Vagneur: Dead at the hands of Manifest Destiny
Colorado Parks and Wildlife is doing its level best to prevent the reintroduction of wolves into Colorado, a losing and naive position if the majority of Coloradans have anything to do with it.
“What happened to the wolf?” you ask. All I can tell you for certain is that we killed the wolf, or tried our damndest to kill every last one of those murdering sons of bitches. And that’s the truth. Reintroduce them to Colorado? Are you crazy?
Maybe you could say manifest destiny killed the wolf, and that wouldn’t be totally accurate, either, but certainly that attitude was complicit in the tragedy. White men have always had a posture about manipulating nature in ways they believe are advantageous to their cause, never realizing the consequences of their actions. How easy could it be — kill the buffalo and starve the Native Americans out? Now what the hell are we going to do — we have warriors stealing our cattle and horses and scaring our womenfolk? And those damned wolves, why are they killing our cows and sheep?
Cattle and sheep ranchers certainly didn’t want wolves around, and beginning in 1865 cattlemen began killing wolves with what can only be described as an irrational and unneeded dedication. But before you blame it all on ranchers, don’t forget that the miners, particularly in the Aspen area, killed off the elk population and most of the deer before the first train ever hit the valley. Professional hunters, hired by stockmen and miners alike, decimated wolf packs, buffalo and elk herds with an abandon that defied common sense. And we fear wolves?
It’s hard to say how many wolves and other creatures were killed in the attempt to extirpate wolves from the landscape, but if you count the buffalo and horse carcasses laced with strychnine, left lying on the ground to poison wolves and incidentally killing myriad other beasts such as foxes, ferrets, lynx, eagles, coyotes, wolverines, etc., it is imaginable that hundreds of millions of creatures died at the hands of manifest destiny. Of that number, there might have been 2 million wolves. Staggering to understand when you realize that we have only a few thousand wolves left in the lower 48 today.
In Colorado, as well as other neighboring states, we had a tendency to name the most troublesome wolves with monikers like Old Whitey, Big Foot, Rags the Digger, Old Lefty (who had only three legs, the fourth probably shot or chewed off), Queen Wolf, The Greenhorn Wolf, and Three Toes of the Apishapa. Clearly, Colorado had the corner on legendary wolves.
But let’s face reality, and before we try to put the sins of the father on today’s rancher, we have to be honest. If cattle and wolves are going to roam the same range, there will be predation by wolves. Some cattle will be killed and some wolves will need to be killed. That’s the nature of the game, but it is unnatural to insist that no wolves exist. Wolves are crucial to the natural environment, and we should feel thankful that we didn’t manage to kill all of them.
Out of curiosity, I traveled to northern Minnesota for several winters, renting a small cabin on the outskirts of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, looking for wolves and below-zero temperatures. I found both, although the cold was easier to come by. Sitting in the lee side of a snowbank after dark, listening intently, the song of a wolf would come through the birch and evergreen, mournful, purposeful and seeming to call directly to me. Another would answer back and the conversation that ensued would give me a thrill deep inside, making the hair on my neck stand up and my eyes fill with a deep satisfaction, knowing wolves still existed in the wild.
Sometimes we would hear them on a kill and would glide through the thick forest on snowshoes, following the sound of their gentle yelps and quiet banter, eventually coming upon the scene, a few scattered bones or hair stamped with blood the only sign that anything of a mortal nature had occurred.
Those who hunt from the air can tell you that when shot, the most visible part of the killing, other than the shower of blood upon the snow, is the continual moving of the wolf’s legs, a tenacious, free spirit, clinging unyieldingly to life until the very last heartbeat.
If ever a creature deserved a second chance, it is the wolf. In our entire history, never have we killed so wantonly and without good reason. To paraphrase Barry H. Lopez from “Of Wolves and Men,” we are going to have to find a way to look the wolf in the eye again. Maybe we begin by inviting the wolf back to Colorado, back to what was his domain before we killed him out of it.
Tony Vagneur is a fourth-generation Woody Creek cattle rancher who writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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