The Story of Yellowstone's Alpha Wolf, Matriarch of the Forest

Did you know that the leaders of most wolf packs aren't male, but female? Indeed, alpha she-wolves exist. However, they've been overlooked, even though they have unique characteristics that favor the survival of the group.
The Story of Yellowstone's Alpha Wolf, Matriarch of the Forest
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 26 November, 2022

In the world of nature, as in the territory of human beings, we often reinforce somewhat biased ideas. We’re the products of our culture and of what’s transmitted to us. Sadly, with this limited vision, we often miss out on the marvelous grandeur of the world we inhabit. For example, what if we were to tell you that we need to completely rethink the concept of the alpha wolf?

This is what the naturalist, writer, and photographer, Rick McIntyre claims in his latest book, The Alpha Female Wolf: The Fierce Legacy of Yellowstone’s 06. Indeed, he states that the females are the true leaders of the wolf packs. These alpha wolves roam the lush forests hunting, guiding, taking care of their young, and choosing which territories to live in.

They have unique characteristics that make them excellent guides for their groups. In fact, they’re born leaders in character, instinct, and attitude. Furthermore, as if this weren’t decisive enough, it’s fascinating to learn that they act as learning models for the young male wolves. Indeed, we’ve undoubtedly been neglecting the role of female wolves in the wild, where they rule.

0-6 was a gray wolf that lived in Yellowstone National Park. Her life was long documented by naturalist Rick McIntyre, until she was shot and killed by a hunter.

yellowstone alpha wolf pack
The behavior of alpha wolves favors the survival of the pack.

0-6, Yellowstone’s alpha wolf

Before revealing the magnificent yet tragic story of Yellowstone’s alpha wolf, we must talk about the figure who knew her more than anyone. Rick McIntyre is a naturalist and photographer. Jane Goodall calls him the wolf behavior guru. Few people know so much or have spent so many hours observing and studying the lives of these animals, come rain, shine, or snow.

McIntyre has worked for more than forty years as a nature ranger and wolf researcher for the US National Park Service. His books have won awards all over the world. His most recent book tells of the life of 0-Six, a wolf born in Yellowstone and a member of the Agate Creek Wolves pack.

The life story of this animal is just a small example of a reality that, according to McIntyre, is more frequent than we might think. In fact, after four decades of studying wild wolves in Alaska and Yellowstone, he can say unequivocally that the packs are female-led.

The alpha male works for the alpha wolf

We often assume that, in wolf packs, the largest and most conspicuous male assumes the role of leader. However, the reality is different. Mcintyre explains that the alpha males actually work for the alpha female wolves, the true dominant animals in the packs. They’re in command and they act executively.

O-6, Yellowstone’s alpha wolf, was a case in point. Born in 2006, it didn’t take long for her to become a dominant breeding female. At just three years old, she left her birth home to claim another territory and become the leader of the Lamar Canyon pack. There was a river there, abundant game, and it was an ideal place for her young to grow up in safety.

0-6 had gray fur and distinctive black ovals around her eyes. But the most striking thing about her was her strength, agility, and intelligence. She could single-handedly kill large prey like moose and was always watching out for her cubs so they didn’t get separated from the group.

What’s special about alpha wolves?

This particular Yellowstone alpha wolf was a fiercely protective animal. During all the years that Rick Mcintyre followed her, he never ceased to be amazed by her abilities. Throughout her short life, she raised three litters of pups who all survived. She didn’t lose any of them, despite having to face more than one grizzly bear looking to devour them.

  • The main obligation of the alpha wolf is to fight for the protection of her group, especially the pups.
  • A leading female will have violent fights with other alpha females from nearby packs over hunting territory. This interspecies rivalry is frequent. In these cases, they’re accompanied by the strongest male wolves for support.
  • One thing that naturalist Rick Mcintyre has discovered in his observations is that alpha wolves have better planning abilities than males. They make the most important decisions, those that the group later accepts.
  • The male wolves follow and obey them because they were raised by females. This influence has determined that they respectfully assume the leadership of the matriarchs.

The behavior and leadership of the alpha wolves ensures the survival of the packs in the forests.

yellowstone alpha wolf
Forests are led by many matriarchs, alpha she-wolves who care for their young and guide their pack.

O-Six, the Yellowstone Park matriarch who became a legend

O-Six, Yellowstone’s alpha wolf, was said to be the star of the park. It was because she allowed herself to be photographed and it was easy to spot her with her pups. In fact, tourists frequently came just to see her. However, the animal became a legend among wolf lovers because of her tragic end.

In 2012, O-6 made a mistake that she may not even have been aware of. Yellowstone Park is a protected territory, but she wanted to explore another area and went to Crandall, Wyoming, during wolf hunting season in 2012. She was shot and killed by a hunter. The news immediately reached the New York Times, prompting a discussion of the law that allows the killing of these animals.

The matriarch of the Yellowstone forests became the subject of a National Geographic documentary. Then, of course, there’s Rick McIntyre’s book that’s dedicated to her with a foreword by Jane Goodall herself. The fire, tenderness, intelligence, and wildness of this particular alpha wolf is a reality that continues to inspire us and invites reflection. Her legacy and presence continue to roam the forest.

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  • McIntyre, Rick (2019) The Rise of Wolf 8: Witnessing the Triumph of Yellowstone’s Underdog (The Alpha Wolves of Yellowstone, 1). Greystone Books; Illustrated edición
  • McIntyre, Rick (2022) The Alpha Female Wolf: The Fierce Legacy of Yellowstone’s 06 (The Alpha Wolves of Yellowstone) Greystone Books; Illustrated edición

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