Tuesday, May 26, 2009

No, it did not throw down a two-handed dunk or try to surf on top of my van.

I typed this post about a month ago, just before my computer's wireless capability crapped out on me, consigning what you see below to the prison of my hard drive. But for all you know, the events described happened yesterday, so just go along with it. On a related note, I'm posting this using our (Courtney has joined me here in the wilds as of two days ago) newly enabled Verizon Mobile Broadband. That's not an endorsement. Yet. We'll see how it goes.

Where I live right now, there are lots of big animals wandering around chewing on things, causing traffic jams and, occasionally, offering rides on their backs to Japanese kids who are experiencing the world beyond Nintendo for the very first time. Be they elk, bison, moose, bighorn sheep, mule deer, pronghorn or the somewhat toothier black and grizzly bears, if you spend any time around here at all you’ll see something large and/or scary on a regular basis. And I’ve seen all of those, many times. Having spent at least part of the year in seven out of the last twelve somewhere in the Yellowstone-Grand Teton region, I’ve had ample opportunities for wildlife sightings. I’ve even seen a wolverine, a reclusive animal that is only spotted, on average, three or four times a year in this area.

The one animal that has consistently eluded me, however, is the wolf. Sure, everyone visiting from out of state wants to see a moose, and if they’re only going to be around for a day or two, they may go home disappointed, but moose generally aren’t too tough to find. Second to the moose in popularity, by my unofficial poll, would be the bears. Most people don’t care either way and couldn’t tell the difference even if they did, but to the discerning the grizz is where it’s at. Maybe it’s because there aren’t as many of them and they tend to avoid areas with lots of people, but probably the attraction with the grizzly is that they are substantially larger than the black bear and dine on humans with much greater frequency. As with our women, we like our wildlife big, bloodthirsty and variably moody.

And bears are cool, to be sure. The true connoisseur, though, is looking for a wolf. In the US there is no more controversial animal than the wolf, and, in the lower 48 at least, it is still a rare sight. Hunted and trapped to near-extinction, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone from Canadian stock in the 1990s and have been slowly re-establishing their place in the ecosystem ever since, with much political wrangling over their fate before then, since and presumably well into the future. In the past few years, several wolf packs have established residence in and around Grand Teton National Park, increasing both the species’ range and the possibility of spotting one.

Which brings us nearly to the present. The other night, as I was leaving the town of Jackson heading home, I saw a light-colored shape about 200 yards (or 8,124.2 metres to someone with an accent) up the slope of East Gros Ventre Butte that seemed to have a definite canine profile. It appeared to be sitting at the edge of a bench of land, surveying the Elk Refuge below. Certain of what I had just seen, I sped to the next available turnaround, whipped back the way I had come and pulled off on the side of the road, fumbling for my camera all the while.

Utilizing my 10x zoom, I was all too happy to discover, sitting right in the crosshairs of my Canon…

…the ass-end of some plant-eater. I was too disgusted at my own misplaced exuberance to even notice what it actually was. Probably a bighorn or a deer. Maybe an elk. Ho-hum.

That’s what I get for hoping. The North American wolf is a myth.

The next morning dawned clear and cold, with a fresh dusting of snow on the sage that blankets the valley floor. Driving to work on Highway 89, I was as always wary of the animals that never learned to look both ways before crossing the street.

I’ve heard that humans, predators that we are, have eyes that are attuned to movement. If you want to see an animal, don’t look for it; you’ll catch the movement. Thus it was that I found myself looking at a dark shape, several inches higher than the sage, moving away from the road. I suppose my brain ran down the list of mammals native to this area, checking them off one by one, eliminating them by size or color or shape. In real time, however, I instantly knew it was canine: coyote or wolf. No question.

Any time a visitor to the park tells me they just saw a wolf, I feign excitement and let them tell me the whole story, while in the back of my mind I’m chuckling, saying, “It was a coyote.” No reason to spoil their fun. Everyone wants it to be a wolf.

