Wolf Spirit Returns to Idaho

The Nez Perce Indians bring a spiritual dimension to efforts to restore endangered gray wolves to former habitat

  • Mark Cheater
  • Aug 01, 1998
Levi Holt raises a hand-carved flute to his lips and blows long, plaintive notes into the chilly Rocky Mountain air. A hundred yards away, several gray wolves materialize from the forest and run to the edge of a 20-acre fenced enclosure, seemingly transfixed by the haunting tune.
"Here is the center of the Earth for the Nez Perce," says Holt, the rising sun silhouetting his large-brimmed felt hat and long black braids against the sky. "In the time of the wolves´ absence, the tribe has suffered--a vital link in our sacred circle has been broken." With the recent return of wolves to Idaho, however, "the Nez Perce have been given some of their medicine back."

Holt is an elder of the Nez Perce, a tribe of about 3,500 Indians, including about 2,000 living on a 760,000-acre reservation in central Idaho. As manager of a wolf education center, which includes a pack of 11 captive-raised gray wolves, Holt is also part of a historic conservation experiment. For the first time, the federal government has contracted an Indian nation to manage the recovery of an endangered species. The tribe´s duties include not only helping to educate the public about wolves, but tracking and studying several dozen wild canids that have been released in nearby national forest lands. In spite of opposition and legal challenges to the program, the wolves are flourishing under the Nez Perce´s unique brand of wildlife management, which blends traditional wisdom and modern science.

Holt explains that there has always been a close relationship between native people and wildlife in the United States. "My traditional name, Black Beaver, comes from the animal side of the world," he says. "We gain strength and power from these names."

The histories of wolves and the Nez Perce have many parallels. For centuries, the Nez Perce (the name given them by French trappers, for the shells some of the Indians wore in their noses) lived peacefully in the country around the Clearwater River in Idaho, hunting and trading with other tribes. They welcomed and fed Lewis and Clark in 1805, marking the beginning of a half century of peaceful coexistence with white people.

But, starting in 1855, a series of treaties were forced on the Nez Perce. The treaties called for the Indians to relinquish control of 95 percent of the 13 million acres where they had lived, hunted and fished, and to settle on a small reservation in Lapwai, Idaho. Bridling at these and other injustices, the Indians ended up in a war with the United States in 1877, during which the vastly outnumbered Nez Perce bested the U.S. Army in several battles while marching to the safety of the Canadian border. They were surrounded just south of the border, however, and Nez Perce Chief Joseph reluctantly surrendered.

At the same time that the Nez Perce were being "pacified," white settlers were also waging war on the gray wolf. These settlers viewed Canis lupus (the ancestor of domestic dogs) as a menace to both people and livestock. This attitude, coupled with a demand for wolf pelts, led to killing on a massive scale in the late 1860s. Hunters would kill a bison, lace the carcass with strychnine and return the next day for wolves poisoned by scavenging on the carcass. At the peak of the practice, "wolfers" commonly killed 1,000 wolves a winter this way.

The near-elimination of the bison led to a lull in wolf killing, only to be revived in the 1880s and 1890s as livestock owners successfully lobbied for bounties on dead wolves. In Montana alone, more than 80,000 wolves were killed by bounty hunters between 1883 and 1918. The federal government entered the fray in 1915, hiring hunters and trappers to kill wolves and other predators deemed a threat to western livestock. By the early 1930s, gray wolves--which had once inhabited much of North America from the Canadian Arctic to central Mexico--had been eliminated from most of the 48 states.

In 1978, the federal government listed the wolf as an endangered species in the 48 states (except for a remnant population in Minnesota that was classified as threatened). Two years later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which is responsible for protecting endangered species, produced a recovery plan for wolves in the Rocky Mountains. The plan was revised in 1987, calling for three new populations of wolves: one each in northwestern Montana, central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park. The proposal languished for years because of opposition from western members of Congress, who were concerned about potential land-use restrictions and wolves killing livestock.

A plan to bring gray wolves from Canada to Yellowstone and central Idaho was finally signed in 1994 by Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt. The plan called for state agencies to manage the wolves once they were released, but the states declined to cooperate. "The issue was too hot to handle," says Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for FWS in Helena, Montana. "In Idaho, the tribe said "We´ll be glad to handle it." They had reservation lands in the area and treaty rights in central Idaho where the wolves were to be put. And they put together a good plan for wolf management, so we contracted them to manage the program."

