Canyon Phillips had the rare experience of seeing his first wild wolf up close last weekend, though unfortunately the canine had just expired.
The 3-year-old son of wildlife-watching guide Taylor Phillips probably didn’t grasp what exactly was going on when he crawled up to investigate the still-warm carcass of the grayish-white lobo late on Saturday. Moments before the female adult wolf had been fatally hit by a vehicle cruising down Grand Teton National Park’s main interior road near Colter Bay Village.
The Phillips family rolled by just as Teton Interagency firefighters, who were also driving by, were dragging the animal’s carcass off the road.
“I don’t believe he comprehends death, and what that is,” Phillips said of his son’s roadside encounter.
“He kept on repeating, ‘Why isn’t it real?’” he said. “We were like, ‘No, it is real, but it’s dead — it no longer has any life moving through its veins.’ It’s unfortunate. That was his first wolf, really.”
The wolf was a 7-year-old female from the Huckleberry Pack, which had been tracked and given a unique identification number by the National Park Service in the past. When asked, park officials declined to identify the animal by its number. Although the wolf appears white in photos, it was actually gray and its coat was turning white in its twilight years.
Grand Teton biologist John Stephenson said that the aging lobo’s cause of death — a vehicle strike — is common for wolves within the park’s boundaries. Fourteen wolves have been hit and killed on park roads since 2005, he said.
“We have an average of one a year,” Stephenson said. “In the park, it is the No. 1 cause of mortality for wolves.”
The driver of the motor vehicle that struck the Huckleberry Pack wolf did not report it, although that is a legal requirement. Another motorist who witnessed the hapless animal being hit did phone authorities, but the reporting party did not provide enough detail for law enforcement to pursue. No investigation into the animal’s death is underway, park wildlife chief Dave Gustine said.
Gustine encouraged motorists who strike an animal — or see one hit — to call Teton Interagency Dispatch promptly, and with as many details as possible.
“If people followed the speed limit,” Gustine said, “a lot of these incidents could be avoided.”
The section of highway where the wolf was hit cuts through sagebrush and grass fields and has mostly open sight lines, said Phillips, who is the founder and CEO of Jackson Hole Eco Tour Adventures. Gustine concurred with that assessment, though noted it’s impossible to say if speed was a factor.
The Huckleberry Pack shows up on Wyoming Game and Fish Department monitoring reports as long ago as 2012, which is the year the female that just died would have been born. Its home range, maps show, extends through most of northern Teton Park and the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway, spilling into the Bridger-Teton National Forest’s Teton Wilderness to the east. At last assessment the pack had 10 wolves in its ranks, making it one of the largest wolf packs in Wyoming.
Phillips, whose guides and business benefits from wolf watching, said the Huckleberry Pack hasn’t been a particularly visible wolf pack, at least recently. That’s true of wolves in Jackson Hole generally, he said.
“In the past year, year and a half, wolf observations have been slim,” Phillips said, “and I correlate that to the hunt that opened up.”
At least over the last two years no members of the Huckleberry Pack have been registered by successful legal wolf hunters, according to Game and Fish reports. Wolf harvest has been much more substantial in the southern and eastern parts of the valley.