Now I want it to be a wolf. But it can’t be a wolf. I’ve been hoping for a wolf since 1998. It’s never been a wolf. Plenty of coyotes, and coyotes are pretty cool. Hell, coyotes never needed to be reintroduced to anything, and we did our best to eliminate them, too.

But coyotes don’t come in black. This thing in the sage is near-black and taller than a coyote.

It’s a wolf.

I stop the truck, half on the shoulder, half in the road, digging for my camera once again. The wolf will not wait. It is now at the base of the next bench, a black silhouette against a pure white snow slope. It trots up the incline, pausing right in the middle of this ideal background as if to give me my shot. I’m too slow. I catch it just as it crests the hill back into the mottled green and white of the sage. No matter. I saw a wolf.

UPDATE: After typing this up and leaving work, I saw a beautiful, well-fed coyote trotting down the bicycle path next to the road. I then went and contributed to the traffic jam at Jackson Lake Junction that a grizzly had been causing all day as he dug along the shoulder of the highway. If you show up here mid-summer complaining that there aren’t any animals, I’ll tell you that you should have been here in the spring.


Jacob said...

It's either a wolf or some stray dog. It's too bulky of a shape for a coyote. They tend to be kind of petite and pointy looking compared to wolves.

I'm going to assume that since you probably got a better look that you'd have been able to tell if it was just a particularly wolfish-looking dog. You're no retard.

At least I've never thought you were. Maybe I just have poor judgment.

Anyway, who can't tell the difference between a black bear and a grizzly? They're not even the same shape, much less the same size.

Oh, wait. It's probably the same people who can't tell a duck from a goose.

I know what you mean about the eyes attuned to motion. If there's a mouse on the side of the road, I notice it somehow. Seriously, I saw two mole crickets crossing the road during a rain shower while driving yesterday. I'm always trying to point something out to Kim, but she's always too slow to notice.

Either that or I'm prone to hallucinations while driving.

Allie said...

Oh wow! That is so cool! He's beautiful! I am dying to go do a wolf tour out at Yellowstone some day. I've watched the PBS special about the wolves at Yellowstone about 20 times. I think it would be like seeing a celebrity only 28 gazillion times cooler.

Mickey said...

Jacob- It's not up for discussion. It was a wolf. I'm the fucking park ranger, remember?

But thanks for weighing in. (insert cutesy emoticon here)

Courtney said...

I want to see a wolf! But I've never even seen a bear out here, so it may not happen. Especially if certain governors of certain states keep insisting on hunting them from helicopters.

Chris said...

How very cool.

I chased two stray dogs away from my porch last night, but your story is better.

Also, I instantly knew the theme of your post from the title. Does that make me hip or just sad?

A Free Man said...

I was going to question your taxonomy as well, but then I saw your reply to Jacob. Don't fuck with a park ranger.

One time (in band camp) a friend and I were driving back from the Washington coast through a national park and got pulled over by a park ranger for speeding. He found a significant quantity of marijuana that was cleverly hidden on the back seat. For reasons unclear to me he let us go without even the ticket for speeding. Ever since then I've loved park rangers.

Julie said...

I've seen a good amount of wildlife, having stayed in Denali park, but never a wolf. You've given it considerably more time so you deserve it. I'm just happy that I spotted a bunny in my neighborhood last week. Bunnies are cute and I was pleased since most of the nature/landscaping is only three years old.

BTW, my mom asked me the other day if you were at Yellowstone. I said no and she said good. I ask why and she pointed out that two people were fired from Yellowstone after peeing in Old Faithful. I'm sure she only thought you would be interested. I'm sure she didn't think you would actually be the guilty party.

I don't link, but you can cut and paste here:

Blues said...

never been up to your neck of the woods, but your doing a great job at filling me in on what it´s like.

"As with our women, we like our wildlife big, bloodthirsty and variably moody"

Great line.

The Modern Gal said...

Holy freakin' grail, Batman.

I've seen a moose, bears both of the black and grizzly variety, bison and bighorn sheep so I suppose wolf is next.

Have you yet learned to keep your camera out and ready to shoot? Also, definitely milk the park ranger bit for all it's worth.