Outside magazine, May 1997
Above a cabin clinging to the brushy hillside, the grade grows steeper, the thawing mud more adhesive. Slipping, yawing, the truck claws up toward the high woodside meadows of Mount Maurice, where black bears graze in the spring. This is private land, and the man in the blue pickup does not have permission to hunt here. It does not bother him to be trespassing, though. He has bear on his mind and a scope-mounted Ruger M-77 seven-millimeter magnum rifle on the seat beside him.
Fishtailing, its tires spinning, the truck founders, dead stuck.
Chad McKittrick gets out and contemplates the wheels sunk axle-deep. There is nothing to do, in the gathering dusk, but shoulder his rifle and hike the two miles down the mountain to his friend Dusty Steinmasel's cabin.
It is a Sunday evening, and Steinmasel is at home. McKittrick's tale of woe does not surprise Steinmasel, who has known him since high school in Red Lodge. They drive up to try to free McKittrick's truck in the dark, but Steinmasel's Jeep Cherokee is no match for the April muck. They agree to try again tomorrow, with McKittrick's other rig.
Early the next morning, in McKittrick's number-two truck, a green 1978 Ford, the two men return to the mired pickup on Mount Maurice. They come armed with lumber, chains, shovels, axes, pry bars, a handyman jack, and McKittrick's customary just-in-case firepower, including a .44-caliber magnum revolver, a .22 rifle, and the Ruger seven-millimeter. They pile one-by-sixes and two-by-sixes behind the tires and try to lever them underneath. With the blue truck's motor roaring, McKittrick rocks it back and forth as Steinmasel pulls with the green one. Steinmasel looks up to see a small single-engine airplane circling above them.
Steinmasel works as a laborer for a concrete company. Divorced, he has two kids, works hard, and keeps out of trouble. He is a bow hunter, a sportsman. McKittrick drifts in and out of trouble, in and out of jobs — freelance carpenter, oil field roughneck, firewood cutter, collector of shed antlers. He is also a collector of firearms, a lifelong bachelor, a regular at the Snow Creek Saloon, a friendly fellow who drinks a lot. He is a renegade from a strict Mormon family; two of his brothers were missionaries.
McKittrick starts the blue truck.
"Chad, look!" Steinmasel whispers hotly, pointing up the hill at something moving.
The door flies open, and McKittrick runs to the green truck and pulls out the Ruger. He settles the rifle butt against his shoulder and sights through the five-to-nine-power zoom scope, which is set at a magnification of five.
"That's a wolf, Dusty," he says. "I'm going to shoot it."
"Are you sure?" Steinmasel says. "It might be a dog."
"No," McKittrick says, "it's a wolf."
"Chad, no," Steinmasel pleads. "What if it's somebody's dog?"
"Yeah, right," McKittrick says. He takes aim.
The wolf is one of 14 Canadian wolves brought to Yellowstone National Park in January of 1995, the first wolves to inhabit this wild landscape in six decades. He is the largest and boldest of the 14, a tough 122-pound wolf with the big balls of a breeder; everything about him says alpha male. Captured near Hinton, Alberta, he was introduced into the company of an equally magnificent alpha female in a one-acre "acclimation pen" in Yellowstone, where he took up the role of progenitor with relish. The pair would pace the pen perimeter in perfect step and sleep curled together like puppies. In the wolf reintroduction program he is known simply as Wolf Number Ten, his mate as Number Nine. They were set free a month ago, and now they have roamed north of Yellowstone into this high desert land of dry washes and yellow clay buttes.
Beyond his size and imposing bearing, Number Ten possesses a calm, a quiet, a confidence. He is the only wolf who would run close to people when they came inside his pen in the park, and in captivity he bit two tranquilizer jab sticks in half. When the pen was opened, he was the first wolf to venture beyond the gate and the only wolf to stand in plain sight on the hill in the snow and howl at the people coming to feed him and his mate and her daughter. Ten has shown little fear in Yellowstone, and he shows none now.
Steinmasel rummages for his binoculars. Just as he gets them into focus, he hears the shot.
