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The Baseline

In 1996 I was invited to stay overnight at the Nez Perce Patrol cabin in Yellowstone National Park. In the early dawn, I took a walk to the end of the service road. As I peered through the trees, what I saw startled me. In a large clearing was a wolf reintroduction pen. Ten wolves were running around the inside perimeter of the pen. I could hear their heavy breathing. I stood and watched in awe. That intimate moment was my first wolf sighting. Little did I know the magic of that chance encounter would change the trajectory of my life.

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Wolf in the Nez Perce pen summer 1996 (NPS photo)

Almost simultaneously, in another part of Yellowstone, several young wolves, pups from the previous year’s reintroduction, were becoming restless. A black female yearling from the newly formed Druid Pack, along with a male from the Rose Creek pack, dispersed to form one of the first packs east of the Park. These wolves may have been following elk that migrate outside the Park in the winter.

Eight years later, I purchased a run-down sixty-year-old log cabin in that same valley where descendants of those young dispersers now lived. That spring was the first extended stay at my new cabin.

Spring weather can be changeable and blustery. Creeks can swell and suddenly the road you traveled on in the morning is impassable upon your return. I decided on a hike up a beautiful drainage surrounded by sandstone cliffs. I didn’t know wolves were denning far up. Alone, I wondered how I’d feel if I encountered a wolf up close. I thought to myself, “I’d be afraid.” On my descent back to the car, a strange hollow sound caught my attention on the adjacent hillside. I found myself within twenty feet of a black wolf. We shared a long moment, then the wolf trotted off. I felt no fear, only an unusual sense of recognition.

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We shared a moment

I slowly remodeled my cabin and, in the winter of 2008, I moved full time to my new home. The winter snow revealed the wolves were using dirt roads as an easy corridor. Hearing wolves howl at night was not that uncommon. Encountering wolves on hikes, or watching them feed on kills from the road was a regular occurrence. Golden eagles, ravens, and bald eagles circled and also fed on the carcasses. The valley was alive, not just with wolves, but their presence introduced an electric force that stimulated all the wildlife.

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Coyotes taking advantage of a wolf kill in the valley
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Bald eagle and ravens wait around a carcass left by wolves in my valley

Then delisting arrived in 2012 with a hunt. It was erratic at first with relisting for several years, then a permanent unchallenged delisting in 2016. Wyoming has decided that my area is good wolf hunting and sets a large quota. Wolves know humans now. They are secretive, travel mostly at night, and are skittish as if they have PTSD. Wolves are adapted to fighting for territory. They lose pack members to other wolves. But humans are an unpredictable agent that unravels packs.

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The Lamar pack in my valley after 06 was shot in the first Wyoming hunt in 2012

The valley in winter has become quiet. I no longer hear wolves. I haven’t seen ravens circling or golden eagles feeding on wolf kills for many years. Wolf tracks are now a rarity. My winters are lonelier. The wind howls, but there is a deafening silence without the wolves’ presence. The intensity of the dance of Life they brought passed like a great storm. An untold loss happened with the hunt.

State game agencies look at a hunt as the natural progression to delisting, yet they discount the havoc it brings to wildlife systems. I wouldn’t have seen this directly without living through the policy change. Yes, there are wolves still here, but they are not acting naturally, and their pack families are continuously broken and destroyed year after year.Wolves travel only at night now, trying to avoid hunters.

A lot of attention is paid to wolves in Yellowstone Park. There was a passionate human howl when hunt quotas were increased along the Park’s northern boundary because it would disrupt Yellowstone packs. I understand that. But studies are needed on the impact of continuous hunting to wolf packs, and what happens to an ecosystem when they are heavily pursued.

Wyoming Game and Fish calls trophy hunting “opportunity.” Because of road access, my hunt zone has better wolf hunting “opportunity.” Yet compared to elk and deer hunters, few people hunt wolves. Those few have stolen my opportunity to see and hear wolves. Places like where I live, with abundant National Forest and Wilderness, do not need wolf hunts.

There is a term in wildlife tracking called baseline. That means an animal is traveling at its natural, most comfortable gait. Weasels lope, bears walk, wolves trot. For me, that is a metaphor of the natural rhythm wolves should be able to live without humans stealing their birthright.

**For details on my experiences in the early days of my valley, before wolf delisting, read my memoir The Wild Excellence, Notes from Untamed America

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Two wolves side trot down the road

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Author: Leslie

Living in a small cabin in the wilds of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and loving it!

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