by Jana Richman
(published in Comeback Wolves, Johnson Books, 2005)
My father and I lean against a four-pole fence separating us from a 2,300-pound black Simmental bull. The bull throws his head and snorts as he strides toward us to reach the manger at our knees where my father has thrown fresh hay. We are all a little wary of one another—the bull of us, us of him, and my father and I of each other.
“He’s been a damn good bull,” my father says, trying to ease the abiding tension between us. The bull raises his enormous head from the manger to keep an eye on us as he chews methodically. In one smooth movement my father lifts his sweat-stained “American Simmental Association” ball cap, runs a chapped, arthritic hand over his bald head, and replaces the cap. He then pulls a piece of alfalfa out of the manger and chews on one end. I do the same.
“He looks like a good one,” I say, knowing our uneasiness with each other can be pushed aside for moments at a time, but never really expunged. One of us will eventually take a jab at the other. This time I throw the first punch.
“What do you think about the reintroduction of wolves into the Rocky Mountains?” I ask ready for his answer, prepared for a rant about calves being killed, ranchers’ livelihoods being threatened.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he says slowly. “I guess it always depends on whose ox is being gored, doesn’t it?” The bull blows snot from his nose in our direction. I chew harder on my piece of hay, trying to regroup my thoughts after this surprising show of ambivalence from a man who bristles at the mention of any word that could be even remotely linked to an environmental movement. Discussions of “wilderness” and “open space” send his already high blood pressure soaring. The mention of reintroducing a known predator of cattle should have him snorting like the bull.
“If you had asked me that question ten years ago when I was still running cattle up on the Manti-LaSal, I’d probably be more radically opposed to the idea. But I sort of feel like they belong out there. I guess that’s not much of an answer to your question, but I just don’t know.”
I raise my eyes from the cracked leather of my father’s cowboy boot propped on the lowest fence pole next to my frayed sandal, and in my peripheral vision I see the profile of his weathered, age-spotted face. Over the last decade—starting about the time he turned 70—he has sold off about two-thirds of his land and cattle. He never had a large operation to begin with and now keeps only enough to make sure he can still call himself a rancher. About 40 head still wearing his Rafter R brand graze on about 100 acres of mostly juniper and rabbitbrush in Rush Valley, Utah, a few miles south of where we now stand at the corrals behind my childhood home.
The bull ducks his head to grab a large mouthful of hay and spews hay leaves into the wind as he pulls his head back up to check our location. My father and I watch him silently. We are great arguers of the decades old ranching on public lands versus environmental issues debate. When President Clinton designated the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument my father and I could barely be in the same room with each other. But every so often we reach an impasse, such as this one regarding wolves, brought about by finding ourselves too close on an issue.
My father breaks the silence. “The problem is there are just too damn many people, and humans have a tendency to think they can manage everything and they really don’t manage things very well.”
On these two points my father and I are in absolute agreement. And this is where I’m stuck on the wolf reintroduction issue: Wolf Management Plans. The management plans speak of wolves in terms of tourist dollars they might generate weighed against the economic losses they might create through natural predation. The management plans anticipate the numbers of deer and elk that might be hunted and killed by wolves, thereby usurping the rights of humans to hunt and kill the same, pondering whether human hunters must somehow be compensated for their losses. The management plans equip each released wolf with a transmitter to track its every movement. I understand the necessity of wolf management plans if the wolf is to have any chance of survival at all in the Rocky Mountains, but the idea that humans can or even should attempt to manage an animal as beautifully wild as the wolf, as if nature were just another theme park to be carefully controlled for our amusement, rankles me.
Meanwhile, the one thing we refuse to manage is ourselves. The well-documented fact that the human species is reproducing exponentially while living in a habitat with finite resources has drawn scant attention from anyone beyond a few scientists and environmentalists who are quickly dismissed as alarmists. Some scientists estimate that in the wake of this march of humanity we are now experiencing extinction of species at a rate from 100 to 1,000 times higher than in prehuman times. And as E. O. Wilson puts it in his book In Search of Nature, “We have only a poor grasp of the ecosystem services by which other organisms cleanse the water, turn soil into a fertile living cover, and manufacture the very air we breathe.” The wolf provides us a perfect example of how each species we remove reverberates through the ecosystem in ways that we cannot possibly predict or correct. Research done by Utah State University shows wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park has possibly led to stabilization of elk herds and an increase in grizzly bears, foxes, ravens, magpies, bald eagles, and golden eagles. And because of changed elk grazing patterns when wolves were reintroduced, it may also lead to an increase in riparian willow areas and restoration of aspen groves, which have not regenerated themselves since the 1920s, about the same time the wolves disappeared.
It seems to me that in our pursuit of happiness and the American dream—something I wholly believe in and have pursued as enthusiastically as the next person—our unchecked and unconscious extermination of other species risks degrading and destabilizing a complex support system that cannot be tilled and replanted like our backyard gardens. As far as I can see, this puts us dead-on a path of self-destruction, and until we experience a shift of collective consciousness that allows us to find our place in the cycle of nature instead of perceiving ourselves as nature’s manager, I worry we will stay on that path.
A few months ago, I walked naked in the desert. It was never my intention to do so, but a generous run of clean, red sand through slickrock seduced me to pull off hiking boots and thick wool socks. I stepped tenuously at first, then sank my left foot up to the ankle into cold sand while my right foot found the smooth stone. I was barely aware of the articles of clothing that followed the boots and socks because that’s what nature does—calls forth our own human nature in its purest form. To the best of my knowledge, that sort of fusion with the natural world might be the only way to get to the core of ourselves. And I’m afraid that’s what we risk losing—that essential capacity to tap into our own animal nature—if we cannot find a way to let the wild run wild.
Until then, however, that leaves us with wolf management plans and other small steps of redress. For the unfortunate truth is, the wolf has to play by our rules. Wolves will be allowed to survive as long as they do not encroach upon the ever-expanding territory of humans the way we have shamelessly encroached upon theirs.
Less apparent, and possibly more urgent, than the reverberations through the ecosystem are the reverberations with each loss through the collective spirit and character of humanity. And it is that—that indefinable twinge in the gut, that longing you cannot verbalize, that hard-wired human connection to what remains wild on this earth—that makes my father drop his head a little closer to the fence post and speak softly about wolves.