Return of the Wolf

Hands locked 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, radio collars.

"We 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 century ago.

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 protected wildlands.

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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