The wolf in all of us

The return of the gray wolf to the American West isn't just a triumph for conservationists. It's a victory over the darkness in our own human nature.

Katharine Mieszkowski
June 10, 2004 11:30PM (UTC)

When the corpse of a female gray wolf turned up along I-70 west of Idaho Springs, Colo., on Saturday, it was the first confirmed wolf sighting in Colorado in 69 years. The young animal, identified as a member of a Yellowstone pack by the radio collar she wore, had traveled hundreds of miles south from Wyoming.

One dead wolf might not seem like much to get excited about, but the female canis lupus, who was likely on a long-distance search for a mate when she became roadkill, represents a new frontier in the return of wolves to the West. Reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995, the wolves have thrived, multiplying in numbers and dispersing to form new packs and seek out new territories.


In just a decade, the presence of the predator has reshaped the park's ecosystem. Elk feeding behavior has changed so much that cottonwoods, willows and aspen are making a comeback, setting in motion a ripple effect for many other creatures.

"You had beavers that came back into the park for the first time in years and years. The dams they make create wetlands, and with wetlands you get a larger population of ducks and otters. It just kind of cascades down through the ecosystem," says Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, a nonprofit that has assisted the wolf comeback by financially compensating ranchers who lose livestock to the carnivore. "The return of the wolf has been called one of our great conservation success stories of the 20th century."

The gray wolf might be coming back, but, paradoxically, the animal is thriving at the same time that both national parks and many other endangered species are facing an avalanche of renewed threats. Although President Bush pledged early in his administration to "restore and renew" national parks, the nonpartisan watchdog group National Parks Conservation Association gives his administration a D-minus for its management of the nation's most popular public lands.


Over the last three years, the Bush administration has not voluntarily added a single animal to the protected list, per the strictures of the Endangered Species Act, says Schlickeisen. New species have only achieved protection via court order. The lack of interest in preserving wildlife makes the wolves' success story all the more remarkable: The gray wolf, historically one of the most hated and persecuted predators in the West, and even now still a source of resentment for ranchers and farmers in Wyoming and other states, is doing just fine, with help from the feds.

Few people understand the evolving story of wolves in the West more intimately than Renee Askins, a wildlife ecologist who spent 15 years advocating for the return of the carnivores to Yellowstone, as she relates in her memoir, "Shadow Mountain." The founder of the Wolf Fund, an organization that declared victory and shut down after achieving its singular goal of bringing the gray wolf back to the park, Askins has a breadth of knowledge about the history of the wolf that is unmatched.

For Askins, the fear and loathing that led to the elimination of wolves was an attempt to conquer and achieve mastery over the darkest of human fears. The resulting massacre was a moral wrong that only restoration can help assuage. By phone from Jackson, Wyo., she explained why the wolf embodies such psychological significance in the West -- and why the Bush administration, no friend to the environment, has stood up to those who would reexterminate the gray wolf all over again.


How are the Yellowstone wolves doing today?

They're doing so much better than our wildest dreams. It's really remarkable. Nobody anticipated how quickly the Yellowstone population would grab hold and really start producing animals.

In the Northern Rockies area where you have the three connected populations, we have probably somewhere between 500 to 650. Right now is kind of a difficult time [to count], because the wolves have had their pups, so you don't know how many of the pups are going to survive into the fall.


What's happening with the plans to move the wolf off the endangered species list, and into state management?

In Montana and Idaho, the state game and fish departments have come up with plans that both conservationists and the federal government feel protect wolves, and at the same time are flexible enough to address conflicts. In the state of Wyoming, however, if it weren't so serious, it would be comical, because the state Legislature is just utterly apoplectic about this issue. They refuse to change the legal status of the wolf in the state of Wyoming from a predator to a game animal or a protected animal. Any animal that is a predator in the state of Wyoming can be killed on sight without any questions.

