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Predators, backcountry, and their future

Backcountry hunter and angler Dick Rivers writes about the need for predators, including wolves, in the backcountry. Originally published in the spring/summer 2011 edition of Conservation Northwest Quarterly.

Notes from a hunter

Dick Rivers on the Grande Ronde, OR
Dick Rivers on the Grande Ronde, OR

by Dick Rivers, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers

Originally published in the spring/summer 2011 edition of Conservation Northwest Quarterly

I felt the gooseflesh up and down my spine before I even knew what caused it. The wolf pack had brought down an elk only about three hundred yards from my campsite in the River of No Return Wilderness and began their air raid siren group sing a little before midnight.

My mind went from deep sleep zero to sixty in under five seconds. They sang several more times over the next half-hour as my heart rate slowly returned to normal.  I heard them one last time an hour later, probably over a mile away.  In the interim I lay there thinking about what it was that made these wolves (and any rare wolverine or grizzly that might roam here) such a magnificent addition to this, the largest wilderness in the lower 48 states.

One definition I’ve heard of wilderness is that it is a place where there are things that can eat you. While that is an over-simplification (especially in regard to wolves), I have to admit that I’ve seldom felt as intensely alert and alive as when I’ve hiked the backcountry of Alaska or Yellowstone National Park. Large predators add another layer to the challenges to judgment and self-sufficiency that we take on when travelling the backcountry. 

It occurred to me that the wolves were there for some of the same reasons I was: to get away from the noise, smells, and disturbance of highways, motorized vehicles, and of people in general. I had reached this point, thirty miles from the nearest trailhead, in order to scout for an elk hunt, something the wolves do every day.

Sure, elk and deer can be found much closer to human activity, but the wolves are smarter. They know their enemy, and if they have the option will usually stay farther away. It seems that natural selection gave more brain cells to the animals that had to sneak up on or run down prey than to the prey that only needed to sneak up on a clump of grass for dinner. I had other reasons as well, like finding larger elk and a place that could remind me again of how well things can work without people.

Someone once said that a wilderness without its animals is dead scenery, and the animals without wilderness are a closed book. This may not apply to every animal but is certainly relevant with regard to the large predators which require vast spaces to roam and to support a number of their kind sufficient to ensure a healthy gene pool.

It is not at all surprising that most of the groups that have opposed wilderness are also on record as opposing the re-establishment of wolves. It boils down to values. If competitive greed, dominion, fear, and preservation of livelihood (certainly a legitimate concern) are the predominate values, then both wolves and wilderness can be threatening. They are also both closely tied to federal laws and regulations that are so loved by many in the cattle-culture West. 

The question “what good are they” seems to sum up the utilitarian perspective. There are still many who have gone no further in their relation to nature than the Genesis dictum to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air… and over all the earth and every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”

Others with more biological, aesthetic, and spiritual values will see something quite different in the big carnivores and their wild habitat. They will see a more complete, healthy ecosystem and likely see the wolf not as a “varmint,” but as a fellow apex predator with an uncanny resemblance to humans in its behaviors. It is easy to connect with this canine and the wildness it embodies and requires.

Martin Nie, in his excellent book, Beyond Wolves, cuts to the basics in the introduction:

“Wolves have forced us to take stock and ask some challenging questions on a number of different levels, some cultural, some deeply personal, and others that are pure politics and political strategy. Do we value wolves, biodiversity and evolution? Do we value the wilderness or habitat they will need to persist without constant human manipulation and interference? If so, are we willing to back off a little to ensure this protection? Are we willing to coexist with a species that cannot be consumed or turned into profit? Are wolves merely another commodity, one more thing that Americans want but are not willing to make sacrifices for?”

Society is split on these questions. For those who want to see wolves (the same applies to grizzlies) survive in the long term, we need to remember what the best known wolf biologists have all observed: The long-term survival of the wolf in this country depends more on human social values than it does on biology. While reason, science, and a willingness to compromise will always be important, what is most needed is more people who have made a deep connection with nature and the wild. 

I think it is easier to create a world view than it is to change one. And so, one solution to ensuring the continued existence of large predators and large wild areas may be as simple as taking kids camping. Then take them again and again to make sure they’re addicted. Then maybe someday they too can be awakened in the middle of the night by the howl of all that is wild.

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