This summer, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature announced that the western black rhinoceros was officially extinct. The subspecies of African rhino had last been spotted in 2006. According to news reports, poaching and a “lack of conservation” were to blame for the rhino blinking out of existence.
It was just one of the many news stories I flipped through that day and hardly processed. Later, after shutting down the day’s news and noise, I lie down in darkness and thought, “Shit.”
Wait, what does this have to do with New Mexico?
This place is magical. It hosts an amazing breadth of species—from bleached earless lizards in the dunes at White Sands to the marmots and pikas guarding the trail to Wheeler Peak, the state’s highest mountain. Although stretches now dry during the summer, the Rio Grande’s riparian corridor supports hundreds of species, including hummingbirds that zip along the river edge and the javelina and mountain lions that skulk through Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.
But we also host species struggling to survive for any number of reasons. According to the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, 25 now-rare fish species are protected under the state’s Wildlife Conservation Act. Consider the Zuni bluehead sucker. Thanks to soil erosion in the watershed—due to logging and overgrazing—and an attempt to rid the streams of non-game fish in the 1960s, by the 1990s, the fish’s habitat had shrunk to less than 10 percent its historic range. To survive, the fish have tried moving further and further upstream.
Even the iconic Rio Grande cutthroat trout only occupies 12 percent of its historic range. The fish aren’t good at competing with brook and brown trout; they interbreed with rainbows. Over the past few years, federal, state and tribal agencies have also been trying to figure out how the cutthroat might fare in a warming climate.
Everyone knows the story of the Mexican gray wolf. By the mid-20th century, the species had been extirpated from the United States. In 1998, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners began reintroducing the wolves to Arizona and New Mexico. According to the most recent annual population estimate, a total of 75 now live in the two states; 38 are in New Mexico. (That’s not even two classes of kindergarteners for anyone requiring data visualization.)
In a novel, The Dog Stars, published last year, Peter Heller describes life in the post-apocalyptic West. The man has lost his wife, his world, even the Colorado trout streams he flyfished when life was normal. The man laments, wishing one sleepless night he had something to go home to: “But who’s kidding whom?” Heller writes. “Melissa is not coming back, the trout aren’t, and neither is the elephant nor the pelican. Nature might invent a speckled proud coldwater fighting fish again but she will never again give the improbable elephant another go.”
It’s only a novel, of course. But those two sentences set me back. That world haunts me.
Recently, I asked Andrew Todd, a US Geological Service research biologist who works on cutthroat trout, what it matters if the fish survive. Who really cares if cutthroat trout are replaced by brooks, browns or rainbows? He mentions biodiversity and ecosystem functions; he explains that if the fish ends up being protected under the Endangered Species Act, private landowners and management agencies will have to consider the fish’s health before developing new projects. The recovery of a species has everything to do with science, technology, management and regulations.
But it’s deeper—and simpler—than all that. “From a fundamental standpoint, it’s a super pretty fish,” Todd laughs.
“As humans, it’s our responsibility to try and keep as much of the diversity around as we can,” he says. “At the end of us being done, if all we’ve got are cockroaches and pigeons, are we in a good place? Have we lost something that makes this place special?”
But we’re not there yet. I’m not tallying numbers to invoke despair or helplessness. Rather, it helps to know what’s at stake when we choose to avoid thinking about climate change or when the most cynical among us place profit over protection and personal gain over the good of the community—and that includes the natural community, too. Whether it’s pretty fish or howling wolves, I think it’s worthwhile to choose knowledge, love and wonder. The outcome is certainly worth it, and the journey is one that can inspire us all to sleep at night.
Here’s Joe Donnelly’s take on the Lone Wolf that is making a life in Oregon and California from Orion:
THE NIGHT IS DARK on a narrow slip of canyon floor alongside the North Fork Feather River. The mountains are big and close, their steep, tree-covered slopes tall enough to block out the moon and stars. Flashlight in hand, I follow the sound of roiling water toward the river, though my chances of finding what I’m looking for are slim. My objective is a moving target, one that’s highly elusive by nature and even more so under the cover of a black night.It is hard to tell at this point whether my path to California’s remote Plumas County has been one of fortune or folly. Online, the “lodge” where I’m staying in Belden, population twenty-two, is an appealing, rustic western Sierra getaway. In real life, it’s a trailer park hotel. But I may well be on the right track. When I checked in and asked about the object of my obsession, the thickly bearded innkeeper with the feral, blue eyes nodded and told me that his dog went crazy about a week ago. “I’ve never seen him like that before,” he said, gazing out the window across the river and into the forest.
