To quell rumors that the destructive Rim Fire still raging in and around Yosemite National Park was started by marijuana growers, authorities revealed this week that the blaze was actually the fault of a careless hunter who set an illegal campfire.
That was tough to take. The fire, which is expected to burn another two weeks, has already charred some 400 square miles, destroyed 100 buildings, and cost taxpayers $75 million. But my thoughts are with another hunter, the coward who recently shot and killed a female Mexican gray wolf denning with her pups in southwestern New Mexico.
These animals roamed the American Southwest and Mexico before there was a border between our countries, long before Anglos or Spaniards ever set foot there, in fact. For many millennia they coexisted easily with native people, who not only eschewed killing them but emulated the way they stalked game.
A similar synergy took place with wolves all over North America. It’s not too much to say that wolves taught humans how to hunt—and, thus, how to survive. It’s why, unlike in Europe, where wolves were portrayed as fiendish predators—and a constant danger to man—native peoples in the New World tended to venerate them.
To the great detriment of wolves, Europeans brought their superstitions across the ocean with them. They persist to this day. Notwithstanding the idyllic image of the creatures in “Dances With Wolves,” Hollywood contributes to the ancient mythology. In “The Bourne Legacy,” a malevolent pack tracks the protagonist for many miles. “You should have left me alone,” the man says before ensuring the alpha wolf is killed by a missile fired from a drone. In “Centurion,” a low-budget action movie, two wolves actually stalked two armed men—a scenario for which there is no precedent.
But killing wolves in the New World was never about protecting humans; it was about protecting domesticated animals. Wolves didn’t tend to discriminate between livestock and wildlife, and when the American frontier (originally all land west of the Allegany Mountains) was opened to farming and ranching, humans removed wolves from the land with no more emotion than when clearing trees. For the wolves, this systematic extirpation constituted a kind of holocaust.
I don’t use that word lightly. What eventually happened wasn’t merely the culling of offending predators. It was an organized campaign of eradication. And as the last wolves took refuge in federal parklands, most notably Yellowstone, it was a slaughter carried out by federal employees. From 1865 to 1935, when the last wild packs were wiped out in the American West, farmers, ranchers, bounty hunters, and U.S. park rangers employed any manner of gruesome methods to exterminate wolves.
They poisoned meat and left it on the prairie; caught wolves in steel traps before clubbing them to death; pulled them apart with ropes; shot them from airplanes; set hunting dogs on them; and strangled pups in their dens—even as they attempted to nuzzle the human hands reaching for them.
But as attitudes about wildlife management evolved in the 20th century, this grim legacy sat heavy on the consciences of many people, especially U.S. Park Service biologists. With no record of wolves killing humans in this country, where did such murderous impulses come from? Worse, it became clear almost immediately, wolves played an essential role in the ecosystems of the Yellowstone National Park and other places.
A century ago, when wolves still roamed California, Yosemite’s famed naturalist John Muir put it this way: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
In Yellowstone, without anything to stem their growth, elk herds became too large. This wasn’t to their benefit—or that of the park. Elk overgrazed Yellowstone’s valleys, leading to cycles of starvation for the large ungulates, and leading to erosion. Beavers were crowded out, according to one theory, causing the range to dry up. It might have contributed to conditions that cause forest fires.
Maybe that’s giving wolves too much credit, but one thing is sure: Eventually a consensus developed to reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone. And since wolves don’t recognize lines on human maps, this meant reintroducing wolves into the greater American West. Notice, I used the word “consensus,” not “unanimity.” There were always people who hated the idea of bringing wild wolves back into our lives—and there still are.
Yet, it’s clear that the debate has shifted. I first began writing about wolves in early 1993 when it became apparent that Bill Clinton’s election—and his appointment of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt—would likely mean the implementation of longtime Park Service plans to restore wolves to Yellowstone.
Two decades ago, I covered a public hearing in Montana where a stockman’s wife carried a placard stating, “The wolf is the Saddam Hussein of the animal world.” Fifteen years later—after Saddam Hussein’s regime had been destroyed by the U.S. and he himself executed—a protester in Bozeman carried a sign reading simply: “I Love Wolves.”
So, yes, much has changed. The Wolf Recovery Project is a federal program that ran ahead of schedule and under budget, and is essentially being phased out. It also had local input, and crucial help from the private sector, most notably from a nonprofit called Defenders of Wildlife, which in the early years of the program recompensed ranchers for any livestock taken by wolves.
Today, some 6,100 wolves roam the continental U.S., 1,700 of them in the Rocky Mountain West. That’s a fraction of the populations that once tramped the forests and plains of this country, but it’s apparently sustainable: Following recommendations of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Obama administration wants to “delist” the northern gray wolf (canis lupus), meaning it’s no longer on the Endangered Species List. Meanwhile, the government has largely turned management of the populations over to the states.
This week, Fish & Wildlife announced three final public hearings in Washington, D.C., Sacramento, and Albuquerque, N.M., on delisting wolves. It softened the blow by announcing that it wants to expand recovery efforts of the Mexican wolf (canis lupus baileyi). With only 75 of these smaller cousins of the northern wolves left in the wild, that’s clearly a necessary program.
I don’t know what the man who shot the female Mexican gray was thinking when he pulled the trigger, or if he had any remorse afterward. I do know what famous naturalist Aldo Leopold thought when he watched a wolf die by his own hand.
“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes,” he wrote. “I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”