The Hard Life of a Yellowstone Wolf

911M Wolf Skull Showing Severely Broken Jaw
Wolf 911m’s shattered left mandible was a long-term injury he likely endured for months. In an attempt to heal, the mandible formed new bone tissue near the break but the jaw never stabilized into one piece due to constant movement while eating or drinking.

Photo © C. WHITMAN

Wolf 911M, the alpha male of the Junction Butte pack, appeared healthy in early 2016. Although he bred with the pack’s alpha female, she died during the spring with their pups. The pack still had offspring, however, when two of 911M’s daughters gave birth to nine pups near Slough Creek. He traveled with the pack, hunted elk, and protected his grand-pups from an invasion by the Mollie’s pack in April. At some point during the spring—between the time of the last snow melt and the park’s flash of green—911M was injured, likely kicked by an ungulate, and his left mandible was shattered. We didn’t know about the injury then but by late summer it was clear something was wrong, 911M had lost weight and was limping worse than ever. On September 15th 911M was seen alone in Lamar Valley and hunting a cow elk that had been injured by the Prospect Peak pack. It was a tough battle but eventually 911M took the elk down and fed. His own ribs, pelvis and spine even more obvious due to his wet fur. Later that day the Prospect Peak pack returned and, instead of running away, 911M stood his ground. The rival pack killed him, as wolf packs work hard to eliminate any competition.

Upon examination, 911M only weighed 67 pounds—2/3rds his normal weight. His cleaned jaw (see below) told the rest of the story. The severe injury was several months old with extensive calcification, the body’s long-term attempt to heal trauma to the bone. But the jaw of a wolf is constantly moving and it could never heal correctly; instead forming a gap all the way through the mandible with bone shards scattered throughout. A deeply painful injury that would have any human in intensive care and consuming fluids for months, this wolf was still living and hunting and traveling miles in the Yellowstone backcountry, until the very last day.
911M on a winter day

Photo ©Bradley Orsted

Last updated: August 1, 2017