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Wolf Law

This essay was commissioned and paid for by a journalism 2.0 start-up that originally hoped to cover controversial domestic issues but never quite lifted off the ground. The piece, which I spent weeks reporting and writing in Montana and Wyoming, never saw the light of day. It is reproduced in its entirety here.

Today, with our semi-automatic weapons, cars, and bright electric lights, it’s hard to imagine the anxiety predators evoked in the precarious populations of earlier times. Until they were substantially culled by killing and trapping, they were one of the most widely distributed animals on the planet, found from Finland to India, and blanketing the island of Manhattan. Since ancient times, they have been a morbid vessel for human fears. In Medieval times, landlords and cancer were both referred to as The Wolf. In early Puritan New England, the threat of wolves was so omnipresent that the colonial government paid 20 shillings to any pilgrim who brought the head of a wolf to a magistrate. There are reliable accounts from 18th century France that wolves came out of the forest and ate dozens of children. During the Civil War, they were often spotted at twilight, feasting on the battlefield dead. They have also been known to dig up graves and eat cadavers from time to time (until 6 foot burial became the norm, stone slabs called ‘wolf stones’ were placed over gravesites as a last line of defense.) In the late 1800s, frontiersmen and trappers swept across the American West and extirpated wolves in a vicious campaign of strychnine poisoning. In 1893, Theodore Roosevelt penned a dark chapter in his book Hunting the Grizzly and Other Sketches about wolves in the American West, in which he called the animal a “beast of waste and desolation.” Roosevelt hated wolves, but the chapter possesses a certain head-shaking melancholy at the abrupt extirpation of his favorite quarry. “The slaughter wrought by man seems insufficient to explain the scarcity of wolves throughout the country at large,” he wrote. And yet, the campaign to exterminate the wolf intensified. In 1905, Montana experimented with an early form of biological warfare, passing a law that allowed veterinarians to infect wolves with mange and then send them back in the wild to spread the disease. An early 20th century wolf hunters guide literally froths at the mouth, calling the animal “an enemy of the state.” “What greater enemy can the state have than one who is able to wage war on his chief industries day and night?”

After having been vanquished from most of North America, the animal was placed under the protection of the Endangered Species Act in 1973. The National Park Service concocted schemes to reintroduce wolf populations back into the American West. In an effort to preempt the concerns of ranchers, who were worried about wolves preying on their livestock, a group even set up a “wolf compensation fund” to pay ranchers the market value for any livestock that were killed.

In the mid 90s, the federal wolf reintroduction plan reached fruition: 66 wolves were released into Yellowstone National Park and a barren wilderness area in Idaho. Montana politicians, angry about the Eastern influence, angrily fired back with legislation proposing for wolves to be reintroduced in Central Park. Idaho threatened to call the National Guard to have the animals removed from the state. But in the end, the reintroduction was successful—like a chapter of the Old Testament, the wolves went forth and multiplied, and now there are about 1,700 animals today. The Rockies have become a fault line for a bitter, politicized battle over the wolf that is really about states’ rights. The wolf is seen as a livestock-drain brought in by hippie wolf-hugging Eastern bureaucrats. The hatred and fervor is such that you practically can’t get elected to public office in Idaho, Montana or Wyoming today unless you make at least passing reference to hating the wolf.

After four decades of protecting the wolf and paying to have it reintroduced into the west, last year, Congress caved to pressure from Western politicians and took the unprecedented step of removing the animal from the Endangered Species List—the Rocky Mountain Gray Wolf can now be freely hunted in Idaho and Montana as well as three other states. The wolf remains somewhat protected in Wyoming, despite vigorous efforts from that states’ legislators to have it removed completely. Budd Betts, a Wyoming outfitter who’s had several of his dogs killed by wolves told me, “Everyone in Wyoming hates them, outside of Jackson Hole. Our forefathers hated this animal. We’ve spent 75 years trying to get rid of them.” Jackson Hole remains an island of Eastern money and liberal wolf-sympathy in the vast sea of predator hatred that is Wyoming. Why had the debate over wolves become so contentious out in the Northern Rockies? In other parts of the country like North Carolina and Arizona wolf reintroductions were carried out with relatively little ire or controversy. I headed out west to find out.

