The plane is a little Cessna 185, thirty-five years old, with a wolf-finding aerial attached to its belly. I am soon crammed into the back. The leatherette-plastic on the seats is split and scuffed. Gary is in front of me and next to him is Patrick Fitzgerald from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency which since 1973 has been charged with bringing wolves back to the American wild.
Patrick is no Western hardman, but a soft, fair-haired, slightly melancholy Arizonan, who this morning is a little flustered. Over the next four hours, using the aerial attached to the plane, he has to find the tiny, endangered population of about a hundred Mexican grey wolves which since 1998 have been released here to breed in the forested and canyoned borderlands of Arizona and New Mexico to the south of us. It is a stressful task, tracking the fifty-odd animals that are fitted with radio collars in an area of more than four million acres, seven thousand square miles, the huge and beautiful province of woodland, mountain and river known as the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area.
It is the wildest part of the American South-West and, in a way, its most beautiful. Butch Cassidy hid out here, as did Geronimo and his Apaches, and these half-wooded mesas, pale grass meadows and dark canyons are where Aldo Leopold, the godfather of modern American environmental ethics, learned the meaning of wildness and our relationship to it.
Gary guns the engine, radios the young woman in Springerville Tower to say that he has Patrick and ‘a ride-along’ on board. A prairie dog drops into its burrow beside the runway as we pass and without fuss, as easily as a dinghy slipping its moorings on a quayside, we lift and bounce into the polished, radiant blue of the Arizona sky.
The high range stretches below us in blond slabs between the mountains. Turkey vultures hang like floorboards over the grasslands as we turn east, climbing over the hump of the mountain called Escudilla. There is a dusting of talcum-like snow in Escudilla’s creases and the aspens on its western flank are cold and leafless. Spring has yet to arrive up there. To the east the ridges of the Blue Range are lined out one after another, the mountains dark, soaked in ink, with mist still lying in the valleys between them. Beneath us is a mosaic of open and closed, shelter and vista, the grey-green of the dry woodlands and the lion-skin of the high altitude grass.
As we come off the back of Escudilla, low down over its basalt rimrocks, turbulence kicks and buffets at the plane. Patrick adjusts his headphones and talks into the mike pushed up against his lips. ‘I’ve, yes, I’ve got the alpha. She’s down there. I’m not getting the male.’ In my headphones, the steady beep of the wolf’s signal comes through, a low heartbeat, an electronic hint of life. Gary banks and turns, the wing now pointing straight down at the aspens and we circle above her, the alpha female of the Elk Horn Pack. ‘Can you see her?’ I say to Patrick. ‘No, no,’ he says through my headphones, ‘you never see them. You just know they are there. She’s on the ridge there.’ We bank and turn, ever tighter, a thousand-foot circle, Gary hanging the plane above the unseen wolf like a motorcyclist on the wall of death, casually reading out the coordinates of the wolf’s position from his GPS. Patrick writes them on his form and the wolf is mapped.
However hard I stare down at her, three or four hundred feet below me, she never appears. The Elk Horn alpha female, like all the other wolves this morning, is hidden among the shadows of the fallen rocks, the old, exhausted winter grasses and the snow scatter of her mountain, her presence reduced to the steady, dematerialized signal in my ear. Nothing less wild, nothing more suggestive of wildness: the electronic trace of a hidden wolf.
We fly on and the Wolf Recovery Area seems limitless below me, a universe of dry, wrinkled, corrugated and folded ridges. Here and there, people have nibbled at the edge, a track, a ranch building, a corral, little mouse-teeth bites into the body of America. The bulk of it seems untouched.
Patrick, control stick in hand, keeps turning the aerial under the plane, patiently locating the precious wolves in the emptiness of their range. He flicks through the radio band, each wolf on a different frequency. The signals can be heard something like eight to ten miles away, faint to begin with, growing louder as we close in on them. Pack by pack we find them: Elk Horn, Fox Mountain, San Mateo, Willow Springs, Canyon Creek, Dark Canyon, Prieto. Again and again, as we come across the wolves below us, Gary throws the plane into its tight circle, the trees cast their sharp diagonal shadows, Patrick notes down the coordinates and I stare at the earth, hoping for a glimpse of pelt or tail.
Occasionally a slick ribbon of highway tarmac appears in the dry woodland. Farm trucks on ranch roads hauling cattle raise plumes of high white dust behind them. In the big, devastated ‘burns’, where the forest fires have blown through, the trees stand like the stubble on an unshaved chin. All of it is wolf country; nowhere is a wolf to be seen, but they are here, an under-presence, a concealed otherness and a hidden dominance.
