I’m busy these days, my focus on a fiction project. Fiction is a nice reprieve from the tedious research required for much of my writing. But I’m not too busy to remember that OR-7, also known as Journey, turned ten years old this spring. He’s been alive for a decade now and nearly all of that time has been spent in Southern Oregon with his Rogue pack, raising litters of pups and doing what a wolf has to do to survive.
A recent article in the Medford Mail Tribune reminded me again of the anniversary of Journey’s birth as well as the time line of his travels and the world-wide publicity he created. The article also details the livestock kills attributed to the Rogue pack and the controversy that has ensued. The article does show both sides of the story. However, one is left with the impression that Journey and his pack have turned a corner and what value they once had has diminished as the numbers of dead cattle rises.
There are some who would categorically agree that the Rogue pack holds no value, but I’m not one of them. While I have always maintained a great deal of empathy for those whose livestock have been lost to wolves, the inherent worth of Canis lupus persists, despite the fact that they don’t always behave as we wish they would.
The value of the gray wolf lies in a somewhat intangible reality that we can’t always understand or prove, other than in isolated studies, such as in the Lamar Valley. Much of what we understand about wolves comes from Yellowstone and it makes sense that we can extrapolate at least some of this knowledge to other locations. Wolves in Yellowstone keep prey populations in check. The animals they kill provide nutrients to a host of other species. Wolves reduced the coyote population which led to a resurgence of pronghorns. In the Lamar Valley, damaged riparian zones were rejuvenated with the help of wolves, at least according to most sources. And of course, ecotourism greatly increased with the return of Canis lupus.
However, no research has proven the benefit of this apex predator in the forests and mountains of southwestern Oregon or northern California, and we may not see this data for years, if ever. Are wolves likely to change the landscape here? Will they have a provable positive influence on the deer and elk herds? Will wolf tracking and viewing become a commodity? Perhaps, but we should not wait for this data to accept the fact that wolves are here to stay and that their presence is important.
To believe the above statement may take a leap of faith and a far different way of looking at the situation. Objectivity comes to mind, a position of stepping back, even if ones current situation is affected, and looking both to the past and to the future of the planet. Gray wolves, their existence traced back to over a million years, were once widespread across the continents. As we all know, they were purposefully eliminated from much of their habitat, primarily within the last hundred years. For reasons unknown they are returning to their native lands, not only here but in Europe and elsewhere. They are now found in Finland, Norway, France, Germany, and many other places, and all locations are dealing with conflict similar to the U.S. For whatever reason, forces greater than ours are encouraging the dispersal and re-population of these animals. With the exception of Isle Royale, and of course, Yellowstone and Central Idaho, I don’t believe human intervention has been responsible for the movement of gray wolves back to their original habitats. It’s just happening, and will likely continue to happen. One might even say it is supposed to happen.
Argument can be made that our immediate human need outweighs any such force of nature, especially when we know wolves can and do occasionally kill livestock. However, this is short-sighted and selfish. It’s the same type of thinking that leads to pollution of our land, water, and air, massive deforestation, the extinction of species, global warming. The list goes on. The overconsumption and misuse of natural resource, including wildlife, invariably stems from some human need or desire, whether it be for money, safety, or status. The cause may be realistic or it may be misguided, but the outcome is the same. Nature and the future of the environment take second place to what we want or think we need right now.
It would be a tremendous stretch for many people to put their fears, prejudices, and even their financial concerns, aside long enough to consider that a species, any species, can be valuable and necessary without our full understanding of why. But I’m in good company when I suggest such an ideal. Luigi Boitani, renown Italian wolf biologist, interviewed in 2015 about the return of wolves to Europe for Spiegel magazine, was asked why we should have wolves back in the first place. His succinct and perfect answer was, “Why are there butterflies, dogs and cats? I refuse to have to justify the existence of a species.”
Let’s hope that in the decade to come wolves continue to repopulate their native lands, including in Oregon and California. We can also hope that we humans, if not increasing our understanding, will at least come to accept the intelligence of nature and not require justification for the survival of its species.