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Wolves in Hellroaring

Humans are not part of the grey wolf’s natural diet, and with only local exceptions, we never have been in North America. Perhaps there is no good reason why not: the carnivores are proficient at hunting much larger animals that have much more elaborate natural defenses. And perhaps we know that there is no good reason, therefore we act as though the opposite were true, that wolves are out to get us. Before their reintroduction to Yellowstone, the Governor of Montana promised his constituents that a Montana child would be killed by a wolf within the year. It is accurate to say the wolves are out to get domesticated animals from which we’ve selectively bred out most of the natural defenses and claim to own and count as money in the bank. When wolves resubmit these fat and mostly defenseless creatures to the rigors of natural selection we treat it as the most unnatural thing in the world and we go on the warpath. Whenever wolves kill out of necessity, we kill back out of angst, vengeance, insecurity, sport, and righteousness.

I was thinking about this relationship when we crossed a trio of hunting wolves in the Absaroka-Beartooth last week. We’d been hearing their howls for days and nights, and then one day, fourteen miles from the closest road, there were three coming right towards us. We first saw them a long way away and gradually watched them get closer. It seemed impossible they’d walk right to us, but eventually we had to face the fact they were doing just that. A slight wind kept our scent away. They were thirty feet downhill when they finally saw us and whirled away.

Wolves had been on my mind for days. I’d been studying their tracks and scat and memorizing their songs. I noticed that they were eating poorly: one defecated brown slime and stalks of grass. This is the season of starvation, of darkness, of merciless cold. They were spending long days tromping through deep snow looking for anything. And here we showed up, carrying no weapons, moving perhaps a quarter of their speed, plenty well fed. Totally out of our element (as far as species go). Yet some rule says that they were the ones that had to run away.

It was disturbing for me to watch them run. Of course, it would have been terrifying, it would have certain death, for them to see us as prey. But watching them run away, I considered how successfully we have removed ourselves from the circle of life. We make our own rules, and we declared ourselves the exemptions, and now we are right. We poison our dead before we lock them underground, and we take far, far more than we need. The wolves can’t know the smallest fraction of our offenses against their planet– they only know that we are terribly dangerous, in a way that even the grizzly is not. And they couldn’t be more right. Sometimes, when humans are around, gore erupts from wolf bodies, heads explode, there are sharp deafening cracks in the sky. Things die. The Yellowstone wolf’s creation story is that one day they broke through man’s chain-link fence.

If you’ve ever jumped a herd of three hundred elk and watched them thunder away, noses high, eyes rolled back, you’ve felt the same thing. When we wander through the wilderness, we create an intangible bubble of disruption that mortifies the residents. We embody what is evil in this world. Feeling guilty about the three wolves, I consoled myself that at least they could use our track after we left, it would make up for the energy they wasted running away. But in the following days, time and time again, I saw wolf tracks approach to within a few feet of our own, then turn around. A “healthy fear” we call it, in appreciation, because we know that it is healthy to never trust our species. In Hellroaring, where we were the only people, I wondered how this contract, that we have written, reads to the wolf packs Doug firs and lichens. What all had been signed away, what had been destroyed to secure this level of protection for our kind from a natural world of beautifully integrated parts. The wolves, fading into the timber, felt like my conscience: they know that humans have gone profoundly wrong. They know that we stole the fire from the gods, and that now we are bored again.

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“…I saw wolf tracks approach to within a few feet of our own, then turn around.”

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