Part Two: On the Heels of Oregon 7
Oregon 7 left Wallowa County at the best possible time. His pack had been responsible for a handful of livestock depredations. In September, after pressure from local ranchers, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) agreed to kill two more wolves, Oregon 7’s father and younger brother. This would have reduced the pack to two, the rest having dispersed or died. The public outcry was tremendous, emails and call flooded the ODFW as well as Governor Kitzhaubers’ office. A lawsuit was filed by three environmental organizations, and hours after a hired hunter missed his mark on the younger wolf, a temporary stay of execution was granted by the state court of appeals.
During my week at the Imnaha River residency, the rancher, den-mom and I came to an unspoken agreement to not discuss the wolf situation. A week is a long time to spend in conflict and neither of us wanted to hinder the time we had in that idyllic setting. We wrote during the day, then gathered together for dinner and afterward in front of the fireplace to talk, as women do, about our lives. We also read aloud what we’d been working on. Not wanting to skirt wolves completely, I shared a scene from my fiction in which a young girl (like myself) rescues a frightened wolf cub from certain death, carrying it home in her arms. Viewed from this angle, I hoped wolves would not remain the horrible beasts they’d come to be in the rancher’s eyes.
If she got it, she didn’t say. She read aloud of the realities of ranch life, herding cattle on horseback through blizzards, bottle-feeding orphaned calves. Our readings and conversations were mostly from the past or from fiction and this served to insulate us from our current and unspoken disagreement. We got along well; I respected her work as well as the kindness she showed me. I believe she felt the same.
After the retreat, I drove to town where I had Internet reception. The wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana were off to a grand start, fifty wolves dead already. While I’d been writing stories and eating pot-roast, wolves were being killed by hunters and trappers with an enthusiasm that confirmed my deepest doubts about the human race. Surrounded by the western motif of Joseph, I felt I’d returned to the pioneer days when wolves were first annihilated from the lower 48. Only now, the slaughter was paraded online and 150 wolves would be allowed to live in each state, breeding stock for next years hunt.
Will this be the fate of Oregon’s wolves when their numbers reach what officials say is harvestable? Likely, especially if we don’t conquer our inhibitions about speaking up about wolves, separating fact from the pervasive fiction that surrounds them. I wondered if I’d been polite at the retreat not out of good manners but because of my fear of reprisal, and of not fitting in, that primordial debility I’ve been trying to shake since high school. Surely others are keeping their mouths shut as well, people in northeast Oregon, in Idaho and Montana, who believe in wolves but are frightened to say so.
I didn’t see Oregon 7 on my way home, but it was nice thinking of him as my traveling companion, running through the forest while I drove alongside, peering through the pines and Madrones hoping to see him. That Odysseus of a wolf, wherever he ends up, offers a timely lesson. Wolves don’t belong to anyone or to anyplace, not to those ranchers who fear the wolves will destroy their livelihood, not to the hunters who prize their bodies as trophies. Wolves move, they decide by their own volition when it’s time to pick up and trot 300 miles for a fresh start, in the case of Oregon 7 from a hotbed of hostility in the northeastern part of the state to the southern Cascades, where he’s likely to be met with neighbors friendlier than those he had before. Maybe his itinerary wasn’t based solely on the fact that a narrow but dense corridor of remote wilderness guided his paws in a specific southwesterly route. Some of us like to think so.