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Wolf hunt part of chain of life

Tony Vagneur

It’s a brilliant, early spring day as four wolves silently make their way up a narrow valley nestled between two mountain peaks. The breeze is at their faces and “ambling along” might best describe their gait – stop and sniff here, mark a bush with scent there, or playfully run past or bump another wolf in the small group. It may seem like a weekend stroll to the casual observer, but these wolves have not eaten in three days, although they have had hunting opportunities and potential prey most likely dominates their thoughts. Hunting into the wind, as they are, gives the wolves the early advantage over any quarry they may encounter – a first-strike capability, if you will. Suddenly, the wolf at the front of the pack pulls up and sniffs the air, his body language showing a concentration that wasn’t there previously. The others immediately pick up on this increased alertness and momentarily stop to apprise themselves of the situation.Kicking into a single-minded, traveling jog, they quickly follow the scent a mile and a half to its source. On some unknown signal, the wolves fan out and leave about 10 yards between themselves, slowly advancing through creekside willows until they are within striking distance of a small herd of five elk, bedded down in an aspen grove along the gurgling stream. Here, the wolves stop and hunker in a trace of newly fallen snow, seemingly in contradiction to the urgency of the hunt. It’s as if they’re appraising the situation, getting a sense of the best way to pursue the elk. Perhaps they are assessing the likelihood of making a kill, or looking for displays of physical weakness such as injury or serious infection. The elk continue ruminating, unaware of the wolves, at least for the moment, although there seems to be an edge to their behavior, indicating a realization that something is taking shape. Then, as if on a prearranged cue, one wolf steps out into the open where he can be seen by the resting wapiti. At about the same moment, two other wolves lope off to one side, in an apparent attempt to keep the elk from running up the valley. At this, the lone bull in the herd jumps to his feet with a snort, stomping back and forth, getting a fix on the situation. The cows are slower to react, but not by much, and within an instant all five elk are standing and watching the wolves. Without moving, both groups stare intently at each other for what seems an eternity, but is actually only momentary. There appears to be an unspoken question as to whether any elk are ready to die, and an answer, from the other camp, as to a yes or no.If none of the elk announce their availability by running off alone or offer other vulnerabilities, and if every one of them remains to face the wolves without bolting, the predators may test this resolve for a bit and then leave, to hunt somewhere else. But if one of the cows was a little slower to get up than the others, or stands with less weight on one leg, the wolves may perceive this as a weakness and choose that particular individual as the object of their hunt. We can’t know precisely what transpired between the two groups on this day, but suddenly, the elk were on the run through the aspens, the wolves bounding after them, and the gap was quickly closed on one cow who was imperceptibly less quick than the others. The more efficient hunters – a couple of three-year-old females, looking more like slender racing dogs – were the first to reach the cow elk, tearing at her hips and slowing her down for the rest of the pack to finish off. As the first raven circles overhead, we are reminded that this ancient “dance of death” between wolf and prey is a necessary drama for each to play out. Whether we choose to embrace it, the natural, dignified death of the elk was a requisite link in the chain of existence, the gift of life through death. Tony Vagneur, whose column appears here every Saturday, welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net


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