Druid wolf pack
Part of the Druid wolf pack is bedded down in the snow in Yellowstone National Park in March 2007.

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There's some "King Lear" in its story, the monarch tortured into exile by his daughters.

Its convoluted family tree rings of Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina."

And this was the winter of the Druid Peak wolf pack's discontent.

What was once the most watched, largest and most dominant wolf pack in Yellowstone National Park has dwindled to one collared female, ill with mange, two males forming their own pack elsewhere and no more than six lone wolves wandering the landscape, according to Rick McIntyre, a biological technician with the park's wolf project.

That might sound tragic, but it's in fact the natural progression of a restored wolf population that has, over the past 15 years, surpassed what many biologists ever expected in terms of both number and vitality.

It's just a small part of Yellowstone's epic narrative, but the drama of the Druid pack, witnessed firsthand by millions of visitors to the park's Lamar Valley, rivals that of great literature.

"It's an ongoing story," McIntyre said. "Like living through a very historic time -- the Russian Revolution or the Civil War, maybe -- with all these upheavals going on. And you never know how it's going to turn out."

The Druids

The founding members of the pack in 1996 were an alpha male, an alpha female and their three daughters. But the pack would not long remain modest in size.

By 2001, 37 wolves strong, the Druids had grown the largest pack in Yellowstone and, according to McIntyre, possibly the largest pack ever recorded in the world. The huge pack was visible from the road that cuts through the Lamar, and visitors learned the wolves' story as they gazed at the animals through researchers' scopes.

Between 2001 and the summer of 2008, the pack experienced some violent rises and falls. One winter, the Druid pack was vanquished from the Lamar Valley by another pack and its numbers whittled to three. Yet the pack was always able to bounce back, until now.

Its recent troubles began in August 2008, when the pack comprised 21 wolves. Wolves often splinter from their pack, and that month one of the Druids' most famous members did just that.

No. 302, known to wolf watchers as "Casanova," along with five yearlings, left to form a new pack on the Blacktail Plateau with three females from another pack.

By that spring, the Druid pack was down to 14 members, still not a small pack, and liable to grow when the alpha female gave birth that spring.

The pack's den was cloistered in the forest, making it difficult for biologists to count the pups. In the spring of 2009, McIntyre could only estimate that as many as nine pups might be born that year.

Just four pups, however, emerged in August, undersized and carrying mange, a disease that doesn't kill wolves but can weaken them severely, McIntyre said. All the adults had contracted mange, as well, and were headed for a deadly fall.

Sisters, brothers and battles

Wolf packs wage constant war for control of prime hunting territory. During pack "battles," McIntyre said, wolves attack other packs' alpha members, akin to the way generals were targeted in the Civil War.

Last fall a pack killed the Druids' alpha female, No. 569. That meant that by October 2009, the pack was down to its alpha male, No. 480, and his seven daughters and two sons.

Then the arrival of another wolf, later classified No. 755, caught the attention of the seven females, much to their father's chagrin.

The father, having no unrelated females to breed with, left the pack on Dec. 13, 2009, never to be seen again, dead or alive.

Soon after, No. 755's brother joined the Druids, prompting No. 480's sons to leave. Of the seven daughters, one died, and three left -- some of whom may still roam the park alone.

The Druids had dwindled to just two males and three females.

McIntyre watched in January 2010 as the remaining five Druids approached the Blacktail Pack on an elk kill.

Former Druid males Big Brown and Medium Gray had joined the Blacktails. When they saw their sister approach the dead elk, they attacked, but relented after a few moments -- realizing, perhaps, they were attacking a close relative. Their sister still died the next day from her injuries, as did another of the Druid females because of the skirmish.

Endings and beginnings

Of the collared Druids, only one female, No. 690, remains today. And even she was pushed out of the pack by a larger wolf called '06 Female. No. 690 has mange, travels alone and has been seen eating snow. Chances are she won't survive much longer.

This complicated genealogy has all the elements of a Greek tragedy, but there's a possible happy ending.

Nos. 755 and 754, the brothers who had joined the Druids last fall have now formed the provisionally named "755's Group" in the Slough Creek area. And, while they aren't the Druid pack, per se, their companion '06 Female is pregnant with the potential genetic progeny of the Druids' former glory. She is, by chance, the granddaughter of two early alphas of the Druid pack.

These great-grandpups of original Druid royalty could possibly carry the pack, in one way or another, into the future.

The spectators

Biologist and wolf program leader Doug Smith is intrigued by the story.

"Scientifically, it's very interesting," Smith said. "The life of a pack, of a social group, is so rarely studied from beginning to end."

Emmy award-winning "Nature" cinematographer Bob Landis has filmed the Druids since their beginning.

"They've certainly been my life since 1996," Landis said. "It feels sometimes like all your old friends are gone.

"Back during the peak, we thought it would be the same for 15 years. But that's not how it works, with humans or wildlife," he said.

McIntyre suspects, though, that if '06 Female's pups can survive mange, they may usher in a new unheralded era of the Druid line.

"It all happens so fast, and you're not worrying about anything until it's over," he said. "You're just in the middle of the story."

Michael Gibney can be reached at mgibney@dailychronicle.com or 582-2638.

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