Anyone who has watched even one episode of Game of Thrones knows that the show features dastardly villains, allegiances that change with the weather, political and literal back-stabbings, deeply unsettling familial relationships, and stunningly frequent killings of fan-favorite characters. In a word, it is awesome.
But judging by the outcry from many longtime watchers of the series after the bloody and hopeless Season 5 finale this week, George R. R. Martin, author of the book series upon which the HBO show is based, can sometimes take his story into territories too dark even for his loyal fanbase.
I thought of Game of Thrones during a recent trip to Yellowstone National Park where I had the opportunity to go wolf watching. Like the fictional kingdom of Westeros, the world of wolves is rife with political intrigue, mayhem and murder. Martin, as it happens, is an avowed wolf lover. It’s apparent in his writing as well as in his charitable actions. The members of the Stark family, the tragic heroes upon which the book series centers, use the mythical direwolf as the family sigil.
Last year, Martin ran a contest to benefit a New Mexico wolf sanctuary, offering two donors the chance to be written into (and then killed off!) in the Winds of Winter, his forthcoming book in the series.
Knowing Martin’s penchant for shocking plot twists and lethal surprises, I also wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some of his stories were inspired by time spent watching wolves.
Yellowstone’s Lamar Canyon is a verdant landscape filled with herds of buffalo and elk. Coyotes burrow near the road side and birdsong fills the air. It’s also a place where wolves are commonly observed. Where there are wolves in Yellowstone you can bet that not far away is Rick McIntyre, veteran researcher with the national park’s Wolf Project. He has been observing the behavior of the species since it was reintroduced to the northern Rocky Mountains 20 years ago.
On the morning I met McIntyre he had picked up a signal from the radio collar of 926, the alpha female of the Lamar Canyon pack. (Collared wolves are not given names, but instead are known by numbers). He aimed his spotting scope on a small bluff beside the river about a quarter mile from where we stood and beckoned me to take a look. Through the scope I spied a small black wolf with a collar followed by an uncollared larger male and an even smaller black wolf that was prancing in the air in front of the male. Rick identified the wolves as 926, her new alpha male companion nicknamed Twin, and one of her yearling daughters who was showing off like a preteen.
It seemed like a warm, loving little family, but the story of this trio turned out to be much more complicated.
Just two months earlier, Rick observed 926, her original male partner, 925, and their six yearling pups in a stand-off with a rival group of wolves known as the Prospect Pack. Wolves are notoriously territorial and clashes among packs can be deadly. 926, who was pregnant, immediately sensed danger when she saw the pack and took off in the opposite direction. Her pups scattered soon after. But the alpha male 925 remained on the hill as 12 adult Prospect wolves charged up the slope toward him.
As the pack drew closer, 925 stood his ground, gaining precious time for his pregnant mate and their pups to escape. As the lead Prospect wolves poised to sink their teeth in, 925 darted straight down the hill, leading the rival pack on a chase away from his family.
After a short pursuit, the Prospect wolves overtook 925 and tore into him in a frenzy of yips, snarls, fur and blood. Hearing their father’s cries, two of the Lamar yearling pups re-emerged and began to howl, eventually drawing the rival wolves toward them and allowing their injured father to limp away.
McIntyre said he then lost sight of 925 but that the wolf’s radio collar indicated he had descended to a creek where he could hide and recover. Later, 926’s collar signaled her approach to that same area to check on her mate and assess the situation. After a time, she returned to her den with her pups, but without her mate. The next day, the 925 collar gave off a mortality signal.
The alpha male had fought a courageous battle and had died a hero. The situation though was suddenly dire for the rest of the Lamar Canyon wolves. About two weeks after the fatal encounter with the Prospect wolves, McIntyre observed what he feared might be the final death knell of the Lamar pack. A collared wolf from the Prospect pack and three of his mates were seen sniffing around the Lamar den. 926 found herself face to face with members of the pack that had recently killed her mate.
926 is a small female only weighing about 85 lbs. compared to the 130 plus lbs. Prospect males. Hobbled by her pregnancy, with a motley pack of yearlings and a second litter on the way, 926 stared down death in the face… and then started wagging her tail.
The members of the Prospect pack started wagging their tails back. McIntyre later observed that the Prospect Pack had fully welcomed the small black wolf 926 into the fold. All but one of her yearlings, obviously confused by her new allegiance with the wolves who committed patricide, took off on their own.
In late April, 926 had her second set of pups and it appears the Prospect wolves are helping to care for the new litter.
It all sounded tragic and fully feral to me that this wolf would so easily give up her loyalties, but McIntyre explained her thought process. 926 would be reliant on a mate to hunt for the pack while she was pregnant and during the early weeks after the next litter was born. Her yearlings were still untested in hunting and if she didn’t feed her young, 926 would be faced with a potentially tragic end to her whole pack.
So she had been faced with a cruel choice: Fend for her two litters of pups without a mate and face an almost certain death sentence by starvation, or try to forge a bitter alliance with the enemy for the survival of her clan. She chose survival of her family.
If George R. R. Martin is facing writer’s block as he finishes the next book in his series, I suggest he take a page from Rick McIntyre’s field notes.
On a happy note, 926’s five other yearlings were observed about 25 miles from their den where they had managed to take down an elk despite their inexperience. They looked healthy, McIntyre reported.
One more unsolicited lesson Martin could learn from the wolves: Remember to not give up on hope.
About this series
2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the reintroduction of gray wolves to the northern Rockies, and since that time wolves have been under nearly constant threat of losing their protections. The Weekly Howl provides insights and education about the gray wolf and updates on the status of its protections while celebrating the iconic species as a vital part of a functioning, healthy ecosystem. Posts will appear every Wednesday starting June 17 and running through the summer.