She left her boyfriend, lost her job, then followed her heart to Wyoming, where gray wolves, a species fighting its own battles in the American wilderness, spoke to her soul. And she responded with a resounding howl.
A little after midnight, I woke up in a rented vacation condo in Colorado at the edge of the Rocky Mountains. My boyfriend of two and a half years slept soundly next to me. I was 27 years old and not sure whether I still loved him.
I wanted some air. I opened the window and saw what I first thought was a large husky darting beneath the ledge. Then I realized it was something else.
"Get up," I said to my boyfriend. "Get up; I think it's a wolf." He didn't stir.
The wolf stopped in his tracks. I followed his line of sight until I noticed a smaller wolf, a female. He trotted toward her and they met, jumping into the air, pawing madly at each other and then nuzzling and touching noses. As they ran off in lockstep, their fur glistening like strands of silver in the moonlight, I knew I would break up with my boyfriend.
It felt as if the wolves had come for me; I had never seen something so spectacular at just the right moment—and I knew that someday I'd go to them.
Three years later, in the summer of 2009, I went to Wyoming to see my parents at their small vacation condo in Jackson Hole. One day I overheard my mother's friend mention that she was going wolf-watching, and I insisted on joining her.
"I don't know if we'll have enough scopes," she said.
"I'll find one," I said.
Twenty-four hours later, I was riding in the backseat of her four-wheel-drive SUV, bouncing along remote dirt roads.
"Hold on," she said, as the vehicle forded a creek, knee-high with water. We pulled up in front of a sandy butte that overlooked the Buffalo Valley, the eastern edge of Grand Teton National Park: home to the Buffalo wolf pack, which was then 22 strong, with two new litters of pups.
We unloaded the car, and I slung a telescope over my shoulder, then started out at a quick pace. At the top of the butte we set up our scopes. Soon I heard frenzied whispering: "There, there! See them, right there. Pups and the aunt!"
"I see them," I said, focusing on the 14 pups and the one adult wolf watching over them. Biting and swarming, the pups fell off the pile, regained their footing, and like mini-daredevils, jumped back into the fray. The rest of the pack returned from the hunt, sprinting with their tongues hanging out. The pups couldn't contain their excitement; one just spun in circles, unsure of which adult he should run to first.
Months later a photo of the Buffalo pack, trotting in a single-file line across a barren snow-covered field, showed up on the Internet, causing outrage among elk hunters, who see wolves as a threat to the state's 104,000-strong elk population. (In 2010 hunters killed more than 25,600 elk, while wolves killed about 7,500.) Antiwolf Web sites like Lobo Watch, Save Elk, and Wolf-Free Idaho posted pictures of snarling wolves, some alongside catchphrases such as "Smoke a pack a day" and "Zero tolerance." But, as I would learn, this kind of hatred is nothing new; America has always had a fraught relationship with wolves.
By the 1930s, gray wolves had been exterminated in the Western United States. "Wolfers" used such methods as lacing buffalo carcasses with strychnine, collecting bounties for pelts and scalps, even setting the animals on fire. The battle to bring wolves back began in the early 1970s, after Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which encouraged the recovery of imperiled species in their native ranges. Some 20 years later and after considerable controversy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) put the Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan into motion: In 1995 a band of dedicated biologists captured 29 gray wolves in the Canadian Rockies, then released them into central Idaho and the northern stretch of Yellowstone.
Back in New York I daydreamed of leaving my studio apartment and running away to study wolves, but I had a demanding job as a magazine editor. Then in January 2010, I got laid off. I had three months' severance and no savings. Maybe the first thing I should have done was look for work. Instead I headed back to Wyoming.
Cold wind ripped across the tarmac as I watched pilot Lisa Robertson climb around her shiny four-seater Cessna, checking the wings and struts with the grace of a ballerina. Even in a white goose-down jacket, black fleece pants, and Uggs, she looked elegant.
For ten years, Robertson flew local wolf biologists around at no charge so they could track wolves from the air, but gas was getting too expensive. "I knew some wolves by sight," she said. "Every day I just wanted to be out there."
As we flew over the Buffalo pack's territory, I searched below for their dark, low figures running, most likely in a line. I saw a huge bloodstain in the snow—a kill, and a sign that the pack had been there. I wanted so badly to catch them in action, sprinting 35 to 40 miles per hour through the snow, the alpha wolf giving silent signals to cut left or veer right. I wanted to witness that initial leap, a set of jaws sinking into the flank of an animal.
