CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE LUPINE KIND
By Jonathan Evans, La Veta
First Published in the Green Valley News, April 2011
I stared into the deep-set golden feral eyes and felt the huge black wolf’s long muzzle pressed against my face. I opened my mouth and bared my teeth as I had been instructed to do and felt the animal’s long narrow tongue licking me on my mouth. The wolf, named Farah, examined my teeth, still gazing into my eyes, then licked all over my face, nuzzled my beard, its front paws on my shoulders, its wriggling body pressed against mine. I was sitting on a low log bench, my wife, Beth, and three other people to my left, my friend Steve to my right. We were in an enclosure being greeted and welcomed by five tame wolves in their unique manner. No sooner had the first wolf moved onto Steve, then a smaller grey wolf jumped on me and did the same, licking my teeth, rubbing its tongue all over my face and teeth, and poking its muzzle into my eyes, my ears, even my pocket, where I had placed my glasses for protection. The wolves smelt clean and fresh and their sharp teeth were gleaming white. The procedure was repeated by three more wolves- another big black one and two smaller grey ones. It was both shocking and exhilarating but completely non-threatening and quite unlike being greeted and licked by my parasitical puppy, Lalu, who loves me always but who knows which side his bread is buttered on. This was the wolf equivalent of welcoming, of shaking hands, of checking me out and then moving onto the next guest. When we had all been greeted in this way, all the wolves backed away and sat down on the ground to watch us casually or apparently fall asleep. To have continued their wet welcome would have been like my meeting a stranger, having a conversation and then continuing to seize the newcomer’s hand every minute or so and giving it another shake.
Once the astounding warm welcome was over, it was done. And it affected me profoundly, shook me to my core, my first really close-up encounter with a wild animal species. I had played with elephants in India and had even been kissed on the top of the head by one; I once saw a wild tiger from ten feet away, have seen leopards in the wild and had photographed a bear from six feet away at my house in Colorado City. I had been close up to hump-backed whales in Mexico in January when three 50 footers had surfaced for air alongside our small boat but this was very different, wholly intimate and very moving. Twelve hours later, as I write this, I can still feel the wolves’ tongue on my teeth, their mouths on my mouth, the thick coarse hair on their bodies and their golden eyes minutely examining and welcoming mine. Into the Wild! We were visiting Mission:Wolf, a wolf sanctuary between Gardner and Westcliffe, with our friend Steve from Rye. We left the dogs by a tepee in an enclosure below the Center and walked up the steep path to the main building, past more tepees, past high fenced pens, past four young men hacking an entire dead horse apart. It was feeding day at Mission: Wolf and we had come to check out the wolves.
Not so long ago, wolves roamed over nearly all of the United States. Between 250,000 and 500,000 wild wolves lived in harmony with Native Americans and the rest of the ecosystem. But through the systematic extermination of every wolf to be found, the US government won its battle against nature. By 1960, the once populous gray wolf was essentially extinct throughout its former range. The last 300 wolves in the lower 48 states roamed the deep woods of upper Michigan and Minnesota, only surviving by running and hiding at the first sign of humans. But by 1970, the last of America’s wild wolves were starting to win some public interest and concern and talk of the Endangered Species List had just begun. After the monumental declaration that the gray wolf was protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1974, wolf recovery became possible in new areas. It was only after the wolves were gone and people had to go in search of true wilderness that people began to value what they had lost.
The red wolf is a completely separate species from the gray wolf. In historic times, the red wolf is thought to have lived across the East Coast and Southeast of the US. However, like the gray, the red wolf was hunted to extinction throughout its range. By 1990, the first red wolves were reintroduced to North Carolina. At the same time the red wolves were making a comeback with the help of humans, gray wolves continued to do it on their own. The Great Lakes population continued to grow, spreading into northern Wisconsin. The first substantial reports of wolf sightings in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State started coming in, and the US could now boast a possible population of wolves in seven states including Alaska.
Perhaps the most monumental move in gray wolf policy over the past century was the decision to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park and Idaho. After years of political battles and local grassroots efforts to win over support from area ranchers, 31 Canadian gray wolves were released into Yellowstone and 23 into the Frank Church Wilderness of Idaho Even two decades ago, it looked like wolves would probably disappear forever from the plains and forests of this country. But over the past 30 years, the wild wolf population in the US has grown from less than 300 to over 4,000. As people have searched harder and harder for a true connection to nature, we have slowly learned the value of wild ecosystems and the animals that live in them. In the 13 years since wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, we have learned that wolves are a keystone species that is an essential part of a balanced earth. 1998 saw the controversial reintroduction of Mexican gray wolves to New Mexico and Arizona. It is estimated that over a million wild wolves once roamed across North America. Although we will never see numbers that high again, wild wolves have made a remarkable comeback over the past 50 years. If recovery efforts continue, we may one day see wild wolves successfully coexisting with humans in over twenty states. With cooperation from politicians, environmentalists and ranchers, we may not be made to choose between people, wildlife and cattle as the wild habitat that is currently left across the nation could support all three. As it stands, wolf attacks on livestock are lower than expected and wolf-watching brings in much needed revenue to rural areas. In only the past few months, wild wolves have been removed from the ESA in the Northern Rockies because the reintroduction was so successful. Now, the challenge will be to find a balance between hunting and preservation that prevents their return to the Endangered Species List and addresses the needs of local ranchers. Despite the great challenges facing such an idea of co-existence, there is now a real possibility that wolves and people can live in harmony across all of North America.
Mission: Wolf is a unique sanctuary for these animals and currently takes care of thirty-six wolves and wolf-dogs, which have been brought from all over the States to be housed and protected there. A dedicated staff of permanent workers and volunteers live at the sanctuary to feed and care for their needs while every year, Ambassador wolves make trips around the U.S. to spread their message, make a non-threatening connection with the general population and raise awareness for their plight. However, an attachment to a current federal budget bill needed to avert a government shutdown would take gray wolves off the endangered species list across most of the Northern Rockies, although protections would remain in Wyoming for now. Wildlife advocates conceded this week that the wolf provision was all but certain to pass. This means that wolf hunting would resume this fall in Idaho and Montana and that the struggle to save and protect the wolf is still underway.
I left Mission: Wolf with a feeling that wolves can co-exist productively with mankind in the future, that wolves can play a vital role in the whole eco-system and that the world would be a far, far bleaker realm without them. The proof of the pudding is in the eating- do go and visit this wolf sanctuary whenever you can and marvel at these wonderful animals. They come to us and treat us as equals when given the opportunity, they are more afraid of us than we should be of them and meeting them face to face is an experience you will never forget.