I hurried to my assigned trailer, where a large buck camped out front was munching on flower bulbs, and checked my laptop. I scanned back through the reports posted online by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and sure enough he was in the area when the innkeeper’s dog went barking mad. And has been since.
Just being close to where he’s been—may still be—is enough to send me out into the night. Maybe he is up on the bluff across the highway where the hydropower pipe climbs eight hundred feet up the mountainside like a giant snake disappearing into the trees. Maybe he’s tracking that buck with eyes honed for picking up the slightest of movements from great distances, even in the dark. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll catch a glimpse of him—the first wild wolf to enter California in more than eighty years.
NEARLY TWO YEARS AGO, when I first read a small news item about the wolf with the blandly scientific designation of OR7—the seventh wolf collared in Oregon—crossing into California, I was caught off guard by the intense affinity I felt for him and his journey. It wasn’t just the grand scale of his adventure, with the late summer and fall months spent traveling the length of Oregon, his Christmastime crossing into California, the subsequent seven-hundred-mile midwinter foray through the state’s remote northern counties, only to cross back into Oregon in March before doubling back to the Golden State in April. Having logged thousands of miles in search of my own place in the world, I could relate. But the awareness OR7 sparked in me of a moment’s wild possibility had to do with something bigger, deeper, and older than all that.
It was the winter of Occupy, a time for reckoning with the past decades’ economic, spiritual, and environmental betrayals. I had hopes that bankrupt paradigms might fall and something new, better, and more honest might take their place. My own reckonings and rebellions had mostly left me out of money and ideas, and frankly I needed something to believe in. And then came this wolf—this long-toothed shadow of our bastardized best friends, a thing we tried our damnedest to eradicate—trotting insouciantly into California.
OR7’s return struck me as a singular act of defiance—by god, nature, fate, whatever words you prefer. I rejoiced at his coming south, so far that he was now howling at the backdoor of our failing civilization, forcing us by his very presence to consider the question, how are we going to live? Can we surrender some of what we’ve taken? Can we accept that OR7, nature’s foot soldier, the vanguard wolf of California from the clan of creatures we couldn’t tame but could only kill, deserves some of this, too? Or, will we continue to insist the land and all that’s on it, under it, and over it is ours to do with as we please? Who better, I thought, to stalk our hypocrisies and upend our delusions than the most mythologized and demonized animal in history?
I felt compelled to try and get closer to this young wolf, formidable at 105 pounds, measuring nearly three feet at the shoulder, six feet in length, and possessing jaws that can crack an elk femur the way a nutcracker can crack a walnut. So, early last September, I drove into Plumas County, California, following the North Fork Feather River, which begins auspiciously near Lassen Peak, the southernmost volcano in the Cascade Range. The river drains some twenty-one hundred square miles of western-slope Sierra into Lake Oroville, one of the largest reservoirs in the country. It has carried countless dreams downstream: gold dreams, ranching dreams, hydropower, rail, and timber dreams—each a tributary in the larger river of dreams that settled the American West and tamed wild California.
Many of these dreams are dead or dying, but I could still see their vestiges as I drove downslope through the Feather River Canyon where defunct railroad tracks cut into the hillsides and shorn mountaintops peak through low clouds and fog. The occasional Sierra Pacific lumber truck rumbles along the Feather River Highway past mining cottages that dot the riverside and stare down diminishing prospects with the occasional splash of fresh paint and flower boxes.
Except for a few stubborn holdouts, the era of man seems just about done in Plumas County. It’s an eerie, forgotten landscape, and there’s a certain poetic justice in OR7’s arrival. Bounty hunters killed OR7’s last remaining California cousin near here in 1924, back when wolves were considered to be an enemy of manifest destiny. OR7, though, doesn’t seem to have revenge in mind. He has yet to take sheep or cow from the descendants of those who shot, trapped, poisoned, and burned his kind to extinction in the West.
