The Druid Peak pack was the most visible, popular and aggressive wolf pack in Yellowstone. The original five members of the Druid Peak pack — #38 and #39, the alpha male and female, and female pups #40, #41, and #42 — were once part of the powerful Besa pack when they were captured near Fort St. John in British Columbia and relocated to Yellowstone’s acclimation pens before being released in April 1996 in the Park’s scenic Lamar Valley. The nearly treeless Lamar Valley is often considered Yellowstone’s most prized hunting grounds and the most visible wolf territory in the Park. On this public stage, the soap opera atmosphere that seemed to engulf the Druids would come to characterize the group.
By the end of 1998, the Lamar Valley Druids had seven members, and a growing reputation for conflict. The constant harassment of beta female #42 by her sister, the new Alpha female #40, earned #42 the nickname “Cinderella” by the Yellowstone researchers, but Cinderella finally reached the ball in 2000, after a violent turn of events that put her at the head of the pack. She and the other female members of the pack, tired of #40’s brutal leadership, turned on the alpha female, and killed her. At least three litters were born to the liberated females, and 20 of the 21 pups survived. The Druids were now 27 members strong and became the largest pack in Yellowstone. In 2001, another 10 pups were added to the group, and the 37-member Druid pack became the largest wolf pack ever documented in North America.
In 2002, the pack, having reached critical mass, splintered. Three new packs, the Agate Creek, Geode Creek, and Slough Creek packs, were created, each anchored by a former Druid female. The Druids were left with 11 members including the matriarch, Cinderella, and the long-time alpha male, #21. In 2003, the Druid Pack provided a first when researchers recorded a six-hour-long ritual song and dance that ended with a new wolf, #302, a lone black male, formerly of the Leopold pack, joining the pack as the breeding male. Wolf researchers named him “Casanova.” These rites had never been recorded in the wild, surprising many and providing further insight into wolf society. The Druids expanded to 17 members by the end of 2003.
In 2004, the Druids once again suffered terrible losses; Cinderella was killed by members of a rival pack, and the aging patriarch was found dead in the summer. In a decisive battle in 2005, the Slough Creek pack ousted the formerly dominant Druid wolves from the Lamar Valley. Two adult female Druids died that year — one killed by the Sloughs — and no pups survived. The pack was reduced to just four members, and looked to be nearing its end, but in true soap opera fashion, the Druids’ tale does not conclude with their exile. In 2006, from their new location in an area called Cache Creek, aided by Casanova and #480, the new alpha male, the pack began to rebuild. Both of the pack’s adult females successfully bred, producing eight surviving pups. The Druids pushed back against the Slough Creek pack — which suffered its own losses earlier in the year after a run-in with an unknown pack from the north — and were able to reclaim their traditional territory in the Soda Butte and Lamar Valleys; six pups were born there in 2007.
In 2010, after a dominating 14-year reign in the northwestern corner of Yellowstone National Park, one of the park’s most prolific and most viewed wolf packs in the world perished.
“The Druid pack is kaput,” said Doug Smith, Yellowstone’s wolf biologist. It happened quickly. Only two months before, there were 11 wolves in the pack. But after the alpha female was killed by another pack, the old alpha male wandered off rather than breed with one of the other female wolves that were his offspring. He also suffered from a bad case of mange. Mange is a skin infection caused by a mite, which leads to hair loss. In animals with weakened immune systems, it can be fatal. Seven other females in the pack also had mange, and all but one have died either from mange or been killed by other packs.
“They’re down to one and that one probably won’t make it through the winter,” Smith said.
In a sardonic twist, the fate of the Druids came to be because of the eradication efforts of wolves and coyotes over a century ago by the state of Montana. Mange was introduced into the Northern Rockies in 1909 by Montana state wildlife veterinarians in an attempt to help eradicate local wolf and coyote populations. Sarcoptic mange is a highly contagious canine skin disease caused by mites that burrow into the skin causing infections, hair loss, severe irritation and an insatiable desire to scratch. The resulting hair loss and depressed vigor of an infected animal leaves them vulnerable to hypothermia, malnutrition and dehydration, which can eventually lead to death. Scientists believe the troublesome mite that causes the disease persisted among coyotes and foxes after wolves were exterminated. Since their reintroduction into the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 1995-96, wolves appeared to be free of mange until 2002. As of November 2012, 4 of 8 known packs in Yellowstone National Park have mange, mostly in the Northern Range and the prevalence within a pack ranges from 30 to 80%.