WOLVES AND WILDERNESS
By now many of you have heard or read some version of the mid-October story of the two Forest Service employees who, while doing vegetation inventory work in the Sawtooth Wilderness in central Idaho, witnessed a pack of wolves chasing an elk and then later heard extensive wolf howling. Nervous about the howling near their camp, they requested (via radio or cell phone) that the Forest Service evacuate them. A helicopter was dispatched and retrieved them. Sawtooth National Forest officials noted they were not part of the regular wilderness work force.
There is nothing funny about being scared in the woods, especially wild woods. I’ve had encounters with wild creatures that have left me shivering and breathless, not the least bit joyous— that came after I survived. A number of those occurred when I was a wilderness ranger in the Sawtooth Wilderness and the White Cloud Mts. These are wild places; although not directly adjacent to the massive central Idaho wilderness country, they are very much part and parcel of that most massive wild place.
Many of those encounters later became good stories, told even with humor, although at the time, turning my head and utterly shaken as I stared right into the eyes of a large mountain lion on a ledge fifteen feet behind and six feet above me, was anything but funny. But I was deep in wilderness and I knew that, accepted it and now revel in it. I backed away from the critter, stumbling a bit but moving so slowly that I didn’t fall. A few feet at a time, my head up but eyes only glancing at him, I hustled back to my camp, 20 minutes away, in a mid-October snow storm. I was shaking so bad I could hardly start my stove for a cup of coffee.
A helicopter rescue never crossed my mind. Of all people, Forest Service employees in wilderness should know they are in wilderness and accept that privilege. Calling for a helicopter in this instance may be understood, maybe even excused, as these folks were obviously not ready to be in the Sawtooth Wilderness with the glory of howling wolves. Sending one in may not! More than the nervousness of these two folks, the attitude toward the wild of wilderness was again shown by an agency that still has not come to grips with the integrity and meaning of wilderness. This is the same Forest Service that proposed to allow helicopters to land in designated wilderness to collar wolves for the Idaho Fish and Game Department. Fortunately that was withdrawn. (See HUPC LYNX, 2/06.) And it is the same Forest Service that is proposing to ease its predator control regulations in wilderness. So while this may not be a surprise, it is truly head-shaking sadness.