Wolves have become the great meaning-vehicles of the American West. For the largely urban ecologists, excited at the idea that America might restore some of the damage done to it in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, wolves ‘belong’. A landscape without wolves is incomplete. They are the ‘keystone predators’. Without them the arch of life, in its many trophic levels, is not only broken but insecure. Wolves should be thought of not as parasitic on the animals that sustain thembut in some ways the creators and governors of the world they dominate. If the wolves are absent, the arch beneath them bulges and distorts: too many elk and deer, too much uninterrupted browsing on trees, a diminution of bird habitat, no cooling shadows for streams, no beavers, fewer fish. A fractured universe.
Why do wolves have this grip on the modern rewilding imagination? Perhaps because they seem like the best possible vision of how we might be if we were ever thrown back into the wild. Maybe, if we dream right, we might in fact be wolves. Wolves seem as capable, as self-sufficient and as imposing as the best of us. They can live for a week without eating. They can travel twenty miles without breaking stride. They move with an easy, liquid grace through the roughest country. According to the American naturalist Barry Lopez, the Bella Coola Indians thought that a great shaman once tried to change all animals into men but the only things he succeeded in making human were the eyes of the wolf. They have killed people. They certainly kill dogs. In one Alaskan winter they stripped nearly all the dogs out of a village, leaving only the collars to be found by the owners in the morning. They kill coyotes and leave them splayed on prominent paths, uneaten, surrounded by wolf scat, the executed victims laid out for anyone to see.
It is a rough life. Wolves can be fatally injured by a kick from an elk they are pursuing. Many wolves, when found dead, have fractured and mended skulls or broken ribs that have re-fused in life. They live in families, remaining loyal to their sex partners and to their parents. The young, from a succession of litters, hunt with their parents. At least half of all wolf pups die from natural causes in their first year of life but the greatest cause of adult wolf death, apart from human beings, is other wolves. If a pup is severely wounded, parents can kill and eat it. They sing and play together; they grieve aloud; they learn and change; they act by decision as much as by instinct. They communicate over many miles of wilderness by howling, conveying not only their presence but their intentions. If you want to distinguish wolf tracks from dog tracks, you must look for a sense of purpose, not the dog’s haphazard wavering after a whim or a scent, but a steady fast padding down the trail.
There is a form of genetic wisdom in wolf behaviour. At two years old, the young adults can choose to stay or go. Some remain with their parental pack; others, both male and female, disperse, looking for unclaimed land and an unclaimed mate. Because breeding within any pack is suppressed to the alpha pair, and because each pack fiercely defends its territory and kills strange wolves, there are never too many wolves in a given stretch of country.
These strategies, which regulate the numbers of wolves, and therefore prey, do not destroy the resource on which the wolves rely. Looking down on the territories of these packs, each covering about 150 or 200 square miles, not that different in size from the cattle ranches which overlie them, I couldn’t help but think of them as little fiefdoms, the great estates of the wolf-earls, alive with questions of dominance, rivalry, calculation, loyalty and struggle, an ancient, co-present, parallel world to our own.
We turn west, back over the state line into Arizona. Patrick picks up the alpha female of the Rim Pack, and we continue into the territory of the Tsay-O-Ah Pack, an Apache name. He has done well, finding nearly all the wolves. Just the Tsay-O-Ah and a couple of others still to locate. He is running through the frequencies on his receiver when suddenly and quietly he says, ‘We are in trouble here.’ A sound I haven’t heard before, a quickened beep, is coming through the headphones. It is twice as fast as the note I have been hearing all morning. It sounds like an engaged tone on a landline. ‘That is a mortality signal,’ Patrick says. ‘If a wolf hasn’t moved or breathed for twenty minutes, that’s the signal we get.’
We circle. Unseen, somewhere below us, at the foot of a burnt cliff, a wolf lies dead. The three of us stare down at the earth. There is a weed-clotted lake below the grey bluff, and a dirt track. ‘That’s a road running right into the edge of the lake,’ Gary says. The implication is clear. This is one of the very remote places where wolves and people might meet in the vast expanse of the wild. It is the sort of place in which a wolf could be shot and no one would ever know who did it. While Patrick texts the Field Office in Alpine, the mortality tone beeps on in the headphones, an insistent anti-heartbeat, and I feel, to my own surprise, a sudden sense of loss over that death hundreds of feet below us, an animal killed not because it was a real threat, nor because it was wanted for its meat or skin, but almost certainly because of its metaphor, because it was unwanted in the rancher’s world.
