It was a chance encounter between Marc Cooke and 926F.
The wolf looked as though it could be a dog. It paced about 50 yards off the road where Cooke’s wife spotted the female, closer than most wolves got to human admirers at Yellowstone National Park. The trip was her first time out with her husband to search for the predators.
Cooke snapped a picture of the wolf that some enthusiasts call Spitfire.
That was in August 2012, a few months before a hunter legally killed Spitfire’s mother outside the park.
The pack leader was affectionately known as “06” to her followers, for the year she was born, and Cooke watched her from afar for years, he told The Washington Post on Sunday.
“She was the rock star of Yellowstone by far,” said Cooke, who is the president of Wolves of the Rockies, a nonprofit group run by volunteers who advocate for the protection of gray wolves. “It hurt a lot of people when she was killed,” he said.
Since her mother’s death, Spitfire’s black face had grayed, and she became subordinate to her two offspring stalking elk in Lamar Canyon.
In late November, Spitfire met a similar fate to her mother. She was legally killed by a hunter outside the park in Montana, state game officials told the Times. The news has reignited demands for more protection of wolves, who advocates say keep elk moving and help restore grasslands but have been unfairly maligned for decades.
Spitfire’s death also devastated hundreds in the community drawn to the park, long captivated by wolves lording over the majesty of Yellowstone with raw and brutal beauty.
Cooke, who has watched wolves for 15 years, is a lifelong dog lover. “And wolves are nothing but wild dogs,” he said.
He and other advocates wander the park with high-powered scopes and telephoto lenses with hopes of glimpsing the wolves that have flourished since the mid-1990s, when they were brought into the park after their removal decades earlier.
On “The 06 Legacy,” a Facebook page set up for enthusiasts, members eulogized the daughter of the legendary wolf in a cascade of sorrowful comments.
“She faced so many challenges head-on and she was a survivor through everything. The only thing she couldn’t overcome was a bullet,” page administrators wrote Thursday. “May she run wild and free with her mother and live on forever in the hearts of all of us who knew and loved her for the incredible alpha and mother she was.”
Another enthusiast told a story of an encounter at Soda Butte Creek, when Spitfire thrashed an elk in the freezing water for hours.
Cooke and others have pointed to Spitfire’s death and 06′s demise as evidence that the government should tighten protections for wolves when they leave park grounds and become legal targets for hunters.
In Montana, the law limits hunts to two wolves in areas adjacent to the park. Hunters vying for relaxed regulations say they need to hunt more to protect elk and livestock, clashing with wolf advocates over the role of wolves in the modern west.
There are about 100 wolves spread across 10 packs in Yellowstone, the Times reported, with about 1,700 wolves spread across Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
The typical pack size is about 10 wolves. But the Lamar Valley pack is down to seven members without their matriarch, said Doug Smith, Yellowstone’s wolf biologist. That means the pack is not as resilient as it could be.
Little T and Dot, with tufts of white fur in their coats are the alphas of the Lamar Valley pack whose “survival is an open question,” Smith told the Times.
Not every wolf advocate who watched Spitfire called her by that name. She had been 926F to many who prefer to have a scientific detachment, Cooke said.
But he called her Spitfire. It made sense, he explained, to have a name for a creature that you watched grow up.