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Matthew J. Parker: The Howling Resurrection of Ninemile

I’m rereading Rick Bass’s The Ninemile Wolves in Cali, Colombia, a place where there are no wolves. One’s first instinct might be to assume the wolves in Colombia have been systematically eradicated by cow worshippers same as they have in so many other places where wolves once thrived, but the truth is that wolves, even the continent’s maned wolves, are not indigenous here.

What Colombia does have in abundance, although also not indigenous, is vagrant pets. Its Capitol is indeed infamous for them. According to Katherine Gray of “The Bogotá Post,” there is “an estimated 90,000 stray dogs and cats in Bogotá at any one time.” Her article covers the animal rights group Fundación Misión Animal, which puts up for adoption as many strays as it can, although obviously not near enough.

Another Bogotá animal rights group is La Huella Roja, which spays and neuters dogs and cats for free, but they, too, are hopelessly outnumbered and chronically underfunded. When calls to cull countless strays are raised, however, as they were in 2010 by a besieged mayor, many were quick to cry foul despite the fact that, La Huella Roja aside, most developing countries lack the ability to mass spay and neuter. Under such straits, numerous municipalities are given little choice but to capture and kill packs of stray dogs and feral cats.

Rick Bass has the heart of a hunter and the soul of a poet. Published in 1992 but with a 2003 preface, the book tells the tale of a handful of stray wolves that had wandered off protected land and into Montana’s Ninemile Valley, which is, like most places out west, ranch country. And even though a number of ranchers as well as a majority of the general population openly support wolf reintroduction, the vocal minority is an extremely powerful and, when it comes to killing wolves and even grizzlies, violent minority. Ryan Devereaux, in a piece from last November entitled “Lawsuits Target War on Wolves and Grizzlies in the Rockies,” states:

Outside the protected confines of Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming has long permitted a shoot-on-sight approach to wolves across much of the state. Last year, Republican lawmakers in Idaho and Montana took major steps in the same direction, passing laws to drastically slash wolf populations – in Idaho by as much as 90 percent – by granting individual hunters and trappers the authority to wipe out entire packs, and legalizing wolf bounty programs, aerial hunting, the use of snares, night hunting with night-vision goggles and other measures long seen as far outside the ethical bounds of “fair chase” hunting.

Bass labels last century’s bounties on wolves as a scam, and further contends that wolves are not hunted. Animals hunt to feed themselves, but nobody is eating wolves. Rather, these (mostly) men modeling themselves as hunters are at best enemies of wildlife and, at worst, just plain bloodthirsty – a byproduct, perhaps, of the fetishization of firearms. Meanwhile, those screaming the loudest to save the life of every potential pet on the planet seem to be perplexingly muzzled even as wolf killing becomes more and more alarming – the title of a Paige Williams New Yorker piece, “Killing Wolves to Own the Libs?” pretty much says it all. Published last April, it exposes the conservative-led, wolf massacre propaganda machine. The main gist of their spiel is that wolves are a threat to elk hunting, when in truth the exact opposite is true. Other tactics include branding reintroduced wolves “non-native.” Immigrant wolves from Canada, so what better justification to slaughter them? 

In a lukewarm response, the White House has been mulling adding extra protections for wolves in the Northern Rockies for well over a year now, but still little has been done to stop the killing. Yes, wolves (like dogs and cats) do need to be culled on occasion, especially if they get a taste for livestock, but the carnage now taking place is far removed from sensible wildlife management. 

As a practicing wildlife enthusiast, Bass is an unabashed proponent of wolf reintroduction, but is also a painstaking pragmatist: “Until very recently, the score stood at Cows, 99,200,000, Wolves 0…. It took a lot of money to kill every last wolf out of the West. We behaved badly doing it: setting them on fire, feeding them ground up glass, et cetera.” His reflection here on the gory legacy of the cheeseburger is telling.  

Beneath Bass’s practical prose lies a healthy wallop of wildness, enough to make many a wolf envious, and his excitement at the natural exodus of wolves into parts of Montana for the first time in 60 years is also cautiously evident: “[Wolves are] trying to trickle down, like roots spreading fingers into weathered rock. And this time we’ll find out if human nature, and our politics, have changed – metamorphosed, perhaps, into something more advanced – or if the base of our politics are still those of Indian killers.”

Bass is also adamant that it was and is about greed. “The ones who are against wolves have an agenda: they’ve got vested financial interests. It’s about money – more and more money – for them.” Because ranchers are reimbursed when wolves kill their cattle, for example, widespread fraud is taking place. According to Paige: “Wolves were frequently blamed when livestock had actually died of dehydration, or of a horse’s kick to the ribs.” 

But the biggest money-making machine revealed by Paige is the Foundation for Wildlife Management, aka F4WM: “Idaho’s Fish and Game department had already awarded F4WM tens of thousands of dollars in funding; the [Depredation Control Board] soon provided it with two hundred thousand dollars more. In the fall, the nonprofit’s top [bounty] payout spiked, to twenty-five hundred dollars per wolf.”