The cellphone signal was patchy and as Gary climbed to improve it, Patrick texted the map coordinates to the federal wildlife crime agency. ‘It’s a crime scene until otherwise known,’ he said. As I sat in the back of the plane that morning, I could think only that this landscape was coloured by a conflict of inheritances and a clash of nostalgias. The wolf advocates might long for a return to the Pleistocene, to the restoration of a complete spectrum of life as it was in America, before the first hunters decimated the megafauna of the continent, a prelapsarian wholeness. But the ranchers who see this land as theirs can think back to another version of the past, the time of their grandparents and great-grandparents coming to the West, making their lives out here in this beautiful, difficult wilderness, leaving their names and experiences – Raw Meat Canyon, Me Own Hill, Pancake Draw – all over the map. They cannot understand why that history, and that belief in themselves, should be threatened by people from the cities who know nothing of what the rancher is or what he needs, and who despise the little they might understand. Why should priority in this place be given to wolves when it could be given to the people who work it? What is better about wildness than the presence of cowboys and their cattle in the wide-open range with the blue mountains on the horizon? That is what the death signal of the wolf below us meant: the serene landscape of my golden morning was nothing of the kind. Below us was a battlefield of competing griefs.
Back on the ground at Springerville, Patrick told me he was doing this work ‘so we can fix what we screwed up in the first place. It wasn’t our place to kill them. They should be here. This is their place.’ That question – just whose place this is – sits at the heart of the wolf agony now convulsing the American West. For the ranchers, the people trying to make their living on this land, wolves are the symbol not of redemption but of an alien government, an urban-tax-funded, federally directed war on state rights, a war on everything the ranchers love and treasure.
The history is not a long one. Much of the wolves’ natural prey was exterminated in the nineteenth century. White America brought in millions of cattle to consume the apparently limitless grass. The wolves inevitably preyed on those cattle and just as inevitably the American government, first with bounties to hunters and then with the more effective strychnine, got rid of them. The destruction was essentially commercial, part of the same movement that built the railways, removed the bison, turned the bison bones into fertilizer and invented the refrigerated boxcars in which the beef could be shipped back east. Through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, wolves were exterminated in the whole of the United States except Alaska and a small sliver of Minnesota, with the explicit purpose of making the country safe for cows.
The counter-movement to that emasculation of the wild has its roots just as deep in the nineteenth century. From Henry David Thoreau on through John Muir, the early-twentieth-century animal advocates of the American Society of Mammalogists and Aldo Leopold – the first man to understand that wolves might be capable of regulating their environment – the cult of wilderness spread its tendrils through American society. At its heart was a view of nature as a resource for the nation which went beyond material use: logging, mining, quarrying, damming and grazing were all very well, but the vast space of America surely deserved more.
That idea has shaped much of the American West, partly because it is a difficult place in which to make a living. Civilization struggles here. The sheer poverty of much of the high, dry land west of the Great Plains meant that the pattern of homesteading which had worked on the prairie was unsustainable. No family could survive on 160 acres of desiccated New Mexico. As a result, and under the umbrella of the great federal landowning institutions of the early twentieth century – the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service – fully one quarter of all American land, 620 million acres, much of it in the West, remains unclaimed and unallocated to individual owners, still today in government ownership. It is one of the great unspoken facts of America that the land of the free largely belongs to the state.
The ranches on which the cowmen run their cattle usually consist of a small patch of privately owned land, perhaps forty or fifty acres, to which vast extents of land are attached as ‘allotments’, on which the rancher for a small sum is allowed to graze his cattle. This question of ownership is central to the wolf agony because both sides of the question think the public lands, as the environmentalists call them, or the federal lands, as the ranchers call them, are theirs to do with as they wish.
The 1960s and early 70s saw a surge of legislation in which the United States discovered its ability to attend to the well-being of nature. The Wilderness Act, the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the revision of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and finally the Endangered Species Act of 1973 brought about a deep change in the American relationship to the wild.
This shift in federal attitude – it is one wing of the great liberal moment of the mid-twentieth century – meant that the ranchers, from being the heroes of the story of the American West, became its villains. Among the eco-experts, cattle became acknowledged as the agents of ruin. Euro-Americans and their cows – largely British breeds – had arrived in the drylands of the South-West with the sort of expectations they had brought from Europe to the Atlantic seaboard of America: resilient soils and an adaptive environment which could survive the onslaught of a million bovine mouths. But grazing in the dry states inevitably meant overgrazing. Overgrazing meant the destruction of the thin biotic crust which protected and bound the dusty land. The soils began to pour down the river courses which cut deep arroyos into the range. Inedible sage, mesquite and creosote bushes colonized vast areas of what had been open country where the grass had brushed up against the horses’ bellies. Cowboys, cows, no wolves and too many deer and elk added up to ecological disaster.
