They were all over my bedding, bleeding into my childhood roleplaying and drawings, adorning my shelves, pouring out of my toy boxes. Yellowish and amber eyes—more human than beast—accompanied by thick coats of neutral colors that provided perfect camouflage against the backdrop of their woodland habitat stared back at me, my childhood fantasies breathing life where there was none. Ninety percent of them were named White Fang because an eight-year-old lacks knowledge on the like of naming wolves, and in such cases plagiarizing Jack London seems perfectly acceptable. I suppose most children are drawn to animals at one point or another, especially due to the non-human main characters that cover the DVD cases of most animated movies. Little girls especially, I am told, are often drawn to horses, puppies, and kittens.
I love all the above creatures and will be the first to tell you I’d chose an animal’s company over a human’s most of the time (they are the best conversational partners), but something in me was drawn to the wilder nature of forest creatures. Wild horses, tigers, mountain lions, and foxes were some of my favorites, but wolves inspired a feeling in me unlike any other. They were more like cats than dogs, it seemed, fearless and self-aware. I knew they were dangerous, but every time I gazed into the eyes of one (through a screen or page, of course) I never saw savagery. Rather, they seemed to have respect for the natural order of things and a cunning that was outmatched.
Often shown as the antagonist in media, I cherished the film Balto and books like London’s The Call of the Wild because they showed a pure and reverent side of wolves. They were still fierce, but beautiful; dangerous, but just; protective, but loving. It never occurred to me that the guardians of the forest needed protection from my kind, so feeble and detached from their world.
It’s estimated that up to 500,000 White Fangs once ran free across the land we call home. All species see influxes in population; what happened to the wolves was a different story. Today, the species that once numbered fewer than 300 has rebounded to over 5,000. It’s a small victory, however, when one considers that number in comparison to the initial thriving numbers of the species. We continue to diminish this natural space needed for wolves and all wildlife to roam, impacting everything from food sources to shelter. Multiple states are currently pushing acts—proposed out of fear and greed—that would allow people to hunt wolves freely again. We are only a few mistakes away from causing irreversible damage. Since reintroduction efforts have gone so well, many people have written wolves off their concern list, considering the species flourishing and happy.
Perhaps many do not realize the precipice the wolves balance on or the indirect ways we are destroying their chances of survival. Sometimes the most harmful act is not animosity, but ignorance. Wolves are a keystone species and they play a crucial role in the “trophic cascade” and contribute to a harmonious ecosystem. Since the damage to the national forests cannot be undone, the Wildlands Project proposes a concept called the “rewilding” of America. If it’s successful, many unused rural areas and forests would return to the natural state, including the removal of fences which would allow the natural food change for species like bison and wolves to ensue. A harmonious relationship with nature is possible. Many people are simply unwilling. Perhaps wolves are out of sight, and therefore out of mind. Or perhaps we see them as savage killers and a threat to those around them, disrespecting life and destroying everything in their path. And oh, the irony, for that is merely a reflection of what we see within ourselves; that is exactly what we have done to the wolves and the environment for the past several hundred years.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE WOLVES AND WHY WE SHOULD CARE
This book aims to derive meaning from the madness. It’s easy to argue positions, to throw out numbers, to hypothesize about the future. But I believe people do have hearts, and drawing an underlying meaning or playing this out considering the human condition can make it relevant or real. I want to take this from being just another issue or political debate and make it a matter of ethics on a deep and primal level. Wolves are a crucial part of our ecosystem and if we do not do something to address the mistreatment that has been ongoing for hundreds of years, we will wipe out yet another species and add a notch on the belt of mankind’s destruction.
1600-1960: The Settlers and the War on Wolves
Long before settlers staked their claims in 1607, wolves, like the indigenous American people, flourished in the land. Although some remind fearful of man, many lived in harmony and were even domesticated. Between 250,000 and 500,000 ran free in packs, cohabitating easily with the native people and wildlife. Wolves were an important symbol in Native American culture, signifying strength and beauty. Some stories told of the brotherhood between wolves and men and the power they could draw from one another. Even after extensive settlement—establishment of cities, the Industrial Revolution, the massacre of native peoples—wolves still found sanctuary be retreating further into the forests. Flash-forward to the beginning of the twentieth century: Americans were unrelenting in the conquest of the New World, or what remained of it. Forests were felled at alarming speeds, food sources began to deplete, and pollution started contaminating the atmosphere. All of this encroached increasingly on the natural habitat that sustained America’s vibrant ecosystem, but predators like the wolves suffered at the hands of direct attacks, too.