The tribe brought a number of important assets to the table, Bangs recalls. Unlike federal officials, who some westerners view as meddlesome outsiders, the Nez Perce lived in the area and understood local sensitivities. Also, says Bangs, "They bring a different attitude about wolves--a reverence for wildlife is part of their heritage."

Livestock owners near the planned wolf-release sites feared that the reintroduced predators would begin taking their cattle and sheep. So the American Farm Bureau Federation and others (including some environmental groups concerned that protections for the wolves weren´t strong enough) sued in late 1994 to prevent the release of the wolves. The judge denied the Farm Bureau´s request for a preliminary injunction against the program, and the first group of Canadian gray wolves was released in January 1995: 14 in Yellowstone and 15 in national forest land in Idaho. (Although the injunction was denied, the Farm Bureau´s case continued to work its way through the court while the reintroduction went ahead.)

Nez Perce tribal elder Horace Axtell remembers well the return of wolves to Idaho. Axtell is a stocky, hale 73-year-old who wears his long gray hair in braids framing his head. He is the leader of the Nez Perce religion, Seven Drum, which is based on the connection between people and nature. "I had the opportunity to welcome [the wolves] back to the land here," he recalls, speaking softly but with obvious feeling. "I sang one of our religious songs to welcome them back. Then I looked into the cage and spoke to one of the wolves in Nez Perce; he kind of tilted his head, like he was listening," he recalls, smiling and tilting his head to mimic the wolf. "That felt so good. It was like meeting an old friend."

Jaime Pinkham, the tribe´s treasurer, says that the wolf reintroduction program is one of the flagships for the Nez Perce. "This has been a beautiful combination of science and tradition," he says. The 42-year-old Pinkham epitomizes the combination of old and new: Not only is he steeped in tribal tradition, but he holds a degree in forestry and has worked for state and federal forestry agencies. "We don´t discount the old wisdom, but there is a way to marry that with science."

The science part of that marriage is the primary responsibility of wildlife biologist Curt Mack. Mack, a lean, spectacled 42-year-old (neither he nor his boss, wildlife director Keith Lawrence, is a member of the tribe) oversees a team of seasonal employees that tracks the wolves through about 13 million acres of national forest in central Idaho. The biologists trap wolves and place radio collars around the animals´ necks so they can follow the wolves´ movements through the forest, warn ranchers if the wolves are approaching livestock, learn if the wolves are reproducing and try to get up-to-date population counts.

On a crisp September day, Mack and his coworkers are attempting to find a family of wolves in this vast, high-elevation forest of lodgepole pines and Douglas firs, interspersed with sagebrush-scented meadows. "This is pretty good wolf habitat here--you´ve got high ungulate densities, moderate topography, lots of free-running water," Mack says while piloting a four-wheel-drive over rutted dirt roads. "There are lots of elk in here--that´s probably what the wolves have keyed in on."

In Idaho, individual wolves from different packs were released (unlike Yellowstone, where entire packs were released together), so the animals had to find each other and form groups. A total of 35 Canadian wolves were taken to Idaho--15 in the initial release and another 20 in January 1996. Pairing and mating began soon after these releases. Wolves usually mate in February, Mack explains, and in April the females start looking for den sites. Pups, five to six in an average litter, are usually born in late April or early May. In the first breeding season in Idaho, there were three litters with a total of 10 pups. In the spring of 1997, a total of 32 pups were born to six pairs of wolves. "Biologically speaking, the wolves are recovering very well," Mack says.

The biologist parks the truck in a ridge-top sagebrush meadow and walks down slope with his crew through an open lodgepole pine forest with a grassy understory. The group comes to the edge of a marsh, a recent gathering place for a wolf family. The wolves are not here today, but their doglike paw prints--small ones from pups and large ones from the adults--dot the mud. In the grass surrounding the marsh are dozens of round, dried cow paddies and smaller, darker scat: elk droppings.

"Wolves and cows are using the same area and we haven´t had any problems here," Mack says. "The answer may be that there´s a high density of elk, and wolves prefer natural prey. They´re not used to preying on livestock."

But wolves do eat livestock occasionally: Five cattle and 53 sheep have been taken by wolves in Idaho as of last spring. "In the big scheme of things, it´s been fairly minimal so far, knock on wood," says Mack. "But the ranching community is concerned about how wolves are going to affect their livelihoods, and that´s something we need to take very seriously."

