Thursday, November 7, 2013

Hunting the Big Bad Wolf

Some folk believe that before the arrival of people, North America was home to the most diverse community of life in the history of the world. Of course, we can't know for sure. But to be in the running means it was quite the place.

From a vintage 35mm negative

Even after 13 to 50 thousand years (give or take) of human habitation, America of just a couple hundred years ago wasn't anything like what it is today. While remnants and other rare places reminiscent of the past remain, these scattered, anachronistic landscapes are merely shadows thrown from a barely imaginable distance, somehow still alive and always whispering.

What's true is that in the glorious cradle of North American antiquity, all manner of life thrived in riotous abundance.

And nearly everywhere loped the wolf.

Social, fierce and discerning. Perceptive of the real world in ways as yet outside the scope of our imaginings, the wolf of North America stands largely unchanged for something like 750,000 years. That makes it a reasonable candidate for mammalian social perfection, or as near to that as humans can manage to measure.

Wolves knew America before there were humans here. Indeed, for a long, long time before there were humans anywhere. Taking everything into account, one might even consider the wolf a mature species.

A captive animal, from a vintage 35mm negative

Wolves run throughout the story of human existence.

Probably the best one stop shop to learn about that is Barry Lopez's book Of Wolves and Men. You'll not find so well considered, insightful and fundamental a retelling of the wolf/human narrative than that in Lopez's masterpiece.

So we'll stick to the ongoing story of wolves, men and Michigan. Which itself is quite the tale...

In 1838, the still new State of Michigan protected its citizens by establishing a bounty on wolves. Its purpose was to rid the place of wolves altogether, the better to render the abundance of godforsaken wilderness Michigan was blessed with safe for civilization.

Ingenuity was cruelly brought to bear. Not just in Michigan but nationwide, as dead animals stuffed with poison were strewn about the American landscape in hopes a wolf would pass by and chow down.

Nevermind the millions upon millions of other hapless critters who got themselves wasted in the bargain, whether by taking the bait or by being it. Those were just collateral damage brought by weapons of mass destruction employed during a pogrom that lasted some 125 years.

And simmers still, as we'll see.

In 1960 Michigan repealed its bounty program, which'd garnered one dead wolf during all of '59. By 1963, most thought it unlikely that wolves lived there at all, save in isolation out on Isle Royale.

It's estimated that by then wolves survived on barely 3% of their native American range, not counting Alaska. After more than a century of progress prosecuted with extreme prejudice, the number of wolves left alive in the lower 48 totaled 350 to 700 individuals, give or take.

A success, by near to every accustomed measure of those rapidly changing times.

Then in 1965, the State of Michigan granted its protection to wolves no longer there. Times can change quickly. Occasionally, people change with them. Not so much, the wolf.

A big chunk of Michigan got itself rehabbed along the way. With that we invited wolves to return to their ancestral home. Eventually, some took us up on it.

Efforts at reintroduction began in 1974, when four Minnesota wolves were captured and released in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. They were promptly killed. Yet by 1991, wolves had found their way back on their own. Pioneer population estimated at 17.

Inspired, Michigan formed a wolf recovery team, hatched a formal plan and got down to work. By 2004, wolf population in the State was guessed at 360. A modest but manifest success, at least by ever-shifting contemporary standards.

Today the whispering of a landscape fit to nurture both wolves and men again informs more than 20 million acres of forest land, or roughly 54% of Michigan. Not anything like days gone by to be sure, neither in quality nor quantity. But not half bad either, considering the vagaries of progress.

And those millions of acres of purposefully hard won forest are home to approximately 658 purposefully hard won wolves.

From 4x5 transparency film

That is, until next week.

When on the morning of November 15th and for the protection of its citizens, the State of Michigan will again sanction the arbitrary killing of wolves. This time, for sport.

Or as they like to call it, Wolf Management.

Should you wish to read the DNR's "Rationale and Basis" for this miserable indulgence, scroll down past the handy scorecard and you'll find only passing pretense of science or biology used to justify the renewal of indiscriminate killing.

But at least poison's not on the menu.

A captive animal, from a vintage 35mm negative

Across select areas of Michigan today, wolves dare to make themselves visible. That's a problem, as the level of wolfish comfort required before a wolf reveals itself is disconcerting to folk who share in the benefits of a restored landscape all the same.

Wolves appear at the fringes of yards. They trot through pastures, dart across roads, shadow people in forests and occasionally even saunter right through town. Wolves mate with dogs and sometimes kill them too. Judging by news reports, they might nurse a special grudge against hunting dogs, go figure.

Wolves take their fair share of deer. That infuriates deer hunters, a powerful lobby in Michigan and make no mistake.

Ill-suited to the restored northern reaches of a naturally difficult place and not near so dumb as they seem when caught in your headlights, deer during the last couple decades are headed steadily south to greener pastures.

Times change. Maybe even deer change with them. Deer hunters must, with or without we kill us some wolves.