Continuing in the settler propaganda that viewed the natural world as something that needed to be tamed or eradicated, the United States government created a campaign for the “War on Wolves.” Wolves were depicted as nuisances at best and terrorists at worst. Never mind that this country was their home and that the settler society perpetrated acts of terror on the native peoples and wildlife. Few people stood up for the wolves, and alleged environmental leaders like Theodore Roosevelt deemed them “the beast[s] of waste and destruction.” Countless photographs document the destruction of the species, showing pelts piled high for victory and profit. Americans considered the acts as a betterment to society and themselves; they were, after all, only protecting their families and livestock. To this day, the wolves are the only species to be purposefully forced into near extinction by man. By means of systematic annihilation, the US government won its war on the wolves. The most common American wolf breed, the gray wolf, was all but eradicated while the others trailed closely behind. Once roaming the lower 48 states, they were confined to sparse parts of Michigan and Minnesota. By 1960, the wolf population was scarcely 300.
Although the war had ended, many hunters still sought out the remaining few packs huddled in the northern extremities of the country. Aided by the migration of some packs in Canada, the timber wolves were resilient and created the first natural revival of the species. The comeback could hardly be considered flourishing, but the pack numbers remained steady and expanded back into parts of Wisconsin. This revival paired perfectly with the environmental awaking kick-started by Rachel Carson in the 1960’s and the Endangered Species List that was soon to follow. By 1970, select interest groups stood up for the wolves. Still, wolves in other parts of the country struggled, namely the Mexican gray wolf that faced extinction down by the US and Mexico border.
The gray wolf was officially given protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1974, allowing recovery to begin in new territories once populated by wolves. The public realized, albeit too late, the damage they had done and the uphill battle they now faced. Rehabilitation of any species is a trying process, and the Mexican gray was not saved in time. The gray wolf subspecies was declared extinct in 1980. Four males and one female were captured prior to the demise in hopes of a successful captive-breeding program. The ESA was instrumental in assigning biologists to preserve the genetic stability and diversity of the Mexican gray wolf. Meanwhile, the northern gray wolves thrived under the new laws. Known as the “Magic Pack,” these wolves became a symbol of what the natural world was and inspired the love of thousands.
The struggle continued throughout the 80’s, and this time the red wolves, a smaller wolf species that resembled coyotes, died out save for the handful in captivity. The captive-raised generations were first reintroduced into North Carolina in 1990. Grey wolves still fought on as the packs multiplied up North. Outdoors enthusiasts and wildlife researchers started noticing trends in wolf sightings in the Cascade Mountains of Washington, confirming the successful growth rates and migration trends. By the mid-nineties, a total of seven states including Alaska confirmed active wolf populations. Yellowstone received its first “wolf transplant” in 1995, and the Nez Perce Nation was a crucial aspect of reestablishment efforts. The government continued to evolve the acclimation programs to ensure successful transitions between captivity and the wilderness.
Wolves have clearly made a comeback, but if the 300 million plus population in America today was weeded out to a meager 180,000, most people wouldn’t call it a success and call it quits at 500,000. What about the longevity of the human race? Even in an identical scenario, our race would be better off by sheer numerical values. We spent decades now repairing the damage we caused to the wolves and their habitat to still be hundreds of thousands away from the original population. It may be impractical at best and impossible at worst to believe there’s a chance for the population to reach pre-settlement numbers, but at the rate environmental awareness is dropping in both popularity and funding, even the 5,000 we have struggled to revive are increasingly at risk. I believe there are two overarching questions driving my book:
- Wolves, and much of the American environment as we know it, were nearly eradicated until the environmental awakening in the sixties and seventies. Despite the progress and new laws, we are now—forty years later—en route to where we started. What changed to make Americans so careless and selfish again? What happened to the environmental protests of our parents and grandparents? What happened to the fight against the industry in favor of our land, animals, and well-being? Why has progress been little to none on the Homefront, the New World?
- Following question one, question two beckons the answer as to what the solution is. What is necessary to snap people out of their cyberspace (I acknowledge I write this hypocritically from a laptop—technology can be used for good, it just often is not) comfort zones and act? Is it the responsibility of the people to make the small day to day changes to protect the wolves, or does it simply require protesting and petitions, making it ultimately the responsibility of the lawmakers and industry leaders?
WHO WILL WANT TO READ THIS BOOK AND WHY NOW IS THE TIME TO ACT
My content is not aimed at environmental scientists and wolf researchers (although I’d hope they’d enjoy it), but rather environmentally conscious adults and people with a love for wolves or animals in general. I’m a connoisseur of this genre, and so I’m hoping to bait that niche group of readers who are already concerned about our world and what we are doing to it. It’s broad enough to grab those who aren’t necessarily die-hard save-the-wolves-junkies, but specific enough to draw those readers in. Therefore, the correct target audience is environmentally aware liberals, specifically those who are educated and interested in current affairs. Although my goal and dream would be to reach those who don’t care, realistically, readers that err towards that conservationist way of thinking are going to be most likely to pick up a book that recommends we respect non-human life.