But this hasn’t stopped some locals from greeting his arrival as if the devil himself were paying a visit. As soon as his epic trek signaled a wolf with Golden State aspirations, the hysteria began. To calm local fears of pending doom, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife conducted public meetings featuring wildlife officials, celebrity wolf experts, government resources managers, and a highly agitated public—all awaiting the imminent arrival of a solitary, thirty-month-old Canis lupus.
After one meeting, Marcia Armstrong, a supervisor for Siskiyou County, where OR7 dallied briefly before moving on, told the Los Angeles Times that she would like to see all encroaching wolves “shot on sight.” Adding to the tinder were ranchers warning that a wolf repopulation would be “catastrophic.” Other folks spread rumors of conspiratorial wolf smuggling by federal agencies, and of a government out to trample rights and make it harder to log, mine, and dam the rural West.
Those sympathetic to OR7’s plight had very different demands. Some even pleaded with officials to import a mate for the lone wolf, who was clearly looking for love in all the wrong places.
BACK ALONG THE BANKS of the North Fork Feather River, the water is just a moving silhouette. I turn off the flashlight and crouch down at the river’s edge, scanning the area without moving my head, trying to be as still as possible, looking for movement the way OR7 might, though at 120-degrees of arc my visual field is only two-thirds of his.
Wolf stories, like ghost stories, emerge through insinuation and grow into their own kind of lore: large tracks in the mud, a moonlit howling that is too resonant to be the nattering of coyotes, a tingle down the spine. Or, if you’re an unlucky rancher, a hollowed-out rib cage where once was a sheep or calf. A wolf seen is a wolf seen mostly by accident, happy or otherwise.
I turn my back to the river and face the other way, toward the hillside, where that buck outside my trailer probably came from. The air is still. Nothing moves but gnats and mosquitoes. No sounds but the gurgling river. I feel exposed, not so much hunted as haunted. And I like it.
The next morning, I drive further north, into territory OR7 may be claiming for himself. The road passes through Lassen National Forest and eventually skirts under the 14,179-feet-high Mount Shasta, just about an hour from where OR7 crossed over from Oregon. The route travels a California rarely seen by those who live within the clutches of the coastal megalopolises. Here, salmon run in the rivers and bald eagles fly so low you can almost look them in the eye.
OR7 crossed this road and others many times as he traveled south. I scan the valley floors, farms, and ranches, picturing him loping along the edge of the highway at night, filled with the curiosity and the courage of one whose only experience of fear is that which he inspires. I see him stealing through private property where easy meals and misguided liaisons with canine cousins tempt his hungry soul. I imagine all the itchy fingers waiting for a shot at his shadow.
The air feels wild and dangerous and alive in a new way. So do I. And I begin to understand even more why OR7’s incursion matters, why the land is so relieved to feel his feet pushing down into its soil once again. The land knows what I know driving into the untamed night—that we’re less than we can be without him.
KAREN KOVACS, the wildlife program manager for California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s northern region, has agreed to meet me at her office in the coastal town of Eureka. When I arrive, it is damp and foggy and Kovacs says she’s exhausted. OR7’s arrival has put a mountain of to-dos in her threadbare department’s inbox. Foremost among them is the petition filed by several environmental organizations to get gray wolves—this gray wolf—protected under the California Endangered Species Act. The petition triggers a taxing process of studies, peer reviews, hearings, and a series of votes, beginning with whether or not it is even warranted.
It’s hard for Kovacs to imagine another animal getting this much attention. She points out that a wolverine, absent from California for as long as wolves, has recently made it into the Sierra with little fanfare. “People go cuckoo over wolves,” she says. “We’re not managing wildlife; we’re managing people and people’s perception of wildlife to a large degree. With OR7, you can almost draw the lines politically.”
Those lines are basically drawn at how far we will go to accommodate wolves. How many entitlements—from hunting to heehawing in the backcountry on snowmobiles to grazing livestock on public lands—are we willing to forego to ensure that they are also part of the landscape?
From the beginning, the answer was the least number possible. Gray wolf reintroduction in the West was so controversial when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began bringing wolves back into Yellowstone in 1995, that the agency had little choice but to define Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolves as an “experimental, nonessential species.” That meant that no critical habitat would be set aside for them, and no restrictions on economic interests would accompany the recovery effort. The prevailing logic was that since wolves came with so much baggage—as fabled beasts revered and feared in folklore and fairytale, and as supposedly depraved killers of livestock—the species couldn’t withstand the backlash against land-use restrictions the way the spotted owl could. But as apex predators whose domain once covered all of North America, wolves are indeed a land-use issue. We got rid of them and Native Americans at around the same time and for roughly the same reason: they were in the way.
