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Know the West

The paradoxical call of the wild


Dogs Vamped by She Wolves Are Leaving Homes. This was a headline that ran -- not on the cover of Cosmo, describing some new coupling trend between more-than-foxy older women and ugly younger guys -- but in Western newspapers in 1924. It was meant literally, and it gives insight into the battle against wolves that was raging at the time.

The Europeans who came to the New World brought with them an ingrained hatred of wolves. When the settlers headed West, and the wolves showed an inclination for eating livestock, that hatred manifested itself in a campaign of killing. In 1915, the U.S. Biological Survey was officially tasked with systematically executing all predators, by whatever means necessary.

By 1924, the government's poisoning campaigns had so reduced the number of adult male wolves that the remaining females had to go slumming in peoples' yards for mates. One Colorado rancher held "a private grudge" against "Old Three Toes," a particularly seductive older gray wolf that went so far as to dig the rancher's collie out of his pen in order to frolic with it. That didn't exactly ease the bad feelings towards predators. In 1943, the last wolf in Colorado was killed in the remote south San Juan Mountains.

In this issue's cover story, Michelle Nijhuis reports that wolves may have finally returned to Colorado on their own, in hopes of sticking around. They're coming from the North, perhaps looking for more prey in a new place where there's less competition. Maybe they're following some genetic urge to re-inhabit their ancestral homeland. Whatever the impetus, that homeland has been drastically altered -- for better and worse.

Today, there is a lot less habitat, and a lot more people. Subdivisions, gas fields and deadly highways slice up what was once free range. At the same time, there are also fewer ranchers, meaning fewer people whose livelihood is directly threatened by wolves. It's telling that, as Nijhuis reports, one of the wolves' best hopes in Colorado is not federal protection or public land, but a huge ranch with an owner who has an innovative way of managing his property. Instead of an atmosphere of universal disdain, the wolves will be welcomed by a cacophony of emotion, ranging from the traditional fear and hatred to Dances With Wolves-style adoration. For the most part, however, the hatred is no longer institutionalized: Today, the U.S. Biological Survey is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, its mission ostensibly to protect, not exterminate, the wolves.

That's not to say Colorado wolves don't face a tough road ahead. Human beings who loathe predators will inevitably do their best to wipe them out. Just witness the case of the reintroduced Canada lynx in Colorado: Poachers have killed at least four of them, two in the last several months. Others will try to systematize -- and exploit -- anti-predator hostility. In Utah, where wolves have been sighted but have not yet settled, state Sen. Allen Christensen proposed a bill that would order state officials to kill any wolves that venture into Utah, because wolves are "simply not compatible with humans." The bill was watered down to demand that the feds take wolves off the endangered species list, which still protects the canines in Utah and Colorado. 

As the wolves return, the story will become increasingly tangled, full of contentious politics, complicated wildlife management schemes, and the incredible vulnerability -- and unexpected toughness -- of the animals themselves. Unfortunately, people like the senator in Utah have a large constituency ripe for anti-wolf hysteria. That's why those who care about wolves, habitat and a more balanced natural world need to stand up and make themselves heard. They can change this story from just another tragedy to a triumph of the indomitable spirit of the wild.