GARDINER, Mont. -- Wolf 527 was a survivor. She lived through a rival pack's crippling 12-day siege of her den. When another pair of wolves laid down stakes in her territory, she killed the mother and picked off the pups while the invader's mate howled nearby in frustration and fury.
She was not a charmer. But successful wolves are not known for their geniality. As the alpha female of the Cottonwood Creek pack, she also was equipped with a radio collar so wildlife biologists could track her movements, making her one of Yellowstone National Park's best-known wolves.
Then she ventured outside the park boundaries.
Wolf 527 was killed Oct. 3 by a hunter on Buffalo Plateau north of Yellowstone, less than three weeks into Montana's backcountry elk season. Wolves often stalk elk outside the park and are attracted by entrails the hunters leave behind. But this year, the elk season coincided with the opening of the state's first wolf hunt in modern times.
"She was a genius wolf in her tactics," said Laurie Lyman, a former San Diego County teacher who has spent the past five years tracking the recovery of the endangered gray wolves that were reintroduced into Yellowstone in 1995. "Her strategies were just unbelievable. She knew how to survive anything, but she didn't know how to survive a man with a gun."
Park officials believe that of the nine gray wolves shot during those first weeks, four of the Cottonwood pack of 10 -- including 527's mate, the alpha male, and her daughter -- died, effectively ending research into one of the park's most important study groups.
"Whether the pack exists anymore or not, to us the pack is gone," said Doug Smith, the biologist in charge of the Yellowstone reintroduction program that helped bring wolves back from the brink of extinction in the Northern Rockies. Cottonwood "was a key pack on the northern range," he said, giving researchers a window into the existence of animals that had little or no interaction with humans.
State wildlife officials, caught off guard by the ease with which the wolves were cut down, called off the backcountry hunt along a section of Yellowstone's northern boundary for the rest of the year.
An additional four wolves were shot in southern Montana after the general hunt started Sunday. The quota for that part of the state was 12 wolves.
Hunting will remain open through Nov. 29 in northern and western Montana, where 10 wolves out of the state's overall quota of 75 have been shot. Wildlife officials have held out the option of extending the hunt through Dec. 31 if the quota isn't met.
State officials are allowing hunters this year to take up to 220 in Idaho. Federal protections remain in Wyoming.
"We've got quite a number of other border packs. So people need to decide how hunting's going to occur on the park boundaries," Smith said. "Whose wolves are they? Are they national wolves? Montana wolves? And we have to decide what is the value of our research on wolf populations that are not affected by people."
Conservationists fear that allowing the wolves to be targeted just four months after they were removed from the endangered species list could damage the recovery process. They have argued for delaying a hunt until at least 2,000 wolves have gained a foothold in the region. About 1,600 are now in the three-state region.
Yet nearby residents are concerned about what they consider a predator that under federal protection has broadened its territory and become shockingly adept at killing.
"Those wolves they're talking about in Yellowstone are all over the place out here. They're traveling everywhere," said Ryan Counts, a hunting guide and rodeo team roper from the town of Pray, Mont., who shot Wolf 527. "They're just decimating our elk herd and everything else. They're bothering cows all the time."
In Dillon, Mont., 180 miles northwest of Yellowstone, a rancher in late August found the carcasses of 122 purebred adult sheep strewn in bloody heaps in his pasture. It was the worst livestock predation in memory -- an example of the ability of wolves to kill for the pure pleasure of it -- and wildlife officials authorized the killing of the entire pack.
Here in the Paradise Valley, which winds through snow-dusted peaks on either side of the Yellowstone River, many blame wolves for the destruction of the northern Yellowstone elk herd, whose numbers are down 60 percent since the predators were reintroduced to the park from Canada.
Federal biologists say bears, drought and hunters are partly to blame for the decline, but it's hard to find anyone in these small towns who doesn't blame wolves.