Wolves take Michigan livestock, though accurate numbers are tough to come by. Not many not often, to be sure. But if that calf carcass on the ground belongs to you, there's gotta be some Hell to pay.  More commonly, wolves agitate horses and cattle. They know there're wolves about even when you don't, so the scuffling and snorting of domestic animals agitates the domesticated animal in you, too.

There's no record of a wolf ever attacking a human in Michigan. That can and does happen elsewhere, on rare occasion. Turns out, the authentic narrative of wolves and men bears little resemblance to the stories, legends and fables. But still...

No one wants to be the parent of the first child in Michigan ever killed by a wolf.

Neither should people free of that potentiality sell short the wages of such fear. Or belittle folk who hold to it, whether real or maybe not so much, yet present on a daily basis and thoroughly woven through every red thread of human history.

It makes primitive sense that Michigan's wolf hunt is intended solely to strike fear into wolves that don't possess it in sufficient quantity to suit us. Top line predators need know each other before they can share hunting grounds. That's a contract bound by blood, no matter what age the species.

So next week we'll dispatch maybe 1,200 soldiers into the wilds of Michigan to falsely allay citizen's fears, create an illusion of security and maintain marginal political peace. In our name they'll kill as many as 48 arbitrary wolves in order to terrorize the entire Michigan tribe of wolves, hoping the remaining 600 will take heed.

Which'll prove only that despite those refreshed 20 million acres of damned expensive forest land in freshly rehabbed Michigan, any wolfish notion that humans might in wolves' absence have matured into a species better equipped to live with a robust, healthy landscape as opposed to against it is at best premature and mostly, a lethal lie.

As people, we're supposed to be smarter than this. As Americans, we're supposed to be better than this.

We debase ourselves by resorting to simple-minded savagery because we're afraid, angry at each other and real world solutions require the hard work and advanced consideration of ingenuity creativity applied. We seem in particular short supply of that last, these days.

The story of wolves and men in Michigan mirrors questions critical to our day and age:

What constitutes the moral use of preventive force?

What price, the lives of innocents?

What cost in future freedoms, when government creates an illusion of safety for sake of political peace?

And finally, what cumulative damage is done to the battered landscape of authentic American character -- the good and true and right and just that's supposedly our birthright -- each & every time we answer wrong?

From 120mm transparency

What's true is that it's from what's best in the American character that we first engaged the labor to restore wild land in Michigan. And it's what's best in the American character that led us to invite an old, familiar enemy to come live side by side, finally in approximate peace.


That the wolf continues to vex a race long since proven dominant over every uncivilized creature on pretty much any landscape on Earth is testament to the wolf's inherent strengths.

That humans continue to exploit the wolf as handy avatar for a variety of fears & preoccupations curiously still nursed at by an undisputed, as yet undefeated Champion Predator of the World (that's you and me) is testament to the passel of inherent weaknesses we've yet to outgrow.

Somehow, despite this age of relative enlightenment, technological wonders and only a few generations into a critical revolution in our relationship with the real world, we must again fight for ground once thought secured.

It's year two of Wisconsin's resumed wolf hunt. Likewise in Minnesota, a wellspring of repatriated wolves around the region and home to the International Wolf Center. You can read a firsthand tale of how and why a Minnesota hunt goes down here, as originally appearing in The Varmint Hunter magazine.

Meanwhile, approximately 75 wolves reintroduced by us into the wilds down New Mexico way have Americans securing kids in chicken coops at bus stops while blaming the wolf for everything from a decline in tourism to the loss of Sacred American Freedom via the wolf of (American) government.

That last wolfish notion comes courtesy of those vigilant shepherds of liberty the billionaire Koch Bros., peddled through their Americans for Prosperity flock of sheep.

And back in Michigan, citizens who petitioned the State to refrain from arbitrarily killing purposefully reintroduced wolves received an end run 'round by politicians in Lansing. Maybe we'll get the chance next year, to see how much Democracy matters when weighed against political profiteering.

At present, the landscape doesn't look good. But considering the absurd narrative of wolves and men in Michigan, who can say?

Like most photographers, I've work that for a variety of reasons doesn't often get shown.

During our Search for Perfect Light, I captured images of what I'm reasonably certain was a young wolf, the first roadkill wolf I've ever seen and only the second wild wolf I've been near to.

It cuts a vibrant, seminal figure even in death. This figure whispers through our collective unconscious, for which favor we've made it a symbol of all that's taken for dangerous or ungodly in heathen wildness.

Should you care to see what a wolf hunter pays dearly for the mere hope of seeing up close and personal, go here and here.

Now just imagine how much more vibrant and valuable when alive -- eyes bright, nose keen to the breeze as autumn ruffles thickening fur and paws barley touch the cool, dark earth while trotting through wild Michigan -- and made appropriately wary of human predation.

Then take action according to the whispers of your conscience and your own best interests.

Because wolves in sheep's clothing are out and about, salivating at the scent of our fears.


  1. Thank you for bringing me closer to the wilderness and the wild through your writing, your photographs, and your heart. I am always touched when I read "In Search of Perfect Light," often disturbed by what you teach me, and with each post, enlightened.

  2. Thanks, Nonnie. That's pretty much everything I can hope for, with a project like this.