Spitfire, a gray wolf revered by biologists and wildlife enthusiasts, has died at the hands of a trophy hunter.
The 7-year-old wolf, known officially as 926F, was legally shot and killed on Nov. 24 just a few miles outside the border of Yellowstone National Park, near its northeast entrance.
"It was a legal harvest, and everything was legitimate about the way the wolf was taken," Abby Nelson, a wolf management specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, tells the Jackson Hole Daily. "The circumstances are obviously a little bit harder for people to stomach, because that pack had showed signs of habituation."
A legendary lineage marred by tragedy
Spitfire, alpha female of the Lamar Canyon Pack, had become famous over the years with biologists, photographers and wolf enthusiasts due to her predilection for appearing on roads frequented by tourists. She was also the daughter of 832F, more commonly known as 06 (for the year she was born), who was widely regarded as "the most famous wolf in the world." The inspiration behind the book "American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West," 832F was also killed by a trophy hunter in 2012.
In postings on the Facebook page "The 06 Legacy," those who tracked the rise of Spitfire from pup to mother and pack leader mourned her untimely passing in photos, videos and memories.
"926F was the courageous daughter of 06 who kept the Lamar Canyon lineage going after her mother was shot nearly six years ago in front of her and the pack suffered utter destruction," a post announcing Spitfire's passing reads. "She faced so many challenges head-on and she was a survivor through everything. The only thing she couldn’t overcome was a bullet."
Below, you can see 926F and her pack playing in the snow in a video from January 2017.
"After all the losses and hardships you endured in your life you got through each day with honor and pride, strength and courage," wrote Bev Perez. "You were a fighter, a survivor, an excellent huntress, a true warrior. You were an Alpha, a mother. You were our beloved Queen. You had the most beautiful heart and soul. You loved your family so much and those new pups made you feel alive again and gave you purpose."
A renewed call for expanded protections
The death of Spitfire has reignited the push by conservation groups and animal advocates for the creation of a no-hunt buffer zone around Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks to protect wolves and grizzly bears from hunting, trapping and poaching. Such a zone would offer protection to those animals that live within the park, but at times cross its boundaries. The idea, so far, has not been embraced by state lawmakers.
"We’re amazed at the hostility toward the buffer idea coming from authorities of states surrounding the parks," a member of the group Campaign for Yellowstone's Wolves writes. "They so despise the idea and are so defensive that you’d think the only place to hunt wolves was around Yellowstone Park when, in fact, nearly the entire Northern Rocky Mountain region is open to wolf hunting."
In an interview with The New York Times, Doug Smith, a wolf biologist for Yellowstone, says he has overheard hunters discuss targeting the park's wolves because of their familiarity with humans.
“Wolf hunters talk about seeing a pack of park wolves outside the boundary and being able to pick the one they want,” he says. “They just stand there and have no fear."
With Spitfire's passing, the fate of the remaining seven-member Lamar Canyon Pack hangs in the balance. As Smith tells the Times, its small size may not make it as resilient as other, larger packs faced with the loss of a matriarch.
For the members of "The 06 Legacy," however, Spitfire's death will not be in vain.
"The 06 Legacy is committed to protecting wolves," they add, "and we are going to fight even harder for 06, 926F, 754M and all the other wolves whose lives are taken for granted and are killed for nothing more than sport."