Wandering the West
August 10, 2010
It’s been eighty years but, without a doubt, wolves are again making a home, and a living, in Utah. Last month a Summit County rancher reported two guard dogs and two calves killed by a wolf or wolves. This is bad news for any livestock producer with domestic herds on the range this summer. Wolves sense instantly that livestock are pushovers with no natural instinct to sense danger and fight off an attack. The dogs can and do fight back, but against a wolf it’s a losing battle.
A few years back a government hunter shot and killed two wolves from an airplane in Rich County, and another wolf was caught in a trap in Cache County. So at least three Utah counties in recent years have attracted wolves wandering down from Yellowstone where, in 1995, 31 of them were released in an effort to restore a species long vanished from the Rocky Mountains. An additional 35 were released in central Idaho’s roadless wilderness. None of those original transplants remain alive, but their progeny now number an estimated 1,600 in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and now, undisputedly, Utah.
In theory I’m thrilled that Utah is a little wilder now with roaming gray wolves, but I count a handful of ranchers in Wyoming and Utah as friends, and I can see why they’re not happy with the success of the Yellowstone wolf release. In the West, ranchers need the public range for summer feed. Roaming wolves are opportunists. They’re not going to pass up grazing domestic livestock, and in Utah they’ve brought down sheep, calves and guard dogs. There’s no reason to assume it will end there.
Just last week a federal judge in Montana put the gray wolf back on the endangered species list with full federal protection from hunting. But states at the epicenter of the wolf population want de-listing so they can be shot as pests. Already, hunting permits are issued in Montana and Idaho to keep the population down. So the situation is muddled as lawyers fight out the rights of wolves and ranchers in the courts, as they have for the past fifteen years.
I know the next time I’m up Chalk Creek, or in the Uintas, I’ll be a little more alert, a little more watchful not out of fear, but out of a desire to see such a rare animal roaming so near to civilized Park City. Imagine the thrill of hearing a wolf howl as you sit around a mountain campfire, with all your senses on alert.
To really see wolves in the wild, Yellowstone Park’s Lamar Valley remains your best chance. Since year one of the reintroduction, wolves found wide-open spaces full of elk and bison herds in the valley, and there are wolves around quite often, especially if you’re there early in the morning. In the heat of the day they tend to sleep.
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Another, even rarer, animal of the West has also found Utah to its liking. Do you know that upwards of half of the 330 California condors now on the continent have settled in southwestern Utah? In 1987, just 22 condors were still alive, all of them in the mountains above Santa Barbara, where power lines, DDT and lead shotgun shot were wiping the species off the planet. Biologists took the radical step of capturing every wild condor and breeding them in captivity.
In 1996, the first of the captive-raised condors were released in the Vermillion Cliffs of Arizona, near Kanab. Although the largest birds in North America can fly up to 200 miles a day looking for food, they found the release area to their liking. On one day last October in the vicinity of Zion National Park, condor watchers counted 54 in one day. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has a "Day of the Condor" viewing day each June near Kolob Reservoir near Zion. Last year 17 were spotted that day. With a nine-foot wingspan and body weight up to 23 pounds, soaring condors are not that hard to spot if you’re in the right area. Their bald heads are a pinkish orange color and a shape only a mother could love.
From one extreme in Utah Summit and Cache counties to another southwest Utah’s Washington County some of the rarest animals on the continent now live and appear to thrive. Yes, it creates economic and management issues, but in a time of oil spills, air pollution, and dwindling water resources, isn’t it life-affirming to know we can find ways to bring symbols of wildness like condors and wolves back from the brink and invite them into Utah again?
Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.