AS THE SPIRIT of the wolf returns to Idaho’s national forest, so does the spirit of the Native American tribe in charge of reintroducing them.
For the first time, the U.S. government has contracted an Indian nation—the Nez Percé tribe of Northern Idaho—to manage the recovery of an endangered species—the gray wolf. The success of this project is being hailed as a cultural victory for a people with a strong spiritual connection to an elusive and beautiful animal.
The history of the Nez Percé is sadly similar to the history of the gray wolf—both were forced out of their territory to make room for white settlers. In 1855, the Nez Percé signed a treaty with the U.S. government allowing the tribe to keep most of their traditional lands in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
The discovery of gold in 1860, made this land extremely valuable, so the U.S. government decided to take over most of the tribe’s land by creating a second treaty in 1863. But the Nez Percé claimed that the tribe never agreed to the second treaty.
Hostilities escalated and a series of battles and forced marches ensued. After the Nez Percé surrendered in 1877, the remaining members of the tribe were shuffled around the country until they finally were placed on a reservation in Lapwai, Idaho.
At the same time the Nez Percé lived in the Northwest so did thousands of wolves, but as white settlers spread throughout Idaho’s forests and rivers, the wolves soon learned that unlike the Nez Percé, the new people did not welcome their presence. Instead of respect and kinship, the white man possessed a deep fear of his canine neighbors.
In the 1860s, hunters slaughtered thousands of wolves by scattering poisoned bison carcasses around wolf feeding grounds. When the demand for wolf fur increased, hunters killed a many as 1,000 wolves a winter.
In Montana alone more than 80,000 wolves were killed in a 40-year period. The U.S. government joined the slaughter in the 1900s by hiring hunters and trappers to kill wolves thought dangerous to livestock. Thirty years later, the gray wolf had been eliminated from most of the U.S.
“Our history has mirrored one another’s,” says Jamie Pinkham, Nez Percé Tribal Council member. “The settlers had two obstacles: that of the Indian people and that of the predators such as the wolves, who were both in conflict as to access to the land. [As a result] both the Nez Percé and the gray wolf were dispossessed. Today we see that mirror continue but in a more optimistic journey.”
The same government that persecuted both the wolves and the Nez Percé in the past is supporting a conservation program that is providing rebirth for both groups today.
Between 1995 and 1996, as part of a three-state reintroduction plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released a total of 35 gray wolves on one million acres of federally protected land in Idaho’s Frank Church-river of No Return Wilderness. At the same time the FWS hired the Nez Percé tribe to manage, monitor and research the wolves.
Not all residents of Idaho welcome the wolves’ return. Ranchers fear that reintroduction of this crafty predator is a danger to their livestock.
Led by the American Farm Bureau Federation, a group of protesters sued to prevent the return of the wolves to Idaho before they were released. The case languished in court and the wolves were released anyway.
To compensate livestock owners for their financial losses, a program supported by the conservation organization Defenders of Wildlife pays ranchers market price for any cattle wolves kill. To ease the continued tension between ranchers and conservationists, the Nez Percé work hard to establish good relationships between biologists and ranchers.
In 1996 the Nez Percé invited the Wolf Education and Research Center, to relocate on tribal lands in Winchester, Idaho. “It became a natural marriage,” Pinkham says. “On one hand, we’re handling the wild reintroduction and on the other hand, we have these 11 ambassador wolves who help create a positive message for the recovery of their wild cousins.”
The center’s captive-born pack of 11 wolves living in a 20-acre enclosure gives the public an opportunity to view a secretive animal in a natural setting. The center’s primary goal is to develop management plans that will allow wolves and humans to coexist in the same environment. With more knowledge, better and more informed decisions about wolf conservation can be made.
Wolves figure prominently in the Nez Percé religion. They are admired because of their hunting skills, their language and their tradition of sharing food. Having the wolves return to Idaho is viewed by the Nez Percé as the return of a brother, a vital link to their culture and traditions of the past.
“We are both regaining a rightful place on the land we were once removed from,” Pinkham says.