Wolves and Wilderness

It’s as if we resent those things that are truly wild. As if, having slowly tamed ourselves, we recognize subconsciously that something is missing and we harbor animosity towards those raw and wild things that remind us of what we’ve given up. That could be one way to look at how shabbily we’ve treated some of the things we share this place with. The black bear who steals your picnic basket is only following a biological imperative to acquire easy calories. It is our behavior that is aberrant when we go to its home and expect it have our table manners. No creature better embodies our ambivalence than the wolf. At some point, perhaps when we were more wild than civilized, wolves and humans chose to cohabitate and thus we now have man’s best friend. Do we feel jilted by those that stuck to the woods and did not approach our prehistoric campfires? Our fairy tales and mythologies show the wolf as blood thirsty and sinister and we spent the better part of American history eradicating them from our surroundings while giving their docile brethren a spot on the couch.

Display at Nature Center near Gila Wilderness - Photo by Tim Giller
Display at Nature Center near Gila Wilderness - Photo by Tim Giller

They are still out there though. In the far north wolves still roam relatively strong despite our continued bloodlust. You might have also heard of the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction or of wandering Lobos making their way to Oregon and one that traipsed briefly into California, a state that hasn’t seen Canis lupus since 1924. Less well known are the Mexican wolves of the Southwest. A subspecies or cousin, Canis lupus baileyi, is smaller and tends to be more rusty colored. It is also the rarest breed of wolf. They had been wiped out in the US by the 1970s with a handful left in Mexico and just enough in captivity for a breeding program. But they needed a place to go where we could hope they wouldn’t face animosity and slaughter.

Our ambivalence toward the wild reflects on the landscape as well. We maintain an American ethos of wide-open spaces and rugged individualists who test themselves against the elements. In reality those individualists today sit in boardrooms plotting fracking wells, suburban sprawl or board feet of lumber.

Out of similar excesses on public land in the 19th century came the movement that created the National Park System, what has been called “America’s best idea”. I’d say it was a great one, however maybe an improvement was the Wilderness System. The National Parks have the often conflicting mandate to preserve the landscape for future generations while also making it accessible to people (generally meaning pavement, cars, snack bars, etc.). Designated wilderness maintain that the land be left to it’s own natural devices and that people are welcome to visit, but without mechanized forms of travel. These relatively simple ideas represent a shift in how we view the natural world. Rather than only a place from which we extract, nature has its own intrinsic value. These ideas can apply a sort of preciousness to nature, as if it were something external from ourselves that we put in a pretty box and go visit when the mood strikes. They are strictly bureaucratic concepts as well. They may just save us from ourselves though.

The world in which humanity has thrived is unique, one that is much different than the worlds that came before us and much different than the world we seem to be creating. Can we count on the earth to support us if we drastically degrade its natural systems? Do we deserve to? Wilderness areas are America’s best opportunities to create refugia. In natural history terms refugia are places where biodiversity has found sanctuary during extreme environmental events such as warm pockets during a massive ice age or the Sky Islands of the Desert Southwest that Rachael wrote about. This concept has been adopted in conservation as an approach to save biodiversity by protecting areas with strong functioning ecosystems and the creatures they harbor. For those who like a good economic metaphor it’s like a savings account where the genetic diversity that keeps all life strong and adaptable can be maintained through what is hopefully a temporary crisis.

Gila Wilderness Trailhead - Photo by Tim Giller
Gila Wilderness Trailhead - Photo by Tim Giller

What happened to those wolves though? We had the chance to stay a few nights near the range of a couple of reintroduced wolfpacks. While camped near Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, we learned that wolves are active and successfully adapting in the backcountry. In 1924, the same year California eliminated it’s last wolf, Aldo Leopold a visionary conservationist, while working as a Forest Service supervisor, helped develop the first designated wilderness in this area. These wildlands where we had the foresight to allow nature to thrive unmolested can now cradle these beautiful animals. We can hope that at some time in the future when we better recognize the value of sharing space with wild things these animals will be here to show us what that means.