When park staff later followed a blood trail through the Canyon Junction area, they discovered it had taken the white wolf hours to die. Her alpha mate, 541, was also killed in the skirmish. His body was found in Cascade Meadow just west of Canyon Junction.
A narrative of the incident in the park's 2007 report concluded with a poetic flourish that bordered on the prophetic. "Maybe one of [her] pups will turn white," it read, "and return someday to Hayden Valley."
cover photo by Deby Dixon
In fact one Hayden female and five pups did survive their 2007 battle, and they fled to the northwest with the Mollie's in pursuit. A clash with the Gibbons Meadow pack near Old Faithful claimed one pup. Accounts by Ralph Maughan, then president of the Wolf Recovery Foundation, posted to the website Wildlife News, tracked the Hayden survivors' movements, and by mid-November he had located them near Seven Mile Bridge, roughly 10 miles east of West Yellowstone. They wandered, according to the 2007 report, "like a pack without territory."
The white wolf's surviving daughter left the pack, bred, and returned to give birth to two litters, neither of which survived. By spring 2008, that same female and two males from the Mollie's pack had joined to form what biologists named the Canyon pack, settling into a territory adjacent to and overlapping the Haydens' former claim. The color increasingly faded from the new alpha female's coat, and the resemblance to her dead mother grew with each season. Veteran wolf watchers soon gave her a name. She became the White Lady.
Many Yellowstone wolves are assigned numbers, a convention that assists biologists in their research. Few get names. Names are most often given not by scientists, but by fans—members of an engaged public whose appetite for iconic animals is seemingly insatiable. So it was for Scarface, Yellowstone's famously tattered old grizzly, and for the Lamar Canyon pack's iconic alpha female, 06, so named for the year of her birth, who is now the subject of the book American Wolf, scheduled for publication in October and already optioned for Hollywood by Leonardo DiCaprio.
And so it was for the White Lady.
On April 11, not quite a decade after the death of her mother, the injured White Lady was discovered by hikers inside the park boundary near Gardiner. The park released a statement saying she'd been mortally wounded by a gunshot. She was euthanized by park staff, and her body was sent to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service forensic lab in Ashland, Oregon. The park posted a $5,000 reward for information.
The death of this second-generation white wolf quickly made headlines as far away as France, a sign of the celebrity she'd gained in her years as the head of the Canyon pack. The Center for Biological Diversity and the nonprofit Wolves of the Rockies added their own $5,000 rewards to the pot. The community group Heart of the Wild Yellowstone launched an online petition that has so far raised $7,820 for the effort. Including a GoFundMe campaign, the money offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the White Lady's killer is in excess of $24,000.
Since the park's initial April press release, Yellowstone officials have released scant information about the case. Multiple requests for details about the story all met with the same response: the investigation is ongoing, and for now, no park personnel are available for interviews.
The struggles facing Yellowstone's wolves unfold largely beyond the view of visitors: the tough winters, the battle for control of territory or elk migration corridors (the leading cause of death among park wolves is other wolves). But some of these stories can be pieced together from research reports and the observations of devoted wolf watchers. And when the wolf in question is an icon scrutinized by near-constant public observation, it's possible to piece together a picture of the White Lady's life, and a sense of why her death sent shockwaves around the globe.
The crunch of bone
On a wintry day near Yellowstone headquarters in Mammoth, Nathan Varley steered a busload of tourists to the side of the road. Varley doesn't remember the date. Sometime in 2008 or 2009, he says. What he does remember, vividly, are the sounds he heard through the open windows.
photo by Deby Dixon
Varley, a former biologist who runs multi-day trips through Wild Side Wildlife Tours, picked the spot in hopes of giving his group a chance to see some scavengers. Area wolves had recently made a kill close to the road, and the carcass was almost picked clean. As they waited for coyotes or carrion birds, a group of furry bodies came into view. It was the Canyon pack, and the White Lady was unmistakable.
"It was such a magical sighting that you could actually hear them gnawing on the bone," Varley says. "For us, given the general distances that we're dealing with, there's not that audio part of the experience ... so to actually hear them gnawing on bones right across the road, we were all awestruck."
Varley considers that moment of intense proximity a gift from the White Lady. He became involved in the Yellowstone Wolf Project after the species' reintroduction to Yellowstone in the mid-1990s, and he earned a PhD in ecological sciences researching wolf-prey interactions in the region. For Varley and his wife, Linda Thurston, the wolf-watching business evolved slowly in response to demand among park visitors for exposure to wolves. No pack offered better opportunities than the Canyons.