The sprawl of Denver gave way to the sad, treeless subdivisions that flow over the lumpy bare mountains around Colorado Springs. I drove up over the high-altitude desolation of the Front Rage until I reached the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center. Inside, I found Darlene Kobobel, a blonde woman in her early 40s, who had moved from Los Angeles to start the sanctuary. She explained that the center is home to 17 wolves and wolf-hybrids, most of which have been rescued as abused pets and from for-profit wildlife parks. Nearly twenty years spent dancing with wolves seemed to have soured her on her own species. “Wolves have more feelings than people. My motto is that if people could be more like wolves, it would be a better world. Look at humans: they’re disgusting. Some of them shouldn’t even have the gift of life. All they want to do is destroy.” She said she had to rescue one wolf from a dorm room, where college students were keeping it alive on pizza and Cheetos. Kobobel saw wolf opponents and ranchers as complainers who had unwisely set up their livestock operations in what was naturally predator country. When it was time to feed the wolves, Kobobel, lugged a wheelbarrow of meat out through the snow, flinging huge slabs of venison over fences. I couldn’t help think but Kobobel’s wolves exist in what must be a strange purgatorial state for an animal: not domestic, but still totally dependent. We went cage to cage and Kobobel introduced me to the different subspecies. The massive regal gray wolves, bigger than mastiff dogs, who like humans go gray as they get older; the pure little arctic white wolves; and the straggly, skinny Mexican gray, naturally camouflaged. As we passed, the animals ambled over to the fences and poked their faces out, looking out with intelligent eyes.

Kobobel jumped into a pen with two wolves, one gray and one black, and they nudged her around, playing with her roughly. When I asked her if she had ever been bitten, Kobobel gave me a tired look that seemed to indicate it was a question that everybody asked. “Yes. It’s something you have to deal with. But you live by the gun, you die by the gun.” Back in the center’s little gift shop, I perused the rows of paraphernalia and thought about the fetishization of the wolf–All the indie bands with ‘Wolf’ in their name; all the ironic Native-American-dream catcher airbrush shirts. all the people in New York and LA who love the wolf and ‘the wild’ but live in the city—and for a moment understood the resentment of rural people who lived the life while others just pretended and postured.

Why do people love the wolf so much? Kobobel’s tough exterior suddenly fell away, and her voice became high-pitched and feminine, like a six-year-old girl describing her favorite plaything. “You just watch them run and interact and play and love their young. They’re just so pure. There’s going to be people on both sides who will fight until the end. It just depends on which side you’re on.”

Which side are you on? Is the question that the world asks every day. Like any person with a conscience I hate the thought of animals being killed and tortured senselessly—but does that hate overpower the contempt I have for educated Eastern bureaucrats and urbanites in distant air-conditioned office buildings, who, in their eternal rightness earned through an expensive liberal arts education, love to tell rugged and independent people what they should and should not do to protect their land and their livelihood? I drove through the empty lunar landscape of Wyoming at night—nothing to look at for miles—and when I almost ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere learned the important Western lesson that one must always stop for gas even when you’ve got a quarter of a tank. Late at night I approached Casper, a ghostly bright little orb in Wyoming’s otherwise impenetrable darkness. Casper is spooned up against the mountains, notable only for being an oil town and the home of Dick Cheney. It’s central location on a major highway makes it the de facto stopover spot the state. For this reason, and on account of the brutal, wind-lashed winter, Casper hotels have amenities. The first place I looked was a hotel called The C’mon Inn that looked like an REI sporting goods store from the outside and an Atlantic City casino on the inside—just past the lobby was a huge courtyard filled with hot tubs, each surrounded by a little scenery of fake trees and rocks, burbling away waiting for a swinger’s convention to show up. The late-night receptionist was a twenty-something girl and I stood chatting with her for a while. When I asked her why no one was in the dozens of hot tubs and she shrugged, “I don’t know, but I would get in one right now if I could.” I smiled and said it was nice chatting and went out into the iced-over parking lot to get in my car and drive to another hotel, the Ramada Plaza, near the center of Casper’s tiny downtown. As I was checking in, I poked my head into the wood-paneled hotel bar. There was a lingerie show going on—scantily clad women gyrated and spun and danced on laps, trying to evoke a reaction from the statue-like Wyoming cowboys, stock-still leathery flacos with boots and moustaches. By the time I got settled into my room and came back downstairs, the bar was empty. I took a seat at the bar across from the bartender and ordered a beer. I told him I was writing about the wolves and he instantly knew what I was writing about. “Everyone has an opinion about them around here,” he said. Wolves, he told me, were the hot-button political issue in the region. “They’re trouble,” he said, “You’re going to find a lot of people around here that don’t like ‘em.”

