YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK – Rick McIntyre relates their story through anthropomorphic terms, classics like “Romeo and Juliet,” or ancient tribes from the Old Testament that still don’t get along.
Settled in the distance upon an outcropping of rock, the two wolves could be killed if they’re discovered by rivals. They’re surrounded by opposing packs and, even in this vast and open landscape, eking out a territory of their own won’t be easy.
“For a middle-aged alpha male to leave his territory and look for someone new, he has to trespass into territories of rival packs,” McIntyre said. “So far, (wolf) 755 has been able to get away with that. He’s in better shape now because he has her (wolf 759), and two is better than one.”
McIntyre, a biological technician for the Yellowstone Wolf Project who’s known across the park as the “Wolf Man,” watches the pair interact while speaking his observations into a recording device. If 755 is successful in courting 759, McIntyre believes he’d become the first observed alpha male to leave one pack and successfully start another inside the park.
Watching the wolves’ courtship and knowing their history, it’s easy to see their saga in Shakespearean terms, as McIntyre does. The two wolves hail from rival packs – a rivalry dating back to the wolf’s 1995 reintroduction to Yellowstone Park.
But the story of these two wolves must start in more recent times, when two of 755’s pack members were killed in the recent Wyoming wolf hunt. The deaths included 755’s brother, wolf 754, along with his mate, wolf 832. The loss of the two wolves sent the pack into turmoil and forced 755 into what McIntyre describes as a difficult situation.
“The surviving members of his pack were all his sons and daughters, and wolves have a strong instinct not to breed with close relatives,” McIntyre said. “We’ve had cases like that in the past, where if there’s a longtime breeding pair and one dies, in some cases, the surviving member will resign from the pack and try to start over.”
The original Crystal Creek pack formed in 1995 when wolves were first released in Yellowstone. That initial pack claimed the Lamar Valley, roaming its wide river bottom and sweeping sagebrush steppes.
The following year, McIntyre said, more wolves were released in the park, forming the Druid Peak pack. Since the Crystal Creek wolves had already claimed the Lamar Valley, scientists expected the Druids to establish a territory elsewhere.
“The Druids decided they wanted Lamar Valley, too,” McIntyre said. “They tracked down the Crystal Creek pack and battled them and killed their alpha male. The survivors had to retreat and give up their territory.”
The Crystal Creek wolves retreated 25 miles south and established a new territory in the Pelican Valley. Scientists didn’t believe the pack would survive the park’s harsh interior since elk, their primary food source, leave the valley each winter in a seasonal migration.
But when the snow piled up, the Crystal Creek wolves turned to hunting bison. Their hunts proved successful and they thrived, becoming one of the largest packs in Yellowstone.
Around that time, they also received a name change. They became the Mollie’s Pack in a tribute to Mollie Beattie, the first female director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“She was instrumental in getting wolves back in Yellowstone, helping carry them to the pen, and she died young of cancer,” McIntyre said. “Doug Smith (Yellowstone wolf biologist) renamed them the Mollie’s, and that’s where 759 was born.”
While wolves are now considered recovered in the Northern Rockies of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, it’s here in Yellowstone National Park where scientists continue to study the social behavior within and between packs.
Like a genealogist, McIntyre knows the juicy details of the wolves’ individual lineage and family battles. But while a good deal is known about 759, her potential new mate, 755, is more unknown.
McIntyre believes 755 is more closely related to the original Druid wolves. Wolf 759 stems from the Mollie’s, or the former Crystal Creek pack. That, he said, gives them a background rooted in rivalry, and in the wild – as in literature – that often means death.
“That original incident happened 17 years ago,” McIntyre said, recalling the year the Druids chased off the Crystal Creek wolves. “It’s like the Old Testament, where generations later, the descendents are still in conflict with one another.”
Today at least, the two wolves have the sagebrush steppe and that pile of rock to themselves. McIntyre believes they’re similar in age, and despite the acrimonious history shared by their ancestors, wolf 759 may already be pregnant, and a new chapter in the family saga may be set to begin.
“Other alpha male wolves that have tried to do that, it hasn’t worked out too well for them,” McIntyre said. “In fact, I don’t know of any others that have survived that transition, so 755 may be the first one.”
The new breeding pair may be in luck, though its future as a pack remains uncertain. While 759’s lineage is tied to the Mollie’s and its battles with the Druids ages ago, she may also have relatives in the Junction Butte pack.
The Junction Butte wolves were spotted a few miles west earlier in the day. This is dangerous territory for the new pair, though McIntyre believes that if they did cross paths, the Junction Butte pack may recognize 759 as a sister.
“If she  was to encounter them, it may not be a violent encounter,” McIntyre said. “He  also would be related to the males in that pack, not too closely, but somewhat. We don’t know how that would work out. If there are adjacent packs related to one another, sometimes that can lessen potential aggression, but not always.”
As for 755’s former pack, that chapter of the story waits to be written. He has six adult daughters in that pack, and McIntyre said they’d all be capable of breeding this month and having pups in April.
Because 755 left his former pack after the death of his companion (wolf 832), it freed his adult daughters to seek outside mates. If 755 were still a member of that pack, McIntyre said, he’d be aggressive to any young males that came courting and he’d try to drive them off.
“With him gone, that opens the door for one or more males to come in, with one of them being the alpha male – the breeding male,” McIntyre said. “When 755 was younger, he was traveling with his brother  when they met a female . When they started that pack, it was two males and one female, so anything is possible.”