One night last January, wolves stole into a pasture at a ranch near Helena, Mont., and dropped a rust-and-white-colored bull. It's no small task to kill a 1,500-pound steer with teeth alone, and for that reason wolves usually take much smaller prey--calves or sheep. It was the only bull killed since the wolves began returning to Montana in 1979.
No one knows exactly how the drama played out, but biologists say two or three hunters from a wolf pack usually kill large prey while the rest look on. The wolves patiently parry with big animals until the animal tires. When they spot an opening, one or two will seize the hind legs with their massive jaws and a third will clamp on the throat. As the animal staggers, snorts and shakes its head, the wolves simply hang on with their crushing bite until the animal bleeds to death or goes into shock.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 31, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Wolf recovery -- An article in Sunday's Los Angeles Times Magazine about the growing number of wild wolves in the West incorrectly referred to a bull killed by wild wolves as a steer. A steer is a castrated bull.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 17, 2003 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 9 Lat Magazine Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
The article "To Kill and Be Killed" (July 27) incorrectly referred to a bull killed by wild wolves as a "steer." A steer is a castrated bull.
Payback was no less brutal. The next night the rancher, using a night-vision scope, shot a wolf feeding on his $1,500 bull, mistaking it for a coyote. When he realized he had killed what at the time was an endangered species, he notified Ed Bangs, who is in charge of the federal government's wolf recovery program in the Northern Rockies. The following night, just after dark, Bangs and an agent from the Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services--which, among other things, maintains a SWAT team for predators--drove to the ranch. They climbed a ridge, a vantage from where they could look down through their own night-vision scope and see the bull carcass, to which they correctly assumed the wolves would return. Kraig Glazier, the Wildlife Services agent, trained the crosshairs on an animal and squeezed the trigger. The sharp crack of a rifle shot reverberated through the valley. One wolf fell; the rest scattered.
Within a week, all seven wolves in the Castle Rock pack were destroyed, their whereabouts betrayed by a radio collar that had been affixed to one of their own. About the same time, federal agents wiped out four more wolves, part of the Halfway Pack just a few miles to the north, for the same sin. "Once they start actively hunting livestock, there is no choice--we need to use lethal control," Bangs says. But he adds that shooting wolves is important for other reasons as well.
"A little blood satisfies a lot of anger."
The West is getting wild again, and the speedy recovery of wolves, a once-endangered species, has become one of the most controversial wildlife issues in the country. A half century after the gray wolf was dynamited in its den, hunted, trapped and poisoned out of the West with vengeance, it has reclaimed the northern Rockies in spades. Experts say it could, within the next decade, re-colonize parts of Oregon, Washington, Utah, Colorado and perhaps even California. It's one of the fastest comebacks of an endangered species on record, a testimony to wolf reproduction. Bangs' and Glazier's "wolf removal" at the ranch was only temporary--just one day after the last of the offending predators were finally hunted out, four new wolves showed up to start the game all over again.
Canis lupus arguably is the most charismatic of what biologists refer to as "charismatic megafauna"--wildlife with sex appeal and the fierce public support that seldom materializes when the endangered animal is the Wyoming toad or the short-nosed sucker fish. Wolves touch something unfathomably deep in the reservoir of human emotion. That's partly because the wolf is a social animal that many people feel has human-like qualities, such as the way it mates and rears its young. The wolf's homecoming offers tourists and naturalists the breath-stealing sight of a pack of the long-legged hunters loping across a grassy meadow, or sunning themselves, drunk on meat, on a Yellowstone Park hillside.
"When people start talking about wolves, within seconds they are talking about something else--their children's heritage, the balance of nature, someone else telling you what to do," says Bangs, who has spent the past 15 years traveling around the West, meeting with people passionate about wolves. "A lot of people on both sides get tears in their eyes and start sobbing. Managing the wolf is managing a symbol."
But while a wolf's ululating delights some, it chills others to the bone. The brutality of a wolf kill can test the mettle of even some of the most ardent wolf supporters. For example, a saddle horse in the Ninemile, a valley near Missoula, Mont., was apparently set upon by wolves. It galloped away, so frantic and blinded by fear that it impaled itself on the end of a 4-inch-diameter irrigation pipe. It managed to get loose and run a short way before it collapsed and was eaten. Such killings have meant the return of a raw frontier-style brutality to the Rocky Mountain West--not just on the part of the wolves, but also by the people charged with managing them.