It wasn’t long after the questions of wolves (eradicated) and Native Americans (mostly eradicated) were resolved that settlers had license to do just about anything they wanted with the land. Not surprisingly, this led to the extreme overgrazing that culminated in the Dust Bowl, and which spurred Franklin Roosevelt to sign the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, a modest initial attempt at reining in free-range ranchers. This was followed by the establishment of the Bureau of Land Management, as well as nascent notions that public lands were for more than cattle, logging, mining, and railroad interests. Then came expansions to the National Park system, the creation of the Endangered Species Act, and, from a rancher’s perspective, lawsuit-happy tree huggers making it harder and harder to earn a living off the land.
As wolves like OR7 move farther west from the Northern Rockies, they do, in fact, give conservationists a powerful new weapon with which to relitigate a number of policy wars over the disposition of public lands. Returning wolves are the canaries in the coal mine for other decimated species—brown bears, bison, and the once-vast herds of ungulates that grazed the land before cattle displaced them. As such, they carry much of the weight of the past, and the fight for the future, on their backs.
It’s a fight the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service evidently hoped to duck out on as soon it could declare the gray wolf “recovered.” In order to do that, the agency determined there must be a minimum of three hundred wolves and thirty breeding pairs spread across Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Of course, how many wolves are enough to ensure the survival of a species practically wiped from the lower forty-eight states is a question without a real answer. Nonetheless, based on those numbers, federal protections on wolves in those states were lifted in 2011, and responsibility reverted to state agencies.
Gray wolves still enjoy Endangered Species Act protection in Washington, Oregon, and California, where their numbers are negligible—or just one. But that may be fleeting as well. The Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced its intention to lift all federal protections for gray wolves, except for the tiny Mexican gray wolf populations in New Mexico and Arizona, thus leaving California to decide for itself how it wants to deal with OR7 and his brethren.
Meanwhile, OR7 goes about his business. A prodigious traveler, he has already covered roughly three thousand miles in his peripatetic existence, indicating estimable strength and endurance. He’s a first-rate hunter who dines mostly on deer and small game, and has now made it through two winters alone. When chasing prey, he can achieve bursts of nearly forty miles per hour, covering fifteen feet in a single bound. He has also shown a knack for taking over elk kills from mountain lions—a wise choice since a lone wolf is much more vulnerable to mortal injury than a pack wolf.
OR7 spends a good amount of time communicating with one leg lifted, marking trees, game trails, and carcasses, and covering other animals’ marks—delineating a vast territory and sending out messages. Some are warnings, others invitations. Wolves are gregarious by nature and often monogamous, so OR7 is likely scattering calling cards of a sort, expressing his desire to settle down with a mate and start a pack of his own. Given the dearth of eligible companions, he’s mostly talking to himself.
I ask Kovacs what might be motivating OR7’s prolonged travels. “You were young once,” she says. “What were you thinking? This is normal behavior for young wolves.” But OR7 isn’t exactly young anymore. He’s creeping up on middle age for a wolf, and this wolf is without the safety, structure, and society of a pack. Kovacs doesn’t deny that every day OR7 turns up on her radar is a surprise.
“It’s a hard life out there,” she concedes. “Wolves that move this great of a distance are usually a genetic dead end.”
A YOUNG GRAY WOLF stands on the Idaho banks of the Snake River on a fall day in a land where winter comes early and leaves late. The wolf contemplates taking the leap. What would make him or her plunge into the cold current and swim for the other side? It’s what young, would-be alphas do. They disperse in search of new mates and new territory, thereby strengthening the gene pool and reducing habitat stress.
A wolf could do worse than Oregon’s Wallowa County. It’s a beautiful, rugged patch twice the size of Rhode Island with only seven thousand humans, dominated by the Wallowa Mountains, Eagle Cap Wilderness, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, and the Zumwalt Prairie, one of the largest savannas on the continent. For an ungulate-eating apex predator, the area—with an estimated 22,400 mule deer, 2,500 white-tailed deer, and 15,600 Rocky Mountain elk—is a promised land.
