RALPH BARTHOLDT: Remembering wolves amid efforts to keep or kill them

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I remember two wolves in particular.

They are the ones that come to mind most.

Once, wearing Red Wing boots, walking to a remote lake with my father to fish, we traipsed over the roots of spruce and pine, rock outcrops, lowland murk and over gray and white fur, a piece of jawbone, part of a skull kicked in, maybe by a moose.

It was early summer and evidence of the scenario that led to the canine’s demise was probably left there months ago. There was no carcass, just a smatter of bones and fur.

“Wolf,” my father said, and we paused before walking on.

That was it.

Where I grew up, dead wolves often graced the entrance of City Hall in winter. They were stiff as cordwood and meant as a political statement, although City Hall had less to do with federal wolf policy than folk music. The image of what was left of the wolf, the color of lichen, under a canopy of pencil-thin, northern spruce in many ways prompted a degree in biology and books by Mech, Rolf Peterson, Murie and others consumed in dim light in spartan places.

The other wolf was one shot years later and several hundred miles away by my pal Boggsy with a .22 centerfire rifle in deep snow at low tide.

We had set traps along the archipelago in places we could reach by skiff in winter, and were surprised that what we learned about trapping in that place so distant from where we grew up, worked well enough here.

The wolf was the color of slate and ran back and forth on a trap chain much like a dog, and Boggsy, fearing he would lose the animal he had purchased tags to trap, ran over the deep snow from the beach, breaking through the crust, panting, raising his rifle.

From the bow of the skiff, standing in a thigh-deep swell, I heard the small muffled, slap of the gunshot echo from the surrounding ridges and the wolf fell in its tracks.

As young men, Boggsy and I had ventured to this place to relive something we feared was lost. Something only recognized in Hollywood productions. The exponential human population growth we learned about in high school biology classrooms we figured would devour our chance at wildness.

And so, after high school, we went as far north as we could get with the money we had.

The wolf, shot dead in a place so distant from anywhere that the rifle’s repercussion would not be heard or felt by anything, had us take pause.

When I think now of the vast silence, it is not in terms of the green light that Aldo Leopold spoke of in his essay, but in youthful recognition of how wilderness takes, gives and moves on, mostly without blinking.

It is neither graceful nor glorious and doesn’t wink at Homo sapien over Canis lupus, or Alces alces, for that matter.

Wilderness is so devoid of emotion to be surreal, unlike the wolf debate in more putatively civilized places.

Our adventures occurred before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opted to populate a semi-domiciled Idaho with wolves.

Former Idaho Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Tony McDermott, of Sagle, who I knew as a commander at the University of Montana’s ROTC program before I considered him a friend, said wolves brought out the worst and best in people.

McDermott developed much of what is now Idaho wolf policy after meeting with hundreds of people across the state, including hunters, activists and biologists.

“This is the most contentious social, political, emotional, irrational subject that I have ever been involved with,” McDermott said about his years mediating wolf policy in the Gem State. “The irrationality on both sides of this astounds me.”

Wolves are idolized, demonized, rationalized, championed, evangelized, rebuked, chided and criticized.

“I’m a huge environmentalist, but I’m not wacko,” McDermott said. “Both ends of this spectrum are a little bit irrational.”

I have a friend whose pet wolf was used by the film industry.

You may have seen it.

It was years ago, but before his wolf appeared on “Good Morning America,” my friend spent weeks acclimating the young male to loud noises, echoes and lights. Then it was shipped in a crate to Times Square for an episode of America’s favorite morning gabfest.

Although wild enough in its civil environs, his was not the wolf of the City Hall front steps of my youth, nor the trap line. My pal, Steve, and Jim Fowler appeared on television grinning. The wolf, Babs, or whatever its moniker, nervously tried to eat a monkey.

As wolves once again make their way into the news in Idaho, mostly because of an effort to find additional ways to reduce their numbers to the level imposed by the federal government — an estimated 790 wolves have been documented, far above the 150 deemed sufficient for delisting under the Endangered Species Act — it’s good to know that Idaho has enough room for them.

And it’s good to know that the drive that sent Boggsy and me looking for wolves, hasn’t overtaken places like the Gem State, which some people who live here refer to as — with a hat tip to our eastern neighbor — the last best place.

• • •

Ralph Bartholdt can be reached at rbartholdt@cdapress.com.

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