He was known by the nicknames of "Limpy" or "Hoppy," depending on who you talk to; the name comes from an old injury that left him crippled for life. His official designation was Wolf 253, part of the wolf population brought back from the verge of extinction in the northern Rockies, and one of 1,500 gray wolves that lost federal protections in March when the federal government "delisted" wolves from the Endangered Species Act.
And on March 28, 2008, he was shot dead.
Limpy wasn't just any old wolf. His distinctive gait, walking on three legs, made him one of the more easily recognized wolves in Yellowstone. Among his pack, too, he was unique: he was taller than Wolf 21, his father and the alpha male of the Druid pack that roamed the open fields in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley.
Wolf-watchers in the northern Rockies say Limpy grew up charging after elk at the same speed as the rest of his pack, despite the injury that hobbled him as a pup. He played an important role in the Druid pack, tending to pups and defending the pack's main den from bears.
As a young male, Limpy left the safety and security of the Druid pack and struck out on his own. He trotted south out of Yellowstone Park, and traveled across southern Wyoming until he crossed the Utah border. A trapper chasing coyotes in the mountains 20 miles from Salt Lake City caught Limpy in one of his traps. It was November, 2002, and the first confirmed wolf sighting in Utah in 70 years.
Once, hundreds of thousands of wolves roamed the great expanse of the northern Rockies. Decimated by decades of unregulated slaughter and persecution, gray wolves were pushed to the brink of extinction. In 1973, gray wolves became one of the first animals to appear on the Endangered Species list. With the help of legal protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act, wolves in the northern Rockies had begun making a comeback when Hoppy arrived.
The wolf trapper called the US Fish and Wildlife, who sent a man down from Wyoming to fetch Limpy. The injured wolf was loaded in the back of a truck and driven to the far northern stretches of Grand Teton National Park, where he was released back into the wild two days later.
"He was a hell of a wolf," recalls one veteran wolf-watcher. "After he was released with a hurt foot from the coyote trap, he crossed the territories of probably four hostile wolf packs in order to rejoin his old pack in Yellowstone Park."
No one witnessed Limpy's reunion with the Druid pack; it happened under cover of darkness. But the next morning, when one avid wolf-watcher and local photographer spotted Limpy back with his former pack, he was stunned.
"He was in bad shape," recalled the photographer. "Must've been down to two and a half legs."
Survival is a strong instinct, and so is the natural inclination of wolves to live in close-knit families and packs. Limpy was welcomed back to the Druid pack, and resumed the life he'd known years before.
Eventually, Limpy left the safety of Yellowstone and headed south again. He spent a year near an elk refuge near Jackson, then moved on toward Pinedale, feeding on elk, an occasional deer, and probably a smattering of jackrabbits and mice.
Limpy must have known that elk could be found around man-made feeding grounds, where elk are concentrated and disease is easily transmitted. Limpy was one of many wolves who preyed on elk grazing the land, helping keep the populations in check and thinning the herds of the sick and weak.
Limpy had, however, crossed into Sublette County, where local grocery stores sell bumper stickers that read "Wolves -- Government-sponsored terrorists!" Some ranchers and farmers don't hold much love for wolves, which they see only as predator... despite the fact that many animals are, by their very nature, predators. It's a brutal fact of nature. It's how they survive.
In the end, Limpy's venture outside the safety of Yellowstone Park's official boundaries proved fatal. After eight years spent traveling over thousands of miles, he was shot -- along with another male and a female wolf -- near the elk feeding ground a few miles outside Daniel, Wyoming on March 28, 2008. He became one of the first casualties in a resurrected war against wolves that began the day the federal government stripped Endangered Species protections from gray wolves across the northern Rockies.
Limpy's death was reported to the state, as required under new Wyoming wolf rules, and word of his killing quickly spread across the Internet. The Salt Lake City Tribune picked up the story, and talked with several people who were fans of the old wolf with the bum leg.
"He died for nothing," lamented Salt Lake City resident Marlene Foard. "If there was a reason to kill him, I could live with that. But there wasn't."
Another reader wrote in an e-mail, "I think they have no idea what they have done by killing this particular wolf."
And Franz Camenzind, executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, said people knew wolves had been hanging around the feeding ground, but none had been seen attacking cattle herds or destroying human property. As Camenzind told the Salt Lake City Tribune, Limpy was "a good wolf. He covered thousands of miles and didn't cause any trouble."