The howl of the wolf is a primal sound, and when you hear it, it makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. One of my own favorite wolf encounters was while exploring the Alaska Range, when I inadvertently got between a pack of wolves and their pups. The pups were warbling pitifully downhill from me, while about 30 yards uphill, the pack boomed out its howls. After more than 10,000 miles of backcountry travel, I can look back and say that this was the ultimate wilderness experience of my life.
I’ve been lucky enough to spend many months of my life in wilderness. My travels as a guidebook author have taken me to more than 40 officially designated wilderness areas, including Colorado’s Maroon Bells-Snowmass, Mount Massive, Hunter-Fryingpan and Collegiate Peaks wildernesses. These are lands of spectacular scenic beauty, and showcase the spirit of the Wilderness Act. But there is something missing: wolves.
Wilderness areas are places “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” according to the original congressional legislation that made it so. “Untrammeled” is an unusual word, and chosen intentionally. It has nothing to do with trampling, but instead refers to fixed systems of fish nets, staked out in patterns to funnel the fish into a trap. A trammel is a symbol of human control of nature. By choosing the word “untrammeled,” Congress meant that wilderness was a place where nature should be allowed to flourish unimpaired by human interference.
Contrast this conservation ethic with the colonization of the West, where the policy of Manifest Destiny prescribed that wilderness exists to be tamed, to be dominated, to be cultivated into bucolic agricultural and mining productivity. Colorado’s mountains are recovering from a century and a half of abuse: acid mine drainage, overgrazing, roads hacked into every drainage, and not least of all, the extirpation of native wildlife. The elk were wiped out by market hunters, but they were reintroduced and now thrive. The bighorn sheep were wiped out by overhunting and foreign diseases brought by domestic sheep, and are still struggling. The wolves and grizzly bears were wiped out by greedy stockmen, seeking to make the backcountry safe for poorly-adapted livestock. The mountains are poorer for the losses of their native wildlife, but they (and we) are enriched by their return.
Henry David Thoreau once said that “a howling wilderness does not howl: it is the imagination of the traveler that does the howling.” Perhaps Walden Pond was a pretty tame place by the time Thoreau arrived. In America’s true wilderness, travelers don’t need to use their imaginations to be thrilled and inspired by the howl of the wolf, because they can enjoy the real thing.
The wolf is intimately intertwined with the concept of wilderness. I was one of two editors of the commemorative book “50 Years of American Wilderness,” an interagency publication put out by the Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management. The logo chosen for the 50th Anniversary of Wilderness was a howling wolf, and the commemorative poster also prominently featured a wolf in the act of howling. There is no more fundamental expression of wildness than wolves.
The presence of top predators, like grizzly bears and wolves, imparts to the wilderness traveler a distinct sense of humility. It’s not that either of them are especially dangerous to humans. Grizzly bear–human conflict is rare, and mostly involves bears eating livestock that we push into the backcountry like mobile snack packages. Wolves are so shy around people that attacks are all but unheard-of. It’s that in their presence, humans aren’t necessarily the top predator, and we experience awe when entering their domain.
These animals are the most profound symbols of the unconquerable majesty of nature. Wilderness advocates have a particular responsibility to help bring wolves back to the wilds of western Colorado. I’m happy to do my small part, but this is a responsibility that belongs to all Coloradans.
To hear — or even see — such creatures is a privilege that has been enjoyed by relatively few Americans. For this lucky few, it is often the opportunity of a lifetime. We have the opportunity to reintroduce wolves to Colorado and bring back some of the wildness, to give this gift of howling wilderness to generations to come. Restoring the natural balance to the mountains of Colorado is long overdue.
Erik Molvar is author of Hiking Colorado’s Maroon Bells —Snowmass Wilderness and 16 other guidebooks to western public lands. He also is a wildlife biologist with published research on predator-prey dynamics, and is the Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation group working to protect and restore wildlife and watersheds throughout the West.