Wolf, © Michael S. Quinton / National Geographic Stock

For The Wild Ones

Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies Representative

Defenders of Wildlife long ago recognized the importance of tribal wildlife programs to a vast number of species across the country, including salmon, grizzly, bison, black-footed ferret and more. In the West, more than 55 million acres are held in trust for tribal reservations, and even more are dedicated as ceded lands, which are held or managed by treaty. When combined with federal lands managed by agencies such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, these lands represent the majority of wildlife habitat in the western United States. But beyond providing significant habitat for wildlife, tribal leaders and scientists have assisted with the restoration of imperiled native species, including the return of wolves to the northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest.

In 1995, when the state of Idaho refused to participate in the restoration of wolves to the region, the Nez Perce tribe offered to take their place. The tribe entered a contract agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and assisted with the reintroduction efforts, then monitored wolf restoration for the next decade. Horace Axtell, now 87 years old and a venerated World War II veteran, is a spiritual leader of the tribe. He and other tribal elders conducted a ceremonial blessing for the wolves before they were set free to repopulate the state. Click here to listen to Horace share the stories passed down from his grandmother, who remembered the bond that the tribe held with wolves before they were eradicated from the region.

Jaime Pinkham, Nez Perce leader and former Defenders of Wildlife board member, explains that the Nez Perce shared a similar fate to wolves as both were driven from their homelands in the region. Wolves, he explains, are a “kind of mirror for Indian people. When the non-Indian settled the West, there were obstacles. The Nez Perce people were one of them: They got in the way, and they were removed. The gray wolf suffered a similar fate. Now, man and animal are each struggling to regain their rightful place.” Nez Perce schoolchildren named one of the reintroduced wolves “Chat Chaaht,” which means “older brother.” Chat Chaaht became an alpha male of his pack and lived to be 13 years of age — one of the oldest documented wolves in the region.

With the help of the Nez Perce and other tribes, wolves are regaining range across much of their historic homeland. Before federal protections were removed from wolves in Idaho, the state’s restored wolf population peaked at nearly 1,000 wolves. Wolves dispersing from Idaho have also now returned to other parts of their traditional homeland in Oregon and Washington. One adventurous, wide-ranging wolf dubbed “Journey” (also known as OR7) is now the first documented wolf to return to California since the early 20th century.

Umatilla pups in Oregon

Wolf pups spotted on Umatilla land.

As wolves disperse, they are being aided and monitored by tribal wildlife officials. This summer, I was thrilled to hear that the Umatilla tribe in northeastern Oregon had documented the return of the first wolves to their land. The tribal wildlife managers had helped develop the Oregon Wolf Conservation Plan and had waited a long time for wolves to make it back to their homeland. Defenders assisted the tribe with monitoring cameras, and tried to ease the transition with area livestock owners by offering our expert information on nonlethal measures to help wolves avoid conflict with livestock. Carl Scheeler, Umatilla biologist and tribal liaison for the Oregon Wolf management team, said that as wolf range expands in the state, there are still some groups that demonize wolves, while others welcome their return.

“Currently, we’re looking at wolves through a magnifying glass. Every single depredation is elevated in the public eye. Every time a sheep dies by a wolf it makes front page news, but cougars, bears and coyotes still represent the vast majority of depredation losses.” Like the Umatilla elders, he values their return, not just in a cultural sense, but in an ecological way as well.  “I believe wolves fill an apex predatory role in the ecosystem,” he says.

In Washington, more tribal governments are taking an active role in wolf conservation as new packs become established in the state. Among the newest is the Colville nation, which has named its first reestablished pack “Nc’in,” the Okanogan word for wolf. While the tribe has some concerns regarding competition for elk and deer, a main source of sustenance for their community, they are willing to share their land with wolves and welcome their return. Just this fall, Colville tribal biologists documented another new pack, now the ninth documented pack in the state, and named it the Strawberries pack.

High school students perform the Quileute “wolf dance” when an ambassador wolf visits from Mission: Wolf.

Another tribe associated with wolves in Washington is the Quileute Nation, made famous by the popular series Twilight. Like other tribes, the Quileute still have a long and rich cultural tie to wolves, despite the fact that no wolves have yet been restored to their historical coastal range in the Olympic Peninsula west of Seattle. The Quileute celebrate their long-held connection with wolves through special dance and stories, which they often share with visitors. Last year, Defenders helped arrange for the Quileue people to meet ambassador wolves from Mission: Wolf, and study the wolves’ movements to help with their dance techniques. The tribal gathering included the youngest to eldest tribal members, and was a memorable, heartfelt celebration. It is our hope that someday wild wolves will regain their homeland in the Olympic range and fulfill their historic role, not only as a native cultural icon, but as an important carnivore in this spectacular and rich ecosystem.

I’ve had the honor to work with tribal leaders from across our region, and their wisdom guides much of our work today. Perhaps a quote from Chief Dan George of the Tsleil-waututh Nation in Burrard Inlet, British Columbia best sums it up: “If you talk to the animals, they will talk with you and you will know each other. If you do not talk to them, you will not know them, and what you do not know you will fear. What one fears, one destroys.” Our goal in promoting coexistence with wolves is to help people better know and understand wolves as a valuable species, and not one they should fear.