A tangerine sun rose over the smog of Dallas to welcome the last week of 2013, and I wasn't sure I'd ever been more discouraged by society.
Engulfed in the fourteenth hour of a comically disastrous airline travel saga, my return to Denver waylaid by corporate rigidity, I tried to tune out the latest half-naked pop star on the ever-present televisions. I watched the masses file by, eyes on screens, ears plugged with headphones, lost in hollow realities.
Every step of the way, from a delayed flight out of Hartford to an unwanted overnight in Texas, airline employees had said whatever necessary to pass me on to the next person, to make me someone else's problem. Everywhere I looked, people were treating human interactions with the aversion of car crash aftermath. Admitting defeat, I put in my own earbuds and opened my laptop.
This was all before I got back to the mountains and a landscape, as they so often do, recharged me. On the plains by the airport, the sun reigned and it was sixty degrees. Driving into the city, the homeless patrolled intersections in short sleeves and tanktops and for a moment I thought I was in California. With the skyline smog thin enough to overlook, my gaze, as always, rested on the peaks of the Front Range, snow-covered and popping in crystalline clarity against the rich blue sky.
Travel frustrations quickly disappeared into the rearview as I stopped for a few hours to visit a college friend who was home for the holidays in Denver. Catching up on his front porch, drinking coffee in our t-shirts, the pleasure of firm friendship eclipsed my last dregs of bitterness. And so despite a lack of sleep, when David suggested a quick drive out to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, I couldn't decline.
The refuge lies out on the plains east of the city, just beyond the last commercial buildings and suburban neighborhoods but still squeezed between downtown and the airport. It's existence alone is a stirring story of healing: the land, now home to a restored short-grass prairie ecosystem, was a site of chemical weapon development during World War II and the Cold War, then hosted Shell Chemical's scarring DDT productions.
Entering the park, we drove past several expansive prairie dog towns, the squat rodents quivering to attention and chirping shrill warnings upon our arrival. From a distance, we admired the refuge's herd of bison. The population is thriving, expanding too quickly, in fact, for its limited space, as High Country News reports, but there is a nearly zoo-like artificiality to its presence just a stone's throw from suburban neighborhoods. Along with a handful of other parties, we gazed from inside a car at animals as large as motor vehicles themselves, at animals who once flooded the region as pervasively as the automobile now does.
We'd come to go for a trail run in the unseasonable warmth, but those plans were soon delayed by a moment chilling and timeless. As we approached a new pocket of sepia-toned prairie, David caught a glimpse of something unexpected from the passenger's seat. Nearly perfectly camouflaged in the undulating terrain, a large, healthy coyote stared back at us from fifty yards away.
Elusive scavengers, coyotes are the masters of sneaking in when no one's watching. In five summers of leading backpacking trips in New Mexico, I could count my coyote sightings on one hand. But here was a prime, undaunted specimen in daylight, just a dozen miles from a major city. We stared at one another blankly for several minutes and I found nothing but ancient indifference in its gaze. We were on its turf, and after a few more moments of stalemate, we decided to move on.
It wasn't hard to understand why this particular coyote seemed so robustly well-fed. With large prairie dog towns littering the refuge, a meal would never be far away. An ecosystem like this might, in fact, represent something like paradise to Canis latrans. Far enough from major human populations to avoid the wrath of farmers and pet-owners (federal protection doesn't hurt either), close enough to prohibit the presence of larger predators, most notably that feared and mythic cousin, Canis lupus.
And so we turn to the tangential meditation portion of this story. As the gray wolf disappeared from the American landscape, the coyote expanded. Ever the opportunist, it slid into the lupine niche as wolves were exterminated out of fear, greed, and lust, wiped out for their pelts and their predations. Less inclined to pack travel and more flexible in diet, the smaller coyote grew into coexistence with human society, adapting itself into a more nocturnal, more scavenging species and taking up residence across the country, everywhere from city parks to mountain meadows.
But here, in a National Wildlife Refuge for Gawd's sake, I let myself imagine something grander. So bold and sturdy was the dog staring back at me that for a moment I wandered into a fantasy I've hosted many times and imagined myself face-to-face with a wolf.
The species has been frequenting my mental avenues of late, thanks in large part to “Lone Wolf,” Joe Donnelly's marvelous account in Orion of OR-7, the first wild wolf to return to Northern California in nearly a century. With the species making a slow recovery across the northern Rockies, it's not too surprising that a ranging individual would cross the man-made border from southeastern Oregon into California. Still, the symbolic value of the development isn't insignificant. A wild wolf has been hunting in the same state that's home to Rodeo Drive, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Disneyland. And boy is it causing a big old fuss.
Ever since the gray wolf began its successful American reintroduction in the mid-90s, the human battles have raged wherever Canis lupus has roamed. While ecologists have repeatedly concluded that wolves greatly aid the biodiversity and general health of their native ecosystems, ranchers curse and bullseye them as a menace to their profits. Of course, livestock die at much higher rates by a whole host of other causes (including domestic dog attacks), but to be honest, who am I to tell a hard-working rancher not to protect his stock, especially when I still enjoy a hamburger every now and then? (Killing wolves for sport, though? That's another story).
And so, of course, now that wolves have begun to stabilize themselves in northern states, the hunt is on. With the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisting the species from federally endangered status, states have begun to permit a limited amount of hunting in the name of population management. But conservation hardly seems the mindset in Salmon, Idaho, where the ironically-named Sportsmen's Group Idaho for Wildlife held the First Annual Coyote and Wolf Derby last month, with cash prizes for the biggest wolf and most female coyotes killed (the “sportsmen” did not achieve their goal of taking any wolves, but 21 coyotes were gunned down). As Donnelly wrote in a recent update on OR-7, “it’s like the turn of the century all over again when wolves, bears, and anything else that competed with man for domain over the land got crushed by the wheels of Manifest Destiny.”
As I recall the penetrating stare of that coyote near Denver, I know that the wolf wars, like so many other conservation issues of our time, return us to the age-old question of how we view our relationship to the nonhuman world. Are the species and the landscapes with whom we share the Earth tools to be used in our quest for greater power and ease of life? Having risen to evolutionary dominance, is it our right to do as we please with everything else? Or does the nonhuman world possess its own intrinsic value, one that can't be quantified by its utility to us?
Nearly a century ago, a young federal forester named Aldo Leopold was sent to the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico to kill wolves and protect ranching and deer-hunting interests. On one trip, watching an old female in her dying moments, the Yale graduate found the reflection in her eyes pointing deep into his own being.
“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes,” he later wrote. “I realized then and have known ever since that there was something new to me in those eyes, something known only to her and to the mountain.”
Decades later, Leopold's Land Ethic stands as the backbone of our conservation movement and there remain masses who would kill wolves with the same trigger-itch he once possessed. We must ask ourselves if we are humble enough to think like a mountain, or rather, to accept the existence of the mountains' perspective without ever truly knowing it.
“We can love completely without complete understanding,” wrote Norman Maclean.
The big coyote at the wildlife refuge was too far away for me to see any green in its eyes, but the truth of its being filled me nonetheless.