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  • Writer's pictureRocky Barker

Crossing the Divide

Blog by Rocky Barker

Copyright 2023


At the end of an icy road on the edge of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho four wolves and three very different groups of people watched as the American West entered a new era.


The wolves had been captured in Canada and were to be released into the West where they had been systematically exterminated earlier in the century, to protect the cattle that had replaced the buffalo. A decade-long campaign by wildlife advocates and a federal judge’s ruling had finally overcome rancher’s opposition to returning a polarizing predator to the forests and rangelands it once roamed free. Most of the media attention Jan. 14, 1995 was on Yellowstone National Park where Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt was ceremoniously placing entire packs of wolves in fenced enclosures spread across the park’s northern range for release after they got used to their new home. But in Idaho the wolves were to be simply dumped individually into the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and allowed to run free.


The four Idaho wolves had been stuck in tight portable kennels for 74 hours due to a temporary restraining order lifted the day before. Ed Bangs Wolf Recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was desperate to set them free. Overcast skies had grounded the aircraft that were to carry the wolves deep into the Frank, the federally designated Wilderness named for Senator Frank Church. Biologists offered as an alternative the Salmon River Road that ran into one of the deepest canyons in America to the edge of the wilderness.


But deep, crusty snow stopped them cold miles from the end of the road. Bangs was angry and worried one of his precious immigrants might die in the cage from the stress of the long trip.  Or if he released them on there on the road they might run back toward the ranches and the cattle he wanted them to avoid.

 

The U.S. Forest Service came to the rescue. Rangers supplied Bangs with a road grader that opened the gravel motorway to Corn Creek Campground where the road stopped, and the wilderness began.

 

These four wolves, two males and two females, were strangers to each other, the first of 66 wolves brought to Idaho and Yellowstone National Park from Canada in 1995 and 1996.  Three raced out of the kennels, the first a gray and black male named Moonstar Shadow, by Nez Perce Indian school children, or B5 as biologists labeled him. He ran toward the Salmon River and stopped to marked his new territory in Idaho, lifting his leg and urinating.

 

One female, B3, Akiata, was reluctant to enter her new home and growled and showed her teeth before biologists coaxed her out of her cage, a fearful picture that ran in newspapers nationwide. Now the future of wolf recovery in the American West was on their backs.

 

This 180-degree policy reversal showed that there was a place for a creature that had been poisoned, hunted and trapped into extinction. It was further proof that the American West is, as Wallace Stegner wrote “the native home of hope.” In his essay The Sound of Mountain Water in 1980, he expressed his view that the region must learn “that cooperation, not rugged individualism” are the way for us to “create a society to match its scenery.”


These wolves and their offspring would walk into the middle of many of the major controversies spread across the West. Their lives defined the shift that had taken place in western life at the end of the 20th Century. Westerners’ ways of learning to live with them and change in general shows how far we’ve come.


But the journey of these wolves and their offspring, along with those of us whose lives they intersected, had only just begun. The Idaho wolves were almost a second thought. Individual wolves had been expanding into the state for more than 20 years, but they never formed a pack that could survive the lingering predator control mentality. Even though wildlife enthusiasts were focused on restoring wolves to Yellowstone, wolf biologists couldn’t ignore the 22 million acres of roadless and wilderness habitat available for wolves in central Idaho.

 

I stood among the small crowd who had come to witness this historic event. As I looked around, I realized what I was seeing: faces of the Old West, the New West, and the Next West.

The biologists, forest rangers and other federal officials there were the faces of the New West, trained and experienced in the practice of scientific management, the philosophy that underscored public land policy since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. They were carrying out the decision made in Washington and studied, justified and presented by the land and wildlife agencies they worked for.

 

Standing off to the side were a small contingent of local ranchers, miners, mountain lion hunters, the sheriff and county commissioners. They were the inheritors of the Old West, whose pioneer relatives had carved a new civilization out of the mountains and the desert. After years of fighting the return of the wolf to the West they stood by fascinated with the four animals that would soon change their lives.

