Living with wolves takes some practice

by Tim Lydon

I paddle to a favorite meadow with my friend, Solan. It's late summer in southeast Alaska, when the tall grasses are turning yellow and the mountaintops are lost in clouds. Coming ashore, we step over dead salmon dragged from the stream by bears.

Walking toward the stream, I talk about the time I watched a wolf fishing here, knee-deep in the estuary. But Solan stops me. "I just saw a wolf," he says, pointing a hundred yards ahead. "It ran into the tall grass."

We take a few steps. I don't know what makes us turn, but there is another wolf only 50 feet behind us. She is gray with tawny legs and skinny, with an adolescent's long limbs and big paws. We stare at each other, and then she cautiously walks toward us, her tail low.

"Hey, wolf," I say assertively, pulling my bear spray from its holster and detaching its safety. Solan speaks, too, telling the wolf it shouldn't approach. It's the same way we talk to bears that are too close, using a firmness that belies our nervousness.

Advancing, the wolf tucks her tail closer to her legs and yawns, revealing sharp, clean teeth. With each tentative step, she reaches her nose forward, sniffing. At 30 feet, she veers from her approach and arcs around us. I glance around, looking for other wolves, but the meadow is empty except for some squawking ravens.

The wolf stays about 30 feet from us, skittishly walking a semicircle. When I step forward, she hops back and lowers her head submissively. Talking assertively seems silly now and Solan and I just stand there, trying to understand her behavior. Fifty miles from the nearest road, it's unlikely she's conditioned to humans. She's not a hybrid, the offspring of someone's pet, and she doesn't appear to be rabid or guarding a kill. Our encounter lasts nearly an hour, with the wolf ultimately approaching to within a few feet of us. Several times she tries to come even closer or walk behind us, but quickly retreats when I thrust my head toward her. For a while, she lies in the grass, her chin resting on a leg. Solan and I sit, still holding our bear spray. Eventually, there's a low huff from nearby woods and she trots away.

Solan and I work in remote areas and have been around wolves a lot, though usually we just get a glimpse of one by the forest fringe or hear them howling from the woods. Yet our experience is not unprecedented. A 2002 Alaska Fish and Game case history of 80 wolf encounters described 29 non-aggressive approaches, some similar to ours. And in Juneau, Alaska's capital, curious wolves are not uncommon. For years, a black male, affectionately known as "Romeo," frequented a popular skating lake and often played with unleashed dogs.

On the other hand, wolves killed a teacher last winter in rural Alaska. The woman was jogging when she became the victim of an extremely rare attack. Like bears and lions, wolves can be dangerous, although far more people are hurt -- and killed -- by dogs.

I think of all this while listening to the wolf debate in the Northern Rockies, my former home. Montana Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg recently held "listening sessions" with a one-sided panel of ranchers, hunters and others who want to cut the recovering wolf population to a minimum, even if it means changing the Endangered Species Act. Many, like Rehberg, were livestock growers who had lost animals to wolves. Others were hunters and guides complaining about diminished elk and deer. Their sentiments echoed those of similar groups in Wyoming and Idaho, but they offered an imbalanced and oversimplified take on the issue.

Many denounced wolves as vicious killers. But it's hard to imagine anything more vicious than the government-assisted extermination program, which used every cruelty imaginable to kill wolves to make way for livestock. And few acknowledged the fact that taxpayers reimburse ranchers when wolves kill livestock. Indeed, ranchers receive a fair amount of public assistance; the federal government even provides predator control, shooting nuisance animals. The hunters complained about reduced ungulate populations, but failed to admit that those populations were artificially swelled in the first place, when wolves were exterminated. Nor did they mention that the rapid development Montanans have permitted near their wildlands is having an effect on wildlife. Then there's climate change, the bull elk in the kitchen. With less autumn snow nowadays, ungulates can roam thousands more acres during hunting season, making populations less dense and hunting harder.

This is not to say that wolves don't kill livestock, deer and elk; they do. Yet in Alaska, wolves enrich the landscape. My experience in the meadow is an example, teaching me about the ancient body language spoken between wolves and humans. It's a reminder of our connection with the Earth's community of life. It makes me hope that people in the Northern Rockies will begin to talk more about intelligently sharing the landscape with wolves, and less about slaughtering them.

Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a wilderness ranger in Alaska.

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