Here come the wolves

  Wolves are once again loping through Colorado and Utah, and I suppose I should be glad. More rapidly than it took to wipe out grizzlies, lynx and other competitor species, wolves are returning to the ark of the Southern Rockies ecosystem.

But yet I pause, and an absorbing four-minute film I saw recently gets at the core of my ambivalence. The film was made at Yellowstone National Park, where wolves were reintroduced in 1995, and it shows two wolves chasing a herd of elk almost playfully before getting down to the serious business of killing. Narrowing their attention to one cow, the pair of wolves follow at a respectful distance for a minute, then quicken the pace before leaping at the throat of the tiring cow.

Despite knowing the outcome, you root for the elk to boot the wolves with her sharp hooves. It doesn’t happen. The elk slows to a walk, then stops and, with the pair of wolves hanging on her neck, topples over. A later examination of the carcass revealed a severely arthritic leg.

The wolves had detected a weakness in this elk that was not immediately obvious to the human eye. This is a compelling argument for those who welcome wolves back to the Southern Rockies, for by culling ungulates of weak members, wolves will improve the health of herds the way that trophy-bent big-game hunters do not. More broadly, advocates argue that wolves, the meat-eating keystone species at the top of the food pyramid, will balance the populations of other species, such as coyotes. With wolves in place to regulate the browsers, even the vegetative diversity will be better maintained.

Yet this killing hits a primeval note in all of us. Biologist L. David Mech, who has been described as the Jane Goodall of wolves, suggests that the reputation of wolves as a predator of people is not altogether wrong — if wildly exaggerated.

"Wolves eat primarily ungulates, i.e moose, deer and elk, but whatever else is available, such as rabbits," Mech explained while on a book tour this spring. That includes cattle and sheep, horses and dogs — and even children, it has been reported in India. But in North America, only 16 cases of wolves attacking people — none with fatal effect — have been documented, he says.

For all that he has learned about wolves during the last 46 years, Mech acknowledges that much remains unknown. We don’t know for sure how wolves in Yellowstone are affecting elk and coyote populations, he says. "We have to be very careful when we make these claims that wolves are having this wonderful effect," says Mech, always a cautious scientist.

Mech, who is obviously sympathetic toward wolves, thinks people and wolves can co-exist, as they do in northern Minnesota. But, he adds, it’s easier if you’re not running cows on the edge of the wilderness.

This summer, a wolf loped down from Yellowstone and was smacked by a vehicle on Interstate 70, west of Denver. It was the first documented wolf to be seen in Colorado since 1945. The wolves are getting to Colorado more rapidly than had been expected. Two polls taken in the state in the last decade found substantial support for their return, but it is true that most supporters live in cities and won’t have much interaction with the animals. People who are cranky about wolves usually live in rural areas, at places like W Mountain, where I went earlier this summer.

W Mountain is on the edge of the Flat Tops, a wild area considered by biologists to host substantial habitat for wolves. Yet standing on its flanks you can see Interstate 70, Colorado’s main east-west artery, as well as the Colorado River. Eighty years ago, a wolf called Old Lefty terrorized the local ranchers here, who summoned a trapper from the U.S. Biological Survey. The trapper killed Lefty, and the stockmen expressed their gratitude in a letter: "It is a big relief to us to know that ‘Old Lefty’ is a thing of the past, for his track on the range meant he was back and on the job of cattle killing once again," the ranchers said.

Those stockmen are long gone, but the stories of Lefty and of wolves following the sleighs of pioneers are still told at family gatherings. Why, they want to know, would you want to bring back these creatures? I don’t have a good answer, except that wolves to me are like thunder rolling over the high country, a rush of wind, a flash of lightning on the horizon.

Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives and writes in the Denver area.