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Answering the Call of the Wild

People devoted to wolves worry that a proposal to reduce the animals' endangered status will lead to extinction.

October 22, 2000|JOSEPH HANANIA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tonya Littlewolf, who grew up on an Apache reservation, was spared tales of the big bad wolf; instead, she heard stories about the wolf's healing powers. Stories about how the wolf's eyes reflected the moon, and so turned yellow. About how the wolf worked with the tribe to find food.

Not only did Littlewolf take the animal's name as her own, she eventually founded the Wolf Mountain Sanctuary in Lucerne Valley east of Victorville. Wolf Mountain is devoted to protecting the creatures, classified as an endangered species.

Relentlessly trapped, poisoned and shot--first by colonial frontiersmen, then by bounty hunters collecting state and federal rewards and finally by ranchers protecting their cattle and sheep--the North American wolf population dwindled to several hundred before it was given protected status 26 years ago. Today, there are an estimated 3,500 wolves in the lower 48 states and Mexico.

Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says the wolf's survival is no longer in question. Because of that, the service has proposed reclassifying wolves under the Endangered Species Act, giving them a lower level of protection.

This is not welcome news to Littlewolf, nor to Patrick Valentino, who runs a sanctuary called the California Wolf Center near Julian, east of San Diego.

Valentino, launched his own battle for the wolf after seeing an exhibit at the San Diego Zoo. "When you focus on wolves, you focus on how the environment works," he says. Being among nature's top predators, wolves cull out the weakest of other species, keeping in check populations of deer, elk and moose that might otherwise overgraze the land.

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Valentino's half-acre pens are bigger than Littlewolf's, enclosing tall shrubs behind which the wolves hide when they hear footsteps. And unlike Littlewolf, who invites visitors into the pens, Valentino insists visitors watch from a distance, preserving his 30 wolves' fear of humans.

Valentino believes the proposed reclassification of wolves would deal a major, perhaps even fatal, blow to the surviving wolf population.

Littlewolf agrees: "When no more wolves are left in the wild, we'll still have wolves here to take care of and to remind our children of the greatness that once was."

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