Well, It’s So Damned Hard to Read a Map
Especially if you’re a wolf.
Yellowstone Park has hosted a re-integration of gray wolves into its ecosystem for 25 years and that’s a great idea, but it has its limitations. It seems that once they step outside the boundary of the park, death at the hands of a number of eager hunters lurks.
It’s probably more accurate to call them ‘shooters.’
Most of us who hunt, and describe ourselves as sportsmen are largely assassins, myself included. As an example, ‘duck-hunters’ mostly build blinds to hide themselves, set out decoys that look like real ducks bobbing contentedly on the water, call in passing flocks with duck-sounding wooden calls and then rise up to blast away as their prey glides in, expecting to join its fellows on the water.
I do this with great enthusiasm. Guilty as charged.
Deer ‘hunters’ find a trail during the off-season, where deer regularly pass back and forth from bedding down in woodlands to feeding in nearby cropland, then build a camouflaged tree stand, to sit and wait. Tip; if you are patient enough and let a number of does pass, a buck may appear, following his harem.
For a number of years I followed this procedure, to put a couple of deer in the freezer most years. Guilty on this one as well.
And I confess to these crimes so you won’t think my opinion is anti-hunting.
Hunting, shooting, assassinations, whatever you choose to call it, operates in an environment that is ‘managed’ by game laws. There is an over population of deer—over 16,000 are killed annually by automobiles in Cook County, Illinois, within the city limits of Chicago, where hunting is obviously not possible, an example of what happens when hunting or natural predators are not possible. What I mean by managed is keeping wildlife populations in balance and it’s done by Departments of Conservation in most states.
Not so with wolves.
I’ll treat you to another photograph, because they are so iconic.
Although wolf packs once roamed from the Arctic tundra to Mexico, loss of habitat and extermination programs led to their demise throughout most of the United States by the early 1900s. In 1973, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed the northern Rocky Mountain wolf (Canis lupus) as an endangered species and designated Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) as one of three recovery areas. From 1995 to 1997, 41 wild wolves from Canada and northwest Montana were released in Yellowstone. As expected, wolves from the growing population dispersed to establish territories outside the park, where they are less protected from human-caused mortalities. The park helps ensure the species’ long-term viability in GYE and has provided a place for research on how wolves may affect many aspects of the ecosystem. January 12, 2020, marked the 25th anniversary since wolves returned to Yellowstone.
Less protected is a euphemism for shot-on-sight at any time of year, as their protected species listing was removed in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, not accidentally because Yellowstone straddles those states. They are not a ‘game animal’ so there is no season and are no limits. If you are a gray wolf and your GPS is not functioning properly, you’re most likely dead if you exit the park.
To add to the excitement, shooters often set carcass baits just outside the park and the lure works excruciatingly well.
I’ve seen wolves outside the park twice while hunting elk.
Once in Colorado and again in the mountains near Ennis, Montana. The experience was similar on both occasions. At that time I was a smoker and sitting on a stump, cigarette in hand, my peripheral vision caught movement. Three wolves, big ones in beautiful and healthy winter attire, approached from my left, two above and one below, as is their hunting habit—the one below flushes game up to those above. In both cases, they obviously knew I was there but took no interest. They bracketed me, probably thirty yards above and below.
It was breathtaking. Big, strong, beautiful animals in their prime and yes, I know the difference between wolves and coyotes. I will never forget the experience.
Protected or not in the Park, outside, ranchers prevail.
Just as they can’t handle GPS technology, wolves don’t vote. The politics of the West is rancher-driven and they’re very particular about predators. Both wolves and coyotes are designated as predators (which, of course, they are) and so you can shoot, stab, poison, trap or beat them to death any time of year. One of the most egregious methods is helicopter hunting, where packs are run to exhaustion and then shot from the air.
But in the quarter century since wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone, they’ve had a very positive influence on the ecology of the park. According to Yellowstone National Park, here are a few of the ways wolves have reshaped the park:
Deer: It’s true that wolves kill deer, diminishing their population, but wolves also change the deer’s behavior. When threatened by wolves, deer don’t graze as much and move around more, aerating the soil. Grass and Trees: As a result of the deer’s changed eating habits, the grassy valleys regenerated. Trees in the park grew to as much as five times their previous height in only six years!
Birds and Bears: These new and bigger trees provide a place for songbirds to live and grew berries for bears to eat. The healthier bear population then killed more elk, contributing to the cycle the wolves started. Beavers and other animals: Trees and vegetation also allowed beaver populations to flourish. Their dam building habits provided habitats for muskrats, amphibians, ducks, fish, reptiles, and otters. Mammals: Wolves also kill coyotes, thereby increasing the populations of rabbits and mice. This creates a larger food source for hawks, weasels, foxes, and badgers. Scavengers: Ravens and bald eagles fed off of larger mammal’s kills.
Most surprisingly, the land: Soil erosion had caused much more variation in the path of the river. But with elk on the run and more vegetation growing next to rivers, the river banks stabilized. Now, the wolves have changed Yellowstone’s physical geography.
I have a story for you (you knew I would).
I fished for many years during the 60s with Ray Kennedy, a Minocqua, Wisconsin fishing guide. Ray told me a story of his dad, Jim, also a guide who in 1904 had a job rowing boatloads of bricks the nearly four-mile length of Minocqua Lake to a new home being built. He was paid four dollars a week. On one of those trips he spied a wolf, swimming across the lake and the bounty on wolves was fifty dollars. Jim rowed over to the wolf, cracked it across the head with an oar and, thinking he had killed it, reached in and hauled the wolf into the boat.
As he fell backward into the boat, his hands around the neck of the wolf, it came alive and began to frantically claw at him. He was wearing a leather vest at the time and it was a test of him being able to strangle the animal before it clawed through the vest. Claws won and, with what little strength he had left, he heaved the wolf back into the lake, where it shook it head and resumed its swim.
Ray said his dad loved to tell and retell that story, always wondering what the wolf thought of the encounter. Swimming placidly, then bashed in the head, pulled out of the water and strangled, then thrown back.
Who knows? But wolves are a major part of our American history and it’s a shame to see them both revered and vilified for being nothing more than what they are—wolves.