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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.