In the winter, locals have no problem careening over the icy permafrost-coated highways of Montana and Wyoming at breakneck speeds, turning what could be a beautiful drive into a harrowing, white-knuckle experience. The next morning, I veered into Montana over snow-covered two-lane roads, buffeted by the Paramount-pictures-cinematic-looking Crazy Mountains, and met a rancher named Sven Svenson at his home near Reed Point. Svenson, a rotund middle-aged man with a mustache, was out in his garage skinning sheep when I arrived. His overalls and shoes were covered in blood. He led me inside his ranch home and put some coffee on. Animal heads—moose, deer, and elk with blank eyes—filled the walls of the den. In 2008, Svenson began to find his sheep brutally slaughtered, with bloody wolf paw prints around the carcasses. When he put out guard dogs, they got torn up too. Svenson and his sons took turns staying up all night to keep watch for wolves. But when they left in the morning to get some sleep, the wolf made his move. “He was watching us watch him. Wolves make coyotes look stupid.” As part of their wolf compensation program, a group called Defenders of Wildlife paid Svenson market value for the 35 sheep he officially lost—around $5000. But Svenson estimates that his real losses were actually closer to a whopping $80,000. On his kitchen table, he laid out an extensive itemization; “I’ll provide an analogy for you: It’s as if the New York Police Department said when you got mugged, they’ll pay you for the $7.50 the wallet cost, but not the $500 that was inside of it.” I felt a tinge of sadness as an image of a slaughtered sheep, containing a stack of green bills, splayed open like a wallet coalesced in my imagination. Svenson’s itemization seemed like a reach, but his indignation seemed genuine. “They shoved this wolf introduction down our throats” he growled, “After what I’ve been through, I’ll shoot a wolf on sight if I ever get a chance. If they throw me in jail, the rest of the county will be right there beside me. There’s a certain bond among agriculture and we’re done—we’re tired of it—and we will rebel.”

Most of the entrances into Yellowstone National Park remain closed throughout the winter, accessible only by a small fleet of futuristic looking snowplows and snowmobiles. To get in, one has to come down through the tiny town of Gardiner at the northern end of the park. Locals told me that in the summer, Gardiner was a tourist zoo, with Los Angeles-like bumper-to-bumper cars stretching into the horizon and hordes of Japanese tourists taking pictures of the elk that roam through town. In the winter, I found Gardiner dead and Lynchian. The ominous, spindly mountains inside of Yellowstone seemed perpetually covered in swirling gray snow clouds. All the restaurants were eerily empty. Driving through town, I spotted an adolescent kid leaning over the railing of a bridge looking down at the swift-moving river like a character in a Dostoevsky novel, preparing to jump. Even the entrance into America’s heralded national park was surreal—a huge brick arch plopped down on an empty plain, with Soviet-intentional words seared into the masonry—

For the enjoyment and benefit of the people.

From the park’s entrance, I drove for an hour down a tiny, precipitous road, trapped behind a lone loping buffalo, until I found Rick McIntyre, Yellowstone’s resident wolf guru. He stood beside his car at a snow-blanketed siding looking like Benjamin Franklin, pointing a huge handheld antenna in the direction of the valley plain. McIntyre, 61, had thin graying hair and wore a worn-in Death Valley cap. He wore lightly tinted sunglasses and spoke in the preternaturally calm, prescriptively non-oppressive voice of a new age golf instructor or a family therapist. He has no interest in talking about the partisan politics of the wolf debate, but is instead only interested in delving into the ongoing soap opera of the wolves he’s been watching for over ten years, stories that he compares to the Old Testament. Though he’s had opportunities to be promoted, McIntyre has voluntarily chosen to stay in the lowest position in the National Park hierarchy. “Have you heard of the Peter Principle?” he asked me “The idea that in any organization you rise to a level of your incompetence?” The antenna, he explained, was used to pick up signals from the wolf radio collars. If he got a strong signal, he pulled out his telescope and watched the wolves, narrating their every negligible movement into a portable Dictaphone—“Wolf number 361 has lifted its hind leg. Wolf number 962, straying off to the north alone.” If McIntyre is unable to get a signal, he drives to another spot in the park and tries again. This is what he has done continuously, every day, since the year 2000. In the summer McIntyre he gets up at 3:45 in the morning and stays out until its dark. He packs all his meals and stays out in the cold for nine hours at a time. At night, he returns to his small cabin at the northeastern edge of the park and transcribes the day’s notes, trying to find patterns, adding the notes to his Wolf Bible—a document that has grown over the past ten years and is now 8,200 pages long, single spaced. Wolves are his driving passion—they are his life. Needless to say he is single. McIntyre said there was a woman for a while, in Phoenix. “I thought she cared about wolves. In the end, I was wrong–she cared more about her job.” McIntyre hopes to one day format all of his research into a Bible-like series of books that will tell the entire saga of the wolf reintroduction. “It’s kind of like how if you were a novelist and were to write a novel about American life right now, you’d want to create characters that were representative of society.” Tagging along with McIntyre is an enthusiastic college kid named Joe, a former ranch hand home for winter break, trying to get as much wolf-watching time in as possible. The kid’s initiative and drive to watch wolves is impressive—he gets up before dawn to drive into the park to stand out in the cold all day for the nebulously-satisfying reward of getting to spot a wolf through a telescope. We spend the first day in relative silent on a snowy hilltop, standing there like monks for hours, looking down at the valley. At different points McIntyre beckons me over to his telescope—there are the gray wolves with their tongues lolling out, perched in the snow, guarding a carcass.

