gray wolf

Gray wolf (not OR7) with fallen tree
Flickr photo by Scott Flaherty, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

If you could breathe a breath so strong you could blow out the wolf. Like you blow out the copo. Like you blow out the fire from the candela. The wolf is made the way the world is made. You cannot touch the world. You cannot hold it in your hand for it is made of breath only.

So everything is necessary. Every least thing. This is the hard lesson. Nothing can be dispensed with. Nothing despised. Because the seams are hid from us, you see. The joinery. The way in which the world is made. We have no way to know what could be taken away. What omitted. We have no way to tell what might stand and what might fall.

—from The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy*

I forgot to remember that we exterminated all the wolves. I am sure I must have known this at some point in my life, but it still came as a shock to be reminded of what has become of this country since the introduction of colonists and their livestock. I rediscovered that fact after reading about OR7, the “lone wolf” of California. As recently as Friday, OR7 (or “Journey” as he is known by some of the people who have been following his travels) was spotted within a mile of the Chips Fire in Northern Plumas County, just east of where I live. Wildlife officials speculate that the wolf may be going after animals as they flee the fire, which has been burning for nearly a month now.

I thought the phrase “lone wolf” was a bit of hyperbole, but it’s not. The last gray wolf in California was eradicated in 1924. OR7 is a male wolf born in northeastern Oregon in spring 2009. He is so named because he was the seventh wolf collared by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2011; his radio collar is expected to transmit signals until at least 2013. Originally part of the Imnaha wolf pack, which migrated into Oregon from Idaho, OR7 dispersed from the pack in September 2011. The satellite tracked him during the winter as he made his way through the Southern Cascades. He crossed into Siskiyou County, California, on December 28, 2011.

From a Time Magazine article in January 2012:

“This is probably the most significant conservation story for this state and this species in decades,” says Amaroq Weiss of the California Wolf Center, an education, research and breeding facility in San Diego County, who cited a decade-old study that determined that the state’s northeastern corner could probably support about 450 wolves. “To have a wolf set foot in the state when the last one was killed in 1924 is spectacularly big news.”

That article expressed concern over whether OR7 would make it through the winter. Jack Hansen of the California Cattlemen’s Association said he “preferred that the wolf not repopulate.” California Fish & Game reminded ranchers and hunters that the wolf is protected under the Endangered Species Act; killing it could result in a fine of up to $100,000 and a year in jail. (Not nearly enough, in my book.) Wolf expert Carter Niemeyer said at the time that the wolf would be lucky to be able to keep his belly full. Now we know that OR7 has, indeed, made it through the winter and appears to be making the best of our fiery California summer. This highly intelligent—and reportedly gentle and empathetic—creature has traveled an estimated 2,500 miles over mountains and through dense forests, averaging about 15 miles per day. He has avoided contact with people or livestock, subsisting on deer and squirrels, as well as the carcasses of two cows and a wild horse that biologists believe were dead when he found them.

* * *

I am familiar with the concerns of ranchers about their livestock. I spent a great deal of my childhood on a cattle ranch in northern Nevada. My grandpa, the ranch foreman, was a real live cowboy—although by the time I arrived on the scene, he mostly rode his little Ford Courier pickup truck on the range. A quiet, gentle soul, Grandpa seemed to care deeply about the cows—especially Old Mo, a majestic longhorn (the rest were Herefords). For me, cows were a constant. After church most summer Sundays, we drove out to check on them as they grazed on BLM land in the middle of nowhere. We were always thrilled when we could see the windmill on the far horizon through Grandpa’s big old heavy binoculars; it wouldn’t be long before we could cool off by dipping our toes in the stock tank. Wolves had long since been eradicated; the biggest threat in those days may have been cattle rustlers. (We encountered a couple rustlers one time; I remember their bloody hands on the car window as they begged Grandpa not to turn them in. He did; they’re probably still in prison.)  I didn’t realize until I was about eight years old that we were eating the cows; it horrified me. That aspect of ranching was not celebrated in my family; in fact, it was barely acknowledged. The wrongness of it ate at me for many years and I finally became a vegetarian. But I digress.

Wolves were revered before European colonists arrived in North America with their livestock. Eradicating the wolf is just one of a very long list of crimes against the planet and its creatures that my grandfather’s ancestors perpetrated. Even naturalist James Audubon was complicit in this savagery. Private landowners—the 19th and early 20th Century’s one percent—were able to divert the attention of the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey away from its assigned task of researching insects and birds, persuading it to focus instead on “devising methods for the destruction of wolves.” They were wildly successful. By 1950, the wolf was all but gone from the lower 48 states.

In 1973, gray wolves were protected by Congress under the Endangered Species Act. Much has been written about their reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park, especially the story of the Druid Peak Pack. Howling for Justice seems to have some of the most current information. The fate of wolves in North America appears to be precarious and heartbreaking once again; that’s a whole ‘nother diary and too much for me to contemplate today. For now, I am content to follow the adventures of California’s Lone Wolf; he appears to be headed my way. For his sake, I hope he stays in the high country, far away from my kind.

*I highly recommend Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy. I read The Crossing while visiting my aunt in Silver City, NM. From her house on a hilltop at the edge of the Gila Wilderness, I was able to see the Florida mountains and even into Mexico, envisioning the path of the boy in the story as he attempts to return a female wolf to her home.

Los Lobos “Will the Wolf Survive”