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COLUMN ONE

The Day Cinderella Vanished

'The Hollywood wolves' were fixtures in Yellowstone and objects of fascination. Then the female went missing and the howling began.

March 11, 2004|Rosemary McClure | Times Staff Writer

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — A grim chorus of howls shattered the predawn stillness. As darkness gave way to dim light, a wolf emerged in a clearing.

He was charcoal gray, with a splash of black fur marking his snout and eyes. He sat up tall, his head thrown back in a long, desolate moan. His hot breath froze when it hit the air, leaving shards of ice dangling from his muzzle.

Two miles to the southwest, two other wolves howled excitedly from the crest of 9,000-foot Specimen Ridge. Their calls were answered by another group whose voices echoed from the direction of Tower Junction, near the Yellowstone River.

"There are three packs out there," said wildlife biologist Greg Wright as he watched the animals through a high-powered lens. "You don't usually hear this much howling. It could be a territorial dispute, but I'm not sure what's going on."

Soon, it would be clear. The gray lady -- the Cinderella wolf -- was missing.

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When gray wolves returned to Yellowstone National Park nearly a decade ago, the park became one of the few places in the Lower 48 states where the secretive animals could be seen in the wild.

Their reappearance in Yellowstone after a nearly 70-year absence has rekindled an ancient fascination with Canis lupus, the planet's largest wild dog. The wolves have inspired websites, books and a cult of wolf-watchers who monitor their activities from dawn to dusk.

Of 174 wolves in the park, two attained celebrity status: the female nicknamed Cinderella and her longtime mate, a charcoal gray male. Park researchers called the pair "the Hollywood wolves," because of two National Geographic documentaries that focused on them and their family, the Druid Peak Pack. To many, they became the embodiment of Yellowstone's wild wolf program.

So Cinderella's absence and her mate's disconsolate wails on that Sunday morning in February stirred special concern among the wolf-watchers.

Wolf populations in the western U.S. were wiped out in the late 1800s and early 1900s by settlers and bounty hunters. The last wolf in Yellowstone was shot in 1926. The animals were not reintroduced to the park until 1995 and 1996, when biologists captured 31 gray wolves in the Canadian Rockies and let them loose in Yellowstone.

Cinderella, then a jet-black pup, was part of this original group. She was later given the name 42, indicating that she was the 42nd Yellowstone wolf to be collared with a radio device. She was set free with her mother and two sisters, eventually becoming part of a pack in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley -- prime grazing ground for huge herds of elk and bison, prime hunting ground for wolves.

The Lamar is wide and open -- a long, glacier-scoured basin -- allowing anyone with a good pair of binoculars to see the wolves from the Lamar Valley road, near the park's northern boundary and the Wyoming-Montana border.

"Wolves are the essence of wildness, but people can come to the Lamar Valley and within a few minutes see one running free," said wildlife biologist Doug Smith, head of the Yellowstone Wolf Project, a team of National Park Service researchers who released the wolves and now monitor them. "People used to think it was amazing to see one wolf in the wild in their entire lives. But we've seen them here daily for more than 1,100 days."

Supplementing the work of professional scientists are the observations of amateur wolf-watchers, who make yearly, monthly or even weekly pilgrimages to the park.

Arriving before dawn, they set up expensive spotting scopes, stay in touch with other "wolfies" by radio, and take detailed notes on the canines' behavior. Thanks to their diligence, the Druid Peak Pack -- named for a nearby dome-shaped mountain -- has become the most closely observed wild pack in the world.

Some wolf-watchers form attachments to individual animals. "Our favorite is 42," said Carol Yates, a radiation therapist from Scappoose, Ore., who spends about eight weeks in the park each year with her husband, Richard.

Their license plate is WOLF 42. Cinderella was their first sighting. "She's a pretty special girl," said Richard as the couple stood along the Lamar Valley road the day after the wolf's disappearance. They were worried. "I hope she's OK," Carol said.

A Domineering Sibling

The Cinderella wolf got her nickname from the harsh treatment inflicted on her by her sister. The assaults were filmed by Montana cinematographer Bob Landis, who spent eight years working on the National Geographic documentaries.

In the complex social hierarchy of wolves, each pack has two leaders: an alpha male and an alpha female. The Cinderella wolf's sister was the alpha female in the Druid pack.

"She was a fierce wolf who ruled with an iron fist," Smith said. She eventually drove her mother and other sister out of the pack. Then she concentrated on Cinderella.

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