Wolves are built for hunting, their bodies perfectly designed for the takedown. Their jaws are capable of exerting more than 1,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, and their molars are able to crush bone. Their canines can hold on to the nose of a moose running 35 miles per hour. They can bound 16 feet in deep snow—that's like jumping the length of a station wagon—and their digestive systems are so efficient that wolf excrement is mostly hair and bone.
Robertson circled in case the pack was still nearby. We flew for two hours without spotting a single wolf.
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."
I knew Taylor believed this, but his assessment didn't jibe with the facts. I'd seen a wolf kill—blood-speckled snow and a heap of hide and hooves. The only bits of meat left were tiny red strands as thin as human hair. Hunting carries huge risk—a thrashing elk's hooves are like battering rams—and wolves are successful only about 20 percent of the time. If they make a large kill, they treat it like a Thanksgiving feast, returning for days to salvage leftovers.
Taylor told me his grandfather had been hired once to kill wolves in 1915. He doesn't understand why, after we've made the West profitable through ranching, farming, and commercial hunting, wolves were brought back. Citing a familiar refrain among ranchers, he said the ecological benefits did not put money in his pocket. Even before wolves were reintroduced, making a living was tough; cattle prices down, gas prices up. Taylor can't afford a new tractor, and he just paid $900 to fix the cooler on his old one. Coyotes are also a problem, but it's legal to kill them. Wildlife Services, a division of the USDA, wiped out about 8,400 last year—some gassed in their dens. As a result of their expendability, these predators are more accepted. Wolves, on the other hand, are just one more headache for ranchers like Taylor.
When a wolf pack devours a prized Clydesdale foal, gobbles up a cow, or invades a sheep pen, Mike Jimenez's cell phone rings. His job as the leader of the Wyoming Wolf Recovery Project is to watch over the 246 wolves running around his state outside the national parks.
When he picked me up in his blue USFWS truck so we could visit a den site, he wouldn't roll down his windows. The day before, he'd had five dead wolves in the back, and the smell lingered. Jimenez had them shot after they'd been killing cattle, then he had to pick up the bodies. The head muscles are sent to a lab for study, the skulls consigned to educational institutions, and the bodies incinerated.
As we drove, he compared his job to helping kids in a tough neighborhood: To improve their situation, he has to make the whole area safe.
"We promised ranchers we'd help protect their herds," Jimenez said, as he steered his truck along a dusty dirt road. "For people who love wolves, that's hard to swallow. But if you don't respond to the ranchers, public tolerance goes down." He's found the remnants of radio collars in creek beds and sent dead wolves to a lab where X-rays revealed bullets in their chests. About 10 percent of the wolves killed each year are killed illegally, he estimated.
"Wolves are very smart with other animals; they're good hunters," he said. "But with people they're dumb as a box of rocks. They're easy to predicts. They respond to human howls, they go back to carcasses, and you can find their trails. They make it easy for people to exterminate them."
We hiked up a worn path heading into the Pinanacle Peak's den site. The shoulder bone of an adult elk and some plastic house siding lay on the ground. "Oh, we've found boots, orange highway cones, flashlights, a two-way radio, a rain gauge, even an extension cord," Jimenez said.
"Why do they bother dragging this stuff back?" I asked.
"Toys—for the pups."
The den was a pothole-size tunnel dug into the ground to create a small cubby room, or incubator, for newborn pups. They are blind and deaf at birth, and they feel their way to their mother to feed. About six weeks later, the pups are ready to leave the den. The average litter size is five to six. Some stay with the pack; others stick around for a year or two, then take off in the fall or winter to form a new pack or to join another one, roaming up to 600 miles from their home turf.
Traditionally, each pack has an alpha male and an alpha female (determined by internal hierarchy), but each one is different. Some are led by a solo female. They also go to great lengths not to inbreed; daughters of alpha males have fought off their fathers. Their average natural life span is six to eight years, but these days wolves in this region peak at age 3 and usually die by 5—struck by hooves and cars, killed by disease or other wolves, hunted, shot at, trapped.
The next morning I went out with Jimenez's assistant, Susannah Woodruff, to track the Washakie pack, which lives on the eastern side of Shoshone National Forest. We bushwhacked through a thick grove of pine trees, and every time we heard something moving in the distance I grabbed at the bear spray on my right hip; grizzly scat was everywhere, mounds of it every 50 feet. Unlike wolves, grizzlies, which can weigh up to 1,500 pounds, are known to attack humans.
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
Printed from Oprah.com on Friday, March 7, 2014
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