Only the Mountain

A few summers ago, a colleague and I were searching for golden eagles in a remote area of Yellowstone National Park. Hiking the rim of a large cliff wall, dwarfed by the massive scree slope below, we watched an adult eagle sweep up and perch on a snag with one powerful stroke of its’ massive wings. The eagle stayed only a moment before lifting off.

The snag was obviously a favored perch site. Body feathers clung to the branches and the ground was spattered with mutes, like someone flicked a paintbrush dipped in white. I picked up a feather and let it go on the afternoon breeze; the feather finding lift on just the air alone. By this time the sun was getting lower in the sky so we began down the mountain.

We’d been calling for bears all morning, but by late afternoon we walked quietly through the open meadows. Maybe it was the warm afternoon sun or the sweet and spicy smell of sagebrush, or maybe it was just that we were tired after a long day on the mountain, but whatever the reason, we walked in silence.

At first, the sound of feet was all we heard. Close feet. Many feet. A bear? Bears? My heart pounded with the thought of having awoken a grizzly from an afternoon nap and I reached for the bear spray at my hip. Instead, we found ourselves staring into the eyes of several wolves. I don’t know how many there were in that moment, but later we counted eight beds in the grass below the Douglas fir where they were sleeping.

They stood around us in a semicircle. It only lasted a moment before they scattered in every direction, running for the hills nearby. I kept my eyes one large gray wolf – the one I made eye contact with. She/he…I’m not sure, paused at the top of a hill to look back before disappearing over the edge.  I was not afraid of the wolves once I realized what they were and it will go down as one of the most memorable wildlife encounters I’ll ever have.

It’s been 20 years since wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park. Biologically, the introduction was successful. Wolves now occupy much of western Montana, the northwestern corner of Wyoming, and northern Idaho. They are now managed as a big game species by individual states. The motives for controlling the wolf population in the first place are not ecological, they are social – based on fear, ignorance, and misunderstanding. Wolf trapping and hunting is just our way of attempting to control nature. Controlling nature makes us feel safe.

We put ourselves at the center of the Universe and all of nature is orbiting around us like the spokes of a wheel. We’ve severed many spokes by picking and choosing which animals, plants, and ecological processes will continue and which won’t. The reasons behind our choices are usually directly related to their impacts on us. How will we be benefited? How will we be harmed? I think we will be harmed a great deal in ways we cannot yet know.

In one of my favorite books, A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold writes, “Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of the wolf.” Not much has changed since then, but I hope it does for our sake, for the sake  of everything including the mountain itself.

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