The gray wolf loped across a pasture 100 yards off the gravel road. Wood Tick stopped the truck as the three of us froze in awe at the size, the mere presence, of the lone wild one. He'd gone as far as our stretched necks could reach when I yelled, "Out of the truck!" Anything for a few more moments. He was focused; soon disappeared. I turned back towards the truck, stunned to see two more wolves behind us, only 50 yards away. They stood, watching us. I slowly moved towards them for a closer look. One turned and sped up the side of the mountain; the other soon followed. Wolf mystique: now you see them, now you don't. Carole and I were ecstatic as we climbed into the truck, deep in the throes of our incredible luck. To get a long, close look is rare. Wood Tick was beside himself. He'd just seen his first wolves at short range and didn't have his rifle. "I could have saved 100 deer," he said. He didn't know that wolf season was due to end at sunset that very day., as the MT game commission would decide against extending the season one more time -- it was mating season.
It has not been easy sharing a domicile with a wolf-hater. I'm hard pressed to find anyone in this neck of the woods who supports their re-introduction. Coming from Colorado, the Montana vitriol has been a shock. But I've listened; stretching my ears to hear the stories, struggling to understand. I also accompanied Wood Tick most everyday of bow and rifle season last fall. To hear him tell it, the populations of deer and elk have been decimated by wolves. He and most Montana hunters say the reintroduction never should have happened. It's true that populations of deer, elk and moose are down in Montana. Some say they have disappeared entirely from certain areas. There's something happening out there in the woods, but I don't believe it's all wolves.
In the second season since wolves were de-listed from the Endangered Species protection, hunters in Montana shot 166 wolves, 75 percent of the statewide quota of 220. That's not counting the bounty of the "SSS Club: Shoot, Shovel, Shut-Up." I've heard stories of locals who collect tails. Make no mistake: for every wolf legally shot more have been poached. While the official wolf season grows in quotas and time spans, a $600,000 predator-prey study is under way at the University of Montana. So far it has shown that mountain lions are the biggest elk calf predator in the area, followed by black bears and wolves (tied). That study continues, as everyone waits for the science to catch up with the guns on the ground. Wood Tick and I didn't see many elk this past hunting season; but we also saw no wolves, and only a few tracks, and no carcasses of eaten game.
The high elk and deer populations were past reflections of an unnatural order; years of nursing populations for hunters. While those who wish should be able to feed their families with wild game, the issue goes beyond statistics. The wolf represents some deep, dark force for men who struggled to lay claim on the west. Around these parts (NW Montana; Libby-Kalispell) those who scorn lobo proudly show off new 'wolf guns,' their hatred laced with excitement. Some believe that dumping wolves and grizzlies is the government's way of pushing marginal white people off the land and into towns; forced to buy mass-produced meat, plunked onto Styrofoam, wrapped in cellophane.
Humans have always defended food sources. A best friend shoots ravens who threaten her chickens. Coyotes, lions and bears are domestic farmer targets. In these parts people farm the forest. Wood Tick feels justified in protecting 'his' elk, deer and moose, which translates into his way of life. But there's something else at work here, that borders the cosmological. Wolf as a lightening rod for people's powerlessness. Wolf symbolizes "Other," fear of what can not be
controlled. I've grown accustomed to wolf diatribes sprinkled with the n-word. You'd think the alpha female wore a burka.
I recently sat at a table where middle-aged white men discussed soaking sponges in bacon grease and throwing them where they spotted wolf tracks (they're eaten, expand and animal dies a slow death); rubbing hamburger in an artificial sweetener that kills canines; soaking horse shit in antifreeze. The dominant ones can not stand the wild ones; while they proclaim membership in the kill club they are scared to death of grizzlies wolves and lions, the very essence of their wild home. Meanwhile, management of wildlife becomes the new evolution. Down in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park, where the wolf option has been turned down, sharp shooters with night scopes and silencers quietly shoot an elk herd that has grown beyond the park's healthy sustainability.
Wolf in the not-so-wild west has added complication to a not-so-natural world. They howl as I ski through the forest, stop me mid-glide, mesmerized. My psyche longs to hear them, see their sign. I also thrill to see elk and moose, cougar and bear. I believe vehemently in the right to sustain one's self and family from the land; to own guns for protection, food and sport. The once-exterminated have returned to their natural lands to find more prey base than should have been possible. Meanwhile, I wonder if Wood Tick would actually shoot a wolf? He adores canines; doesn't shoot what he can't eat.
Wolves can not help that their reintroduction climaxed in a larger
context of a frazzled, fear-laced world. In the midst of a disintegrating status quo, what does the wolf teach us about ourselves? Wolf calls us to task, forces us to recognize the biological, physical and spiritual implications for the wild west we fervently love ... and need.