All of McIntyre’s wolf stories start, “Well, I’m going to have to give you a short version here” and stretch out into an hour-long retelling of a three-generation-long Shakespearean saga of genetic inheritance, warfare, love and murder. McIntyre’s wolves, as he anthropomorphizes them, come to have individual human personalities, with individual charismas, birthrights and hubris. Individuals are always splitting off to form new packs—tribes are warring with each other, dynasties are built, lone wolves set off away from society. Why is it that the pack refuse to follow the alpha male, but are willing to fight for the alpha female when she gives the signal? Charisma is not usually a characteristic afforded to animals. McIntyre loves the Tao Te Ching-inspired wolf leaders who govern effortlessly without ever resorting to cruelty or fear.

When I asked McIntyre if he had a favorite wolf, his tale is somewhat heartrending. “Wolf #8 was one of the first pups born after the reintroduction in 1995. #8 was one of the smallest and was picked on by everybody. He had no natural physical advantages—he wasn’t a good hunter, he was clumsy, and in a culture where dominance means physical ability, it didn’t seem like #8 had a great chance of survival. But after the death of several dominant wolves in Eight’s pack, he became the unlikely heir of the alpha position. As alpha, #8 was benevolent and compassionate—he adopted a number of wolf pups and raised them as if they were his own. He was a great foster father. Having had a difficult time growing up himself, he taught his pups compassion. He taught them to show mercy to the enemy, and not to kill in battle. #8 went on to be the mentor and foster dad for a very important wolf–Wolf #21, who would go on to become the most famous wolf in the park. #21 was born with every physical gift imaginable. This may sound like an exaggeration, but seriously, #21 was like a superhero. His concept of a fair fight was six to one and he would always win. He was the undisputed champion. He was the ultimate tough guy, but he would always play and wrestle with the younger wolves in the pack and let the young wolves win. I watched a documentary about Muhammad Ali, and he would do the same thing. That was his idea of a game. #21 learned about compassion from #8. When he grew up and became a strong alpha, he always spared his enemies in battle, just like his foster father taught him. The best analogy I have is that #21 was like Superman—he was this child with super powers, who never knew his biological father, but was adopted and raised by this compassionate foster family who imparted him with strong values.

Barry Lopez, in his indispensable book Of Wolves and Men pointed out, “We do not know very much at all about animals. We cannot understand them except in terms of our own needs and experiences.” Despite centuries of research and human experience, the true nature of the wolf remains steeped in mystery. We still know almost nothing about the “rules” that govern wolf behavior. Sometimes they go after prey that is sick and old. And sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they kill just what they need to eat, and are compassionate to their prey. Other times they slaughter ruthlessly, almost as if for fun. Wolves are hated because they are smart and because they are elusive keystone predators that seem to serve no other purpose in God’s Great Plan other than to muck things up and do whatever they want—that is, they are hated because they are too similar to humans. A common mantra repeated by wolf supporters is that no healthy wolf has ever killed a person in North America. This is probably not true, but was definitively disproven last March when a young special education teacher working in Alaska was found mauled to death on the side of the road. Bloody wolf prints were found all around her body. She had been going on a run and listening to her iPod. Wolf attacks on humans, though very infrequent, read like a collection of humankind’s worst fears: a young kayaker sleeping in the open air wakes up to find himself being dragged into the woods. Children in Alaska and Ontario have been grabbed by the head when their parents aren’t looking. In the 1940s, a railway worker in Ontario was ambushed by a wolf while he was on the train—he grabbed an axe and clubbed the animal to death to save himself. However, the special education teacher in Alaska is today the only recorded person in North America ever to have been killed by non-rabid wolves. But when her father was interviewed by reporters, he didn’t sound consumed by the kind of face-reddening, mouth-breather hatred that is widespread in Wyoming and Montana. “They’re just doing what wolves do.” He sighed to a local paper. “Their nature happened to kill my daughter, but I don’t have any anger towards wolves.” The young wolf victim had kept a blog documenting her interesting life as a teacher in small-village Alaska. In it, she comes across as very preoccupied and concerned about the threat of bears and various wild animals—a chilling reminder that sometimes your worst nightmare can come true. In one entry, she posted a picture of a stuffed wolf in a glass case, that seemed to eerily presage her death: “Chignik Lake’s mascot is a wolf and it sits in the lobby of the school,” she wrote, "It's a great reminder of what lurks outside in the wilderness and to be on the alert at all times."+


Aaron Lake Smith

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