"We're starting to see the wildlife just disappear," said Randy Petrich, a rancher and big-game outfitter. "If all these people who are for the wolves only knew what was out here now. It's dead. It's beautiful country, but there's nothing living in it. No deer. No elk. I think it's going to be a brutal winter."
Caught off guard
Given the stunning speed with which the small group of wolves reintroduced into Yellowstone managed to expand, few people argued that hunting should not be allowed at some point to control their numbers.
But equally few expected Yellowstone's rock-star wolves to be among the first hit.
Wolf 527 and her daughter, 716, originated from two of the best-known packs in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley, the scene of numerous documentaries. For years, the movements of the Lamar packs have been monitored by biologists equipped with radio tracking devices and powerful spotting telescopes.
"They sold this wolf hunt in Montana and Idaho as controlling the predation on cattle and what-not. Well, these wolves aren't touching cattle. They're feeding on elk. They're doing what they're supposed to do," said Tom Murphy, a wildlife photographer who has been documenting the Yellowstone wolves.
"This is the home ground of all of them, the nursery, the definition of what a healthy ecosystem looks like," he said. "And it drives me crazy that (hunters are) standing on the boundary of the park ... and killing the ones with radio collars, that people watch every day."
The demise of 716, often known as Dark Female, was reported Sept. 29 in a blog posting from Lyman. Five days later, she followed up with another item, this time about 527.
"It is with a heavy heart that I write yet another obituary for a wolf that was part of our lives for seven years," Lyman said.
Counts, the hunting guide, was on Buffalo Plateau, about 3 1/2 miles outside the park, when he encountered 716.
"We just went in there looking for them. It's in the backcountry," he said in a brief interview. "We just figured if they'll let us hunt wolves, we will."
The wolf did not attempt to retreat before he fired, Counts said.
"They aren't showing any fear," he said. "But they will, I'm sure."
Several days before 527 was killed, 716 and another wolf also had approached a group of hunters without fear, said Warren Johnson, a local guide.
"The first (male) wolf saw him, started to come toward him more, and the guy shot him," Johnson said. "He was no more afraid of (the hunter) than the man in the moon."
Johnson and his wife, Susan, shot 716. "I heard it howling. It looked at me, it just watched me coming for a hundred yards, within shooting distance, and I got it," he said.
Since then, Johnson said, he's had another client come in from out of state looking to hunt wolves, with no luck. "They progressively became harder and harder. Whenever they saw us, they were running. There was no more of that sneaking up on them. ... They are so much smarter right now."
Wolf 716 is being mounted for display at Johnson's hunting and trail-riding lodge.
"In general, I don't think anybody's out to eliminate the wolves again," said Jim Klyap, owner of Dome Mountain Outfitters in the Paradise Valley, who bought a wolf tag for hunting but didn't kill one.
"People do appreciate them being here. But like any other big-game predator -- mountain lions, bears -- they have to be successfully managed in some way by a quota system. ... No matter how much we'd like to believe that there's this endless wilderness out there, there isn't. You can only go so far. We're in it now, and it's our job to take care of it."
Montana's wolf program coordinator, Carolyn Sime, said the state might consider imposing additional restrictions around Yellowstone next year.
"It surprised us that the hunters were as successful as they were" in the backcountry, she said, when what officials had hoped was that problem wolves preying on livestock in the valley would be targeted.
"You hear, 'Kill the wolves. . . . They don't belong here. My grandparents killed these wolves for a reason,' " Sime said. But the real danger, she said, is that conservationists' lawsuit to shut down the hunt will succeed, and the wolves will be returned to the endangered species list.
"With that, you risk people's willingness to live with the wolves, and history is replete with what happens to the wolf when people are unwilling to share the landscape with them," she said.
Residents, she predicted, would simply take matters into their own hands.
"They'll kill 'em," she said. "Or they'll put such intense pressure on us to kill them that . . . the program won't survive. It will crumble under the pressure to kill wolves."