I wrote the scripts for this two DVD set about Yellowstone’s rare white wolves.  Disc 1 tells the story of the white Hadyen pack alpha female, who colonized Hayden Valley with her mate, and who faced fierce attacks from a rival pack.  Disc 2 follows her daughter, also a white wolf, as she founds the Canyon pack and thrives in Hayden valley.  She raised many generations of wolves and, along with her mate, was one of the oldest wolves in the park. The film ends with footage of the Canyon wolf’s daughter, the third white wolf in the line, who still heads the Wapiti pack.

Just after the films were produced, the aged Canyon alpha female was found shot and dying within Yellowstone’s borders, killed by a poacher.

To order, go to http://trailwoodfilms.com/experimental/white-wolf/


by Ilona Popper

We saw the wolves about a mile below us. They had killed an elk at the base of a long drainage and were eating at the carcass: the black breeding female; the gray breeding male, 685M; and several of their pups, only a month away from their first birthday. Soon, their mother would whelp a new litter.

It was a snowy March morning in 2009, and I had joined two crew members of the Yellowstone Wolf Project, Hilary and Josh, who were following the Everts wolf pack for the Wolf Project’s winter study. We had hiked into the Gallatin National Forest and set up our scopes high along a steep ravine that cut sharply down to the Yellowstone River. Across the river was Yellowstone National Park, where flats and hills rose up to Mount Everts.

The wolves tugged and chewed, side by side at the carcass.

“Wow,” Hilary exclaimed. “Can you believe that!?”

“Is he taking that to her?” asked Josh.


Lifting my head, I shifted my scope in the direction the two were looking, higher up on Everts. I saw two wolves; one was the graying-black Old Everts Female (OEF), lying sphinxlike on an overlook above the carcass. I caught sight of her just after 685M, the breeding male, dropped an elk leg onto her forepaws. 685M had pulled the leg from the carcass, climbed the hill to where the old female lay, and brought her the meat.

“What a mensch!” Josh said.

“I knew he was a prince,” said Hilary.

685M stood looking down at the old wolf. The OEF was about 9 years old. When she was about 4 years old, her shoulder joint had been so badly injured that, for most of her life, she held that leg straight in front of her when she traveled.

Now the old wolf remained still, perhaps to make sure 685M had truly released the food. Then she grabbed the leg in her jaws, stood and began hopping up the mountain.

But the breeding male raced ahead of her and angled his body to block her way. She paused, faced his flank and stepped past him. Again, 685M ran ahead of her and turned to stand obliquely. What was he up to? He didn’t take back the leg, but he kept halting her.

The OEF held the leg tightly and wouldn’t lay it down to take a bite. I wondered why she was so bent on traveling up the mountain. After a couple rounds of this mute conversation, the male finally gave up and trotted back to the carcass below.

Wild wolves carry food and regurgitate to pups, but they don’t usually carry food to other adult wolves, with these exceptions: all pack members bring food to the nursing mother, who mostly stays in the den for the first week or so of the pups’ lives, warming and suckling them. (Usually this is the breeding female, but if there is good hunting, packs may support additional litters.) Rising hormones like oxytocin prime all the members of the pack to focus on raising pups, and this accounts for the other exception: before “denning up,” pregnant female wolves may solicit and receive food from their mates, as if to jump-start those nurturing hormones.

So, why was 685M bringing food to the OEF? The pups were grown, they weren’t even hers, and she wasn’t pregnant. And why didn’t she eat alongside the rest of the pack? The carcass was in plain view. What exactly was the OEF’s role in this pack?…

This article appears in full in the Summer 2017 issue of International Wolf.

Want to read the rest of it? Become a member of the International Wolf Center!  Visit http://www.wolf.org/  to learn more about the Center’s programs and ambassador wolves:

Wolves are a vital part of our ecosystem.  But many people don’t have the accurate, science-based facts they need in order to make the most informed decisions about wolves. Being a member of the International Wolf Center helps provide people with those facts! Your membership helps us to educate thousands of people each year through our website, webinars, WolfLink Videoconferencing, quarterly International Wolf Magazine, and our stunning interpretive center in Ely, Minnesota.