If the wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone nearly twenty years ago were going to continue their westward expansion, that river needed to be crossed. But when it was, the other side was less than welcoming. The first known wolf to brave the crossing was captured in 1999, put in a crate, and shipped back to Idaho. The next year, two more wolves from Idaho were found dead, one hit by a car, the other shot.
Wolves, though, are nothing if not intrepid, and in January 2008, a radio-collared female wolf from Idaho, soon to be known as OR2, found a fellow traveler soon to be christened OR4. They crossed the river successfully, and together they started the Imnaha pack, named for a spot they favored along the Imnaha River. OR7 was born into their second litter in 2009, one of five pups in a family of immigrants. By 2010, the pack had at least fourteen members.
The usual howls of ruination greeted the arrival of Idaho’s wolves in Northeast Oregon, even though the Imnaha pack averaged only about a cattle kill a month. In May 2011, two members of the pack were killed, and an order to kill two more was issued by the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife that September, until legal challenges put a stay on wolf executions in Oregon. Nonetheless, OR7 decided it was time to go and started off on his walkabout.
The Imnaha pack’s territory cuts a vast, crescent-shaped swath around the small Wallowa County town of Joseph, Oregon, nestled in the lap of Sacajawea Peak. It’s one of the key battlegrounds in the wolf wars, and a local named Dale Potter, with a flair for the dramatic, has his sights set on OR7’s relatives. Potter, who flew helicopters in Vietnam, and says he still craves excitement, leads rallies encouraging folks to “smoke a pack a day” and to “shoot, shovel, and shut up.” He posts signs around the area proclaiming wolves to be “sadistic killers” smuggled back into the area by their brothers-in-arms, the Nez Perce tribe, which, he says, wants to reclaim its land. “The wolf has kept me busy,” says Potter. At the frenzied height of his wolf demonizing, a panicked local rancher reportedly got down on his knees in church and prayed that wolves wouldn’t kill him and his family.
Potter’s paranoia and demagoguery may seem practiced, but they articulate genuine anxieties that began in earnest when the sawmills started shutting down. The mills, says Potter, were the thread that stitched the fabric of this community together. When the jobs left, families left, schools closed, and things began to unravel in ways that cappuccino drinking second-home owners couldn’t quite put back together. For him, the reappearance of wolves symbolizes the sort of governmental interference and environmental regulations that he believes kill jobs and destroy a way of life he wants to preserve. “I don’t hate the wolf,” says Potter. “I hate the politics that brought this invasive species here.”
I ask him if he’s ever seen a wolf. “To tell you the truth,” he replies, “I have not seen a wolf.”
AT FIVE THOUSAND FEET, Joseph is blanketed in fresh snow on the weekend before Halloween. With its quaint, Old-West ambience, the town already feels like a Christmas card come to life, and when Wally Sykes walks into one of the few restaurants open after eight p.m., he looks like an undersized Kris Kringle. We sit down for dinner at a wood table near the bar as burly men with thick beards give us the stink eye. Sykes is used to this by now. “It’s strange to be actively involved in a schism within a community,” he says.
Sykes is Joseph’s most outspoken wolf advocate, and he has agreed to take me into Imnaha pack territory the next morning. Before he started trying to save wolves, Sykes rescued his Malamute, Kumo, who had wandered into a fur trapper’s snare. The explicit cruelty of trapping spurred him to start TrapFree Oregon, and it was only a matter of time until he was dragged into the wolf wars.
Sykes became a full-fledged activist after coming upon tracks near his home at the base of the Wallowa Mountains. They were canine for sure, but the animal’s gait and paw size dwarfed those of his hundred-pound dog. “I never thought I’d be seeing wolves in my lifetime,” says Sykes. “I was thrilled.”
Now, he spends a lot of time in the backcountry, tracking the Imnaha pack as it moves around the Wallowa Mountains, Eagle Cap Wilderness, and Zumwalt prairie. When he’s not in the field, Sykes is often working on his Wolf News Update, a weekly newsletter from the frontlines of the wolf wars featuring news, studies, blogs, and, since states recently started issuing wolf-hunting licenses, the grim body count.
