behind his head, Jaime Pinkham leans back in his chair. We are in the
offices of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee in Lapwai, Idaho.
The turquoise bolo tie around Pinkham's neck glimmers under the fluorescent
light. The talk is of wolves: The Nez Perce tribe has sole responsibility
for coordinating the return of the gray wolf to its former range in
Idaho. We discuss the number of breeding pairs, the wolf's home range,
bring the best science to the table," says Pinkham, leaning forward
for emphasis. "But the Nez Perce also bring the spiritual side [of
conservation] to the table. We need to get people to think of these things
in the spiritual realm."
This is unusual talk from a biologist and a political leader. But from
the beginning the recovery of gray wolves in Idaho has broken new ground.
Never before, for example, has an Indian tribe managed an endangered species--and
a top-of-the-food-chain predator-for an entire state. The recovery of the
wolf in Idaho is more than a biological tale, however. It is a cultural victory
as well, the recovery of a way of life that was destroyed more than a
To Pinkham, the return of the wolf is a "kind of mirror
for Indian people. When the non-Indian settled the West, there were obstacles.
The Nez Perce people were one of them: They got in the way-and they were
removed. The gray wolf suffered a similar fate. Now, man and animal are
each struggling to regain their rightful place."
At the same time as a group of gray wolves was being returned to Yellowstone
National Park with great fanfare, in the winter of 1995, fifteen wolves were
quietly released in the rugged wilderness of central Idaho. Captured in the
wild in Canada, the gray wolves had been anesthetized and flown to the airport
in Missoula, Montana There, Nez Perce tribal elder Horace Axtell greeted
them with a traditional blessing. As part of the ceremony, Axtell raised
his voice in a melodic chant that ended as he vigorously rang, a handbell.
As if on cue, the wolves began howling. After being loaded into trucks, the
animals were driven to a release site at Indian Creek, in Idaho's Frank Church-Riser
of No Return Wilderness, a vast tract of more than a million acres of federally
Last year, 20 more wolves were released. But no attempt
was made to trap packs or pairs as had been done in Yellowstone; all of
the Idaho animals were lone wolves, two-and three-year-old juveniles. "We
were trying to mimic natural dispersal," explains Joe Fontaine,Montana
Wolf Recovery Project Leader. "Young males and females are the wolves
that disperse from a pack."
It was a bold experiment. No one could be certain that the Idaho wolves would
not hightail it back to Canada; or, if they did stay put, that they would
not start picking off cattle and sheep from adjacent ranches. What the Nez
Perce did understand was that, five generations after their ancestors had
been expelled from their homeland, the tribe's descendants had been given
an opportunity for economic revitalization through the animal emblematic
of their heritage.
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