Meet Hayden, the gray wolf shown in the most recently posted "Nature's Call" photo. I saw Hayden in late February at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, Mont.
We had headed up to Montana to spend the weekend snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in Yellowstone National Park. It is an interesting place to visit in winter and something every Yellowstone fan ought to try at least once.
The grizzly and wolf center is a non-profit venture in the town of West Yellowstone. Certainly, it is a tourist attraction complete with gift shop. But it also is a rest home for these grizzlies and wolves, which have become so habituated to carelessly discarded human food and garbage that they would have been shot as nuisance animals if the center had not taken them in.
The majority of the center's indoor exhibit is about about bear-human relationships -- both good and bad. Still, it is not difficult to apply to wolves the lessons we have learned (or in some cases, still need to learn) about how to help both wolves and bears avoid becoming habituated to our garbage and other leavings.
Hayden is the alpha male (leader) of the center's pack, which includes an alpha female and a beta (secondary) male and beta female. We visited the center late one afternoon, when there was virtually no one else there. West Yellowstone is very cold and snowy in February, and most of its visitors are there for snowmobiling either inside the park or in the publics lands outside. During the afternoon the snow machine people are simply not around. So it was blissfully quiet.
The enclosures are more open than not, with a ditch and chest-high fence between the people and the wolves. Frankly, if you have never seen wolf up close -- as I haven't -- it is plenty close. There is no mistaking one of these fabulous animals for a dog. Their fur is the thick, coarse variety that only a wild animal possesses, and their eyes have a depth that domestic animals lack.
But Hayden's sheer appearance of wildness isn't what took my breath. It was his howl -- a long, mournful wail that traveled up my spine and made my scalp prickle. It is deep, haunting and nothing whatsoever like the almost comical yip-yip-yawooo of a coyote. It is unlike any sound that I have ever heard.
I stood there under a cold gray sky and watched as Hayden pointed his nose into the falling snow and howled again, this time eliciting responses from other members of the pack.
It didn't take much effort to imagine the how those first white European travelers felt after setting up camp on North America's once-vast prairie or in one of its rocky canyons and, sitting close to a small fire -- a veritable pinpoint of light in a sea of darkness -- heard the long, haunting wails of an alpha wolf and its pack. Whatever the wolves were saying to each other, their voices surely made those travelers feel small and powerless in the foreign land they sought to conquer.
The foundation for the tenuous relationship between the capitalistic human and wolf was stitched together with such a howl. And by the middle of the 20th century, we had all but eradicated the gray wolf from existence. We used such reasons as "livestock depredation" and "property damage" -- the vocabulary and catch-phrases that we have used to justify more than two centuries of wildlife eradication. Words that still are used to attack the bison and prairie dog.
In the days prior to our West Yellowstone visit, the federal government announced that the gray wolf population had grown to 1,500 in the Rocky Mountain region and therefore the animal was to be removed from federal protection in that area. Montan and Idaho may now issue wolf tags to hunters, who can hunt or trap -- a grisly method of animal capture that also endangers people and other animals -- gray wolves.
Even when wolves had federal protection, ranchers were allowed to shoot those that attacked cattle or dogs on private property. The catch was that the rancher had to catch the wolf in the act. So there are those who suspect other forces are driving the wolf's delisting. Some critics say that the wolves have eaten more elk than the trophy hunters think appropriate and that concerns of how issuing fewer elk tags would affect the local hunting economy were among the reasons.
More than a few wildlife biologists have said that 1,500 still is too small of a population to declare the wolf recovered. They also say that government's minimum of 300 -- the number below which the wolf population must not drop or protections will be reinstated -- also is too low.
I thought about the numbers and our centuries of reasons and fears as Hayden let out another long, spine-tingling howl. I thought about the capital crime with which he and others of his species have been charged. It is one that likely was committed in those first few encounters more than 200 years ago, when the wolves forced those who would conquer and own the West to acknowledge the relative insignificance and smallness of their own existence.