Around christmas 2011, a large, juvenile wolf entered into California from Oregon. This event was almost as unlikely as reindeer landing on your rooftop. The wolf—known as OR7 to state and federal wildlife agencies (the seventh gray wolf tagged in Oregon), but called Journey by the growing number of online fans following his remarkable trek—was the first wild wolf seen in California since 1924.
That was the year bounty hunters killed the last wild wolf in the Golden State. Decades before OR7’s border breach, California, along with the rest of the country, had undertaken a brutal campaign to get rid of wolves—the animals were trapped, shot, poisoned, burned and buried alive to the point of near-extinction. Gray wolves once numbered in the hundreds of thousands in the lower 48 states. By the 1920s, they were reduced to bands of survivors haunting tiny pockets in northern Minnesota, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin.
The socio-economic and political contours of wolf extermination, subsidized by state and federal dollars, roughly trace those of the Native American genocide. Both Native Americans and wolves were demonized in propaganda, but the real issue was that they were speed bumps in the path of Manifest Destiny. Or, to put it another way, they competed for land that ranchers, loggers, miners, railroaders and real estate developers wanted.
The story of the wolf cannot be separated from the broader story of the West. And for me—at a time when I’d almost lost hope in our will to roll back environmental catastrophe—the appearance of OR7 in my home state brought with it that most precious of commodities: hope.
I wanted to get to know this wolf.
1. A Haunted Culture
Wolf is one of the heaviest words in the English language. It is loaded with a freight train’s worth of connotations, good and bad. Wolves are the parents of Rome, the takers of Little Red, Teddy Roosevelt’s “beasts of waste and desolation,” the same beast that is a near-deity to many indigenous cultures.
Because so much myth about the creatures is loaded into our consciousness when we are so young, our psychic relationship to wolves seems to accompany us out of the womb. I remember my childhood imagination playing along to the score of Peter and The Wolf. No picture books or animated Disney manifestations were needed to carry me away; just Sergei Prokofiev’s ear candy and the word wolf in the composition’s title. The combination filled up hours of invention, and I took the wolf on wondrous adventures in my head.
Western culture has two minds about wolves—one that looks upon them as heroes and one that looks upon them as villains. The wolf was never a villain in my heart, always the hero: bold, strong and fierce if he had to be—the über-dog of my little-boy dreams.
The psychological, social and economic concoction that forms such allegiances is more than I can address here, but the consequences are real and will continue to have much to do with determining our disposition toward public lands and wilderness—and maybe even our own futures.
Gray wolves were put on the federal Endangered Species list in 1974, soon after the Endangered Species Act was pushed on Congress and then signed into law at the end of 1973 by our last great environmental president—yes, that’s Richard Nixon. Their listing meant that, by law, extraordinary steps had to be taken to preserve the species. This triggered a dramatic 20-year process to reintroduce gray wolves to Yellowstone and the northern Rocky Mountains.
Wolves were still so controversial in 1974, though, that they could be reintroduced only as “an experimental, nonessential” species. That meant no critical habitat would be set aside and there would be no restrictions on ranching, mining or logging. In other words, we could bring wolves back to the West only as much as the big public-lands-use lobbies—hunters, ranchers, loggers, miners and railroaders—would allow it. “If you want to change that, more power to you,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Mike Jimenez told me. Jimenez has been working on wolf recovery in the Rocky Mountain region for 26 years and was the project leader in Wyoming. “But we didn’t want to hang that on the wolves. They have enough baggage.”
When OR7 arrived in California, he brought that baggage—and the percolating culture war around wolves—to my doorstep. Environmentalists seized the opportunity to push for the protection of gray wolves under California’s own Endangered Species Act, a bold move considering that so far there was only one wolf in California and not likely to be any more any time soon. Meanwhile, the usual suspects—led by ranchers, hunters and miners—called for the wolf’s head on a stick.
2. The Revival
By the summer of 2012, OR7 appeared to be establishing a vast territory that had him prowling around western Plumas County, which straddles the Nevada border around Reno, and making forays into eastern Tehama County and north into Lassen County. By this time, biologists had been following our peripatetic hero long enough to know that he was large, healthy, dining on deer and had shown a knack for taking over elk kills from mountain lions. He had also been staying out of trouble. No cattle turned to carcasses in the middle of the night with only a trail of very large paws left for a calling card had sullied his reputation.