Early in this century, the federal government carried out a campaign of extermination so successful that by 1930 not one wolf was left alive in the western United States. Unrestricted hunting had all but wiped out elk, deer, antelope, mountain sheep, bison, and other wild prey throughout the American West, and when wolves began to prey on livestock, ranchers demanded that they be wiped out. The descendants of those ranchers are still a dominant force in the region's politics and the predominant image of its sustaining myths. For the past 20 years, however, conservationists have sought no goal more passionately than the return of the wolf to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where Canis lupus has been the only missing element of the native fauna.
The virtuous wolf of environmentalist romanticism and the nightmare wolf of the western rancher's imagination have little in common with the wolf of reality. Depredation on livestock in northern Minnesota, where wolves have remained plentiful, is extremely rare. Wolves do occasionally kill sheep, cattle, and even horses, especially when wild prey becomes scarce. But plans for reintroducing the wolf to Yellowstone provided liberally for the protection of livestock: Ranchers would be allowed to shoot depredating wolves on sight. Attacks on livestock were expected to be rare in any case, for Greater Yellowstone offers an abundance of ungulate prey rivaled only by the Serengeti. Yet most of the ranchers of the Greater Yellowstone region saw in the wolf the death of their economy and therefore of their hallowed way of life, and some famously far-right organizations put up a ferocious fight.
The most the opponents of wolf reintroduction could accomplish was delay, but they managed plenty of that. Year by year, more people seemed to fall in love with the idea of wild wolves, and the livestock lobby lost round after round. The protests and studies and reports and hearings went on and on. For the final Environmental Impact Statement that mandated the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction, 700 witnesses testified at seemingly endless hearings, and 160,000 written comments were submitted, with about a third of them opposing wolf reintroduction and two-thirds favoring it — "most of them, on both sides, misinformed," one wolf biologist remarked. It was the most extensive formal citizen participation in any federal initiative ever. For some, the outcome was a travesty. For others, it was the conservation triumph of the century.
In early 1995, the three founding wolf packs of Yellowstone were shipped in and held in pens in the Lamar River valley for about nine weeks. Then, just after the vernal equinox, when Yellowstone's winter-weakened elk are at their most vulnerable, the gates were flung open. The greatest fear of the biologists in charge of the reintroduction was that the fragile pack structures would shatter in this unfamiliar habitat and that the wolves would streak north toward their former home. But the packs stayed together, and they seemed to be settling down into territories near the sites of their release. Fitted with radio collars and diligently tracked by a team of biologists, the wolves began killing elk in the age-old fashion and, as expected, made life a living hell for the local coyotes.
The Crystal Creek pack was commonly seen from the roadside. The Soda Butte pack was particularly ferocious, often consuming only a little of a kill before moving on to another. Number Ten and Number Nine split off from Nine's daughter Seven, and the Rose Creek pair, as the two were known, dissolved into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, north of the park.
In late April, for the first time in 12 days, wolf project leader Mike Phillips, tracking the wolves from a single-engine Piper Super Cub, picked up the signals of Nine's and Ten's radio collars and saw them bounding across the snow together on Mount Maurice, a few miles east of Red Lodge.
Dusty Steinmasel sees the wolf spin around, bite at the wound high on his back, fall, kick his legs twice, and then lie still.
"Why?" he cries out.
The single seven-millimeter magnum bullet has struck Number Ten in the upper chest cavity and ripped out through the other side, leaving massive lung hemorrhage and a shredded liver in its wake. McKittrick lays down the rifle and takes up his .44 magnum pistol for the coup de gréce, but by the time McKittrick and Steinmasel reach him, Ten is dead.
There is no question now. This is not a dog. Ten is wearing a radio collar imprinted with the words "National Park Service" and "Hinton, Alberta." In each of the wolf's ears is a red plastic tag marked "FWS" in white letters on one side and "10" on the other.
"This is a big fucking deal, Chad," Steinmasel says. He is scared and revolted. "We need to go to town and find somebody from Fish and Game and report this."
"No," McKittrick replies, "I'll go to jail. I can't do time."
"If we're not going to report it," Steinmasel tells his friend, "you're on your own. I don't have nothing to do with this. If we report it, I'm behind you a hundred percent. I'm a witness. It's an accident."
"No," McKittrick says. "I could go to jail."
The two men agree that more beer is called for. They drop off one of the trucks at Steinmasel's cabin and head downhill in the other to the tiny crossroads of Belfry, Montana, to acquire a 12-pack.
