I returned home to Brooklyn and spent the winter looking for a job. The only thing that kept me from belly-flopping into a bottle of Chardonnay was the wolves. I read books like L. David Mech's The Way of the Wolf and Michael Robinson's Predatory Bureaucracy. I made dozens of phone calls; you don't have to talk to many environmentalists, ranchers, or outfitters before you realize that wolves have become a political third rail—as dangerous a dinner party conversation in some parts as healthcare.
In the core recovery areas of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, the federal reintroduction required the population to reach or exceed 100 wolves per state for three years before the USFWS would turn over administration to the states. Meanwhile each had to come up with its own wolf-management plan. Idaho's and Montana's plans committed to a goal of at least 150 wolves and said they would initiate regulations to govern hunting statewide.
Wyoming's plan cordoned off 12 percent of the state—the northwest corner that is largely national parkland—where wolves would be protected or considered "trophy game" (they could still be hunted in areas surrounding the parks but under strict guidelines). Outside the approved range, in roughly 88 percent of the state—the kill zone—they could be shot on sight. No licenses, no regulations, just a free-for-all scramble to bag a wolf.
In 2008 the USFWS removed gray wolves from the endangered species list, ceding federal control and protection. Environmentalists filed suit, contending that the states' plans (especially Wyoming's) were inadequate to sustain a viable population. An injunction ensued and wolves were put back on the endangered list, then taken off again, but only in Idaho and Montana.
Ultimately the ruling came down that the wolf population could not be subdivided: If they were endangered in Wyoming, they were in Idaho and Montana as well. Wolf hunts ended. All that remained was the vitriol.
In August 2010 I went back to Wyoming to attend a lecture series near Jackson Hole, where I met Yellowstone Wolf Project leader Douglas Smith, one of the original biologists who reintroduced wolves. He stands about 6'2", and his head nearly touched the wood beams of the dining cabin at the Murie Center, the former home of Adoph Murie, who is considered the grandfather of wolf biology. Smith put two wolf pelts on the table in front of the 20 or so people gathered. As I brushed my fingers through the white and gray fur and dug down into the underfur (the soft, almost cobweb-like hairs that keep wolves warm in freezing temperatures), I thought about sepia photographs I'd seen from the 1800s, when bounties resulted in dozens of wolf pelts nailed to the exteriors of buildings.
Speaking in his slow, professorial voice, Smith told us: Now that the elk had a predator and couldn't spend all day grazing, scientists had observed a cascade of environmental changes. Willows and aspens had made a comeback. With willows came beavers—an animal that had been nearly wiped out in the park—and beaver dams make for better wetlands, which is good for moose, fish, and ducks. Smith backed up his talk with much research and data, but he admitted that sometimes the marshalling of facts seemed futile. He said, "I don't think you can convince people who don't like wolves that wolves have any benefits."
He was talking about people like Glenn Taylor, a 77-year-old rancher who owns a 150-acre property at the edge of Lower Slide Lake, with a view of the Gros Ventre Wilderness and the Teton Mountains. Taylor's family has owned this ranch for more than 60 years, but now his land sits on the edge of the Buffalo pack's territory.
Taylor looks a lot like Ross Perot—bald head, large ears, small, wiry body, and a big mischievous grin. His wife, Marian, is all love—a round, smiling face, curly hair, and an easy laugh. Their modest home smelled of bacon and banana bread. Marian offered me coffee, and Taylor, who was wearing a worn flannel shirt, pulled out a chair for me at their kitchen table. They struck me as the kind of people who don't need an alarm clock to wake up at dawn. I liked them immediately. But Taylor's grin disappeared when I asked about wolves.
"Yup, they've been here," he said, describing the day he found the tracks of 14 wolves in his pasture. Ten years ago, his 89-year-old father had caught three of them snarling at the dog in the back of his pickup.
"She'll tell you," Taylor said, nodding toward Marian. "The first thing we do every morning is make sure our dog is alive."
Wolves do see domestic dogs as a territorial threat, and have been known to rip out their throats in their owners' backyards. But they tend to avoid humans. If wolves detect a human scent, some may abandon the kill as a bird might desert a nest.
Taylor said he had lost cattle to the pack but was unable to prove it in order to receive reparation—compensation for livestock lost to predators. In the spring of 2010, after a grizzly bear killed one of his calves, he was paid $803. "At least bears sleep for a portion of the year," he said with a wink.
As we walked outside he fed his 4-year-old cow dog, Sara, a few silver-dollar pancakes, then pointed down at Lower Slide Lake, where, the past winter, he'd seen three dead elk calves on the iced-over surface. "None of them were eaten," he said. "The wolves killed just for fun."
We Hear You!