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Farewell, Leader of the Pack

January 13, 2003

It certainly isn't big news, the way news is usually measured. It has nothing to do with North Korea, crippling budgets or playoffs. In fact, it concerns only the distant death of one little-known animal. On New Year's Eve, we now know, in the chilled darkness of a steep Wyoming ravine, a colossal struggle erupted between a wolf pack and an interloper, a lone black wolf. These things happen often as nature ensures the survival of the strongest. But this parallel wild world goes largely unnoticed.

The lone wolf was special, an inadvertent pioneer. Shot with a tranquilizer dart as a pup in western Alberta, he became an involuntary immigrant to start the 1995 reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park. For months he lived in an acclimatization pen, then was shooed out.

This black wolf, dubbed No. 2, was a leader. He was strong, large and walked tall. Other wolves deferred instantly, lowering ears and head. Quickly, No. 2 found a mate, No. 7. Together they founded the Leopold Pack, ruling an isolated expanse of northwest Yellowstone. Tracked by radio collar, No. 2's pack was well behaved by human standards. Members never left the park, never caused trouble by hunting livestock.

Nos. 2 and 7 were prolific parents, the first wolves, in fact, to procreate naturally in the park in nearly a century. They produced seven litters with dozens of pups, 29 of which survived to join or found other packs and pass on lessons and biology. Last May, as No. 7 weaned eight pups near their territorial edge, something wild ambushed her fatally. The pack completed the pups' upbringing. But No. 2 had lost his strong partner. In November he was challenged, possibly by a son, and forced to retire. He wandered for weeks, mostly alone. But new thriving packs leave little territory uncolonized.

On Dec. 31 an ominous sign: No. 2's radio beeped rapidly, a signal it hadn't moved in five hours. Biologists hiked to the site, a 30-by-40-foot scene of devastated vegetation, disrupted snow, torn soil, large tufts of fur -- and a trail of blood. They followed 120 feet down the path. There, on his side, was the last transplant who had survived. Scavengers had begun the recycling.

Eight years is less than half a human childhood, but a long life for wild wolves. No. 2 had been eating well, difficult for a lone wolf. At the end he'd grayed around the muzzle but remained hearty and tall, more than 100 pounds and 32 inches at the shoulders.

No. 2 had fought long and hard. But he was one against many, wiser than his attackers but older, slower. He succumbed to countless stabbings by teeth. The biologists stood a moment in silence. They left No. 2's body beneath the sheltering fir he'd chosen as his final resting place. Unknown to No. 2, his strong genes live way beyond his passing. Now, way beyond his territory, so does his story.

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