 

The last group was the wolf advocates, Idahoans who had spent the decade fighting and negotiating to bring wolves back to Idaho. The national environmental groups were drinking champagne with Babbitt at the celebration in Yellowstone, leaving this small dedicated corps of wolf lovers to witness the Idaho release. Unlike the Washington-based groups they had to work directly with the ranchers, loggers and their state government to achieve their goals. They were the voices of the Next West.

I was a 41-year-old reporter and columnist covering the event for the Idaho Falls Post Register. My column, Letters from the West, would continue when I moved to the Idaho Statesman, the state’s biggest newspaper, based in the capitol city of Boise a year later.


I had covered environmental stories across the region since 1985, writing a book about the federal Endangered Species Act. I knew that the transformation of western society was already changing the human and natural landscape by the time the four wolves took off into the wilderness. Since I had arrived, I had seen widespread clearcutting end, creeks and rivers cleared of sediment and pollution, open space preserved. I also had seen former opponents begin to come together as partners.

 

I would follow those four wolves and more, especially B2, for a decade, through interviews with the people whose paths they crossed and whose lives they changed.  I also would hear them howl, watch them hunt elk and even walk through herds of cattle without stopping, thanks to the radio collars that allowed biologists to track their movement.

 

As they were recolonizing seven states, I watched the human partnerships grow and spread like the wolves. Cooperation, now, often described as collaboration, was at the heart of the successful shift to protect nature for its own sake and ours. Instead of using the courts and connections in Washington, D.C environmentalists increasingly sought solutions working on the land with industry, communities and others. And the traditional industries of ranching, mining and logging joined them instead of rolling over them with the political power they wielded at the state level.

 

None came easy. All grew out of conflicts large and small. But alliances were formed that could bring ranchers and conservation groups to support wilderness and ranching Idaho’s Owyhee County, timber executives and old growth advocates to agree on restoration forestry plans in Oregon, or snowmobilers and preservationists to join together for wilderness in central Idaho’s Boulder-White Cloud Mountains.


The proof that cooperation is the right path lies in the incidents where it was ignored. President Clinton’s politically driven designation of the Staircase-Escalante National Monument just before the 1996 election, caused deep bitterness in Utah that led President Donald Trump to chop up the Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 2017 as he shrunk the Bears Ears National Monument that President Obama created in late 2016.


The long battle over the survival and recovery of salmon and steelhead in the Snake and the Columbia rivers also shows the limits of place-based collaboration. At one time, 8 million to 16 million Columbia and Snake River salmon rode spring flows from tributaries such as the cold, clear Salmon and Clearwater rivers to the ocean, living one to three years before making the daunting upstream trip to their native waters to spawn and die.  By 1995, that number had plunged to fewer than 1 million, and 13 species of Northwest salmon were placed on the Endangered Species List. Over the past quarter-century, research, tenacious advocates and $16 billion in federal investment have helped keep Northwest salmon from tipping over the brink into extinction but they remain on the edge.


Ten million residents get their power, their food, their spiritual sustenance, their recreation and their identity from the fish, the rivers and the wild nature of this region of the United States. Yet today, there still is no sustainable plan for saving salmon, and the changing climate will put even more stress on remaining fish stocks.  Perhaps the latest effort will tell if collaboration can work on a bioregional scale.


Climate change turned the fires that shaped the forest ecosystem of the West into regular megafires that are reshaping the landscape event more than the logging and clearcutting of the past did. It also is reducing the amount of snow that falls in the mountains and making the spring runoff come earlier. In the Southwest scientists predict a long drought that will force a mass migration to states like Idaho where the landscape won’t be so dry and decisionmakers have already made some of the tough decisions over future allocation.


Despite these challenges we remain the native home of hope. Our cooperation will find our way to carry our common values through the climate bottleneck we face and share the oases on the other side.

 

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