January 12, 1995.
A helicopter tops a line of spruce and skims the open snow. A man leans out, a gun at his shoulder, and then is lost from sight in a blur of swirling white and terrible noise.
The mother wolf and her daughter are running as fast as they can. The man shoots, a dart makes a hole in the snow, he shoots again and the dart sinks into the big wolf’s thigh. The world slows down, grows quiet, grows vague, the light dies.
The small wolf sniffs at her mother’s lips and open eyes, looks up in terror to see the helicopter returning, low above the snow, the roar unbearable.
There is a long slow time until the blades droop and stop and a man and a woman rush to the large black wolf. They tie a nylon mask over her eyes and wrap her gently in an old quilt, then do the same with the small pale wolf. The small wolf is wearing a radio collar. The man and woman carry the bundles across the snow and load them into the helicopter.
The mother wolf lies curled in a tight ball on a bed of straw inside a chain-link cage. She opens one eye to see her daughter in an adjacent cage. She looks out for only an instant. People are hurrying back and forth with metal things, cameras, medical bags, two-way radios, flashlights, lanterns. There are sounds of motors starting, cars and trucks leaving, the camp growing quiet. The sun goes down, a few electric lights come on.
A man approaches the cage, silent, holding a broomstick with a hypodermic needle taped to its tip. A quick jab and once again the black wolf’s consciousness dims. Masked again, she is aware that people’s hands are lifting her body and she should be afraid but she is not. They carry her on a stretcher to a corrugated metal building and lay her on a steel table. The lights are bright as summer noon, people are swarming over her, but their voices are soft. Mark Johnson, chief veterinarian of Yellowstone National Park, tells his assembled staff, “We’ve got to handle these wolves gently, respectfully, with love.”
Network news videographers cluster around the medical tables, their white lights flaring. Reporters scratch at their pads, murmur into microphones; flashes flash. It’s a big story, the restoration of a race exterminated in its ancestral home eighty years ago.
The American biologists here, and the technicians, the officials of the United States Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, all are holding their anxiety and fear at bay with a stiffened sense of duty and professionalism, which lends their voices a military brittleness:
“Body temperature 101, pulse 110, SpO2 ninety percent.” (That last is oxygen saturation in the blood.)
“More straw for Pen Four, please.”
“Adequate so far.”
“Lights up, chopper incoming.”
Equally if not more anxious and afraid, the conservationists who have come in their fragile confidence that this is really happening hug each other, trying not to celebrate too soon, knowing that at any moment, even now, all this can be shattered by a court order.
“What do you think they’re up to?”
“God only knows.”
The silence is what is so terrifying.
It is thirty below today in mid-Alberta, the sun a pale disc in a featureless sky, barely clearing the treetops at midday. Out from the mountains in scraggy cut-over woodlands, a provincial park maintenance camp has been temporarily transformed into a nerve center, dead center of concentric circles of worry and hatred hundreds and thousands of miles across: Decades of struggle to return the wolf to Yellowstone have culminated here.
The enemies of the wolf are legion and strong. Hatred of the wolf is centuries old and needs no reason. Hatred drove the wolf to extinction throughout the United States but for a tiny remnant in Minnesota. The federal government itself exterminated the wolves of Yellowstone. The last two were killed in 1926. For twenty-five years the wolf’s human friends have argued for restoration, and for twenty-five years the wolf’s enemies have fought back in the courts, in politics, and in the minds of ranchers and hunters and anyone else who would listen.
Many longtime residents of the northern Rocky Mountains believe things about wolves that are not true. The ranching economy is fragile, and the hunting of big game in the untrammeled landscapes of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana is one the last great freedoms left to a diminishing way of life. More than a few ranchers fear that wolves will kill enough calves to destroy all hope of profit. In a few cases they may be right. Many hunters think that wolves will reduce the elk and deer populations to miserable remnants. Occasionally, in combination with exceptionally brutal winters, wolves may reduce prey populations, but they never destroy them. The hunters’ fears are wildly disproportionate. Some politicians have made of the wolf an all-purpose embodiment of evil, child killers even.
In fact wolves flee from any person. They kill cattle and sheep only seldom. And how could they destroy their prey populations? How could wolves, elk, bison, moose, and deer have evolved together down through the millennia? But hatred and fear, as the world has seen forever, can be impervious to truth.
The opposition has united behind the bland-sounding Wyoming Farm Bureau. All the recent years’ high-horsepower lawyering wears that modest cloak. Their plea for an injunction to block the wolf restoration was denied only last week by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver. And now there’s not a peep from them. Is it safe to believe they’ve given up at last?
At first she seemed black, but in this ice-blue light the dark wolf’s fur can be seen to be silver-tipped, her undercoat gray, lighter gray, fawn. Human fingers search her coat and skin. “Some ticks. No open wounds. Moderate scarring.”