A year-long membership includes:

  • A subscription to the beautiful and informative quarterly International Wolf magazine
  • Unlimited free admission to the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota
  • Discounts on Learning Adventures, webinars and Wolf Den Store purchases, and more…

Wednesday, April 26, 2017
7:00pm – 9:00pm
Doors open at 5pm


Free performance, presented in partnership with Elk River Books.

The reading will be about an hour, including Q&A.

Unearthing Paradise

Elk River Press’s anthology Unearthing Paradise: Montana Writers in Defense of Greater Yellowstone is now available. A portion of all sales of this book goes directly to Park County Environmental Council for use in their efforts to protect Paradise Valley and Jardine, MT from gold mining and other assaults on the Greater Yellowstone area. I am honored to be a contributor, among many great Montana writers.

You may order online here: https://unearthingparadise.org/

or at Elk River Books here:   (406) 333-2330        120 N. Main St. (PO Box 2212) Livingston, MT 59047

Excerpts from a blog post at “Chattermarks, ” North Cascades Institute Writer in Residence, Summer 2014

I was lucky enough to enjoy a brief writer-in-residency at the North Cascades Institute in May 2014…

One of my best experiences in my time at North Cascades Institute was during a hike on the East Bank trail in the North Cascades National Park…I had two unusual encounters with deer on this walk. The first followed my lovely lunch on the trail. Here’s my journal, from field notes:

May 20, 2014

…The trail I’m traveling (is bordered by) a steep, tangled ravine on the left and …a high wooded hill on the right. I come around a corner and find one large doe standing in the middle of the trail. She’s looking at me with some alarm. After a second or two of our staring at each other, she runs up the hill and freezes. Now, I see that several deer are also peering at me through some foliage. Very slowly I step a little to the left and see that there is a small female yearling and two other does. They remain frozen. Then the lead doe rejoins her group.

I inch further left to a small earth promontory, a little pull-out off the trail. It’s perched above the ravine. As I step aside I say in a very calm voice, “Do what you need to do.” (I mean, “Go past me if you need to,” but I form the words in order to focus my own intentions.)

I get very still and I avert my eyes. Almost immediately, the doe closest to me, I’ll call it the second doe, takes a step, waits and then walks briskly by me. As she gets closest to me on the trail, I feel how large and near she is. I think, “Do what you need to do, but please don’t hurt me!” Have I placed myself in more danger than I realized? The lead or first doe follows that second one, but when she gets nearest to me, she angles up the hill away from me and then climbs down to the trail.

Now the youngest, a small yearling, stops and watches me. The last doe behind her peers at me too. I remain still, eyes averted, and repeat, “Do what you need to do.” The yearling steps, stops, starts a little, walks, stops, and then trots past me. She sticks to the trail which brings her close.

Finally, the last and most skittish doe stands for a while. She’s one of the largest of the group. I want to look in her face, but make myself keep my eyes averted. As she hesitates, I feel, rather than see, the yearling returning behind me, very close. Is she sniffing me? I can’t look because I know they will scatter if I turn my head.

At first, I believe the yearling is actually curious about me or even trying to communicate something to me. Suddenly, it seems the yearling is made bold for another reason. Out of the corner of my eye, I see that she focuses her gaze on the nervous doe, as if to say, “Are you coming? We can’t leave you behind,” or possibly, “See, it’s safe to risk it.” But, I really don’t know why the little deer came back. I don’t know if this doe was her mother.

I look into the eyes of that last doe—I’m between her and the others—and I think again, “Do what you need to do.” She runs up the hill around me and down to the others. I am flooded with happiness that none of them bolted and that they seem to be traveling the route they’d chosen.

