Vagneur: We’ll take some wolves | AspenTimes.com
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Vagneur: We’ll take some wolves

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

A chilly calm presided over the atmosphere of the Bois Forte, with the temperature consistently hovering around minus three degrees Fahrenheit. No wind, but an occasional breeze could make it cold enough to kill you if you weren’t paying attention.

Surrounded by frozen lake ice and being unknown miles from civilization, darkness wrapped its inky cloak around our small island with a finality that brought home the primal concept of “wilderness.” And then, barely audible at first, they started. Slow, mournful wails, long and low-pitched, the familiar, howling communication of wolves, growing in intensity with every second. Afraid to breathe for fear of muting the sound, the hair on the back of my neck stood up and a smile crossed my face. I’d traveled thousands of miles just to hear those sounds, fearsome to some, soulful to others. And sleep came, gently and deep.

I’m a Colorado cattleman by birth, cows and horses my legacy over three generations before me, and, as an addiction, there’s nothing I love more, except maybe skiing in winter. We run around 400 head of mother cows on government permits in the summer, and about half of them are my responsibility: packing salt, checking grass and water holes, moving them around to more advantageous spots as the warm weather progresses into fall. And one of my hopes is to get the cows to some good grass before the elk get there first and leave slim pickings.

Don’t get me wrong; we share the range with the elk, and we’re happy to, mostly because we don’t run that many cattle, but sometimes, it’s disheartening to be shagging cattle up the trail and suddenly discover we’re moving a large herd of elk just ahead of us. It’s times like those I wonder why many cattle ranchers in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho are so against wolves and their reintroduction into the wild.

On any given day, a neighbor has as many elk on his feeding ground as he does cattle, which he tolerates because there’s little he can do about it, other than occasionally feeding the elk on a distant part of the ranch in hopes they’ll leave his cow herd alone for a day or two. From my viewpoint, we have too many elk, and a few “lobos” would certainly help correct the over-population problem.

Wolves take us back to ancient times, invoking extreme emotions and, for some, even in today’s world, there is a senseless, pathological hatred of the beasts. And it seems as if there is no common ground, for on the other side, coming mostly from an urban population, there is an almost illogical sanctification of the animals.

Today we hear the cry, mostly from outfitters and guides, that after years of building up elk populations, it’s insane to let wolves decimate the herds. It’s probably understandable that our collective memory forgets that settlers, homesteaders, miners and professional hunters took care of devastating the buffalo, elk and deer herds. The wolf, finding his natural prey absent, took what he could find, which many times came down to livestock, dogs and sheep. We stole the wolf’s livelihood out from underneath him and then tried to extinguish his very existence simply because we forced him to rely on domestic prey.

The elk herds have rebounded, not so much because wolves were damn near eradicated, but because we humans quit killing them off in such huge numbers. By putting wolves back into the ecosystem, we are putting a balance on the natural order of things.

And before you get on me about the unpleasantness of wolves killing elk, think about the many ways in which we have killed wolves over the years: we poisoned them with arsenic and strychnine (which in turn killed millions of other animals that feasted on their carcasses), dragged them behind vehicles and galloping horses, choked them to death in snares and raided their dens, beating the pups to death with blunt instruments or burning them alive in small fires. Fortunately for us, wolves are not vindictive.

People who push for the extermination of wolves call guys like me wolf-loving parasites, liberal maggots and other less-pleasant names. Whatever.

But to those blue-blooded defenders of an antiquated Manifest Destiny philosophy, may I say that even with their wolf extirpation tactics since the 2009 delisting of wolves from the Endangered Species Act (except in Wyoming), wolf populations have remained relatively stable in the Northern Rocky Mountain Region (Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington). In 2008, the wolf population in that region was estimated to be 1,645 animals. In the latest available data (2013), there were approximately 1,691 wolves in the same region (http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/mammals/wolf/).

So maybe it was time to slow a burgeoning population by killing a few wolves, but if you really think you have too many, send some down.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.


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