‘One of the penalties of an ecological education,’ Aldo Leopold wrote, ‘is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is invisible to laymen. An ecologist . . . must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.’ Uncontrolled grazing, the beautiful Western sight of a cowman with his cattle on the range, could destroy a whole life system; only predators could keep those mouths in check. That is the point of Aldo Leopold’s most famous book: ‘The cowman who cleans his range of wolves,’ he wrote in A Sand County Almanac, ‘has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dust bowls and rivers washing the future into the sea.’
The Endangered Species Act was intended not only ‘to provide a program for the conservation of such endangered species and threatened species’ but ‘to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered speciesand threatened species depend may be conserved’. Its target was the recreation of a better America and once the Act was passed, the United States government was under a legal obligation to restore the wolves and other now-rare animals that had been destroyed over the previous 150 years.
That Act was signed by, of all people, Richard Nixon, who thought environmentalists were ‘hopeless softheads’ but was keen to acquire the new tranche of wild-aware voters that had been brought in by the lowering of the voting age in 1971 to eighteen. Apparently unconscious of any long-term consequences of what he was doing, he set in motion the long battle between the two parts of the American soul – pro-wolf, anti-wolf, anti-cow, pro-cow, urban greenery versus rural cowboyism, liberal against conservative, wild against civilized, federal power in Washington against the power of individual states – which has raged ever since, and of which the dead Tsay-O-Ah wolf was only the latest, pitiable victim. Only in America could the phrase ‘creeping wilderness’ come to seem equivalent to ‘over-government’, but since 1973 that is how things have stood.
A few days later, deep in the country over which I had flown, I am sitting in the kitchen of Bill and Bettye Powell at Sand Flat Ranch outside Aragon, in Catron County, New Mexico. I’ve turned up unannounced, wanting to ask them about the little building at the corner of their track where it meets the main road down to Reserve, New Mexico. It is a wooden anti-wolf shelter designed for children who need to wait for the school bus without being eaten by the wolves around them. You can find shelters like this here and there dotted around Catron County, neat structures, with benches inside, wire mesh covering the openings and a bolt, on the inside of the door, unreachable by any wolf, so that the children can lock themselves in.
The Powells’ buildings at Sand Flat Ranch are a few miles up the dusty tree-lined road, up in the big sun-bleached and open wood pasture of Catron County. Bill Powell came out to meet me as I drove in, smiling, snaggle-toothed, blue-eyed, telling his dogs to be quiet, the stubble on his cheeks greying on his jowls, his work shirt worn at the collar.
‘Oh that thing,’ he said, when I asked about the wolf shelter. ‘That’s what they call “a statement”.’ He looked at me. ‘The school put it there. I think the county paid for them. And no,’ laughing, ‘we certainly never did use it. Who would put their kids down there and leave them there anyway? We always waited for the bus to come. And the bus driver waited for us if we weren’t there. It was just . . . just a show. Do you want a hamburger?’
His wife Bettye and their sixteen-year-old son Brock are having lunch in the kitchen. She looks drawn. She shows me a letter she had written to Susana Martínez, the young Republican governor of New Mexico. The governor – the Latino Sarah Palin, she has been called – likes nothing about the wolves and has withdrawn any New Mexico involvement with the recovery programme.
‘Dear Governor Martínez,’ Bettye had written,
Our bright Monday morning turns to one of dread as we hear the drone of an airplane as it circles above us. What that sound has come to mean to us is that there is a wolf pack on our ranch.
Not a pleasant way to start the week, but with the weekly flights to locate the wolves, more common than one would suppose.
It unnerves me to think about calving season and spring. Usually my favorite time – the miracle of birth itself, of those little just-born, stiff-legged calves nestling up to their lowing mothers – that’s one of the loves of ranching. Spring . . . rebirth . . . hope. Yet I look to it with a feeling of utter desolation.
The two of them sitting at the table seemed drained. I see for the first time just how bloodshot Bill’s eyes are. Bettye’s face is creased and wrinkled around her eyes. Biologists speak casually and intriguingly of ‘the ecology of fear’ in relationship to wolves. If the ungulates – the deer and the elk – know there are wolves in the area, they behave quite differently: watchful, anxious, choosing not to browse in places from which escape is difficult, where fallen rocks or steep stream valleys might slow them down as they try to run. And that difference in behaviour creates what is called ‘a trophic cascade’, a ripple effect travelling down and out through the many different participants in an ecosystem, from the unbrowsed streamside willows or cottonwoods, to the invertebrates living in the trees, or the birds that might like to nest in them, and even the forms taken by the streams themselves in a less tightly grazed country. In that way, wolves shape their world. Some eco-theorists have linked this ‘ecology of fear’ to what they also call the ‘geography of hope’, the possibility that in wildness, as Thoreau wrote in his famous essay ‘Walking’, ‘is the preservation of the world’. Fear makes for a redeemed ecology, one into which the reality of violent death injects a kind of health and vigour.
