Return of the Wolf
Sitting here, I get a feeling that’s hard to describe. Having personally darted over two hundred of these animals, and handling several hundred more, there are times when I have to guard against ending up on “autopilot”; it’s especially easy to end up there on hectic days, when I get the collar on one wolf, take the necessary samples and measurements—all very methodically—then find myself pressing on to the next pack. Unfortunately, it seems such mechanical mind can creep in now and then when you make the study of nature your job. Sometimes the magic that came so easily in the early years of a scientist’s career, when every day brought a proper sense of awe and wonder, can on heavy work days begin to slip out of reach.
But big Number 760 wakes me up from this work-induced trance. What are he and his pack doing here out in deep snow, I start wondering, miles from a decent chance at a moose or bighorn sheep? I stand up and look around, noticing how the snow holds not a single track from another animal. Against that backdrop, suddenly I see 760 as something much more than just another wolf. He is Wolf with a capital letter. Here is the creature that caused so much turmoil in the western world—a strong, vigorous predator that fifteen hundred years ago was sold by popular religion as the symbol of evil, and incredibly, is today being sold that way again. Sitting in this quiet drainage, a stone’s throw from the most remote location in the continental United States, I worry about whether as a culture we can still embrace this thing called wilderness. Or if the day is coming when we’ll manage our last wild places more or less as farms, charged with growing crops of elk and deer for the autumn harvest.
Greater Yellowstone, like a handful of other precious places in the northern Rockies, is still wild enough to occasionally be inconvenient. Awkward. Unpredictable. Qualities that lie at the heart of any place worthy of the name wilderness. On this January day in the canyon, in the snow next to that beautiful, perfectly chiseled wolf, I’m thinking that unless we make room in our lives for such irregularity, for the messiness of big mystery, then the last wild places will fade to a pale shadow of what they once were. And of what they might yet be.
Reprinted with permission from Decade of the Wolf revised and updated edition: Returning the Wild to Yellowstone, by Douglas W. Smith and Gary Ferguson, published by Lyons Press. (c) 2012 Lyons Press. All rights reserved.
Douglas Smith, PhD, leader of the Yellowstone Gray Wolf Restoration Project, has studied wolves for decades and has worked on the reintroduction since its inception. He lives in Bozeman, Montana.
Gary Ferguson, an award-winning nature writer, has written eighteen books on nature and science, as well as for publications including Vanity Fair, Outside, and the Los Angeles Times. He lives in Red Lodge, Montana.