Monday, March 1, 1993

Saving 'Brother Wolf'

by Terri C. Hansen
News from Indian Country
Bureau Chief/Pacific Northwest Bureau

Owwwooooo. . . Owwwooooooooo. . . . .

The mournful howl of the gray wolf all but disappeared from the western United States by the 1930s, victims of aggressive extermination by stockmen who considered the animal a nuisance who preyed on their sheep and cattle.

But to many American Indians, the wolf was one of the more important members of the animal people that the Indians called brother, and carried strong spiritual medicine. So testified the Nez Perce Tribe of Lapwai, Idaho, last month at congressional hearings in Kamiah, Idaho.

Before 1870, the gray wolf flourished in the northern Rocky Mountains, along with numerous large game animals and other predators, such as the grizzly bear. With white settlement came the unregulated hunting of bison, elk and deer, whose numbers were quickly decimated. The remaining large predators were exterminated soon after to protect livestock.

The wolf was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1973, which mandates that all federal departments and agencies seek to conserve endangered species and threatened species. Under the act, the gray wolf is listed as endangered in the 48 lower states except Minnesota, where it is listed as threatened.

The hearings were held as part of the planning process to identify issues that need to be addressed in the wolf recovery plan. According to the draft Environmental Impact Statement prepared for the plan, the proposed reintroduction effort would result in a wolf population recovery of ten breeding pairs or about 100 wolves per area for three successive years in and around Yellowstone National Park and in central Idaho by the year 2002. After that occurs, wolves will be removed from the list of endangered species and their population managed by the respective states.

The Nez Perce Tribe has recommended that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the primary agency responsible for the recovery and conservation of endangered species in the U.S. make a long-term commitment to the recovery effort. The tribe defined commitment as measured by the success of the recovery effort, not the amount of time or money invested in the process. They asked that a long-term commitment be made to monitor the animals after reintroduction, and requested research to document the wolves' behavior, including the effect of human activity in their habitat.

Keith Lawrence, Nez Perce tribal wildlife program director, said the tribe would like to assume greater involvement in the recovery process. "The ceded area of the tribe covers a large portion of the wild areas the wolf would be released into," he said, explaining that the Nez Perce relinquished much of what is today central Idaho, southeast Washington and northeast Oregon.

Lawrence said grizzly bear repopulation efforts would follow wolf recovery efforts, and he expects tribal involvement in that effort as well.

The chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe Fish, Wildlife and Water Subcommittee, Charles H. Hayes, testified on behalf of the tribe at the hearings. He said the tribe supported the commitment to ecological balance and bio-diversity in the Northern Rocky Mountain ecosystem, adding this commitment would be demonstrated by the tribe offering their support in reintroducing the gray wolf into its ancestral home.

"The wolf has held an important cultural kinship with the Nez Perce Tribe throughout the Tribe's existence," Hayes said. "Many of our ancestor's spiritual medicine and names were given to them by the wolf.

"It was important for the tribe to live in harmony and balance with our animal brothers who we depended on for our survival." Hayes said wolves were and still are symbols of strength, might and stamina.

"The tribe looks forward to meeting our brother the wolf at the ancient spiritual sites of our ancestors," Hayes concluded. "Only then will the tribe be able to capture some of the spirit medicine once held by the wolf and given to our tribe. Once again we'll be able to talk and listen to his stories of survival which connects us to our past and will help lead us into the future."

The gray wolf reappeared on its own four years ago in the state of Washington, when biologists discovered wolf pups and later an entire pack in 1990. Since then, the animal has been spotted in southern Washington near the Oregon border. Some biologists speculate wolves will eventually cross the Columbia River into Oregon.