So, the state is now suing the federal government because they [the state] essentially say that the status of wolves has reached the point at which the state should be able to take over the management of wolves. But it's written clearly in the Endangered Species Act that management will only be handed over to the state when the state comes up with a plan that ensures the survival and protected status of wolves.


Politically, it's an interesting time in Wyoming. A lot of these people anticipated that the feds -- given that it's a not-so-conservation-minded administration -- would just roll over on this. You've got Cheney, who used to be a congressman from Wyoming, and all these people lined up who are not necessarily unsympathetic.

But the word came down that Bush is not going to take what the nation perceives as one of the biggest conservation victories of the last five decades and jeopardize it in an election year so the state of Wyoming can have its wolf-shooting contest. It's just a very bizarre situation.

What do you think the reaction of the Wyoming Legislature means?


It saddens me because one of the things that you hope is that there will be a kind of cultural enlightenment as a result of the reintroduction of the wolf. Yet in 2004 in the Wyoming state Legislature, grown men are crying and wailing about what wolves did to their great-grandfather's ranch. In one way, it's fascinating. In another it's just a sad example of how slowly cultural changes are made. There's no doubt in my mind that the Yellowstone wolves will be protected, and the state of Wyoming will not be effective in jeopardizing the survival of that population. But I do think that we still may see another cultural war take place.

One representative was talking on the floor of the state Legislature about how under these rules, "we can't go down and bomb the dens." Under the federal rules that were being suggested, you couldn't use this barbaric technique of basically bombing and smoking, essentially suffocating, the pups in the den.

Is it surprising that this particular administration is defending wolves?


I think that the national politicians are pretty sensitive to what stirs the national public. And I don't think anybody anticipated how powerful the symbols of Yellowstone and wolves together were in our cultural psyche.

Exterminating wolves was so much more than the idea of ridding the West of a nuisance predator.

The incredible violence of it?

Things like tying their legs to four horses and quartering them to death. Or, dousing them with gasoline and burning them, or wiring their jaws shut, so they would die slowly of starvation. These kinds of hideous acts exposed an interest in not really killing wolves, but conquering them. And I think part of that was because wolves represented this wild untamed spirit.


It goes way back. You see all these biblical alliances between wolves and the devil. The Christ figure protects the sheep from the wolves. It goes on and on and on.

Those kinds of things are deeply embedded in our cultural thinking. The wolf for centuries and centuries has been so much more than the biological animal. One of the reasons that they pose the kind of threat that they do is not just because they eat the game that we eat, but that we see parts of ourselves in them, parts of our self that aren't always acknowledged.

We have projected our shadow onto wolves for centuries. Wolves exist in the shadows and are crepuscular animals, which means they come out during dawn and dusk. They are most active, as are a lot of creatures, during the crepuscular period when light turns to dark and dark turns to light.

When you listen to Bush's speeches, you hear the creation of this "other" -- the big evil shadow of the other, while we are the conquering forces of life and intelligence. But then it turns out that it is we who have perpetuated this hideous behavior and torture at Abu Ghraib. To me wolves are very much a part of that.


Do you think that we're capable of overcoming that impulse to conquer when it comes to wolves? Aren't we just controlling them in different ways by restoring, monitoring and managing them?

I felt that the step of restoring wolves to Yellowstone was right on many levels. I felt that it was wrong for us to exterminate this species that plays a critical role in the ecological processes of wild places. It wasn't that wolves died out because there was no longer habitat or prey. We systematically, consciously, and very effectively killed every last one of them. It was a wrong that I feel that we as a culture committed, and one that we could right.

And now, like anything, there are all the undercurrents and compromises in doing a restoration project, which I had to face pretty directly in the process of going out and trapping wolves [in Canada] to be brought down here -- the whole idea of intervening in their lives. The thing that made me feel better about those kind of questions was that in the areas that we took wolves from there was a 70 percent chance of man-perpetuated deaths.