I step on the trail and look back at them. The deer have already covered some ground. The three in the lead are all trotting, ears back. But that last large doe stands studying me. Her expression has some vigilance in it, but, it seems to me, also a smidgen of curiosity. She’s watches me for some time. I turn away first.

To read the full blog go to:


A Moose Story


A couple of weeks ago, as I drove a friend into Yellowstone, I saw a cow moose jogging alongside our car. She trotted slowly in an arc in the snow, traveling in the opposite direction from us. I glimpsed the heads of cow elk behind her, looking alert, even alarmed, as the moose careened by. The elk remained immobile, focusing on the moose, and possibly on what or who was chasing her.

Years ago a grad student, Stewart, studied elk in Yellowstone. He showed that elk are nervous eaters, popping their heads up and down as they browse, scanning for predators. If they spot wolves, elk bunch together, all looking in the same direction. Then they run. Yet, as soon as wolves take down one of their number, the surviving elk make the most of the opportunity and eat without looking up. They’ve learned that chances are good they have nothing to worry about, for a little while anyway. (Elk also may turn and face down or even strike out at wolves. Elk that face wolves often survive, in part because wolves are coursing hunters. Wolves seem to prefer prey to run away from them, possibly to offset the size advantage that prey have. A sign of this advantage is that wolves kill only 15 % of the elk they attempt to kill.)

Of course, I have seen cow elk distraught and pacing after wolves have killed their calves. The cow will watch, circle, and hang around for a while, but stand back from the carcass as wolves eat.  Eventually, she’ll give up and return to her herd.

This came to mind when I saw the cow moose: didn’t this one have a calf with her? The last time I’d seen this cow, she stood with her calf, eating willows by the creek, a few yards east of here. Both animals looked up at me warily and steadily, as I drove slowly above them on the road. Cow moose have a reputation for being very aggressive about anyone near their young, so I kept a distance when I pulled my car over and stepped out to get a better look.

Snow had piled into miles of hills and mountains, the whiteness only relieved where snow had drifted off the tops of sagebrush and where willow bushes ran along the creeks. The two moose nearly disappeared against the dark maroon willow stands, their forms picked out by patches of sunny snow behind the bushy branches. The calf was nearly 2/3 the size of its mother and both animals stood vibrant, with glossy coats, their breaths steaming.

Now, the cow moose was alone, running through the plateau. I looked for wolves, but couldn’t see anything following her. I was driving slowly and the ridge rose and fell, chopping up my view.

The moose trotted then suddenly broke into a gallop. Her legs seemed to move independently beneath her massive torso, a blocky dark rectangle of muscle. She had none of the springy, rocking quality you see in fleeing elk. Her body remained level to the ground as her knees pranced high and fast.  Power, I thought.

As I slowed the car to watch, I noticed a coyote standing on the opposite side of the road. It stared, not at the fleeing moose, but away to the south. Was the coyote watching wolves tear up the carcass of this cow’s calf? Coyotes keep tabs on wolves, for their own safety and in hopes of stealing from the wolves’ kills later.


I began a story of how it went: probably the cow moose had just run across the road, away from the wolves that had been eating her young. She had lingered and was finally giving up and leaving, but she was still agitated and that’s why she was trotting off like that. But why had she sped up to a gallop?

In this ecosystem, though I had seen many wolves hunting other animals and had seen moose, I had never seen wolves actually hunt moose, so I wasn’t familiar with cow moose behavior with wolves. I know that at times, cow moose, like cow elk, chase and attack wolves. I have seen the fierceness of a cow moose protecting her young. Several years ago, I saw a cow moose charge a massive bull bison that she seemed to think was too close to her calf. The bull bison chased the cow into a lake, where she swam frantically along the shoreline, as the bison knocked down and butted the young calf. At first, the calf looked dead. But gradually it lifted its head. That evening, the cow lay next to the calf, but it couldn’t nurse without standing. The cow moose waited with the calf for days till, to my surprise, it recovered enough to walk off with her.