He is one of the few people to see Wallowa’s wolves up close and is adamant they belong here. “Oregon is not a hunting preserve, it’s not a game farm, it’s a functioning ecosystem and its wildlife is supposed to be managed as a public trust for all its citizens,” he says. “Not just certain hunters and ranchers.”
Sykes shares the belief of many ecologists and biologists that the absence of these apex predators resulted in a sloppy crumbling of the ecological pyramid that eventually trickled down to vegetation. This idea is one that wolf-hunter-turned-pioneering-conservationist Aldo Leopold expressed in his 1949 classic A Sand County Almanac:
I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddle horn.
The return of wolves to the West has indeed resulted in a trophic cascade of benefits to the ecological landscape. In Yellowstone, for example, the absence of wolves meant the park’s elk and deer were fat, slow, and stupid. They destroyed streambeds, overgrazed grass, and overbrowsed the shrubs and aspens. When wolves were reintroduced, the days of deer and elk lazing around riparian areas like hoofed couch potatoes were over. Yellowstone’s aspen groves made a comeback, streambeds are in better shape, shady shrubs have increased oxygen levels in creeks and streams, thus improving fish habitats, berries are dropping, seeds are scattering, grasses are growing. A case can be made that wolves are far better wilderness managers than humans will ever be.
But for Sykes it’s a moral issue as well. “For one hundred years, wolves were hounded, hunted, trapped, hacked, and poisoned until every single one was exterminated. They were extirpated in a brutal, vindictive, ignorant campaign,” he says. “I would like to see this wrong righted. I would like to see some compassion and understanding for our most persecuted wildlife.”
THE NEXT MORNING we’re up early and packed into Sykes’s car. Kumo is in the back, looking out the windows. We pass a large gravel pit on the outskirts of town that used to be a bone yard for livestock carcasses. Sykes says this may have been what attracted wolves to the area in the first place. The pile was removed and government agencies now work with ranchers to better dispose of bone piles, as well as to put up red pennants that seem to scare wolves, and other hazing programs to keep wolves away from livestock. When predation does occur, ranchers are reimbursed for their losses. Sykes is on the committee that doles out compensation.
We skirt the edges of the Zumwalt, “the wolf highway,” and continue up into higher elevations to a spot Sykes won’t identify. He points out deer tracks in the snow along the side of the road—a calving area for deer and elk. “In the spring and summer, there are wolves all over here,” he says.
When the road runs out at the top of a hill, we get out of the car and trek into the snow wearing bright orange hunting caps. Even with a heavy sky hiding the highest peaks from view, the land is dramatic in white, green, and gray, marked by deep gulches, rolling hills, and formidable mountains. It doesn’t take long for senses to sharpen. You see things you might otherwise miss—a rabbit darting into some shrubs, a tiny spider sitting on the snow crust, deer climbing the other side of a gulch. We inspect coyote and deer tracks in the snow.
This is where OR7 learned how to be a wolf. This is where he first saw deer like the ones I spotted on the opposite hillside. This is where he became part of the everything we’ve lost our connection to, the everything that we desecrate so casually. Sykes says he can see people transform when he takes them into wolf country, that simply being where wolves roam does something special to humans. “Wolves are good for our souls,” he says.
We continue along the timbered edges of ravines and through meadows covered in shin-high snow periodically marked by tracks. Eventually, we reach a destination deep in the woods. It’s the rendezvous point the Imnaha pack used for its previous summer’s litter—where the alpha female nests with the pups and other members of the pack bring food or report for nanny duties. OR7 was likely nursed near here a few summers ago.
“I’m proud of him,” says Sykes of the pack’s current alpha, OR4, who picked this spot with its abundant game. “He chose well.” At 115 pounds, OR4 is the biggest wolf in Oregon. In five breeding seasons, OR4 and his mate, OR2, have never failed to deliver a litter or keep their pups alive. “He’s a helluva wolf,” says Sykes, of OR4.
I wonder if Sykes thinks the same of OR4’s famous offspring. He contemplates this for a minute and chuckles. “OR7’s certainly determined and he’s certainly self-confident,” he responds. I ask him why OR7 would leave such a beautiful, wild, and abundant place. “I think wolves have ambitions,” Sykes explains. “They want to get out on their own. To a wolf, a land with no wolves is a vacuum. It’s not unusual for a wolf to go into a vacuum and keep going.”