It's a free-fire zone in those areas. Wolves could be shot or trapped or poisoned anytime by anyone under any circumstances.


So it wasn't as if you took them from some utopian paradise, and then trapped, tagged them and put radio collars on them.

Right. I think here in the early stages of this project there has been an intensive management mode, partly because as scientists we've never had the opportunity to study wolves in this way, in an environment where they've been gone, and then are replaced. We can see exactly what their role is, and what kind of impact they have. It's an extraordinary situation for learning about both the ecosystem and the species itself.

But I think ultimately the radio collars will become something that is used for basic monitoring, and we'll have a situation where wolves exist in the wild. And when they do get in conflicts, when they do kill cattle, especially on private land, then usually the wolves will be killed. But I think that there are always those questions where civilization and wild places and wild creatures meet.

Sure, those are compromises. But here in Jackson every spring the mice just come in and take over the house. And I like mice. I used to have a little family of shrews that lived in a closet. And I let them live there, and that was fine, but there is a certain line that you draw where you decide what is hygienic. So, I think that in the same way there are boundaries to where it will be appropriate to have wolves.

Wolves do kill dogs; they do kill livestock, and that's not going to be tolerated in some areas. And I'm not some dreamy tree hugger that isn't willing to admit that there are always going to be these boundaries. We'll have to come to some agreement of how we treat the wild when those boundaries collide. You see it with fires, you see it with bears, you see it with mountain lions and you see it with wolves.

I think it's still a great privilege to live near wild places even when you have the inconvenience of having huge forest fires sometimes sweep away homes. People make those choices of where they're going to live, and with them comes a certain risk and responsibility.

You write about how the return of wolves to the West challenged the myth of Western independence, the ideal of being free of interference by outsiders. Do you think that the current attacks on the environment represent a return of that ethos?

What you see happening in the Bush administration right now is someone whose arrogance and presumption have yet to be checked by a humbling look into his own darkness. When you translate that into discussions around the environment, again I feel like it's part of the human hubris of conquering and controlling.

And one can just only hope and have faith that that presumption will be humbled. I'm always just astonished that we approach the natural world with this sense of our authority over it.

Do you think that you, and everyone else who worked on it, could have brought wolves back to Yellowstone in 2004? Or, do you think that it wouldn't have been allowed?

You have to think about this process from my perspective: I started getting interested and reading things and talking to people back in 1978. So, there was the whole Reagan administration and the Bush administration.

A good part of that time, there was what one would call unfriendly administrations. And it wasn't until really under Clinton and Bruce Babbitt and Mollie Beattie [the late director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] that we began to see the kind of affirmative action that was taken. I do think that it required a certain constellation of people and events to line up. But part of the reason they did line up is that so many people persisted for so long.

There are some times when the writing is on the wall, and people do succumb to that even when it's not something that the administration would normally favor. The fact that we could keep the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge protected this long, especially with the kind of engagement that this administration has with gas and oil exploration, just shows you that there is a tremendous amount of interest and strength behind people's sense of the importance of that Alaska wilderness. In the same way that people feel: Even if I never come to Yellowstone, it's important for me to know that wolves are there.

After all the work you did to bring wolves back to Yellowstone, how do you feel now when you see the hundreds of humans who hang around in the Lamar Valley in the park trying to see a wolf?

I have a friend who is kind of the Italian wolf biologist, and he calls them the "wolf freakers." I'm of the mind that it's a little bizarre -- all these people lining up. Some of them know the number and name of every wolf, and its lineage.

But to me it's an expression of the pulse of the whole wolf issue, where you have people with that kind of obsession and passion that hate wolves, and you have the same kind of passion and obsession in people who love wolves.

Personally, I'm not drawn to that element of wearing wolf T-shirts, and having posters of wolves and statues of wolves. But I feel like it's just one of the expressions of our reaching out for something that we've lost. I think it speaks much about our sense of loss, and how misaligned we are with our relationship with the wild.

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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