On the way, McKittrick and Steinmasel realize that the radio collar is surely still transmitting. Steinmasel reminds McKittrick about the plane that was circling above them this morning. They drive back over the little-traveled Meeteetsee Trail and down the Scotch Coulee track to below the ridge where Ten lies dead.
The carcass is too heavy to carry; Steinmasel has to drag it downhill. He and McKittrick pitch Ten's body into the back of the blue pickup. Steinmasel unbolts and removes the radio collar. McKittrick clips off the red plastic ear tags.
In a secluded grove of cottonwood and willow they string the wolf up with orange baling twine. McKittrick cuts off Ten's head — he wants the skull — and then goes to work skinning the body. Steinmasel gets antsy, thinking again of the plane and of the radio collar that could lead the authorities to them at any moment. They pick up Ten's gleaming, blood-slick carcass by its big, densely furred feet and heave it into the brush below a red clay bank.
"I'll take care of the collar," Steinmasel says. "Smash it or something." McKittrick stuffs Ten's head and hide into a plastic garbage bag and drives home. Steinmasel follows in McKittrick's other truck.
Behind McKittrick's house stands a cabin that he is building a bit at a time, whenever he gets a little money for materials and he has the energy. In the cold of the half-built cabin, where it won't spoil, Steinmasel helps McKittrick drape the wolf skin over a stepladder.
"We're right here," Steinmasel says. "Let's report it."
"No," replies McKittrick, "I can't do it."
"Will you at least leave me out of it? Like, a gentleman's agreement?"
"OK. Sure." They shake hands on it.
McKittrick drives Steinmasel back to the cabin in Scotch Coulee. Steinmasel tries yet again. "We can go up the canyon and take care of this right now" — meaning bring the carcass down and call the authorities.
"I'm going bear hunting," is McKittrick's only reply.
Steinmasel sits in his house contemplating the radio collar. He does not know that when a Telonics collar has not moved for more than five and a half hours, its usual rate of 40 beeps per minute leaps to a rapid-fire hundred-plus. Even a sleeping animal moves around a little from time to time, so when the faster signal comes in, you know that either the collar has somehow come off or the wearer is dead. The signal is known as mortality mode.
Steinmasel gets out his world atlas and looks up Hinton, Alberta. He hears a vehicle. He sees the lights. His heart clenches, but it is only his neighbor, Dave Oxford, driving down out of Scotch Coulee.
He cannot live with this fear. He cannot bring himself to smash the radio collar. He wipes it down to get the fingerprints off. In the dark he walks down the road toward the highway, to the culvert where the runoff-swollen creek rushes through. He drops the collar in. He does not know whether the signal can be heard from under water, but he hopes it can. He wants Chad McKittrick to be caught. He wants to be caught himself.
On Wednesday, April 26, Yellowstone wolf biologist Doug Smith, in the air above Red Lodge, picks up Nine's signal from the exact spot where his colleague Mike Phillips saw her the day before yesterday. The fact that she has not traveled more than a few hundred yards suggests that she has dug a den and is about to give birth. Ten's collar, however, is transmitting in mortality mode. When Smith reports this, all hell breaks loose.
From the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf team in Helena, from Yellowstone National Park headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs, from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks in Billings, from a federal undercover office in an unmarked metal building in Cody, Wyoming, government vehicles race along icy roads to Red Lodge. By the time they converge, they will have only a few hours of daylight left, and snow — evidence-obliterating snow — is expected tonight.
Alone among them, the man from Cody seems not to be in a hurry. Despite his Ohio birth, his Michigan education, and his master's degree in wildlife biology, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Tim Eicher is the very image of the western lawman. From his big cowboy hat (or, if indoors, his gleaming bald dome) down to his high-heeled boots, everything about Eicher proclaims that this is not a man to be messed with. His voice is low and hard, his words spare and precise. He vows that if there is a wolf killer out there, he will be caught.
The weather closes in, so flying is out. They will have to try to home in on Number Ten on the ground. Tim Eicher and Carbon County Sheriff Al McGill begin to search the road near where Nine and Ten were last seen together, but it is ten o'clock by now, full dark, and too late for the ravens and magpies that are the daylight beacons of a newly dead animal.
Doug Smith and Mike Phillips stay out on a high ridge until almost midnight, scanning the dark landscape with their antennas. There is no signal now from Ten's collar.
