Wolves that leave their birth pack in search of a mate and open territory are essential to increasing wolf population and wolf country. Biologically driven dispersers risk their lives to hunters and highways, rivers and mountains. Their stories inspire.
In December 2011 a young male wolf known as Slavc dispersed from the southwestern corner of Slovenia. In 2014 a biologist, Hubert Potocnik, recalled Slavc's journey - of more than 1,200 miles - to Henry Nichols, a reporter from The Guardian.
On the first day, Slavc bumped into the A1, a fenced, four-lane expressway. He could only cross by underpass, overpass, or along a river. He chose the overpass and kept moving.
The biologist was certain of the route because he had outfitted Slavc with a GPS collar before the dispersal. The collar sent Potocnik data points seven times a day, making the trek a connect-the-dots drawing on his map.
The dots showed Slavc ending his first day in the backyard of a house in a small town. Potocnik was alarmed. Had Slavc been slain, become a trophy? As the biologist fretted, beautiful GPS dots appeared. Slavc was moving!
Continuing his trek, the wolf used a 500-foot long bridge to cross another expressway. He travelled mostly at night, but after three days resting and eating foxes in a forest near Ljubljana International Airport, he passed through an open area in broad daylight, heading north.
Why north? Austria had no established wolf packs; its few wolves were other dispersers. Why leave Slovenia with its population of perhaps 100 wolves?
Whatever his reasons, nothing stopped Slavc. He intersected the Drava River where there was no bridge. GPS dots appeared on one bank and then the other, showing his swim of the 900-foot wide river. He trudged on through the Austrian Alps, through snow that was 19 feet deep and over an 8,530-foot high pass. Southward, into Italy, home of 1,000 wolves.
Potocnik's colleague sent him a video of wolves - including a female - in Italy's Lessinia Regional Park, which covers about 40 square miles of the upper reaches of the Lessini Mountains. The biologists joked that Slavc would find his female there.
Slavc bypassed the park and - after three months traveling - reached Italy's Valpolicella vineyard region. Potocnik surmised that Slavc remained there for 12 days because he found a private animal park containing a female wolf and two males. He also killed his first livestock, two sheep and a goat.
Finally, Slavc headed north, arriving in Lessinia in April. Potocnik studied the GPS dots and asked a park manager to look for tracks. She discovered in the snow two sets: Slavc had found his female!
And his home. According to my Italian contact, the alpha pair had two pups in 2013, seven in 2014, and will likely have more. No longer a disperser, Slavc has created a population from which other wolves will disperse - as did his first two pups - continuing the return of wolves to Europe.
Rick Lamplugh is a wolf advocate and author of the Amazon Bestseller "In the Temple of Wolves: A Winter's Immersion in Wild Yellowstone." Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from the author.
Click here to read The Guardian's article.