Few other animals inspire the passion and fear of wolves. For thousands of years they were America’s most widely distributed predator. European colonists brought their centuries-old folklore and animosity against the wolf with them to North America. As ranchers and cattlemen pushed west, local predator control escalated into a full-scale wolf-eradication program. By the early 20th century, more than a million wolves had been poisoned, trapped or shot. Pushed to the brink of extinction, the wolf found protection under the 1973 Endangered Species Act, only to be stripped of that protection by the U.S. Congress in 2011.
But wolves are hardy and durable. They learn. They don’t give up, and they don’t ask Congress to save them. They’re stalking back into the Pacific Northwest, grim and beautiful, and our forests may be healthier for it.
A single pack was catalogued in northeastern Washington in 2008, according to researchers at the Washington Dept. of Fish & Wildlife, possibly crossing into the state from Idaho or interior British Columbia. A handful of years later fully five packs were confirmed, including one just east in the Methow Valley. Another roams the state’s mountainous center, just east of Seattle.
Importantly, these newly discovered packs share DNA with wild wolves in coastal B.C., indicating robust populations may still range in remote places, noted wildlife biologist Jasmine Minbashian. Minbashian has been working in the field of wildlife and forest conservation for more than 15 years, currently leading Conservation Northwest’s efforts to recover the gray wolf in Washington.
Minbashian took an eager BBC film crew into the rugged terrain of the Cascades, searching for an elusive and mysterious pack of 10 wolves, the Methow “Lookout Pack,” rumored to be in the area. The team spent more than a month in the frozen Cascades wilderness, listening and watching for signs of the elusive wolves.
One cold morning before dawn, their wait was rewarded.
“We heard a long, low, deep howl,” Minbashian related. “We instantly froze. We knew exactly what it was. We decided to follow the sound. Suddenly, one of us pointed up to the ridge and there were two members of Lookout Pack, staring right at us. They must have been looking at us for 10 minutes. They’d found us long before we spotted them. It was at that moment I realized how ill-equipped humans are in the wilderness,” she laughed.
“I’ve been working on wolf recovery for a long time. That was the first time I had seen wolves in the wild. It was a profound moment for me,” Minbashian admitted, “knowing I was in the familiar Cascade Mountains I grew up in, staring at wild wolves.”
The film her team produced follows Minbashian, wolf tracker Isaac Babcock, and wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan through eight weeks in the Cascades, as they attempted to not only confirm the existence of the wolf pack, but also document their presence on camera. The result is less your standard Wild Kingdom narrative over stock footage than a riveting adventure in one of the wild, exotic places of the world.
“Wolves are intelligent,” Minbashian explained. “They can move 30 miles in one day. They’re built to travel in that landscape. They know how to track, and avoid being tracked.”
More than just beautiful, wolves are an important piece of keeping northwest forests healthy, she said.
“Wolves have been in the Cascades for 10,000 years. The ecoystem has evolved with them as an integral part of it. Predators essentially shape the ecosystem by controlling the behavior of prey.”
This ecosystem didn’t evolve with humans as a complete keystone, replacing those functions cleanly. Wolves cull the weak and sick in ways human hunters, in search of excellent game, do not, Minbashian explains.
“Without that control, those animals can have the run of the landscape, overgrazing shrubs and trees, removing the overstory. If you allow that vegetation to grow back you see new songbird populations, fish populations rebound, an entire suite of what we call tropic Cascades species.”
In addition to investigating the “Lookout Pack” sightings, MAN VS. WOLF! also uncovers how the possibility of a wolf pack’s existence can lead some to take forceful actions, and the results from those actions.
“They are at the top of this very important food pyramid, the importance of which we are only beginning to understand,” Minbashian said. “Without that primary predator, smaller hunter species like coyotes begin to cause problems of their own.”
Are wolves back in the Pacific Northwest to stay? Through effort and understanding, wolf packs may again roam the dark, wild places of the North Cascades.
’MAN VS. WOLF!’ was produced by Tim Martin with Jonny Keeling, Susanna Handslip, and Rowan Musgrave for BBC, and produced by by James Manfull with John Cavanagh for Discovery Channel. For more information on wolf recovery, visit conservationnw.org
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