Smith takes to the sky at first light. He tunes in to Nine's frequency, and there she is, in a small clearing in the woods on the north slope of the mountain, no more than five miles from Red Lodge, exactly where she was three days ago. Damn, says Smith to himself, what a terrible place to den.
The plane wheels northeastward, and Smith switches his receiver to Number Ten's frequency. He is surprised to pick up the signal again, still in mortality mode. It is coming from somewhere in the valley of Bear Creek.
Now the team can narrow the search for Ten on the ground. As they near the ruins of the Smith coal mine, the signal grows stronger.
Sheriff McGill well knows that there are plenty of possible wolf killers within a short drive of this lonely road. In Red Lodge itself there are 1,900 humans, mostly law-abiding, but also at least a few with itchy trigger fingers and some long-simmering grudge against the government or the enviros or whomever else they might see the wolf as symbolizing.
The urgent beeping leads the search team south up a narrow, muddy track between sage-covered hills pocked with melting snow. Two hundred yards in, they come to a little creek running through a culvert beneath the road. The signal is now so intense that Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Joe Fontaine removes the aerial from his receiver. Tim Eicher pulls on his rubber hip boots and goes in, wading up through the culvert from the downstream end, hunched double against the rushing, painfully cold current, feeling with his bare hands in the black water. As he comes back into the light, Eicher's hands close on the radio collar.
Telonics radio collars are made to take a beating. The transmitter is encased in a waterproof fiberglass shell. The neck band is of heavy double-layered leather, three inches wide and almost half an inch thick. This one has been unbolted — something a wolf cannot do. And a person cannot take one of these collars off a wolf unless the wolf is either drugged or dead. Ten is dead, and not of natural causes.
A mud-spattered Jeep Cherokee turns in off the Bear Creek Highway, grinds up the Scotch Coulee track, and stops at the congregation of lawmen gathered by the roadside. Dusty Steinmasel, on his way home, climbs out. Wonders what's going on.
Eicher studies Steinmasel intently: shoes, trousers, belt, shirt, jacket, hands, height, weight, chin, mouth, nose, eyes, hair, hat. Steinmasel is wearing a cap bearing the legend "Baca Landing Cattle Company." Eicher served eight years as a game warden in New Mexico, and he knows the Baca family, and he knows the ranch manager, and by God, come to think of it, he knows Dusty Steinmasel, who used to work there.
"I remember you," Eicher says, smiling, stepping forward with his hand out.
Steinmasel is nervous, his gaze furtive. He remembers Eicher too. "Hi," he says, and he points up the road. "I live just up there."
"Have you seen anything unusual lately?" Eicher asks. "Anybody coming through? Particularly Monday?" Eicher believes that Ten was killed on Monday because the next day was too stormy and snowy for your typical lazy-ass poacher to be out and about.
Nothing unusual, Steinmasel avers, nobody through for at least a week. Just himself and his neighbor, Dave Oxford.
Eicher teaches interrogation techniques to up-and-coming officers, so he knows what to look for. His technique for determining whether a person is telling the truth or not is partly based on the observation of involuntary eye movements — so involuntary that nobody can control them even if he knows the trick. Eicher knows instantly that Steinmasel is lying.
A little later Steinmasel's neighbor drops by to see what all the fuss is about. Eicher asks Oxford if he has seen anybody around or anything unusual. Not really, Oxford says. Oxford's face is open, his eyes unevasive. Oh — he did see Chad McKittrick on Monday, when Chad and Dusty went up the hill to get McKittrick's truck unstuck.
Eicher walks up the road past Steinmasel's cabin and on uphill for a couple of miles till he comes to a place where he can see that a vehicle was stuck in the mud. Dave Oxford was telling the truth, and Dusty Steinmasel was not.
Nine still has not moved. If she gives birth now, she will be in an impossible position. If Ten were alive, he could go out and kill something, masticate and swallow the meat, and regurgitate a dense, high-protein pulp for her. She in turn would put that food directly toward the production of milk. In time, the pups would begin to share in the predigested prey, and then Nine would be able to go out and stretch her legs and hunt, with Ten home baby-sitting.
None of that can happen now. If Nine were to leave her pups and go out to hunt, even in a deeply dug den they could be smelled out and carried off by predators, particularly coyotes and hibernation-famished bears, both accomplished excavators. Left alone, the tiny, thin-pelted newborns could easily freeze to death. On the other hand, if Nine did not hunt, her milk would dry up and the pups would starve.