The familiar grift, then, is on: “To recruit members, F4WM leaders asserted that elk hunters had a responsibility to defend their ‘way of life’ by supporting the elimination of wolves.” 

Note the word elimination, which is ludicrous coming from the mouths of supposed wildlife conservationists – the notion that you can have a balance in nature under the complete annihilation of an entire species is typical of Republican misinformation, in which collective whining is often misrepresented as rugged individualism. 

Money, however, can turn even bleeding hearts to stone, like not giving a shit that 35,000 children in Africa, some as young as six, are mining the cobalt for our lithium-ion batteries. If we were to expend a tithe of the amount of energy to stop this illegal practice as we do into rescuing dogs and cats, we might actually rescue actual children.  

But kill a dog and watch the world go absolutely insane, even if dogs, at least by Bogota’s standards, are on the same level as vermin. This because, when it comes to potential pets, people often defy all reason. Nicholas Kristof, in his column “Do You Care More About a Dog Than a Refugee?” points out the reams of sympathy that poured in when their family dog expired of old age: “Yet on the same day… I published a column calling for greater international efforts to end Syria’s suffering and civil war, which has claimed perhaps 470,000 lives so far. That column led to a different torrent of comments, many laced with a harsh indifference: Why should we help them.”

To be clear, I have loved dogs and even a few cats, but my concern is that, in our eagerness to rescue animals that are lightyears from endangered, we overdo it. By concentrating almost solely on domestic animal rescue we are just as zealously turning our backs on those animals dangerously close to extinction. What chance does a wolf have when we often put our pets’ lives before those of humans? “I wonder what would happen if Aleppo were full of golden retrievers,” Kristof queries; “if we could see barrel bombs maiming helpless, innocent puppies”. 

And I get it. We are naturally drawn to animals, and most pets provide reams joy – so much so we are fanatical about saving millions of dogs and cats but rarely lift a finger to foster a child. Perhaps it’s because the children in question are strangers, or not as cute as puppies or kittens; or maybe the suffering of children is so remote from our everyday experience their misery never touches us. But whatever the case, it’s plain as the snout on a wolfs face that our fervor to rescue dogs and cats is far removed from the confines of necessity and even rationality. 

The other caveat is that a pet will never disappoint you. Will never come home drunk or pregnant; never quit school or study art when it was supposed to be law; never break your heart by marrying the wrong person; never shout I hate you, but neither will a pet ever accomplish anything beyond the ability to stroke the cackles of your heart and not shit on the kitchen table. A single child born anywhere on this planet has the potential to cure cancer or master cold fusion or indeed save the world. A dog, by comparison, can do tricks. 

Wolves, of course, kill dogs as well as coyotes. On the latter, Bass states: “Being so much warier of humans, wolves pose nowhere near the livestock threat that coyotes do, and wolves can keep coyote populations lower than any government trapper.” And on the former: “Logging trucks have killed dozens of dogs as well as cattle in the Ninemile, thundering up and down the narrow gravel road, but they can’t be held accountable, it seems; trucks, unlike wolves, are not judged.” This is emblematic of Bass’s logic. Although far from a bleeding heart and a hunter himself, he acknowledges that “[t]here is a debt to be paid…. We owe the wolf a huge payment for the misery we exacted in developing and taming the dry rangelands of the West into dusty factories of meat.” Surely, Bass is asserting, the country is big enough for wolves, too. 

Of course, it ended badly for the last four Ninemile wolves. One managed to get away, but two were shot, including a female who had been pregnant – her pups, if she ever had them, likely starved to death in their den. The fourth was captured and forced to spend the rest of her life in captivity, a fate that both Bass and the wolf biologists he became so intimate with, abhor – the equivalent of getting the kids a puppy and then, once they lose interest, chaining it in the backyard for the rest of its life.

In the long run, however, it turned out better than Bass ever could have hoped for. Today there are between 800 and 1,500 wolves each in both Montana and Idaho and another 300 – 700 in Wyoming. Paltry numbers when compared with, say, the estimated 45,000 coyotes in Idaho alone, but still an improvement. Bass, however, although he acknowledges the warning to not anthropomorphize, often does just that, and thank God he does: “If wolves could be moved out, manipulated, owned, they wouldn’t be wolves. We can extinguish that force, or ignore it and allow it to wax and wane on its own, but we can never entirely control it.”

The reintroduction of wolves, meanwhile, is good for the ecosystem. In a piece entitled “Yellowstone wolves help trees rebound,” Matthew Brown states: “Stands of aspen, willow and cottonwood are expanding in areas where for decades dense elk populations prevented new growth.” Wolves, however, are not only great for trees, but so too songbirds, as Bass duly noted nine years before: “We know that wolves equal healthy deer and elk, but who could imagine that wolves equal bright summer tanagers and lazuli buntings?” Certainly not the “sportsmen” killing wolves, many of whom would rather blast a bunting as listen to it. But for the rest of us, from wolfsong to birdsong, the harmony of nature is a fiercely indispensable symphony.

Copyright 2023 Matthew J. Parker

Gray wolves in Montana (Smithsonian)

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