“Oxymeter .” A technician clips it to her lolling tongue. Her pulse, her respiration rate, her temperature, and the concentration of oxygen in her blood are all healthy. “Lice. Dust, please.”
A second technician pulls back her black lip. “Teeth bright white, unchipped. Probably four years old.” He measures every dimension of her body. “Ninety-eight pounds.”
“Big for a girl.”
“She’s a good one.”
The wolf’s vulva is pink: She is in estrus, ready to breed.
No one knows where her mate may be, the alpha male of the pack of which she is the alpha female. He evaded the traps that caught the black wolf and her daughter two months ago. That daughter, once collared and released, became what the biologists call a Judas wolf. She and her mother, thereafter, were easy to find. All the people here, and the dozens more elsewhere watching over every delicate step of this operation, would like to see that alpha male also caught, because it is the project’s goal to capture whole families for Yellowstonewolf packs are families). The plan has been to reintroduce three packs this year and three the next, in the hope that intact families will be less likely to try to return the thousand miles home to the north. But that older, wiser wolf has seen with his own eyes his mate and daughter trapped and is unlikely to be fooled now.
The technician draws a long dark draft of blood from the dark wolf’s foreleg, to be analyzed for rabies, parvovirus, and distemper. An ear wax sample on a Q-tip goes into a test tube. Softly squeezing the wolf’s lower belly, he pushes out a fecal sample, to be checked for parasites. He slides a fat pill of worm medicine down the wolf’s throat. “Rabies, please.” A first injection, then a second“Penicillin, please”to ward off any possible infection from all this poking by humans. “PIT tag, please.” Through a shallow incision in the wolf’s skin he inserts a Personal Identification Tagessentially an invisible bar code, just like those available for petsso that in future she (or her body) can be unmistakably identified.
He punches a plug of flesh out of each of the wolf’s ears and slips them into a glass tube for DNA analysis. He clips a red plastic tag securely through each hole, bearing the letter Y, meaning that she is bound for Yellowstone, and the numeral 9.
All this has taken less than an hour. Number Nine reawakens on her bed of straw.
A Shorts Brothers Sherpa C-23normally a fire-fighting plane, property of the U.S. Forest Servicesits in its hangar at Missoula, Montana, ready to take to the air and come here to Hinton, Alberta, to pick up the first group of wolves. There’s a rumor that the Farm Bureau may be trying to come up with some last-second hail-mary move.
“We don’t have time to go for Nine’s mate. We’ve got to get these wolves in the air.”
“Helena’s waiting to hear from Washington.” That is, Ed Bangs, the head of the whole project for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, based in Helena, Montana, is waiting to hear from Mollie Beattie, the director.
The conservationists are out of the loop now and can only speculate. But you can look at the agency people pacing up and down, the hard huffs of their breath in the icy air. You can listen to them not talking to each other. Waiting for the phone to ring. They more or less maintain their soldierly bearing, but everybody knows that most of them have devoted their careers and their hearts to this climactic moment.
“You think Mollie’s waiting to hear from somebody higher up?”
“Who the hell knows.”
“Let’s go.” The call has come. Mollie Beattie and her boss, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, are ready to fly to Yellowstone for the most important event since its creation.
Mark Johnson, the Yellowstone vet, supervises the loading. After one last pre-flight medical check and a gentle dose of tranquilizer, the custom-made stainless steel shipping containers each contain one baffled and disoriented but certified-healthy wolf. There are eight for Yellowstone National Park, and four for the parallel project to restore them to the wilderness of central Idaho. In Yellowstone there await three secure and hidden pens, in each of which, it is hoped, one family of wolves will gradually become accustomed to an entirely new environment. They will be set free only once they seem calm and ready. The Idaho wolves will be turned loose as soon as they arrive, to see if they will adapt as readily as some biologists believe to be possible. It is all an experiment, never tried before.
Everything is ready at Hinton. Then a call comes from Missoula. The runway has iced over, and the Sherpa cannot fly. Johnson decides that it will be less stressful to leave the wolves in their boxes. “They’ll settle down.” But he doesn’t like it. Nobody does.
Then the ice melts, and the Sherpa takes off for Calgary. Then Calgary is socked in by fog and the plane flies on to Edmonton. At Edmonton the pilots find that their U.S. credit cards are not accepted by the Canadian phone system and so they cannot report back to Missoula or call the wolf team at Hinton. The weather toward Hinton in any case is “zero-zero”zero ceiling, zero visibility. At long last, in mid-afternoon, which in these parts means dusk, the ceiling briefly parts, the Sherpa makes a break for it, and in the fading light the plane touches down.