Howl: One Writer Devotes Herself to the Survival of the American Gray Wolf
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.