The Green Fire – Wolves and the Essence of Wilderness - Part I

By Jessica Shepherd

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger -itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Aldo Leopold – A Sand County Almanac

The first public opinion letter I ever wrote, at the prompting of my grandmother, was in opposition to aerial wolf hunting in Alaska. This would have been in 1975, when Alaska was looking to overturn the federal Airborne Hunting Act of 1972 which prohibited the aerial shooting of wolves. Never mind that I was a teenager in Colorado at the time. The justification given then, as now, was to reduce wolves as a means of increasing moose populations. Seventeen years later, as fate would have it, I moved to Fairbanks and saw wolves for the first time.

Attitudes toward wolves, I came to learn, vary widely. There are those who revere wolves (even if they never have the opportunity to see one) and believe they should be protected regardless of their toll on livestock and game populations. On the flip side, there are those who see wolves as essentially evil, to be eradicated by whatever means necessary. Most of us probably fall somewhere in between and acknowledge the complexities of balancing game and predator populations. Still, for me, wolves hold a mystique intrinsic to the very essence of wilderness. Alaska without wolves would be empty of something essential, like a forest devoid of trees.

Since statehood in 1959, Alaskan policies on wolf control have included bounties, poisoning, aerial killing and, briefly, sterilization. Former Alaska Governor Wally Hickel, in the early 1990’s, unwittingly summed up the state’s stance on wolf control by stating, “We can’t just let nature run wild.”

Currently, Alaska has a population of 7,000 to 11,000 wolves ranging over 586,000 square-miles. That’s equivalent to one wolf every 60 square miles. To see wolves, a road trip into Denali National Park used to yield good results. But in 2019 wolf sightings in the park hit an all-time low, with only one percent of wildlife surveys in the park noting wolves. In March 2020, biologists tallied just 68 wolves, down from a high of 111 in the spring of 1991. Despite this decline, in July of 2020, the Trump administration made it legal for hunters in Alaska’s national preserves, including Denali National Preserve (which borders the park), to kill female wolves in their dens along with their pups.

Then, on November 3rd, gray wolves were removed from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife after 45 years and a successful reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park in 1995, when 31 wolves were released. Over the next 25 years they regained a modest foothold and now number approximately 100 animals in 13 packs (down from a peak of 171 in 2007). This level is considered to be the natural carrying capacity for the 2.2-million-acre park (a third the size of Denali National Park), with a human-caused mortality of 2 – 4% annually. For those of us who cheered the return of wolves in the lower 48 states, this seemed both premature and blatantly political – a win for anti-environmentalists on the very day of a national election.

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The first time I saw wolves, in August of 1993, friends and I were driving out of Denali Park late in the day when we spotted a pair of them below us along the Savage River drainage. They were feeding on a caribou carcass, its bloody rib cage first catching our eye. We stopped and watched them from the tailgate of our truck, buzzing with excitement. After a few minutes they came ambling up the hill and crossed the road behind us, so close we could have whispered and they would have heard us. The female was a creamy white, while the male’s light legs and sides were contrasted by a dark saddle. She crossed the road without pausing and slid into the screen of spruce trees on the far side, while he paused for a moment, as if registering our scent. We held a collective breath, fixated, until he too slipped away into the woodlands. 

Gray wolves, also known as timber wolves in the north, range in color from nearly white to black. Females are the size of a large husky and weigh 85 to 115 pounds while males can weigh as much as 175 pounds. Years ago, when I lived in Fairbanks and worked at Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge, I saw the carcasses of wolves stacked in the old Iowa-style barn during the winter months. Stripped of their hides and stored by Alaska Department of Fish and Game for biological research, what struck me was how lean and muscular the bodies were – like massive greyhounds.

Wolves are monogamous. A mated pair will establish and maintain a territory averaging 600 square miles and form a pack made up of related animals – pups of the year and sometimes juveniles from the year prior. Packs may be as small as a few animals and as large as 20 or more. The alpha female will give birth in May or June to four or five pups. Born with their eyes closed and weighing about a pound, the puppies grow quickly, and both parents work to protect, feed and educate them. Predation by other wolves, along with hunting and trapping are the main causes of mortality. Wolf packs who lose the leadership of an alpha member, especially the female, are vulnerable to attacks from other packs and less likely to reproduce successfully.

Given that humans in the northern hemisphere have always coexisted with wolves, our mythology and psyche are linked to wolves more deeply than any other animal. Of all the beasts in the animal kingdom, wolves, and by extension dogs, are the most closely tied to our evolution. Ranging from Alaska to Mexico and across the northern regions of the world, wherever our migrations took us, wolves were there to shadow us, glean scraps from our trash piles, steal unattended caches, or simply watch us with those amber eyes.

Dogs, which have been domesticated longer than any other animal, are directly descended from the same ancestor as the gray wolf. Some 40,000 years ago, the canine-human bond may have begun when a hunter took pity on a litter of orphaned wolf pups. Or a young wolf, enticed by the savory smell of cooking moose, crept close to the campfire, accepted a meaty bone and, in time, submitted to the caress of a human hand. 

For all their speed and strength, wolves very rarely attack humans. In fact, over the past 50 years, there have been only three reports of wolves killing humans in the United States. Call me overly sentimental, but to me that speaks to some innate honor code between wolves and humans. An honor code humans don’t always reciprocate.

***

The second time I saw wolves was about four years later. I was camping with a group of pre-teen kids at Denali’s Savage River campground. We had just gotten them all into their tents, ready for sleep, when a wolf howled in the near distance. Not wanting to miss the excitement, we roused the campers and stood with them on the bank overlooking the river where a male, female, and three pups came into view among the willows. It was mid-summer and the sun illuminated the male, a large ash-colored animal, as he crossed the braided river and waited for his family to follow. One bold pup stepped forward, dipped a paw in the icy water and then withdrew it, unwilling to commit to the glacial-fed waters. The male recrossed the river to join his family and they continued along the water’s edge and out of sight. We watched, shivering in the evening chill and savaged by mosquitos, hoping for another sighting before returning to our tents for the night.  We fell asleep to wolf songs.

Like the human voice, the howls of wolves are distinct, and researchers identify individuals based on their vocalizations. During my years in Fairbanks, I sometimes heard wolves in the blackness of a winter night near my Goldstream Valley home. Rising up from a skyline silhouetted against a starry sky, one or two harmonizing, long and heartbroken, as if they were the last wolves on Earth.

Read Part II on March 9th, 2021.