Winter in the Gila. Snow sparkles between the trees. Ponderosas cast long shadows in the moon’s cold light. It is a magical, frozen night deep in New Mexico’s greatest wilderness.
A tent sits in a clearing. I am snug in my down bag, resting from lugging a pack over the Jerky Mountains. I’ve been slogging through days of rain and snow hoping to catch a glimpse of el lobo. I’ve found only tracks and scat.
At 11:28 p.m. the howls of wolves rip the night. I mark the time to remember the precise moment I first heard wolves in the wild. Seventy yards from where I lay, a pack of wolves empty their lungs into the night air. It is no exaggeration to say the hair stood straight on the back of my neck.
The next day I see their signs in the snow. Everywhere. I again hear wolves along the Middle Fork of the Gila River as I wade through its icy water, adding my own gasps and yowls to the sounds of the wilderness.
That was back in 2001. These days, you don’t have to hump gear on your back and risk frostbite to find wolves. I spoke last week to a woman in Lake Roberts. She works from home as an avionics engineer. She was on a conference call and looked up to see three wolves studying her through the living room window.
The Silver City Press reports wolves at the edge of town. The Glenwood Elementary School was locked down when wolf tracks appeared near the playground. Kids seem to have the best luck seeing wolves. Two children noticed a wolf following them from their bus stop. Another girl had the joy of watching wolves kill the family dog outside her house. This month a wolf was trapped on the porch of a rancher’s home. In less than a year, wolves have killed at least 15 of that ranch’s cows and an untold number of calves.
For years, ranchers have talked of wolves becoming “habituated”—losing their fear of human civilization, stepping outside their mythical role as the spirit of untamed wilderness. It looks like people once written off as “cowboy scientists” had it right. I must confess past prejudice. I attended early wolf hearings where nearly hysterical ranchers sounded warnings. What did these people, who didn’t have my Ivy League education, my worldly sophistication, my environmental ethos, know about anything? They clearly had some agenda. And they were really, really different from me and my wilderness-loving pals.
Yeah, well, now that I look back, what the heck did I know? After channeling Teddy Roosevelt I can return to the blandishments of Nob Hill. I don’t deal with the daily reality of wolves at the door.
Dealing with reality right now is the challenge for wolf activists. They pooh-pooh concerns of worried parents. But expressing indifference to risks faced by other people’s children doesn’t attract allies. The minute a wolf worshipper publicly repeats the deep ecology argument that the life of an endangered, rare wolf is worth more than a numerically insignificant human life, the conversation is over. One wolf attack on a child will end the reintroduction effort.
Wolf activists seem locked into formulaic campaign mode, regardless of results. Consider their ongoing, multi-year campaign to persuade the federal government to force ranchers to render cattle carcasses unpalatable. Theoretically, wolves develop a taste for beef by chewing on dead cattle. Activists want ranchers to at least pour quicklime over fallen cows on public lands so wolves avoid them.
Why haven’t enviros been doing this job themselves instead of waiting for the feds to force it upon ranchers? Paying riders to patrol the backcountry with saddlebags of lime does imply accepting continued public lands ranching. It’s a politically necessary compromise. Instead, the Forest Guardians have sued the Forest Service to make ranching on public lands in country designated for wolves nearly impossible, thus revealing what may be their true agenda for wolf reintroduction.
In their campaign and fundraising materials, wolf advocates use only fetching photos of wolves, like a fuzzy pup nuzzling its mother’s face. You’ll never see shots of blood-drenched snouts, or a pack of wolves gorging on the guts of a dead calf. Yet that is the reality of wolves as much as the scenes suitable for Christmas cards.
Activists must begin to deal honestly with the full picture of wolves and truly listen to the people who live among them. Or we may have few more chances to hear wolf music under a New Mexico moon.