As the forest thinned out we found elk and bear tracks that led to a meadow surrounding a crystal blue lake. This was a perfect rendezvous site—a place where pups are left to play while adults hunt. Woodruff stepped ahead of us, raised her hands to her mouth, and let out a low howl. It gave me goose bumps.
"I feel like I should tell them or something," says Woodruff. "Like, guys, you're missing an awesome spot." Her cell phone rang. It was Jimenez. She listened for a minute, then flipped the phone closed. "We've got to go scare off some wolves. They're chasing cattle on a ranch near here."
Half an hour later, when we reached the ranch, there were no wolves in sight and, more importantly, no dead cows. Woodruff put an antenna up on top of the truck and pulled out a signal receiver to see if she could locate any radio collars. No such luck. She had a hunch that the wolves were due west, where a day earlier she'd seen some pups lazing in the sun.
We hiked across the pasture, then through aspen groves and clusters of pine trees. In a last-ditch effort she decided to check the woods below the main road we'd driven in on. Moments later she ran out of the woods. "Tracks," she whispered. "Lots of them."
We followed the prints, then lost them. I knew our mission was to scare off the wolves; I just wished we'd caught a glimpse of them. We'd been hiking for almost six hours straight. Woodruff called it quits. My legs ached, but my heart ached more. I wanted to tell her to just leave me out there—I would wait for them.
We hiked up to the truck, and right there on the dirt road was a big, fresh wolf track.
In April 2011 Congress passed a rider in the budget bill removing gray wolves from Endangered Species Act protection in Idaho and Montana, reinstating hunts and stipulating that the action would "not be subject to judicial review."
In the 38 years the ESA has been in effect, and with approximately 1,990 plant and animal species under its protection, wolves are the first to be removed by Congressional action—which sets a precedent for other endangered animals in areas where logging, mining, and drilling industries with big lobbies and deep pockets set up shop. The only state left out of the rider: Wyoming, because it never had an approved wolf plan to begin with.
I flew back in mid-July, a week after Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar had meet with Wyoming governor Matt Mead in Cheyenne, the state capital. The pressure was on to amend their plan so that wolves could be delisted there as well. Idaho and Montana were announcing quotas and rules for their state wolf hunts, and Wyoming wanted to do the same. The meeting yielded a few changes to the Wyoming plan including more wolf protection outside the parks and a small "flex zone" the animals could move through in the winter. But almost 85 percent of the state would be a kill zone in which wolves would face near-certain death. They could be shot from small aircraft, trucks, and snowmobiles; hunted with trained dogs; caught in snares, then tortured, maimed, or beaten. No oversight. No legal recourse. The USFWS has tentatively agreed to the plan, which is open to the public review until January 13 (Regulations.gov ); pending legislative changes in Wyoming, the proposal will likely be finalized early next year.
Three weeks later I went with friends on a horseback ride through the Buffalo Valley. As we rounded the bend where I had first spotted the Buffalo pack through a scope, I saw a black flash in the distance.
Moments later a small female wolf dashed between two large willow brushes, then paused to stare at us. She was so close I could see the radio collar around her neck and a streak of white on her cheek. I looked into her yellow eyes, and she looked back at me. Her eyes, which expressed curiosity and defiance, were the only thing that made her look different from any big, black dog you might find at a city shelter. Those eyes wanted nothing from me. I could barely breathe. The horses got skittish.
It felt as if wolves had come for me again, but not as they had five years earlier, to play in the moonlight under the window of a rented condo. This time she was alone, standing sentinel. When she trotted off, I could see the muscles rippling under her black fur. "What a wild gift," I thought. And what a shame to squander.
Making a Difference
We Hear You!