Gray wolves are back, gliding through the forests of eastern Washington and the Cascades. The Lookout pack is producing pups in the Methow Valley, near Twisp. Seven wolves, an alpha male and female, a yearling and last year's four pups, have been traveling through 350 square miles, eating black-tailed and mule deer primarily, but also munching the occasional muskrat or beaver. Last year, on the banks of the Twisp River, they were seen eating salmon.
The Diamond pack is roaming the northeastern corner of the state, where grizzly bears and mountain caribou also wander down into the Salmo-Priest wilderness. There seem to be wolves in the southeastern corner, across the border from the two packs that have been identified in Oregon's Wallowa Mountain and Hell's Canyon area. Other wolves have been sighted in Mount Rainier National Park, although no one knows whether or not they're hybrids.
Wolves hold a very special badass image in European language and myth. They are seen as voracious (“wolfing down” one's food); unusually predatory (a "wolf whistle" directed at a pretty woman); a metaphor for human aggression (“The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold.").
In the West, they have been seen primarily as competition. By running herds of succulent sheep and cattle among the hills and valleys, we have in effect spread a perpetual banquet — and we don't want anyone but ourselves to partake. If anybody else bellies up to the table, he's likely to get shot.
Wolves have been shot and poisoned throughout the West. They are fecund and resilient, but not the way coyotes are. People's attempts to get rid of coyotes have been about as successful as their attempts to get rid of Norway rats. But the final solution largely succeeded with wolves. They were history in Washington by the end of the 1930s. And some of the old anti-predator instincts are alive and well. In a case that hit the press last year, two Twisp ranchers, father and son, may face federal charges for allegedly killing an endangered species and trying to smuggle the hide out of the country. "The investigation began on Dec. 23, 2008," Joyce Campbell described in the Methow Valley News, "when an Omak police officer and a state wildlife agent responded to a complaint from the owner of an Omak FedEx shipping outlet that a package was leaking what appeared to be blood."
There's an image for you. The story continues: a Washingon Department of Fish and Wildlife enforcement officer named Brent Scherzinger "examined the package contents and 'determined it was probably a freshly killed wolf hide,' according to the court document. The shipping label was addressed to an Alberta, Canada, residence. The shipper had declared the item was a rug." And no doubt it would have become one. The U.S. Attorney's office tried to keep the whole thing quiet, but Conservation Northwest figured people should know about it, and made it very public.
Not surprisingly, the gray wolf was a charter member of the federal endangered species list. It was listed by the federal government in 1974, by Washington in 1980. Last year, the feds famously delisted wolves in the northern Rockies, including Montana and Idaho, both of which promptly opened hunting seasons for them.
In much of Washington, the delisting followed north-south Highway 97. The Lookout pack, some 30 miles west of the highway, is still listed. The Diamond pack, farther east, is not.
A coalition of national and regional conservation groups has asked a federal court to vacate the delisting rule and tried and failed to get the court to enjoin the hunts. The judge said the conservationists hadnt proved that a single year of hunting part of the population would cause irreparable harm to the population as a whole. On the other hand, he said that the Endangered Species Act didn't authorize de-listing just part of the population.
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