Jaime Pinkham reinforces this viewpoint. "We know there´s not 100 percent acceptance for the wolf in Idaho ... and we can´t do this project in isolation," he says. "So we´ve got our staff biologists meeting with hunters and livestock growers."

One of those livestock growers is 60-year-old Eron Coiner, who has 400 cattle on a 1,000-acre spread of private land within Idaho´s Salmon National Forest. Coiner´s sod-roofed log cabin lies just over a ridge from where Mack´s crew tracked a wolf family recently, so the biologist and an assistant drive over to give the rancher an update. A pickup truck parked next to the cabin has a bumper sticker that reads: "Idaho´s Working People: An Endangered Species."

"My granddad and his dad fought wolves hard all their lives, and they won the battle," says Coiner, his hands jammed into the front pockets of his weathered blue jeans. "I think [the wolf reintroduction] is kind of a dumb idea, really. I don´t know anybody who is in favor of it."

One day last year, Coiner found the remains of one of his cows with wolf tracks--and bear tracks and coyote tracks--surrounding it. "There wasn´t much left but the smell," he recalls. Under a program run by the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife, ranchers are paid market prices for cattle lost to wolves. But there wasn´t enough evidence for federal officials to determine if wolves killed Coiner´s cow, so the rancher didn´t receive any payment.

Even though he hasn´t benefited from the compensation program, Coiner reluctantly admits "it helps some. But there´s a lot more to it," he adds. "Ranchers spend a lot of cold winter nights trying to keep their cows alive."

That concern for livestock spurred the Farm Bureau´s 1994 lawsuit against the reintroduction program. Last December government´s, a federal district court judge finally issued a decision in the case. The judge, William Downes, said the program was illegal because it reduced safeguards for any native wolves that might be in Yellowstone or Idaho, and he ordered the introduced wolves removed. The National Wildlife Federation and other conservation groups have appealed the decision. The judge has stayed action on removing the wolves until the appeals are resolved.

The judge´s decision hasn´t affected the program, says Bangs. "Nothing is going to change on the ground until the appeals process is completed," which likely won´t occur until next spring, he says. In the meantime, wolf recovery is proceeding faster than anyone expected. There were about 75 wolves in Idaho last spring (Yellowstone´s wolf population is slightly larger) and the potential for at least 10 litters to be born--the goal of the recovery program. If so, wolves may be taken off the Endangered Species List by 2002, according to Bangs.

Much of the credit for the program´s success in Idaho goes to the Nez Perce, who are doing a "great job," Bangs says. "The tribe has hired top-notch people to run the program--the service couldn´t have hired anyone better." The tribe´s spiritual outlook, Bangs adds, "has really added to the program."

The spiritual view of nature springs from an ancient tradition, tribal members say, but it is perhaps more relevant now than at any other time in the Nez Perce´s history.

"The message the tribe wants to get out to the world is that we´ve cut too many trees, dammed too many rivers," says Levi Holt, gesturing to the forests surrounding the wolf center. "Mother Earth is angry and in pain, and mankind suffers as a result." Conservation, he adds, "is what the Nez Perce are about. We´ve always looked to the future--we want to guard nature for seven generations to come."

Mark Cheater is a senior editor of this magazine.

NWF Priority: Helping Native Americans Save Wildlife
The Nez Perce nation is one of 45 members of the InterTribal Bison Cooperative (ITBC), a group formed in 1990 to help restore bison to Indian lands. Since 1997, the National Wildlife Federation has worked with the ITBC to stop the killing of bison that leave the confines of Yellowstone National Park.

The Nez Perce tribe´s wolf recovery program is a natural outgrowth of the ITBC effort, says NWF Senior Scientist Steve Torbit. "Wolves are a powerful spiritual animal for the Nez Perce," Torbit says. "Both NWF and the Nez Perce tribe are working to help restore a cultural asset and a key component of the central Idaho ecosystem."

NWF has helped the tribe secure additional funding for the wolf program, which costs approximately $300,000 a year. NWF is also appealing a recent court order to remove the wolves from Idaho and Yellowstone.

Get Involved

Where We Work

More than one-third of U.S. fish and wildlife species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. We're on the ground in seven regions across the country, collaborating with 52 state and territory affiliates to reverse the crisis and ensure wildlife thrive.

Learn More
Regional Centers and Affiliates