Friday, February 29, 2008

Essay: Who?s afraid of Canis lupus?

Dennis Higman and his wife, Lee, live with their dogs and horses at Twin Bridges Ranch, 22 miles north of Sun Valley over Trail Creek Summit.


We just got an urgent e-mail from our friend Lynne Stone, director of Boulder-White Clouds Council, asking us to file comments on Fish and Game's Idaho Wolf Population Management Plan, which we'll do, of course, because we have a soft spot for animals and the people who try to protect them.

Like our friend, Brent Glover, who has been rescuing neglected and abused horses for 30 years at Orphan Acres, we admire Lynne for her single-minded dedication, persistence and what seems to be a rather lonely crusade on behalf of the wolves she loves.

Most people in the Sun Valley area love wolves too. We know because we lived there and had the obligatory Dutcher posters in the den. But only 22 miles away over Trail Creek Summit in Custer County, where we live now, most people don't love wolves. And most of them don't like Lynne Stone very much either.

We know the arguments on both sides: Wolves are essential to the balance of nature and, therefore, good for the environment; or wolves are a menace to big game and livestock and are bad on all counts. We're not hunters, we don't raise livestock for a living, and Mollie Beattie, the late daughter of our closest neighbor and friend, Pat, was instrumental in reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone, so we tend to side with the wolves.

Still, we had never encountered a wolf, up close and personal, until one rainy spring evening several years ago. It was dusk when my wife, alerted by a cry of distress, looked out the kitchen window just in time to see a deer trying to jump the fence next to our lower horse pasture—and being pulled violently back by something very big.

The deer was down and a gray wolf was thrashing it back and forth like a stuffed toy while my wife's blind horse, Happy, only yards away from this carnage, seemed oblivious, lost in his own world, nodding his head rhythmically to some mysterious rhythm known only to Happy Horse and Ray Charles.

Leaving the howling dogs locked in the house for their protection, I grabbed my shotgun and ran down the hill in the gathering darkness. As I got closer and closer, the wolf continued to tear away at the deer. Either he didn't hear, see, or smell me, or was so hungry he didn't care. When I was within 20 feet, I raised the gun to fire a warning shot—at least I think that's what I was going to do. I'd never shot at an animal in my life. At that moment, the wolf raised his head and looked directly at me, mouth full of bleeding meat.

I didn't see the green, fiery wolf eyes of legend, only the outline of an outsized head on a big, lanky body. And then, as I stood there, finger on the trigger, he turned and left, ambling off into the mist as if he had all the time in the world.

I watched him go, adrenaline roaring in my ears like a waterfall. The deer was very dead, almost completely gutted in the short time it had taken me to get there. Finally, after a deep breath or two or three, I pulled myself together, rounded up blind Happy and his seeing-eye horse Sherbet, and led them out of the lower pasture to safer quarters adjacent to the house.

As I walked up the hill, trailing our horses in the rainy darkness, heart still pounding, glancing back frequently to see if we were being followed, I noticed the breach on the shotgun was open and realized I had come face to face with Canis lupus without a shell in the chamber. They were still in my jacket pocket.

That night we left the corral lights on and I kept the shotgun handy, loaded this time. We were up and down all night, checking on the horses, getting very little sleep, but the dogs were quiet and the lone wolf apparently did not return to finish his meal.

Early the next morning I went down to dispose of the deer, wondering how in the world I would bury the carcass, but found ravens and a golden eagle fighting over what was left, which was very little. Except for a hoof, some patches of skin and fur plus what must have been a few undesirable entrails, the deer was gone. Footprints in the mud indicated the carcass had been visited by more than a few coyotes during the night and, by dawn's light, hordes of ants and other swarming vermin were finishing the job.

Later that morning, my wife came down to visit the scene and found a clean set of deer prints zig-zagging across the pasture in panic, followed, stride for long stride, by the wolf that left deep paw prints in the mud. She made a plaster cast of the best one. Its size is impressive, as big as an open human hand. We keep it on the kitchen counter to remind ourselves of this unexpected encounter, which only solidified our emotional conviction that the wolf, almost completely eradicated over the years in the lower 48 in favor of livestock, deserves our protection.

When our guests see the cast of the paw print, their reactions range from wonder to fear to anger, very much like the reaction of people in Idaho to the reintroduction of wolves. We realize that Custer County, despite its sparse population, isn't Yellowstone. And given Idaho's current political reality and pending so-called management plan, we may never see another wolf that close again unless we actually go to Yellowstone.

On the other hand, in all fairness, I often wonder what I would have done if the wolf had gone after Happy Horse instead of the deer. Fortunately for me—and the wolf—I didn't have to make that choice.

Editor's note: The Idaho Fish and Game Commission is scheduled to vote Thursday, March 6, on whether to approve the state's proposed Idaho Wolf Management Plan.

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