Return of the Hunted

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, April 1995

Return of the Hunted

After 70 years, phantom has become fact. But the story has just begun.
By Hampton Sides

It was over in less than an hour. Twenty years of debate would culminate in a prosaic helicopter ride into the mountains. Late on the afternoon of January 20, a government chopper landed in the fastness of central Idaho's Salmon River. State wildlife veterinarian Dave Hunter then unloaded three tranquilized gray wolves, captured earlier in the week in the Canadian Rockies, and laid them in the snow. Hunter removed their hoods, unbound their legs, and injected them with an antidote. As members of the media gaped in the twilight, the wolves quickly shook off their drowsiness and skittered into the fir trees.

For the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it was neither the end nor even the beginning of the end of this intricate morality play. But with 12 other Canadian wolves also set free in Idaho and 14 more delivered to Yellowstone National Park, Canis lupus had made its much-heralded return to the American West.

There were, however, dispiriting setbacks. In Canada earlier in the month, a wolf had been killed when a tranquilizing dart fired by a biologist slipped between the animal's ribs and punctured a lung. Then, only ten days after these photographs were taken, a yearling female, wearing the unlucky radio collar number B-13, was killed by an unknown gunman after she mauled a newborn calf on the property of Idaho rancher Gene Hussey, some 60 miles from the release site. The autopsy was unequivocal: bovine blood on lupine teeth, black hair in the stomach. The plan's proponents had conceded all along that the wolves would kill livestock, but it seemed to many an ill omen that it should happen so quickly.

Attorneys for ranchers opposed to the release had desperately worked to scuttle the plan. From congressional chambers in Washington to courtrooms across the West, there was the kind of weird civic spasm that one sees on the brink of state executions. The hysteria that has always ac-companied the subject of wolves reached new plateaus of lunacy. The Wyoming legislature moved ahead with a bill that would fix a $500 bounty on wolves and require the state attorney general to defend any wolf killers prosecuted by the federal government. The Montana legislature considered a resolution to introduce wolves to New York City's Central Park and San Francisco's Presidio. Idaho state representative Bruce Newcomb intimated that the best response to wolf reintroduction was to secede from the union.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who was on hand the day the wolves arrived in Yellowstone, is no stranger to this kind of thinking. His own ranching forebears in Arizona had participated in the systematic campaign that exterminated the gray wolf 70 years ago. In those days, wolves were doused with gasoline and set afire. They were poisoned, starved, pulled apart by horses. Yet here was a chance for redemption, Babbitt suggested. "We are within inches of putting together a vignette that is complete in every detail," he said, "with every large species of primitive America."

Given the restiveness across the West, it is perhaps too sanguine to believe that the vignette can stay complete forever. But for now, a phantom has become a fact. And there is a welcome new sound in the American Rockies: howling.

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