Here, now, in the Powells’ kitchen, that way of thinking looked sick. I suddenly saw what the ‘ecology of fear’ might actually mean for a family attempting to ranch these dry acres. Bill and Bettye have been here for eleven years. Only forty acres are their own. The other forty thousand they have as an allotment from the Bureau of Land Management and on that federal land they are, for a small monthly payment, allowed to run three hundred head of cattle.
‘Ranching is a disease,’ Bill said, smiling at me, ‘if you ever catch the bug. It’s kind of like a guy inherited a million dollars. “What are you goin’ to do?” they asked him. “I am going to ranch until I run out of money.” You’ve got a couple of million dollars of assets but your income is below poverty level.’ In fact, in their worst years they have been living off 418,000 a year. ‘When you lose 411 to 420,000 of livestock a year, you can’t take many vacations,’ Bill said.
‘Those aren’t confirmed kills, Bill,’ Bettye said. ‘You have to have bruising in the tissue beneath the skin to be a confirmed kill.’
‘That’s true,’ Bill said, ‘but I think we’ve been lied to a lot. People have said many things to us which we don’t think are true.’
Uncertainty stains every corner of their lives. 2010 was when their bad time with ‘the wooves’ began – Bill says the word without the l. ‘That was the first year we really had trouble. A pack was on us – killing calves. It was the San Mateo Pack. We think we lost eighteen calves due to the wooves. But we only had one confirmed kill and one confirmed attack.’
‘They were tore up,’ Bettye said, ‘chewed up, big hunks ripped out of their hams, their hind ends.’
‘Big slashes on their sides,’ Brock, their son, said.
His mother looked across at him. ‘One calf was chewed up pretty bad at the hip,’ she said. ‘We babied it and doctored it and two months later it was well enough to put out. And two days later it was a kill.’
Neighbours of theirs have given up, either no longer stocking their allotments or putting their places up for sale. The central difficulty is that although ranchers are compensated for ‘depredations’ by wolves that can be proved, there can be no compensation for the underlying and pervasive sense of anxiety which wolves have brought into their lives. The Powells are now part of ‘the ecology of fear’, whether they like it or not.
‘The first year we didn’t know we had a pack,’ Bettye said. ‘We lost about ten first-calf heifers. If one starts running, they all take off.’
‘Yuh,’ Bill said. ‘They had all been run down. Something was running and exhausting them. That time of year and condition, it doesn’t take much. It’s an iffy thing. You don’t know anything. It’s really hard to prove. You suspect them. Baby calves disappear. Wooves clean it all up and you don’t have anything to prove anything with. It’s really hard to sit here and say the wooves are the whole cause of the trouble. We’ve had drought. We had the big Wallow forest fire and we had two cows die of respiratory complications because of the smoke from that fire. But the wooves are just that one thing extra.’
We sat there in silence for a second. ‘I’m at a point where I am not hireable in the workforce,’ Bill said. ‘I’m fifty-two now. We’ve not been making a whole lot of money. I don’t know what else I could do.’
I wondered if things might be a little different for the next generation. One or two ranchers have been using the wolves to bring in holidaymakers, wolf-watching. But so far anyway, the only wolf benefit this family is getting is from Brock working as a range-rider, on his horse every day, riding with the cattle, paid 4500 a month by an ecological group called the Defenders of Wildlife, as part of a programme to encourage coexistence between ranching families and the wolves on their land. ‘Just to keep the wolves away, just by being there, by being a presence. We’ve got three packs within ten miles of here. San Mateo, Fox Mountain and Willow. That’s sixteen wolves. One day I was out there I saw eleven in one day.’
‘Yes,’ Bettye said, ‘and what about when you were younger, Brock?’ She pointed out of the kitchen window at the dusty road you can see making its way over the pale grasses for half a mile or more.
‘I saw two of them coming down that road to our gate,’ Brock said. ‘I used to be everywhere all over our land, but not after that.’
‘He built himself a spear,’ his mother said, ‘and went about with me when I was hanging up the washing. Is that what you want for your children? To be defending their mothers when they are out at the washing line?’
I spent four days in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area with the man who fought for it, created it, populated it with wolves and whose career in the end was destroyed by it.
