Freed wolves move into their old niche

By Clint McKnight

What was it like for 10 captured Oregon wolves when Colorado Parks and Wildlife opened their crates on a December day last year? The wolves had been chased by helicopter, drugged, blindfolded and collared, then moved to remote public land in central Colorado. One of those animals might have had this experience.

The grey wolf in the metal crate tenses as the door unexpectedly opens. Through the bright threshold, he sees a field of winter grasses laced with snow and a line of juniper trees. After a moment, he bolts for the trees, disappearing into their shadows. And he keeps running.

Only after his captors are far behind does the wolf come to a stop. Panting with exhaustion, his heart pounding, he sniffs at the breeze and looks about. His pack—his family—is nowhere to be seen.

He throws back his head and unleashes a plaintive howl. The tone rises and falls and rolls across the landscape. Its meaning could not be clearer: “I am here. Where are you?” But there is no answer.

The wolf explores, nose to the ground. He ignores a scolding raven. Of far greater fascination is the discovery of an elk bedding area. Pawing at the flattened grasses, he notes they were there just this morning. This is good to know.

Always alert, he climbs a ridge above a broad tree-lined meadow. He knows he must find his pack, but he has no idea how to start searching when there is no wolf scent.

The short winter day is ending. Now the wolf feels the full weight of fatigue after his sleepless three-day ordeal. He finds a shallow depression next to a fallen tree. He circles, lies down.

And the wolf dreams. He dreams he is running through a forest. Up ahead, he can just see the bounding prey he is chasing but he cannot gain any ground. He yips in frustration and abruptly wakes to a pink sky dawning in the east.

A meadow below is shrouded in fresh snow and stillness. Then—a movement that electrifies his attention. A small herd of female elk is browsing among the trees.

He rises into a crouch and silently descends the ridge on an intercepting path. The elk pause upon reaching the meadow, then begin to cross the open space. One of them has a hitch in her walk and lags behind.

The wolf immediately explodes into a run. Simultaneously, the elk launch into a panicked flight.

The wolf races through the snow-covered grass. As the paths of prey and predator converge, he leaps and seizes the laggard’s rear leg. She kicks and he lets go. He falls back and is startled to see her stop and turn to face him. The ailing elk is already spent. He leaps again, his jaws clamping down on her throat. She stands for only moments before collapsing. In minutes she is dead.

The meadow is quiet again. The wolf is suddenly overwhelmed with hunger as he tears into the elk’s belly, powerful jaws ripping open the hide.

As his own belly fills, the wolf feels the fear of these last days falling away, and in that moment he sees, among the pinyons and junipers, a pair of eyes watching him. It is another captured wolf that had been released, a coal-black female.

She emerges from the shadows, head and tail down, but walking without hesitation. She comes before him and raises her muzzle to lick the blood off his. He does not object.

He turns back to the kill. She comes closer, then pauses to weigh his reaction. There is none, and the black wolf eagerly feeds.

In the weeks to follow, the grey wolf and the black wolf explore their new home. When they hear the howl of another wolf, they reply: “We are here. You stay there.”

They find a location for a den and learn to hunt well together. In time, their prey will learn things, too, and both they and the landscape itself will be better for it.

As winter turns to spring, the black wolf shows signs that a new pack is being created. A family in a tradition as old as the ancient hills themselves—is being born.

Clint McKnight is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is a former national park ranger and natural history illustrator.

This column was published in the following newspapers:

03/11/2024 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
03/11/2024 The Newberg Graphic Newberg OR
03/11/2024 Beaverton Valley Times Beaverton OR
03/11/2024 Columbia County Spotlight Scappose OR
03/11/2024 Forest Grove News Times Forest Grove OR
03/11/2024 Valley Times News Portland OR
03/11/2024 Sherwood Gazette Portland OR
03/13/2024 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
03/13/2024 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
03/13/2024 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
03/12/2024 Whitehall Ledger Whitehall MT
03/13/2024 Explore Big Sky Big Sky MT
03/12/2024 Rock Springs Rocket Miner Rock Springs WY
03/12/2024 Sterling Journal-Advocate Sterling CO
03/12/2024 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
03/13/2024 Denver Post Denver CO
03/13/2024 Four Points Press Garryowen MT
03/14/2024 Wyoming Tribune Eagle Cheyenne WY
03/12/2024 Vail Daily Vail CO
03/12/2024 Fort Morgan Times Fort Morgan CO
03/14/2024 Camus-Washougal Post Record Camus WA
03/13/2024 Taos News Taos NM
03/14/2024 Wenatchee World Wenatchee WA
03/15/2024 Laramie Boomerang Laramie WY
03/15/2024 Durango Herald Durango CO
03/16/2024 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
03/16/2024 Farmington Daily Times Farmington NM
03/16/2024 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
03/14/2024 Adventure Journal CA
03/16/2024 Cortez Journal Cortez CO
03/17/2024 Pueblo Chieftain Pueblo CO
03/16/2024 Kingman Daily Miner Kingman AZ
03/26/2024 Delta County Independent Delta CO
03/22/2024 Pagosa Springs Sun Pagosa Springs CO
03/16/2024 Alamogordo Daily News Alamogordo NM
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Diane
4 months ago

Beautiful article.

Jim O'Donnell
4 months ago

This is fantastic news! Lovely writing and thank you for bringing us this positive story.

Matt
4 months ago

We are slowly learning how to think like a mountain.

Becky Elder
4 months ago

Thank you for this, Clint. Here in Colorado, we are super excited to have wolves back on the scene. We have waited many years for this. I hope to someday hear the wolves howling in my region of Colorado, knowing they are doing good work for the whole.

Tom Elder
4 months ago

Bring them on! The wilder parts of Utah could use some, too.

Mike
4 months ago

There goes our elk population. Calves will also be killed. Leave the wolves in Canada, Alaska and Yellowstone

Oliver
3 months ago
Reply to  Mike

Your elk population? Wow.

Wolves were here first they coevolved with elk, one of their principal prey species. Perhaps you should learn a bit more about predator-prey dynamics before you publicly make such a selfish and inaccurate statement.

Fredo
3 months ago
Reply to  Mike

Hey Mike, you do realize white settlers were the reason elk went extinct in the first place, right? Overhunting and land fragmentation/destruction is what killed them off, NOT wolves.

Wolves need elk and elk need wolves, as has been the case for tens of thousands of years.

Jessica k Shepherd
4 months ago

A refreshingly different interpretation of one wolf’s story, and described with simplicity, the journey into a world where the familiar, the unknown, and uncertainty blend with natural instinct as his guide. This story is so lightly told that you could read this to your children. With pictures. 🕊️

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