I have never seen a wolf in the wild. I’ve been fortunate enough to spot many other species in their natural habitat – alligators, manatees, mountain goats, moose, bear, pine martens, American crocodiles, loggerhead turtles, moray eels, seals, elk, you name it. But never a wolf. The closest I ever came was a clear and unmistakably fresh paw print on a beach in the Minnesota Boundary Waters. She could see me, but I could not see her. Wolves are good at that.
Wolves certainly live in the places I travel; they are just good at staying out of my way. Last summer, while backpacking the North Fork Wilderness in Glacier National Park, we met an 86-year old park ranger, who had been working the park for decades. We began talking to him about a bear sighting on our intended route, but he was such an interesting character that the conversation meandered, and I asked him if he’d ever seen wolves in the North Fork. He described an encounter with a young wolf.
“Oh, of course,” he replied. “One day I ran right into one, and we stared at each other for a little bit. Then he picks up one paw and holds it up for a second, and he starts to back up, real slow. He didn’t turn his back on me till he was ready. When he finally did, he trotted a few steps, then turned back to look at me one more time.”
To me, the idea that a human being might share such a moment with a wild animal in its own home is a thing of wonder. To be close enough to such a creature that has every reason to fear you – close enough to lock eyes with it one last time before it vanishes into the woods – strikes me as one of the gifts of a lifetime.
That this is so, however, marks me as different from many of my fellow humans. There are times that I feel more of a kinship to wildlife than I do some people –most typically the folks who see wolves and other apex predators solely as threats, and would never pause to consider the expression in its eyes.
Human/wildlife relations have evolved during the age of mechanism. People have always been, and remain, the true apex predator. But as human beings continue on the road to causing the sixth great mass extinction, we are learning the steep costs of wholesale domination. Those costs exist in any kind of relationship, whether parental, romantic, political, or, in the case of wildlife, environmental. And the price is always, somewhat paradoxically, a chunk of the dominator’s humanity. That we have wiped out huge numbers — maybe as much as half — of all wildlife in the span of my life renders the earth a more emotionally and experientially sterile place to live. Many of us have realized that, regret it, and have set about ameliorating it.
In that vein, last year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service promulgated a rule to block some of humanity’s most brutal practices against wildlife in national refuges, including such depredations as killing hibernating bear mothers and cubs as they sleep, shooting wolf pups and their mothers in their dens, aerial hunting, and trapping bears with painful, steel-jawed leg traps. At the time, Republican Representative Mike Fitzpatrick said, about the rule:
“Inhumane hunting methods have caused the overkilling of native Alaskan predators, this rule takes a balanced approach allowing for traditional, permit-based hunting,” said Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick (R- PA). “Congress vested the FWS with the responsibility to manage our Wildlife Refuges. They intend to protect the necessary diversity of wildlife in our refuges while respecting traditional hunting methods.”
In 2016, a poll taken on behalf of the Humane Society of the United States found that Alaskans opposed the practices barred by the rule on a 2-1 basis.
That’s why it’s somewhat puzzling that last week, the House of Representatives voted to repeal the rule, thus, should the Senate and White House agree, allowing back into practice the fringe hunting practices to which most Alaskans are opposed. (Republican Rep. Fitzpatrick was one of the few Republican “nays.”) To be sure, the newly unified Republican government has an anti-regulatory tilt to it, but the repeal of this rule demonstrates the pointlessness of blanket hostility to federal regulations, simply because they are federal regulations and regardless of their support by those regulated.
Sportsmen, along with tree-hugging liberals like myself, turned the tide against the recent initiative to transfer certain federal lands back to the states in which they are located. I hope they show up this time as well, against fish-in-a-barrel tactics that would drain the challenge from the hunt as quickly as it would reduce the populations available for them to hunt.
I visited a wolf sanctuary a year or so ago, not so much resigning myself to never photographing one in the wild as just impatient to learn about them and interact with them. Wolves, even domesticated ones, are elemental in a way that companion dogs are not. At the time, I wrote that “[l]ooked at in the abstract, a wolf can seem either like an utterly mystical creature, a thing apart from humans — a symbol, almost, that looms large in the human imagination. Or it can seem like just a big dog. I found that they are neither, really. When a wolf brushes against your leg, you can feel the heft of the animal, and you can tell it’s somehow different from a dog. Not more, or better; just different. Their fur is coarser than a dog’s; there is a steeliness in how a wolf evaluates you, even when its attitude is friendly; you can feel the power and the presence in a wolf standing near you — or, as the case may be, jumping on you.”
Shortly after I thought about all of this, a big male wolf, Wotan, buried his nose in my crotch to decide if I was worth his company. It’s not as romantic as my park ranger friend’s surprise encounter with a wild wolf in the North Fork. But it was enough to remind me, again, of the costs of refusing to restrain ourselves in relation to wildlife. Wolves, bears and mountain lions will slip away. And there will be nothing to remind us of the thrill of creation, no brief but magical interactions with those who are right to fear us, but who still allow us a moment of regard.