Dave Parsons does, in some ways, look like a wolf. He has a grizzled grey beard, and his whole presence is slight, honed and precise. Everything about the man is alert and he is one of the most observant men I have ever met, able to summon wild creatures from the shadows: a herd of elk; a group of pronghorns a mile away on the big open pastures; in an ancient riverside walnut tree, a pair of black hawks, all gloss, just in from their winter in Mexico; wild, white-eyed blackbirds; red-tailed hawks, horned larks and western bluebirds and cliff swallows. One day, when we were fifty miles from the nearest hardtop road, he brought me to a small, dry canyon. A prairie falcon was nesting in its cliffs. It flew over and across us for half an hour in a display of wild beauty, its wings flecked brown and khaki, with the sunlight shining through its primaries so that the whole bird seemed fringed with light. ‘I don’t get into that sappy woo-woo stuff,’ he said to me after a day or two out in the recovery area, ‘but if there is one thing I am proud of in my life it’s that we brought wolves back to this place.’
His story is an emblem of the contested wild. He is the son of an Iowa prairie farmer, who like his brothers scratched around the farm with a gun as a boy, but they all knew in the 1960s that the days of the family farm were ending. He became a biologist and joined the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1973, just after the Endangered Species Act had been passed. In those optimistic years, the agency was starting to surf the wolf wave. The grey wolf of the northern Rockies and the Texas grey wolf were both listed as endangered that year and the Mexican grey wolf, a much smaller subspecies whose historic range reached from southern New Mexico and Arizona across the border into Mexico itself, joined them in 1976.
The wheels of rewilding turn slowly. In the early 1980s, the 2.2 million acres of Yellowstone National Park, where there were no cattle or ranchers and no hunting was allowed, was identified as a prime candidate for wolf reintroductions. But the political dimensions of the idea were already becoming clear. The Wyoming ranchers on the borders of the park, led by a Republican representative from Wyoming, a certain Richard B. Cheney,were fiercely against reintroduction. Predictions were made that children would be killed and under the Republican presidencies of Reagan and the first George Bush, the Fish and Wildlife Service dragged its feet. Green groups started suing the agency for failing to do its duty under the Act, but only in 1995, well into the Clinton presidency, were wolves from Canada released in Yellowstone, a grand political statement of Democratic liberty for animals and doing the right thing by the natural world.
Wolves boomed in and around Yellowstone. They changed the whole environment there, climbing to nine hundred individuals by 2005, stoking the park’s economy and allowing some 350,000 tourists a year to catch a glimpse of wolves in the wild. Wolves were also doing well in the wildlands west of the Great Lakes but things would never be so easy in the cattle-filled, rancher-rich and politically agonized conditions of Arizona and New Mexico, where there was no national park, no ban on hunting and a huge number of cows.
The little Mexican grey wolf had long been exterminated in the United States and was on the verge of extinction in Mexico. Four individuals were in captivity in the US and Mexico, and in 1978–80 the Fish and Wildlife Service hired a trapper to capture five more in Mexico. These nine animals (of which only seven turned out to be fertile) represented the frighteningly thin genetic thread from which hung the future of the Mexican wolf.
An anxious and rapid breeding programme was begun in recovery centres in America and Mexico, to cross these different strains, to get some hybrid vigour into the population and to preserve as wide a genetic inheritance as they could. Because the Reagan administration had an inbuilt liking for the cowboy and his liberty-imagery, and had little sympathy for wolf reintroductions, federal money and encouragement were both short throughout the eighties. When Parsons was appointed by the Fish and Wildlife Service in October 1990 to be the Mexican wolf recovery coordinator, little had happened. The Reagan government had given individual states control over wolf releases on their territory and environmentalists were again suing the Fish and Wildlife Service to do its duty.
It was a tangle of different political authorities, state-based and federal, all operating in the gravitational fields of vast cultural and symbolic forces. Texas refused to have any wolves, and New Mexico suggested the virtually sterile White Sands missile testing range. Arizona came up with a multiplicity of suggestions, but, on the basis of a scientific analysis of all sites, Parsons knew there could only be one place. What is now the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area was his chosen country, 4.3 million acres of grasslands, scattered piñon pine, oak and juniper woods, with tall and stately ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests above that, spread across the Arizona–New Mexico border. The headwaters of the Gila River run through here in deep and shady canyons, filled with elk and deer, much of it ungrazed by cattle. It is a kind of paradise and a place that Parsons loved.
Most of this huge area, the size of five or six English counties, was designated as National Forest, 750,000 acres of it as ‘wilderness’. No machinery or construction of any kind can be used there, no cars, no trucks, no chainsaws, no bicycles, no hang-gliders. No road can be built in it. Backpacking in this Gila Wilderness in 1990, Parsons promised himself that in ten years’ time he would return and lie there at night, listening to the howling of the wolves he had brought back to America. No place could be better suited to them.
