Leslie Patten: The deafening silence of a world without wolves

Others should be able to experience that rare moment of encountering a wolf in the wild.

(Jacob W. Frank/National Park Service via AP) This Nov. 7, 2017, photo provided by the National Park Service shows a wolf in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

One day in late spring, when the light is low and dusk lingers for hours, I head out for a hike in a series of craggy volcanic contours of hills and narrow arroyos. Following an animal trail, I slide into a tight channel with a trickle of water, looking for bear or cougar tracks.

As I head back up to the makeshift trail, a wolf comes trotting by. We see each other simultaneously, less than 10 feet apart. I relish the moment, but she doesn’t. Startled, she jolts, eyes me for less than a moment, then darts off.

This was my last close wolf encounter, two years ago. Although these encounters are vivid in my memory, my multi-year observations of the impacts wolves had on my valley is the story I cherish most.

I was fortunate to be able to buy a home in a remote valley next to Yellowstone National Park in 2005, about a decade after wolf reintroduction. Wolves had been in the valley for a few years, managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and protected from hunting.

Elk descend from the high country in December, and wolves follow. Coyotes were learning about living with wolves, many times to their demise. With fewer coyotes, foxes made a comeback and I saw them often. By watching winter bird activity of eagles, ravens, and magpies, I could find wolf kills.

When wolves were delisted in Idaho and Montana and hunts began in 2009, wolves were still protected in Wyoming. My area had the highest number of wolves in the Northern Range — more than 40 in several packs. I watched as these packs vied for territory, self-regulating with available territory and prey. During the spring and summer, when wolves left their pups at rendezvous sites, it wasn’t uncommon to encounter a lone wolf on a hike. My valley was alive.

In 2012, Endangered Species protections were removed for wolves in Wyoming. The state immediately began a hunt lasting two years, until federal protections were restored. From 2014 to 2016, wolves in Wyoming were back on the Endangered Species list and had a short reprieve.

But in 2017, Wyoming wolves were delisted again. Wyoming Game & Fish has decided my hunt zone, adjacent to the park, is easier for wolf hunting “opportunity” due to backcountry access. That translates into the highest wolf-killing quotas in the area where wolves are managed by the state.

With five consecutive years of hunting now, I no longer see wolves nor hear them. My winter nights are silent.

Wyoming Game & Fish manages wolves based on hunting opportunity. What about my opportunity, to hear the primal howl of wolves, to observe them, and to witness all the amazing changes — changes that resulted in a landscape teeming with life? Without the natural play of all the varied wildlife, my valley, like so much of the lower 48, is a bereft landscape.

I am lucky. I’ve had many unique wildlife encounters, memories I’ll cherish forever. I’d like my children and grandchildren to have those same opportunities. But until state wildlife agencies widen their orientation beyond only considering hunting opportunity, disregarding ecosystem health and wildlife viewing opportunity, things won’t change.

I’m using my sorrow and anger to express what we who cherish our wild lands and wildlife must do: speak up and press for change in state wildlife management, especially adjacent to our National Parks. This may mean relisting wolves and revamping the parameters upon which jurisdiction can be given back to the states.

While fighting for reform, I’ll remember those rare and powerful moments I was privileged to experience. One evening while returning home at dusk, three wolves ran across the highway, beginning their night’s hunt. I was struck by their excitement, intensity, and force.

Life can be suppressed, but it cannot be crushed. Wolves, in their ceaseless energy and deep intelligence, epitomize the purity and dynamism of life itself.

Leslie Patten

Leslie Patten is the author of “Ghostwalker: Tracking a Mountain Lion’s Soul through Science and Story.” Her latest book, “Shadow Landscape: Notes from the Field,” describes intimate wildlife encounters. She lives in Northwest Wyoming.