The biologists consider their options. Do you crawl all over Mount Maurice and risk displacing her away from the den? A highly stressed mother wolf might well abandon her young. Or do you just cross your fingers and leave her alone?
Snow is falling heavily in the Red Lodge country. Footprints, tire tracks, beer cans, spent shells and bullets, and the skinless body of Wolf Number Ten disappear beneath the all-erasing whiteness.
By May 1, it is no longer a hypothesis but a settled fact that Nine has denned. She is hardly moving at all. She is occupying an area of less than an acre. From the air, Doug Smith has seen her there, slipping through the trees, vivid against the snow.
Joe Fontaine is going to be hauling in road kill for her starting today, coming close enough, he hopes, that she will find the food — but not too close, everyone prays. Given the loss of her mate, it is quite possible that if she is further disturbed she will abandon the den, choosing to save herself and her future contributions to the gene pool over the survival of these particular pups. If the pups exist, that is: Female wolves sometimes respond to high stress with a false pregnancy.
If she does have pups, they will be the first native-born Yellowstone wolves in more than 60 years.
The Fish and Wildlife Service puts up a $1,000 reward, and Defenders of Wildlife offers $5,000, for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Ten's killer. The National Audubon Society puts up another $5,000, and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society kicks in $2,000.
The tips, the leads, the rumors, the accusations are piling up on Tim Eicher's desk in Cody. "It's too much fucking money," he complains. "When I get the guy, he's going to want a jury trial, and in a district where the median income is $20,000, that $13,000 is going to be a problem. Any jury here is going to know people will lie for $13,000."
There is pressure on Eicher. His bosses, all the way up to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Mollie Beattie, want this crime solved now. His phone rings not only with the fantasies of reward hunters but also with official and unofficial "encouragement" from well up the chain of federal command.
A visitor asks Eicher how all this heat is affecting him.
He leans back in his chair with his hands behind his head. Beneath the big handlebar mustache his lips part at one corner as though around an invisible toothpick. "I don't give a shit about pressure," he replies.
Joe Fontaine can see the town of Red Lodge spread below him, not five miles away. Downhill, the snow has drifted deep, and the forest is thick with large spruces and a dense understory of alder, willow, bog birch, and hawthorn. Fontaine walks east, trying to circle wide around Nine, and listens to the tock-tock-tock of her radio signal in his headphones. Then he sees it: a day bed scooped into the snow, wolf-size, near a tall old spruce.
He hears a faint mewing. Nine's signal is strong, but she seems to be moving away fast. Has he displaced her from the day bed or from a den? He hears the mewing again, close, but still he cannot find it. He lifts a low, snow-hugging bough of the spruce tree. In the near-darkness back against the trunk he sees a squirming, whimpering mass of baby wolves — newborns, their eyes still closed. He counts seven, and thinks there may be eight.
Evert Armstrong, a ranch mechanic and maintenance man, is out looking for elk antlers along the Scotch Coulee track when he smells dead animal. He follows the stench to a carcass entangled in orange baling twine. The animal has no head. The body has been skinned, but crudely: The four gigantic feet and four cuffs of ankle fur are intact. A wolf.
Armstrong calls his boss, Sunlight Ranch manager Paul Ranschau. Ranschau has no particular love for wolves, but he believes that the law is the law. He picks up the phone and calls Carbon County Sheriff Al McGill, and the sheriff tells him to call Tim Eicher.
When Eicher arrives at the corpse he notices that the red clay bank has a recently excavated hole in it. The hole goes deep. There are wolf tracks in and out.
There is only one possible interpretation. Before she fled to the security of the spruces uphill to give birth, Nine came and dug this den beside the dead body of her mate.
Tim Eicher pays a visit to Dusty Steinmasel.
"Were you up the Scotch Coulee road on the evening of April 23?" demands Eicher in his flattest official tone.
"Were you up the Scotch Coulee road on the morning of April 24, helping Chad McKittrick get his blue Ford truck unstuck?"
"You know who killed that wolf, Dusty."
Well, all right, he was up there with Chad that morning, but he doesn't know who killed the wolf. He himself sure didn't.
