Warning: This article contains spoilers for Yellowstone season 5.
The wolf is the single most important symbol in Taylor Sheridan’s Yellowstone. While the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch is propped up on the backs of horses and cattle, the wolf is a crucial symbol not just in Neo-Westerns, but in the indigenous cultures of the continental United States as well. Indigenous Americans have observed for millennia that the way wolves live in packs as alpha predators – while taking only what they need – is reflective of the natural balance that humanity is supposed to preserve on Earth. Famously, this wisdom was applied to great effect when 31 wolves were released in the Yellowstone National Park, which restored the park’s dwindling areas.
In Yellowstone, as seen in Kayce Dutton’s vision quest in season 4, the presence and historical significance of wolves as alpha predators and symbols of the natural order help in telling sides of the story that’s missing from the dialogue. Yellowstone season 5 also sees wolves move from being semiotic tools into actual plot devices when Dutton ranch hands Ryan and Colby mistakenly shoot protected, GPS-tagged grey wolves from the park. Here’s everything else viewers need to know about what the wolves mean in Yellowstone.
Kayce Dutton Made A Pact With A Wolf In Yellowstone Season 3
In Yellowstone season 3, a wolf laid down several feet from Kayce and Monica and watched them make love near the edge of the forest. Later, Kayce finds the wolf outside their tent, and while armed with a rifle, Kayce makes a pact with the wolf. Even though they’re natural enemies, Kayce will leave the wolves in peace if they stay in the forest – but the plains belong to the ranch. This was the setup to the Yellowstone season 4 ending, in which the wolf spirit finally reveals herself to Kayce to show him the two paths he can take. Though the paths are unclear, either leads to what Kayce tells Monica is “the end of us.”
This underscores how the wolf symbolizes the very land on which the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch stands. Though the Duttons are similar to wolves, they no longer take that which they only need, and have hoarded vast tracts of land throughout their over century-long tenure in the state – and this could be why the wolves are reaching out to Kayce. By introducing the presence of wolves, Yellowstone reminds viewers that the Duttons are aliens to the Montana wilderness, and that despite their proclamations about preserving the land, the Duttons are the real villains in Yellowstone.
The Wolf Is Kayce’s Spirit Animal & Protector In Yellowstone Season 4
In Yellowstone season 4, the reveal that Kayce is being protected by a wolf spirit shows that nature has not given up on the Duttons yet. As Kayce’s wolf spirit reveals to him the two paths to the end, the wolf’s presence is a reference to the folk tale about two wolves inside every person. Although historians attribute the tale to the Cherokee and Lenape nations, the story has various versions.
All versions, however, have the same point: one of the wolves represents humanity’s worst attributes while the other represents the best, and whichever wolf a person feeds the most is the one that thrives. In the context of Yellowstone, the former wolf is represented by Kayce’s loyalty to the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch, and the latter, by Kayce’s duty as a full member of the Confederated Tribes of Broken Rock. When Kayce and Monica’s baby dies in the Yellowstone season 5 premiere, this could have been a warning of what is to come if he chooses the wrong wolf to feed. Indeed, above all else, wolves in Indigenous American culture represent wisdom and the preservation of the natural order.
Ryan & Colby Accidentally Kill Protected Wolves In Yellowstone Season 5
Yellowstone ranch hands Ryan and Colby inadvertently killing protected wolves from the national park throws a wrench into John Dutton’s plan to place a conservation easement on the ranch. These wolves were the descendants of the original 31 grey wolves who helped restore the ecosystem in large parts of Yellowstone National Park. In Yellowstone season 5, the killed wolves represent the potential fall of the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch. If John succeeds in placing a conservation easement on the Dutton ranch, after all, it would allow him to prevent any future real estate developments on their land and ensure that it remains wild.
As the Yellowstone season 5 episode 2 flashback reveals, John has always been sincere about doing whatever’s necessary to protect the land from development aggression. However, with John’s ranch hands accidentally killing wolves – and then trying to cover up the murders – the sincerity of his proclamations and even his position as the new governor of Montana could be put into question. Though the wolves in Yellowstone appear in different contexts, these appearances share one purpose: to put into focus the complex relationship between the national treasure that is Paradise Valley’s natural wilderness and the colonizers who have served as its stalwart stewards for the last 100 years.