That our lone wolf had made it this deep into California is testament to the recovery effort that began with an initial transplant of 18 gray wolves from Canada into Yellowstone National Park and Idaho in 1995 (a small population was already trying to re-establish in Montana). Wolves are pretty adept creatures, and between 1995 and 2012 their numbers grew to almost 2,000 spread across Wyoming, Idaho and Montana with a handful of packs making their way into the Cascades of Washington and Oregon. OR7 was the son of immigrants who crossed the Snake River into Wallowa County, Oregon, to establish the first pack in the Beaver State.
As the new wolves of the West multiplied and spread from national parks and into public lands with multiple uses, they reignited many of the land-use battles that ranchers in particular thought they had won a hundred years earlier. For environmentalists, every new claim made on historical territory by wolves brought a fresh opportunity to re-litigate past losses.
This time, though, environmentalists are armed with 18 years of evidence that wolves are anything but beasts of waste and desolation. On the contrary, the decimation of wolves has historically been a signifier of the sort of environmental malfeasance that eventually led to the free-range-induced Dust Bowl of the 1930s. And over the past two decades, wherever wolves have been reintroduced, the land beneath their paws has thrived—from increased deer and elk numbers to recovering riparian areas.
Numerous studies, particularly in Yellowstone National Park, have shown wolves to be responsible for what is known as a “trophic cascade” of positive effects on the landscape. In a nutshell, the returning apex predator has restored balance to the ecosystem. Massive herds of ungulates can no longer laze about streambeds and valley floors chewing up every bush and berry in site. Riparian areas have been restored to health, aspen groves are making a comeback, wolves and their scavengers are spreading seeds throughout the park, and deer and elk are doing better than they have for decades.
Public opinion is also squarely on the side of wolves this time, particularly in states where there are wolves to protect. So, you’d think maybe we’ve made our peace with the mythological beast? Well, public opinion is one thing, though, and politics another.
3. A Threat Renewed
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started the process of lifting protections for the Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolves in May 2011. Today, the agency is preparing to remove wolf protections everywhere. This means the fates of even nascent populations in places such as Washington, Oregon, Arizona and New Mexico (and, someday, maybe even California) will be left to state management, despite the entire population of gray wolves in the lower 48 being just 5,000. Since wolf management was returned to the state level in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, more than 1,100 wolves have been killed.
In the West, state management is particularly susceptible to the ranching, hunting and resource-extraction lobbies. Ranchers argue that the killing is necessary to protect livestock and game, but the facts don’t seem to bear that out. Domestic dogs and birds of prey are much graver threats to livestock than wolves, according to the Department of Agriculture. And despite the tales I was told by hunters at public wolf hearings about devastated elk populations throughout the West, elk numbers have mostly risen in wolf country. Between 1994 and 2010, for instance, the number of elk has increased by nearly 60,000 in Montana and 20,000 in Wyoming. The exception is Idaho, where the elk population has dropped by about 15,000 over those years—but even there, elk numbers are actually up in 23 of 29 game-management districts.
For conservationists—and for me—the irony of the moment is thick: Decades of policy have revived both the wolf and the wilderness. OR7 is a living, panting sign of progress. And, as protections are rolled back, we’re left to wonder whether a new tragedy awaits this species and the environment.
4. The Encounter
I spent a year studying OR7’s movements from Oregon to California. At times, I traveled and walked where he had walked. Though I never got close to him—and I hope no one does—his presence was keenly felt. To me, he was a harbinger of things to come—a wild challenge to the charred remnants of man’s domain. That possibility cheered me.
I knew my chances of catching even a glimpse of a wild wolf, let alone OR7 himself, were slim. So I took a drive down to the California Wolf Center in Julian near the Anza-Borrego wilderness. The center maintains a pack of Alaskan gray wolves for educational purposes and also two breeding packs of Mexican gray wolves that are potential release candidates for the tenuous Mexican Gray wolf recovery effort in Arizona and New Mexico. Biologist Erin Hunt, the center’s general manager, was kind enough to take me into the gray-wolf habitat to experience what it’s like to actual breathe the same air as a wolf. Suddenly, I was coming face to face with all my boyhood dreams.
There they were, a 70-pound female and a 100-pound male, long-legged, with high shoulders and big heads. Nature had built them with absolute efficiency—like tubes made for running, hunting and eating. Charisma is a strange idea to attach to an animal, but I felt an overwhelming sense of that personality—confident, playful, fierce when necessary, just as it had been in my childhood imagination.
Real life, in this case, did not disappoint. And that’s where wolves belong, in real life.