A few days later, Eicher drives back to Red Lodge. This time, Steinmasel tells the story truthfully, Eicher believes, and in meticulous detail — up to the moment when he and McKittrick are standing over Number Ten's body. Then, suddenly, he goes vague. He says that after McKittrick shot the wolf, he, Steinmasel, went straight home, and then he was so upset he went out, uh, fishing. He never handled the body or the collar.
Eicher is pretty sure that at least the details of the killing are true. He has enough information now for a search warrant on Chad McKittrick.
Tim Eicher and his supervisor, Commodore Mann (he is not the head of a yacht club; that's his name), are at federal court in Billings, Montana, bright and early the next morning.
Eicher has laid out his case in six terse pages. "Based on the foregoing," the application concludes, "the affiant has probable cause to believe that evidence of the illegal take, possession, and transportation of wolf #R10 will be found at the property of Chad McKittrick, located in Palisade Basin Ranches subdivision, Tract 21, near Red Lodge, Carbon County, Montana; said property being fruits, instrumentalities, and evidence of a violation of the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act, and consisting of a wolf hide, wolf hair and blood, a wolf skull and/or wolf parts, a 7 mm magnum rifle and 7 mm ammunition, a leather rifle scabbard, knife(s), axe(s), small metal plate(s) and two bolts, 1x6 and 2x6 boards, and orange baling twine, said property being fruits, instrumentalities, and evidence of violations of the Endangered Species Act, 16 USC 1538(a)(G), 50 CFR 17.84(i)(3) and (5) and the Lacey Act, 16 USC 3372(a)(1)."
Search warrant in hand, Eicher, Mann, and two other Fish and Wildlife Service special agents make for Red Lodge, 60 miles away. There they hook up with Sheriff McGill and a sheriff's deputy who will sit in the car down the road for backup in case of trouble. In convoy, they head for McKittrick's.
McKittrick greets the lawmen with what seems almost like gratitude. But he also looks very nervous, and Eicher knows that McKittrick is not Carbon County's most stable individual. While the others comb through the house, Eicher takes McKittrick out for a little walk-and-talk. Eicher does not take notes; he is, however, wearing a loaded pistol. They go down and check out the trout ponds. They hit a few golf balls. McKittrick talks freely about the shooting, but he maintains that he thought Wolf Number Ten was a feral dog.
Inside, meanwhile, the searchers find the Ruger M-77 rifle under the sofa, with three live rounds of ammunition inside. McKittrick escorts the lawmen to the half-built cabin out back and shows them the wolf's hide and severed head.
Chad McKittrick is arrested and charged with killing Ten, possessing the remains, and transporting them.
Ten's head, hide, and body will be frozen and then shipped to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service forensics laboratory in Ashland, Oregon.
In the lab, forensic mammalogist Bonnie Yates will introduce Ten's head into a colony of flesh-eating beetles, where it will stay until the skull is perfectly clean, white, and free of stink. Then she will measure the cranium, jaw, and teeth. Her morphometry will confirm that it is the skull of a gray wolf.
Molecular biologist Stephen Fain will subject Ten's flesh and hair to three sorts of DNA testing. A nucleotide sequence analysis of mitochondrial DNA will determine that it can have come only from a member of the species Canis lupus. A polymerase chain reaction will prove that the dead wolf was a male. A comparison restriction analysis will show that the hide and head and flesh all belonged to the same animal, and also that the dead male wolf's DNA matches precisely that of the plug of flesh punched out of Number Ten's ear in Alberta and kept frozen for precisely such a situation as this.
Veterinary pathologist Richard Stroud will remove the tiny Personal Identification Tag from Number Ten's skin. The PIT tag, scanned by a laser-driven reader, also confirms the wolf's identity. An X ray will find bullet fragments inside Ten's thorax in a pattern typical of a high-powered rifle wound. The greater part of the bullet continued on through the abdomen and out the other side. It has never been found.
The wolf biologists agree that nine and the pups must be moved back into the park. Each of Joe Fontaine's deliveries of road kill has been left in the same place. Like any other wolf, Nine likes to follow a familiar route whenever she can; she has gone to dinner along the same path every time. The biologists have tricked her. Carter Niemeyer, a wolf-trapping specialist from Animal Damage Control, has set five live-capture leg-hold traps into the ground along the travelway. He covers the traps with dirt and duff. Telltale odors are nicely disguised by a lavish application of a sample of Number Ten's scat, as well as a reeking secret formula Niemeyer has concocted. Each trap is connected by a string to a simple radio transmitter about the size of a flashlight. When the trap springs, the string pulls a magnet off the transmitter, and it starts emitting a rapid-fire beep. These transmitters have been pirated from Telonics radio collars; what is now the good-news beep was in its previous incarnation the mortality mode.