I turned the car around and we drove back the way we’d come and immediately my friend Cessie spotted the moose. The cow had crossed the creek and was heading back the way she’d come, only on the other side of a deep draw. Another wildlife watcher pulled up behind us and mentioned he had just seen the elk herd bunch up and then run into that same draw, which was a deep ravine. So the wolf was still out there. And the moose had gone from trotting to galloping. Perhaps the wolves had not killed the calf, but were pursuing the cow.

It’s amazing how the human brain scrambles around for meaning, for a story. This tendency intensifies when I’m in the field, even though I try to fight against closing off the narrative too soon, or imposing too many assumptions. Yet shaping an experience into a narrative seems to be human nature. I’ve seen it with my students in writing seminars, and I see it in people I encounter out here: wildlife watchers, naturalists, citizen scientists, wildlife photographers, or tourists.

Perhaps this tendency to look for the story is a survival adaptation in humans. Getting the tale straight might be part of reading other animals’ behavior right; it might help us at other times stay safe, scavenge, or hunt. Tale-telling is also a lot of fun. If a trait is adaptive it starts to feel good.  Perhaps we want to believe that stories do contain meaning and realizations, because something that feels so good and right simply must connect us to larger truths. If nothing else, shaping the story reignites my curiosity and honesty, which continually test and reopen my narrative. I may learn the most where the perfect tale falls apart.

There are times when story-telling seems to trigger the same pleasure-causing neurotransmitters that encountering a wild animal does. If I’m constructing the story as I watch wildlife, like a detective in the field, the pleasure becomes closely mixed with the thrill, the slight danger, of seeing a wild animal close by who is behaving according to the logic of her mysterious survival and experience. As an animal myself, I intuit her experience, yet as different species, she and I cannot confirm that we understand things the same way. Still, I feel as if I have hold of a thread that can lead me to some crucial understanding about existence.


Later in the day, Cessie and I snow shoed around the plateau area where we’d seen the animals. Within minutes, we picked up large moose tracks, near where I’d first imagined the cow had left her dead calf to the wolves. Soon we found a second track of a smaller moose: her calf. But there were no birds, no blood spots, and no signs of a carcass. Perhaps the carcass was far from here. We also found the coyote track, but no wolf tracks at all. No answers there.

The north side of the road had more surprises in store for us: the calf and her mother moose had traveled to the north side together. The tracks were fresher there, so the calf had not been left dead on the south side of the road. When I first saw the cow moose trotting, her calf was somewhere nearby, it seemed.

We followed the tracks towards the draw. Yet, before we got to the ravine, we saw the cow moose track split off and run in a different direction, to the area where we had first seen her this morning. We found a single wolf track following her! When we turned back to get to the lip of the ravine, where the elk ran down a hill of breakneck steepness, we found one smaller calf moose track plunge down, but no wolf track. We also could see the calf track climb the far hill out of the draw. Yet, after the two moose split, the wolf never followed the calf.  Why not?

Did the cow moose trot slowly in order to lure the wolf to her and switch into a gallop when the wolf neared? Perhaps the cow was trying to decoy the wolf away from her calf.   I wondered if the wolf was young, 1-2 years old. A more experienced wolf might have known not to follow the slow-seeming cow, but to stick with the calf. When we last saw the cow moose on the opposite side of the ravine, circling back east, was she trotting to reunite with her calf?  I have seen very little moose behavior, so I don’t really know.  Yet, I think this story is the one that most closely matches what I know of ungulate-wolf behaviors.


Five days later, I saw what looked like the same cow moose and her calf feeding again in the willows. The moose tilted their heads high up into the branches, reaching for willow tips. They looked breathtakingly healthy, but were shy of the ring of people gathered on the road, watching them. Gradually they moved off: cow first, calf following.

Copyright Ilona Popper February 2014

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