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The wolves killed a six-month-old musk ox under the orange glow of an Arctic twilight. The calf was at least double the size of each wolf, and after the 20-minute struggle, the wolves stood still, their bellies and tongues pulsing rapidly under the stress of anaerobic effort. In the distance, little howls pierced the frigid air — the pups needed attention. The three panting wolves turned together toward their howls and trotted off over the hill to join the rest of their family.
I’d been with this pack of wolves for a month now, immersed in recording every moment that I was able to through photography, video and writing. I was there to better understand the ancient relationship between humans and canids, one that goes back tens of thousands of years to the first widespread domestication of a wild animal by humans — wolves.
I worked quickly while the pack was out of sight retrieving the pups, as I didn’t want them to see me crossing the invisible boundary between two predators. I made a deep, straight incision with my knife along the left side of the musk oxen’s spine and two more incisions perpendicular to the spine near its shoulder and hip, peeling the skin back to expose the Longissimus muscles — what hunters like to refer to as backstrap. Steam rose from the muscle as enduring life continued to fade from the dead calf. My cold hands welcomed the warmth as I separated dense muscle from bone. Later, when I returned to basecamp, my companions and I were grateful for the fresh meat.
The time that I’ve spent with wild wolves, engrossed in the pulse of their daily life, has been one of the greatest privileges of my life. Not because I have some misguided idea that I’m part of their lives — they do not think of me now, as I do of them — but because I feel that watching any animal living precisely how it evolved is a privilege.
I can say the same for the year I spent studying wild chimpanzees or my time with wild mountain gorillas — there is power and meaning and clarity in their highly social lives. They live in tight-knit family groups, and they share culture, language and empathy for one another. Those animals are part of the fabric of life that complements the connective threads of biodiversity in the regions where they live.
Before my time in the Arctic, the notion of domesticating wild wolves seemed like some singular mix of circumstances that allowed for the crossover to occur. Every wolf I’ve seen from Mongolia to Montana ran in terror at the scent or sight of a human. After three summers in the Arctic with wolves that haven’t been spoiled by modern humans, it is clear to me now that the domestication of wolves was not a one-off event. It occurred hundreds if not thousands of times throughout history across the northern hemisphere.
The unique relationship with wolves — another social hunter — is one of the many tools humans used to spread across Earth in a relatively short time. Perhaps it began with the realization that we could work together to keep a herd of musk oxen at bay while we lobbed projectiles. Or perhaps it began with having a few fed wolves on the edge of camp that would bark-howl when danger came near. Perhaps it occurred after carving off a piece of backstrap from a fresh wolf kill, as I did that day in the field.
As a social mammal, I evolved as a hunter and ecosystem engineer. This enabled my species to become the widest-ranging land mammal on Earth. Every human is a hunter in the same way that every dog is a wolf — their evolved capabilities lie dormant like the cone of a giant sequoia tree, waiting for the heat from a wildfire to open and release its seeds. Some of us have stoked the wild- fires that seasonally release our dormant evolutionary traits as hunters of the same species that wolves evolved to hunt — large herbivores.
Without wolves and other predators, the prey animals that human hunters relish the opportunity to stalk would be something very different — something akin to domesticated animals or the deer that browse manicured lawns of suburbia across North America. Most of us prefer to hunt animals that are still wild — animals with their inner hearth well stoked. These animals ignite our urge to pursue weary prey, to match wits along the knife’s edge between predator and prey. Life and death. Without the coevolution alongside the wolf, elk wouldn’t be nearly as interesting to hunt, in the same way that suburban deer are not the preferred experience that most modern hunters seek.
The wolf, alongside every other large animal from beavers to bison, from passenger pigeons to turkeys, was hunted by modern humans to near extinction across much of North America. Many more species were pursued by human hunters to oblivion — made extinct or extirpated as the wolf has been from much of its original ecosystem. Much of the wild animal biomass was then replaced by domestic versions or prey animals brought from different continents to make accessing animal protein easier for modern humans, whose hunting instincts had been extinguished.
Those of us who are fortunate enough to practice our evolved hunting instincts should be grateful for the wolves, thankful for their relentless pressure that has kept elk, deer and moose vigilant and exhilarating for modern hunters to pursue. The notion that wolves will kill every last elk, deer or moose has been scripted by humans. It is the human hunter that has proven to be the only predator capable of total eradication. Wolves are neither good nor bad. Value is a human construct. Wolves exist because they can.
I walked slowly between the wolves, just a few feet from them as they gathered in the area of the calf carcass. Some wolves had already fed and were sleeping nearby, while others were still slicing chunks of muscle from bone with their carnassial teeth. I approached the sleeping two-or-three-year-old female that I called One Eye — her left eye was turned backward.
She lay with her head on her front paws, her white fur tinted pink from blood. Her coat had already begun to thicken with the onset of subzero temperatures, which would persist for the next nine months. As it gets colder, she will seek shelter from the wind and sleep against her family for warmth. Their bodies and family are of this place, adapted to this harsh environment.
The natural rhythm of their daily lives will have a purpose, and they will persist, as long as we let them. I hope we let them.
Fire & Fear on the Middle Fork