In the early-morning darkness of May 17, cold steel jaws slam shut on Number Nine's leg. After struggling for a time, she quiets, knowing she is soon to die.
Nine does not know that in fact her luck has finally changed. By 5:30 a.m. she is fast asleep in a shiny aluminum kennel in the back of a government pickup. She gets a shot of penicillin and vitamins. The Yellowstone National Park veterinarian examines Nine and declares her to be in fine condition, maybe just a little skinny.
The trackers now go in search of the pups. They follow Nine's trail to the den site — and oh, shit. The pups are not there.
She must have established another den, probably only last night. Where? For two hours, three, stretching into four, they search. In the afternoon, after six and a half hours of slogging through snow and mud, Joe Fontaine woofs his soft, maternal wolf-grunt for the thousandth time, and this time he hears a whimpering.
The pups flee clumsily but quickly at the sight of these terrifying invaders, wriggling into the deep interstices of a talus slide. Sometimes the men must reach into some crack all the way up to their armpits. In time they have seven little wolves, but the eighth, if there is one, remains hidden and now silent in some crevice, nobody knows where. At last a probing stick touches something soft, yielding, breathing, definitely alive — pika? hibernating marmot? baby wolf? The longest arm in the bunch cannot quite reach. Doug Smith tries a pair of Leatherman pliers. Stretching to the limit of his long arm, with a guy on each leg trying to ram him up the hole, Smith clamps hold of the soft fuzzy thing and drags Nine's eighth pup into the first day of her new life.
The federal magistrate in Billings releases Chad McKittrick without bail. He orders McKittrick to stick close to home — Carbon and Yellowstone Counties only — and keep his hands off firearms, please.
Perhaps in declaration of his personal independence, McKittrick rides his horse in the Red Lodge Fourth of July parade. He is wearing a pistol and a T-shirt that reads Northern Rockies Wolf Reduction Project. Later, still on his mount, McKittrick charges into a bar. He and the horse are asked to leave.
That summer, McKittrick attends Quarter Beer Night at the Snow Creek Saloon. Just south of town — about five miles from where he killed Number Ten — a sheriff's patrol car pulls him over and the deputies tell him to get into their backseat. He asks if he can take a leak first. They say OK. McKittrick plunges into the roadside brush and hightails it for glory.
Thanks to the quarter beers, the chase is short. The cops search his pickup and find marijuana. McKittrick is charged with possession, driving under the influence, and resisting arrest.
As summer wanes, McKittrick starts hollering and waving his guns at people driving past his house. From time to time he is seen shooting randomly into the air, often wearing a black cowboy hat and no shirt. Federal Express refuses to deliver in the neighborhood. McKittrick's admirers in the bars buy him drink after drink after drink. He gives autographs all around.
In late October, 12 Montanans — unassuming, attentive, unused to being watched so hard — sit in the jury box in federal district court in Billings, hearing two and a half days of testimony from Dusty Steinmasel, Tim Eicher, Chad McKittrick, and the forensic scientists from Oregon. McKittrick continues to claim that he thought Number Ten was a dog. Steinmasel testifies that McKittrick knew perfectly well that he was shooting a wolf. The jury's deliberation lasts an hour and fifteen minutes. McKittrick is found guilty of killing a member of a threatened species, guilty of possessing its remains, and guilty of transporting them.
Federal magistrate Richard Anderson sentences Chad McKittrick to three months in the Yellowstone County Detention Center and a subsequent three months in the interestingly named Alpha House, in Billings. The six months of imprisonment will be followed by a year of "supervisory release," during which the wolf killer will be subject to surprise drug tests, random searches of his property, and all-around close watching. The court recognizes McKittrick as indigent but warns him that as soon as he starts earning an income he will be expected to pay the United States of America $10,000 in restitution, which the judge figures to have been roughly the cost of the capture, transportation, handling, medical care, custody, feeding, release, and monitoring of Wolf Number Ten.
In the corridor outside, Tim Eicher rocks back on his cowboy boot heels and actually smiles.