The purpose of my book, then, isn’t to prove the opposition wrong and turn them. Instead, the goal should be to hook like-minded conservationists and empower them to make a difference. It makes more sense to strengthen an able and skilled fighter than to force a couch potato to turn off the TV. There has been an influx in conservation readership due to increasing environment concerns via the news, and there is also much controversy surrounding President Trump’s proposition to slash a significant amount of the EPA’s budget. It would be wise to take advantage of this momentum and use the Trump administration’s anti-nature propaganda against them.
The time for this book is now because the clock is literally ticking for wolves and their home. Every day people contribute, directly or not, to the decline of the natural world. Every minute we act in a way that harms the environment. Dangerous acts are being proposed. In 2011, the government began confiscating their protection under the Endangered Species Act, which allowed the individual states to make their own decisions regarding the wolves. Over 4,200 wolves had been slaughtered in just six states during the first half of 2016. Sport hunting and trapping wolves are both popular and legal in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. It’s time for a second environmental awakening, and wolves should be the symbol of the beauty of the natural world. If we destroy it and them, we will ultimately destroy ourselves.
Many activists and authors have tried the sniper (blurbs in the morning news) and drive-by (written articles) approaches to this topic, and although it may derail the average nature-appreciator from his fair-trade coffee neatly stored in an eco-friendly mug, these mediums do little to inspire the reader after the five-minute encounter. Books that are written on wolves are typically appreciative or scientific in nature and unlikely to share mankind’s dirty secrets. If these popcorn forms of media aren’t enough to draw in new supporters and only repeat information the emotionally involved ones, I believe a deeper and more insightful method is needed. If a reader is willing to invest the time in this book, to get caught up in the drama that is the history of the wolves, and to stand beside them and make a change, then this book will have achieved its purpose.
WHO THE AUTHOR IS AND WHY SHE IS QUALIFIED TO CARE
My juvenile fascination with wolves and nature never faded, but it was raised to a new level when I began taking courses at my local community college. A persuasive speech class followed by an environmental science class led me to uncover the atrocities of our food system, the guinea pig testing of humans with harsh chemicals, and the detrimental impact industry-hungry humans have had on the environment. The more I unearthed, the angrier I became. My anger turned to passion, which turned to further research. I have been blessed with teachers who have strived to show me the truth and encouraged me to examine more on my own. When it became evident to me that the forests and animals I loved were in grave danger, my tree-hugging Oregonian spirit awoke in me a desire to speak out for the voiceless.
I have been told that I’m a leader. An inspirer. But what I want to do is build a wall of protection around my sacred place and make the government and industry pay for it. The trees cannot cry out. The birds cannot protest. The rivers cannot relocate. The mountain lions cannot defend themselves. They need guardians. I want to emphasize that plural because one guardian just simply isn’t enough. If I evoke such inspiration in people and can coerce them into following my bidding, then I implore people to stand up for their earthly home. Regardless of what you believe, we are responsible and tied to this world and we do serve a purpose in it.
Wolves became symbolic of my environmental passions this past year because they are how I see the natural world: dangerous, beautiful, meaningful, and worthy of protecting. Even if you aren’t the outdoorsy type and you prefer penthouses to cabins and skyscrapers to mountains, the environment plays an intricate role in your survival and well-being. Be it a selfish motivation or not, people need to realize that they are in a symbiotic relationship with the natural world. Still, the environment is too broad an organism to be the face of this call, so in an attempt to preserve it all, I deem the wolves worthy representatives of nature in America. They are intricately woven into its purpose and their story makes them the perfect poster child for raising awareness. The wolf symbolizes everything America once stood for: independence, strong family/friend bonds with those in your community; a fresh start in new territory; establishment and sustainability with respect to the surrounding world; a natural and cooperative order of leadership established by the pack. But like the decline of American values, the wolves and their habitat are ever diminishing.
Due to the nature of this book, I believe passion and drive are of the utmost importance. Much of my twenty-five years have been spent in close proximity to nature and, given a choice, I never live without at least one non-human creature in my humble abode. I have completed copious amounts of research on wolves, and as of recently, I have been actively following and researching their stability (or lack thereof) and how it is tied directly to the environment and current events. I’m an undergraduate student at The University of Colorado Denver set to graduate this December with a major in English Writing and a minor in Political Science. I plan to work for an environmental non-profit after graduation and write freelance on the side, so I will likely be making this research and similar topics a life-long obsession. Finally, I will also be volunteering with the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center to gain first-hand experience and information for this project.