Nothing was going to be easy. New Mexico state officials and high-ups in the federal Fish and Wildlife Service wanted wolves confined to White Sands. Ranchers and their political advocates were massing on the sidelines. Parsons was already receiving threats of violence. Only in 1997, by getting through, somehow – and he still does not quite understand how – to Bruce Babbitt, Clinton’s Secretary of the Interior, did Parsons finally get the decision he wanted. The Blue Range was to be the wolf recovery area, wolves to be released only on the Arizona side but able to wander into the New Mexico side.
His eyes shine when he tells this story. But his superiors in the Fish and Wildlife Service were furious that a low-down coordinator had hijacked the process and convinced Clinton’s cabinet he was right and they were wrong. It was a triumph, as Parsons saw it, of science – the best place for wolves – and law – the obligation to do right by the wolves – over a small, rancher-dominated interest group.
On 29 March 1998, in the middle of a blizzard, eleven wolves in three packs were released into the Blue Range. Three of them were pregnant females, ready to start ‘denning’, to give birth to pups which would then know nothing but the wild.
Over that spring and summer the long catastrophe began to unfold. By November five of the eleven wolves had been shot dead. Two more were missing. In an atmosphere of crisis and failure, the remaining animals were captured and brought back into protective custody, largely because they were thought to be at risk from the enraged rancher population and their allies.
Nevertheless, Parsons was committed to the path and releases continued. He had the deep pleasure of re-releasing wolves into the Gila Wilderness, carried in boxes strapped to the back of mules, and of waiting, camping in the silence of that giant emptiness, for the moment they would howl on the hillsides around him. But even as the wolves were released, the illegal killings continued. In the fifteen years since 1998, there have been ninety-two Mexican grey wolf deaths in the wild, forty-seven of them from illegal shooting and twenty-eight shootings by the wildlife authorities after wolves had been preying on cattle or becoming a nuisance. Only four people have been prosecuted and the wolf population has not recovered with anything like the vigour Parsons and his colleagues hoped for. The protected and almost zoo-like circumstances of Yellowstone could not be replicated here.
In the autumn of 1999, it was suggested, neutrally enough, that Parsons might go for early retirement from the Fish and Wildlife Service. It was something many officials of the agency did, taking their pension and getting rehired by the agency at no more than a top-up salary. It saved the government money and Parsons was happy to do it. In the two weeks between his ‘retirement’ and his beginning to work on wolf recovery again, he went backpacking in the Gila.
On his return to Albuquerque, the phone call asking him to return to his post never came. The regional director of the Fish and Wildlife Service refused to rehire him. Nor was he allowed to volunteer for the programme. He says now that it was ‘sabotage’, that he was ‘deceived’, that it was ‘a kick in the stomach’, that the agency, now firmly in the grip of rancher politics, wanted to destroy the wolf reintroduction programme, that he was too adamant a wolf advocate to be the coordinator of something which needed more sensitivity to the needs of the ranching community, that he was ‘politically naive’. Science and the law were on his side, but politics was not and he was forced to leave the service.
Since then, the wolf programme has stumbled along a troubled and deeply compromised path. By early 2000, four packs had been recaptured and were confined to pens. The number of wolves out in the wild was scarcely growing. Even though the biologists were insistent that the full genetic range of wolves should be put out into the wild as soon as possible, any sense of scientific urgency in the agency evaporated in the face of opposition. As we lay one afternoon on the edge of a stretch of grassland watching a herd of elk grazing on the distant, straw-yellow pasture, Parsons said to me, ‘The only reason these wolves have not done as well as they should have is because the agency has lacked the balls to blow through the political pressure to do the right thing.’
It has been a desperate story. At meetings in the Recovery Area, violence has bubbled up to the surface. Rancher families have talked of living ‘under siege from extreme environmentalism’ and ‘cultural genocide’. A rancher has pointed at the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Wendy Brown (once Dave Parsons’s deputy) and yelled, ‘Wendy Brown, when one of these children dies up here because of these wolves, how are you going to feel?’ At another meeting the same man told Parsons, ‘I hate your fucking ass,’ before punching a local reporter in the stomach.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has back-pedalled for years, surrendering power to the local fish and game authorities, setting up a three-strikes rule by which any wolf that was found to have attacked cattle three times should be permanently removed from the wild either by being shot or permanently caged elsewhere, however valuable that wolf might be to the dwindling genetic resource of the wolf population. The number of Mexican grey wolves in the wild actually declined between 2003 and 2009, sinking to a low of forty-two. Ranchers were found to be deliberately leaving carcasses out on the range so that wolves might get used to eating beef rather than deer or elk, encouraging them to make their three fatal strikes. Reports made by nationally respected scientists, recommending that there should be three populations of Mexican grey wolves of at least two hundred wolves per population, in widely separated areas of the South-West, have been ignored and sidelined for years. Scientific papers commissioned by the Fish and Wildlife Service itself have been chaotically organized and found to be intellectually wanting. In other parts of the United States wolf populations have thrived to the point where they are no longer considered endangered. Here in the South-West, despite the 428 million spent on their recovery, Mexican grey wolves continue to creep along the margins of viability, genetically depleted, under attack physically and politically, scarcely supported by the government agency whose legal obligation it is to guarantee their future. It has been a long and painful shambles. The universal scientific opinion is that a new set of regulations due to be introduced later this year will do little to change the vulnerability of the population. Nothing is less wild than the American wild and the Mexican grey wolf recovery programme is evidence of that.
