The Redemption of Yellowstone's Renegade Alpha Wolf 302
Rick McIntyre's new book is a riveting, surprising tale of a unique wolf.
Posted October 19, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
“With this third installment of Rick McIntyre’s magnum opus, the scope and ambition of the project becomes clear: nothing less than a grand serialization of the first twenty years of wolves in Yellowstone, a kind of lupine Great Expectations.”—Nate Blakeslee, New York Times-bestselling author of American Wolf
The wolves of Yellowstone are international icons based on the dedicated work of numerous researchers, solid science, and the books of wolf expert Rick McIntyre who is widely considered to know more about wolves than anyone in the world.1 I've done two previous interviews with Rick about his previous books on these amazing animals, and I am thrilled he could take the time to answer a few questions about the third book in this series called The Redemption of Wolf 302: From Renegade to Yellowstone Alpha Male.2,3
Marc Bekoff: Why did you write The Redemption of Wolf 302?
Rick McIntyre: I wrote this book to continue the ongoing saga of Yellowstone's world-renowned Druid pack over another generation. My previous books on the wolves of Yellowstone, The Rise of Wolf 8 and The Reign of Wolf 21, told the stories of classic alpha male wolves who were devoted to protecting their families and providing for them. Both of those males were willing to fight any wolves that endangered their packs. 302, who was a nephew to wolf 21, was different. He would get females pregnant then run away if rival wolves threatened his group.
Later, after the death of 21, 302 became the alpha male of Yellowstone’s famous Druid Peak pack but continued to run off when other wolves invaded his territory. A younger relative had to intercede and take over the alpha male position from 302. That enabled 302 to do what he preferred: avoid conflict and visit females in surrounding packs during the mating season. 302’s story shows how wild wolves can have radically different personalities and characters, just like humans.
But there is more to his story. Toward the end of a long life, 302 transformed himself into a classic alpha male wolf. He took on responsibility, became a devoted father, and was willing to risk his life to save his young pups. On the last day of life 302 proved that he had the ability to be a great hero.
MB: How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?
RM: I have studied wild wolves in Alaska, Montana, and Wyoming for over 40 years and mainly have concentrated on their social behavior. I found that no two species on earth are so similar in social behavior as wolves and humans. A wolf pack can consist of just the parents and their pups or it could be a complicated extended family of 20 or more members with a wide array of younger and older wolves. To survive, the pack must cooperate on hunts, on protecting the family from rival packs, and on feeding and caring for each year's crop of new pups.
For most of his life, 302 rebelled against that template. A fair assessment of his character would be that he was out for himself, rather than his family or group. Then, against all expectations, he radically changed and became much like the main characters of my earlier books: alpha males 8 and 21.
MB: Who is your intended audience?
RM: I write for regular people who would like to know more about what wolves are really like in the wild but find that many wildlife and animal behavior researchers reference the behavioral observations in my books.
MB: What are some of the topics in your book?
RM: One section of the book deals with a phobia that suddenly took over 302’s life in his middle years. In Yellowstone, elk are the main prey for wolves. An average wolf weighs around 100 pounds while elk can range from 300 to 700 pounds. That means it is a dangerous job to try to kill something that much bigger and stronger than you are. 302 was somewhat of a slacker on hunts for most of his life but was very willing to feed on elk the other wolves had taken down.
His enthusiastic feeding on elk changed radically one year. I noticed that he had become afraid of bull elk carcasses. As other wolves fed 302 would stand back and watch them. I wondered if he had been injured by an elk and was fearful it would happen again if he approached the carcass.
Adult wolves feed pups by gulping down meat at a carcass then regurgitating the food to the pups when they return home. In one particularly startling case, 302 watched a pup feed on a bull elk carcass. When it walked off he ran to that pup, begged for a feeding, and that pup fed 302. It was an extraordinary event to witness a big adult male wolf do that.
In retrospect that probably was the lowest point of 302’s life. But it also marked what slowly became a turnaround in his behavior. He gradually got over his fear of dead elk, became a valued member of hunting parties, and shared his food with pups.
MB: How does your book differ from other books on wolves and wildlife.
RM: I have watched wolves in the wild for over 8,150 days and have witnessed a vast array of behavior. All those observations have enabled me to write about the social life of wolves in a very detailed manner. 302 was so interesting because he was an outlier regarding what was normal for adult male wolves.
MB: Do you feel optimistic that as people learn more about wolves they’ll treat them with more respect, dignity, and compassion?
RM: That is exactly why I write my books. I strongly feel that anyone that learns what wild wolves are really like will come to have great respect and admiration for them.
MB: What are you currently working on?
RM: We are finishing up work on my fourth wolf book which is about alpha females. In the past, it was assumed that the big alpha male would be the dominant wolf in a pack but our studies here in Yellowstone show the opposite: The alpha female rules the pack. It is clear when you study wolves that they have a matriarchal society. The main character in that next book is a wolf known as the 06 Female. She was courted by many males in her early and middle years but rejected them all and lived an independent life. Finally, when she was middle aged, she picked two young brothers and started a pack with them. She had a life story worthy of a Shakespearian play.
In conversation with Rick McIntyre.
1) ) From June 2000 to August 2015, Rick went out into the field for 6,175 consecutive days, and by the end of the day of February 27, 2019, he had 100,000 wolf sightings. He also has compiled more than 12,000 pages of detailed notes.
2) For other interviews with Rick see: The Reign of Wolf 21, Yellowstone's Benevolent Alpha Male and The Story of Yellowstone Wolf 8: From Underdog to Alpha Male.
3) For more on Yellowstone's wolves see: The Wolves of Yellowstone Love to Play—Just Like Dogs, Do Individual Wolves Care if Their Species Is on the Brink?, Yellowstone Wolves: Everything You Want to Know and More, Killing Wolves Ruins Research in Yellowstone, and Elli Radinger's The Wisdom of Wolves. For details about the wolves of Isle Royale who have been studied for decades see "What Wolves Tell Us about Our Relationship with Nature," an interview with John Vucetich about his book Restoring the Balance.