Nine and her pups spend the summer in the security of the Rose Creek pen. A male wolf called Number Eight, one of the Crystal Creek yearlings, hangs around outside for weeks, making friends with the pups and making eyes at Nine. Eight is now 17 months old, not quite old enough to be deemed an adult but old enough to do the job of an adult male wolf this winter.
When the pen is opened in October, Nine promptly accepts Eight as her new mate. They and the pups — now the Rose Creek pack — settle in the mid-Lamar, claiming title to the valley north of the river. The Crystal Creek pack sticks respectfully to the south side; its alpha female, Number Five, digs den after den, but hers is a pseudopregnancy. The Soda Buttes visit the Lamar occasionally, but they are spending most of their time in the upper Stillwater and the headwaters of Slough and Pebble Creeks, just north of the park, where they produce one pup. All three packs have settled in what must now be called territories — homes.
Since the killing of wolf number Ten, 12 more Yellowstone wolves have been lost.
Three died in collisions with motor vehicles: One of Nine and Ten's pups from Mount Maurice ran into the side of a UPS truck; one male from the 17 new wolves brought from Canada in 1996 was hit by a tractor-trailer; and one four-month-old pup was struck by a car.
Another 1996 wolf, the alpha female of the Lone Star pack, fell into a boiling hot spring and died soon after, with six dead pups in her womb. One Soda Butte pup died of unknown causes while in an acclimation pen. A pup of the newly arrived Nez Perce pack was caught in a trap set for a female adult who had killed several sheep, and the powerful trap shattered his leg. He will live out his days in captivity in Minnesota.
Last year, one of the newcomer packs, a ferocious group known as the Druid Peak pack, attacked the Crystal Creek pack, injured the alpha female, and killed the alpha male. Not long afterward, in a similar battle, the Druids killed one of Nine and Ten's pups.
Four wolves have been shot. After a yearling male of the Crystal Creek pack killed several sheep in Montana's Paradise Valley, he was relocated to the Yellowstone backcountry but was soon back at the sheep ranch. In accordance with reintroduction-program policy, an Animal Damage Control agent shot him from a helicopter. Another yearling male, one of the Soda Buttes, was found shot near Daniel, Wyoming, and the killer has never been identified. A cowboy near Meeteetsee, Wyoming, claiming to have mistaken the Soda Butte yearling's sister for a coyote, shot her. This January, the alpha male of the Nez Perce pack was shot near Three Forks, Montana — once from a distance and once in the head at close range. His body was found frozen in an ice jam on the Madison River.
In February, near Big Sandy, Wyoming, a rancher named Bill Mayo spotted a large gray canid among his sheep. Eight ewes had recently been killed, so Mayo jumped on his snowmobile, gave chase, and lassoed the 75-pound animal. She had no collar and is now being held in the Rose Creek pen, awaiting DNA identification. If she is determined to be a hybrid or a pet and therefore unfit for life in the wild, she will be euthanized.
There have been two other incidents of depredation, both on the Beartooth Front. Four sheep were killed by a wolf on a ranch, and a dog named Smoker, who had been trained to track mountain lions, went out for a stroll with his master in the Gallatin National Forest, picked up a scent, and raced into the midst of the Soda Butte pack, which tore him to pieces.
Dusty Steinmasel has never seen a penny of reward money; he is working at a convenience store in Red Lodge. Chad McKittrick spent some time drying out at a relative's remote ranch but is now back in Red Lodge. His attempt to appeal his conviction was turned down, but he remains free pending another try.
As denning time approaches in this spring of 1997, there are 52 wolves residing in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Of the seven original family groups brought in over the past two years, only two have survived as intact packs — the Soda Butte and the Druid Peak packs. There are six other packs or pairs, mostly thriving. Despite the losses they have suffered, the wolves of Yellowstone have shown how resilient the species' social organization is and how successfully it can reproduce. There may be as many as 11 litters of native Yellowstone pups born this spring.
Wolf Nine and Wolf Eight, her new mate, had three pups last year, and for now their Rose Creek pack is the largest group in Greater Yellowstone. Nine is pregnant again.
Thomas McNamee is the author of the forthcoming The Return of the Wolf to Yellowstone (Henry Holt), from which this article has been adapted.
Illustration by Sue Coe, photographs by Ted Wood