One night, camping with Dave Parsons on the very edge of the Gila Wilderness, at a high, beautiful half-wooded pasture called Cooney Prairie, I lay out in the cold with a blanket over my sleeping bag, a woolly hat on my head, the frost prickling on the skin of my face and my nose pointing resolutely at the stars. I have never seen night skies like this. The spaces between the stars I know from home are filled here with a kind of star-rubbish, a star-smear, as if someone had forgotten to sweep up the floor of the night sky. No one would ever design a night sky like this. In among them all, the big disc of Jupiter shone so brightly that if I held one hand in front of the other, it cast a blue shadow across my skin. I remembered as I lay there that Newton, when trying to isolate the colours of light, and finding the sun too fat a source, so that his results weren’t sharp, was able one night in Cambridge to use Jupiter as his point source. And so,
I thought, lying there at eight thousand feet, perhaps this unmediated profligacy of the universe was what men used to see. And that one of the purposes of wilderness might be to take you back to how things were, not to something simple but to something complex, the too-much of the world, the net of intricacy we would see and know if the reductions and definitions of modernity did not prevent us.
I slept and every now and then woke to find the constellations turned a few degrees above me, circling through the branches of the pines, an angular rotation, like the second hand of a station clock, tick-tocking across the night sky. Soon after one in the morning, in a still and silent part of the night, a gang of coyotes not far away started yapping and snapping at each other, or so I thought, like a crowd of kids, a playground squabble in the high country savannah, rising and falling in their tussles and struggles. I have sat in bird colonies in Scotland on still summer nights and heard the seabirds rumbling and yawing at each other like this, the everyday noise of lives accommodating other lives, shuffling and grumbling for room, comfort or acceptance.
But I was wrong. The coyotes weren’t yapping at each other. About twenty minutes after they had begun, the cause of their anxiety made itself heard, something quite different, low, adult, magisterial. I thought at first it was the wind which earlier in the evening had blown through the ponderosa pines but the note began to modulate, a broken fall and I heard it for what it was. The howl of this wolf, lasting maybe forty-five seconds, about fifty yards from where I was lying, was a warning, not a proclamation. It was a slow single voice, proprietorial, low then lower, asserting its dominance over the coyotes in the night, all the power, and you could say the humanity, of it in the dropping of the pitch, more animate than the wind could ever be, more meant, a statement from the bass line of the world. Then it was gone, the silence as resonant as the voice had been. De-extinction at night, with the light of Jupiter shining through the trees.
The next morning we went looking for the tracks. Dave found them: the wolf had padded down the dirt road that ran past the stand of trees we had been sleeping in. The wolf was lame, only putting three of its feet down as it made its way across country, but each footprint was huge, nearly five inches by four, the size of a child’s hand. ‘I’m so pleased you heard that,’ Dave said. ‘Really, I couldn’t be more pleased. The one thing I know I can say is that I have made this the place where the wolves can howl.’
Can you step beyond all the grief and discontent of this story, to think in any way as Leopold or Thoreau required us to think about our relationship to the wild? I somehow doubt it. I remember a local environmentalist telling me how a rancher, hating his love of wilderness, had trapped his cat, skinned it and displayed it in the shop down the road in Alpine, Arizona, for a laugh. I think of Bettye Powell’s sad and exhausted eyes. I think of the hurt buried in Parsons himself at the memory of his being cheated out of his job and his purpose, all the dignity of his belief in science and law and the virtues of the natural world trashed by a compromise with some rather dirty symbol-politics. And I think of Bill Powell asking me to come back one day and to ride out with him on the range just so I could see what it was like to be him.
Gary Snyder wrote these beautiful lines, a hymn to humility:
As the crickets’ soft autumn hum
is to us
so are we to the trees
as are they
to the rocks and the hills.
That is a kind of trophic cascade, or at least a modesty cascade through the trophic levels of creation. But can anyone really live according to that? Are our present difficulties and pains, our need to negotiate our lives, not too urgent for that kind of wisdom? Aldo Leopold may have urged Americans ‘to think like a mountain’. But I can’t imagine how America ever could.
Photograph courtesy of Adam Nicolson