Wolf close up

El lobo, part 1: Restoring balance

Humans have had a long, uncomfortable relationship with wolves.  Revered, feared, hated, and persecuted to within an inch of extinction, their survival to this day says more about their resilience than our ability to understand and tolerate what we are now learning to be one of the most important predators in the northern hemisphere.

We grow up with fairy tales of the big bad wolf that devours grandma and blows our house down, and hear stories about wolves stalking and attacking small children.  But those are myths.  Of all the large American predators (mountain lions, black bears, grizzlies, coyotes, bobcats), the fewest attacks on people come from wolves.   That’s not to say they are harmless – they will kill livestock (as do the other large predators), but at amazingly low rates, given the ubiquity of sheep and cattle on public lands and how much easier they can be killed compared to wild elk and deer.  Yet wolves seem to carry far more of our emotional baggage than any other predator.

The three species of North American wolves (red, grey, and eastern) were nearly eradicated from the US by the 1950s, by bounty hunters and government agents trying to protect cattle, sheep, and wild game for hunting.  Wolves in the southwest lasted a little longer, with a few remaining as late as the 1970s.  It was only after they were all gone that wildlife managers realized the mistake they made.  Wolves served a vital role in not only keeping wildlife numbers in check, but affecting movement patterns of animals that, in turn, had major habitat impacts.  Eradicating the wolves also altered the soundscape.  No longer did their mournful wails echo through the landscape, announcing their presence to every animal in listening distance.  Prior to the disappearance of the wolf, Aldo Leopold wrote:

“Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call.  To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet.  Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning known only to the mountain itself.  Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of the wolf.” (Aldo Leopold, 1949, Thinking like a mountain).

Wolves were listed as an endangered species in the mid-1970’s, with proposed recovery including reintroductions into suitable habitat.  Once the hunting, poisoning, and trapping stopped, grey wolves began to recolonize some of the northern states on their own, spreading south from Canada.  Populations established themselves in Montana, Minnesota and Wisconsin.  With human assistance, red wolves were reintroduced into North Carolina and the Great Smokies in the late 1980’s.  Grey wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995, followed by reintroductions into the wilds of central Idaho. A small subspecies of the grey wolf, the lobo (Mexican grey wolf), was reintroduced into east-central Arizona in 1998.  All of these reintroductions were met with protest and controversy, with politics, fear, and loathing threatening reintroduction efforts at every step of the way.

The lobo reintroductions seemed to have been especially difficult.  Maybe not enough time had passed since the last wild lobos disappeared from Arizona in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s to lessen the irrational fear.  Maybe the tough cattle-raising conditions in Arizona and western New Mexico make ranchers especially defensive.  Maybe the wolves themselves are weakened by loss of genetic diversity (the reintroduced population stems from 5 animals captured in Mexico).  Or maybe they’ve been managed a little too intensely, being required to stay within a defined area and, at least early on, being removed from the population if they dared to substitute beef or mutton for venison.   But 16 years after the reintroduction, fewer than 90 lobos roam the Blue Range and Gila Wilderness and their future is still uncertain.  Between 1998 and 2012, 46 wolves were illegally killed, and more were killed (intentionally and accidentally) by researchers and managers.

As an ecologist and sound recordist, I’m thrilled that wolves are back in Arizona.  Wilderness without wolves is somehow empty, not quite whole.  I get up to the wolf recovery area as often as I can, listening intently for that low mournful cry.  I heard them back in 2010, before I started recording; the early dawn punctuated several days in a row by howls accompanied by the yips of pups (see also Evening thunder and morning elk).   But mostly it is the coyotes that serenade the nighttime and early morning hours for me.

In early June of this year, I was  back in the recovery area, this time camping at Snow Lake, north of the Gila Wilderness area.  I hadn’t been in that area since the Whitewater-Baldy Fire (see Before the Whitewater-Baldy Fire), and I was also curious to see how the area fared.  This area has a rich fire history, and probably the most natural burn intervals of any place in the west.

Gila fire

Wildfires in the Blue Range and Gila Wilderness since 1980. Different colors correspond to different fires.

The Whitewater-Baldy fire appeared to have stopped when it ran into the area burned by the 2006 Bear Fire, which was another very intense fire that killed a lot of trees.  Driving through the area you can’t help but realize what a dynamic environment this is – in a constant state of flux between forest, chaparral, meadow, and open slope.  The forest doesn’t look like it did 20 years ago, and it will look very different 20 years from now.

Multiple generations of fire, 2006 in foreground, 2012 in background

Remains of the Bear Fire (2006) in the foreground, the Whitewater-Baldy Fire (2012) in the background.

Oak regeneration after the Bear Fire, 2006

Gambel’s oak regeneration after the Bear Fire, 2006.

The monsoon rains, with flash floods, are also an agent of change in this area.  Late last summer the area was inundated by 10 inches of rain in just over a week (see Of fire and flood: dynamics of the Gila River Ecosystem).  The gouging of the creek beds by this amount of rain was evident everywhere.  I took a hike downstream of Snow Lake, along the middle fork of the Gila River, and was surprised to see entire trees lodged 20 feet up the river bank, indicating the tremendous force of the flood that came through.  It’s hard for any animal to establish a stable home range, when the land keeps changing beneath your feet and over your head.

I heard no wolf howls this trip, but the coyotes, owls, and bats kept me entertained with their singing.  On the first morning after my arrival, just as the dawn chorus was beginning, a pack of coyotes began singing from the direction of the lake.  They apparently found a nice echo chamber, perhaps near the dam or a small cove, and really sounded like they were enjoying the echoes.  It was a lot of fun to listen to.  My efforts to record the howl of the lobos will continue.

 

 

For more information about the wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone, see: http://www.nps.gov/yell/naturescience/wolfrest.htm

For a nice video discussing the controversies of grey wolf reintroduction in the northern Rockies, see http://ecowatch.com/2014/07/19/coexist-gray-wolves/

For more information about lobos, see http://www.mexicanwolves.org.

Recording made with a Sony PCM-M10 and Audio Technica AT2022 mic with Felmicamps preamp.

Photo of wolf made by Tambako the Jaguar.

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