WHEN WE KILLED OFF all the wolves from the West, we told ourselves a lie—that we were separate from, or superior to, all that with which the wolf communes; that we knew better what to do with the land than did the wolf. The return of wolves to our landscape has delivered us with a rare opportunity to make amends with that lie and to embrace the simple truth: how we live with wolves is how we live with nature—either in harmony or discord. The choice is ours to make and, as this hyperactive era of floods, fires, hurricanes, and tornadoes shows, the stakes are high.
My search for OR7, I came to realize, was a quest for insight into what we’d do with the opportunity wolves presented. Right now, we’re mostly killing it. Since the feds lifted protections, nearly 1,200 wolves out of a population of almost 2,000 in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho have been slain by hunters and trappers. Hunters in Minnesota and Wisconsin, home to more than 4,000 wolves, have killed nearly 500 since hunts were sanctioned. Michigan became the sixth state to approve wolf hunting. It’s scheduled to take place during the winter holiday season. Guns, crossbows, and foot traps are all permitted.
The hunting lobbies say the killings are necessary “management” to reduce livestock predation and to relieve pressure on game such as deer and elk; federal wildlife experts say there are enough wolves to withstand the slaughter. I don’t buy either argument.
In the $79 billion cattle industry, there were 94 million head of cattle tromping around the lower forty-eight states in 2010, the most recent year for which there are statistics. Wolves killed 8,100 of them, or 0.000086 percent. Even vultures killed two thousand more cattle than wolves. And while any livestock loss to an individual rancher can be significant, it’s worth noting that respiratory illness, digestive issues, calving complications, weather, and plain negligence killed about 3.8 million cattle in 2010, costing the industry $2.35 billion. By comparison, wolves cost it $3.6 million, most of which was reimbursed by taxpayers.
Similarly, the cry from hunters that wolves decimate deer and elk populations isn’t borne out by fact. Ungulate numbers are up in most game management areas across the West where wolves live, and slightly down in just a few. Deer and elk are just harder to find. Wolves have made them more alert and elusive—made them better at being deer and elk, and us at being hunters.
As for the argument that there are enough wolves now to withstand the hunts, there were a hundred times more back when we almost exterminated them. These hunts wreak havoc on the highly developed social structure of wolves, tearing families and communities apart, and orphaning ill-prepared adolescents, who are then more likely to get in trouble. Hunting and trapping wolves serves no purpose for sustenance or profit. It’s done for the basest of reasons, for a trophy that is nothing more than a token of shameful ignorance and folly. After all we’ve done to them, wolves deserve better. We deserve better, too.
WHILE WOLF-HUNTING season was just getting underway in neighboring states, California’s wildlife commissioners met in Sacramento to vote on whether or not to consider protecting California’s lone wolf under the California Endangered Species Act. The room was packed, and the battle for hearts and minds went on for hours. Conservationists, wolf lovers, ranchers, cattlemen associations—all had their say, although neither side seemed much moved by the other. Not surprisingly, no one there had actually seen the wolf in question.
In the end, the commissioners agreed by a narrow margin that the petition to list the gray wolf, this gray wolf, as an endangered species did indeed warrant consideration. The vote triggered numerous studies, reviews, and meetings that should result in a decision any day now about whether to protect wolves in California. If approved, it’ll be largely symbolic until more wolves wander across the border, prompting perhaps a new moniker to consider: CA1. But for anyone looking to make amends with the truth, it would be a welcome symbol, a small bit of progress in the tortured dance between humans and what’s left of the wild.
Meanwhile, OR7 just keeps moving. In late February, he left Plumas County, where I crouched in darkness beside the river with naïve hopes of seeing him, and started retracing his long-ago steps north. By mid-March, he had crossed back into Oregon. Maybe he wants to know if you can, indeed, go home again. Or maybe he’s hopeful yet that he’ll find what he’s looking for.
The only thing we know for sure is that time outruns even a wolf. And as every new day dawns unfulfilled, the epic story of OR7’s journey to find a place for himself, to start a family and be the first of his kind so that others may follow, takes a turn toward a more familiar fate: that of a lonely middle age spent on the outside looking in while death does double time to chase you down.
Support for this article was generously provided by the Summerlee Foundation.