The Perils of Tracking Gray Wolves

Wolves are tough to study, and even tougher to protect.

By Jeff Wheelwright|Thursday, October 02, 2014
Biologist Doug Smith holds sedated wolf No. 892M in Yellowstone National Park in 2012 after darting it from a helicopter then placing a tracking collar around its neck.
Dan Stahler/NPS

Since gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s, they have been very successful — perhaps too successful. Fattened on elk, the wolves multiplied and ranged beyond the park boundaries, where they are less welcome.

Today about 80 wolves in 10 packs live primarily within the park, while 400 others roam in surrounding portions of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming — states that permit wolf hunting. If a wolf leaves the safety of Yellowstone and is shot by a hunter, it’s perfectly legal. More troubling is the illegal, undocumented take by poachers. National Park Service biologist Doug Smith estimates that poachers kill up to 10 percent of the population in the greater Yellowstone area each year.

To study wolf behavior, Smith immobilizes the animals with a tranquilizer dart shot from a ground-hugging helicopter and then attaches radio collars. The operations are done in the winter, when snow slows down the wolves and there’s less risk of their overheating. Smith has darted almost 300 wolves over the years, but one stands out in his mind: the ferocious female known as No. 692.
Smith perches on the skid of a low-flying helicopter as he prepares to shoot a sedative dart into wolf No. 780M in 2011.
Erin Stahler/NPS
In His Own Words...

The door’s off. I’m in a harness, and my feet are on the skids. If it’s around zero, your hands go quick. I wear skin-tight gloves under mitts. I throw the mitts aside, load the dart and we’re going in.

What was unique about 692 was that she came at us with an abnormal amount of spite and vengeance. The first time, in 2009, she ran trying to escape, and when she realized she couldn’t, she attacked. I’ve never had a female attack the helicopter. You want to shoot a dart into their butt. But she ran at us several times. I can’t shoot a wolf in the face. After she was darted, as we slid by, she jumped, her mouth open with all her teeth.

But her collar quit, and the next winter we had to do it again. This time, she knew what was up and came right for us. She jumped off the ground. My feet are braced on the skid, and I see her jaws just miss my feet. The pilot goes “Whoa!” and pops the machine up 10 feet or so. She’s facing us, feet apart, snarling. That’s a one-out-of-a-hundred wolf.

She was a very independent-minded female. She didn’t pair up with a male. I’d track her, and she’d be 100 percent alone. I have photos of her up on a ridge, lying in a snowbank, kicking back. She was shot by a poacher on Nov. 5, 2011, outside the park near Gardiner [in Montana]. The collar was still on.

It was a valuable research animal. We lost some interesting behavior that we hadn’t seen before. It didn’t have to be that way.

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