Wolf Palette

Photograph by Joel Sartore

THERE IS COLOR IN THE LAND AGAIN. OR PERHAPS the color was always there, like a pigment in the soil, but was simply rendered imperceptible for a while. But not for long. Not all that much separated the land — famous already for the mineral-rich hues of its cliffs and mountains, its gurgling hot springs and bubbling mudpots — in terms of time or space, from the breath of the wolves that would bring the color back like painters.

The wolves, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, had been extinguished from Yellowstone for only seven decades: shot, trapped, poisoned, eradicated. In terms of space, only a veil of country had separated them, some seven hundred miles, more or less. Any one of the Yellowstone wolves — any one — could have covered that short distance in a week, rather than taking the better part of a century. There is an increasing wealth of science, and of knowledge, accruing around the recolonization of Yellowstone, but the recolorization of Yellowstone will always be wrapped in mystery.

A captive gray wolf in the acclimation pens in Yellowstone National Park, from which wolves were released into the park.

The wolves did not return on their own. It took a massive reversal of public sentiment and 160,000 letters to Congress and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and ceaseless lobbying, public education, and outreach by environmentalists before fourteen wolves were finally captured up in British Columbia and transported to Yellowstone during 1994, where, after dramatic political maneuverings of lawsuit-and-countersuit, they were released into the snows of Yellowstone. An ocean of elk and bison awaited them.

Maybe they would have eventually recolonized Yellowstone without human intervention. They were already beginning to ease back down across the border, filtering into Montana through places like the Yaak, the Ninemile, and the Flathead valleys, but the American public wanted them sooner. So we went out and got them, and brought them here in trucks and helicopters, wrenched from their old homelands, and with significant mortality. Not that a more natural recolonization would have been entirely seamless.

Already, not one of the original recolonizers survives; in the wild, a seven- or eight-year-old wolf is getting old, and a ten-year-old wolf is ancient, and ten years have gone by. Already, the last of those first returning — or returned — wolves have gone under, down into a soil that did not birth them, but which sustained them, and from which they summoned a seemingly miraculous flowering of wildness.

Federal wildlife officials, working in an acclimation pen in the park’s Lamar Valley, give a gray wolf pup shots.

There is color in the land again. How can the crimson blood of elk in the snow release a bluebird? How can black and silver wolves combine, like pigment, to unleash a new surge of yellow warblers and brilliant tanagers back into a landscape long absent such threads, such an abundance of colors?

Upon the wolves’ return, so sudden was the transformation, so quick the reparations, that it seemed a marvel that the landscape — brittle and fractured as it had become in the absence of even that one species — had been able to hold together as well as it had for those seventy or so years. Not so much like a person, across a similar span of years, living with some awful dose of toxics within, but more, perhaps, like that same person living with the absence of some stellar, sparkling, wondrous ingredient: some beautiful, shining, gleaming essence, perhaps read about in old medical texts and hypothesized, but never seen or known, only dreamed or imagined.

In the ten years since the wolves have been back they have reshaped huge sections of an awkwardly leaning ecosystem, one which in many places we did not even recognize as leaning, as if a homeowner were to summon an ornamental landscaping service only to have the workers discover termites in the house’s walls and a crumbling foundation. And also as if the landscapers held the key to renewing the building itself.

Elk, the primary food for wolves, represent a substantial reserve of energy and nutrients on the hoof.

By pruning the wildly excessive elk numbers, and by forcing the elk to be elk again, the Yellowstone wolves kept the elk herds on the move, allowing overgrazed riparian areas to recover. The elk were no longer encamping in any one spot like feedlot animals, and the restored riverbanks served as nesting and feeding habitat for songbirds of different hues. Blink, and a howl equals the color yellow.

Now, the elk are not living as long. Their trophic capacity — vessels of sunlight, vessels of grass-meat — is being redistributed with greater alacrity, greater vitality, throughout the Yellowstone ecosystem; there is greater turnover in the mortality game upon which wild nature, and what we think of as a healthier nature, relies so powerfully.

Where previously the overcrowded and static elk and deer herds conspired to keep stands of aspen from regenerating, browsing with sharp teeth any and all young aspen suckers as soon as they emerged, the beautiful groves of aspen, snow-white bark and quivering gold leaves in the fall, are now prospering, flaring back up on the landscape like so many tens of thousands of autumn-lit candles. Entire mountain ranges are ultimately being painted anew — more color, more vitality, more light — by the arrival of, initially, a mated pair of wolves, an alpha male and female, followed by the next wave of other wolves, new wolves.

Certainly the renewal of the aspen, and of streamside deciduous trees that had previously been repressed by the overabundance of elk — willow, cottonwood, ninebark, chokecherry — is not limited to showcase-only values of painterly aesthetics. As in all of wild nature, there is function everywhere — purpose, meaning, and a sophistication beyond our wildest dreams. Cerulean, sapphire, bordeaux, jade — the return of deciduous saplings to the hoof-cut, denuded riverbanks once abused by too many elk has been good for more than songbirds and artists. Beavers, too, have prospered, able now to access their requisite building and feeding materials without needing to venture so far into dangerous territory. This has resulted in the return of more backwater ponds and pools and eddies, the filtering and life-support systems for so much other river life, and provided a greater distribution of nutrients in the shallow sloughs that back up and create gentle floods behind the beaver dams. In these shallow areas of submersion young cottonwoods prosper — more flame color, and more beaver habitat.

Opal, released after being fitted with a radio tracking collar, served as a “Judas wolf,” leading federal hunters to her pack, which they killed. During the decade in which wolves have been back in Yellowstone, such “management” actions have been part of the constraints the predators face as they, and people, adapt to their reintroduction.

Circles within circles: with more beavers in the system, the wolves will eat a beaver now and again, every x pounds of beaver-meat consumed displacing, I suppose, a similar poundage of what would otherwise have been elk meat, so that in the elk herds’ relinquishing their previously uncontested streamside territory, they gain a certain freedom and vitality. While an old way of looking at things might suggest that the elk were serving the wolves, it could be said that the elk were serving themselves as well.

It’s all more tangled and wonderful than we may ever know, and the best part is we can’t really predict or manage or fully measure it. Much as we’d like to, we can’t say that three beavers plus one wolf plus two elk, a songbird, seven aspen trees, and a ten-thousand-acre wildfire equal six beaver, four elk, five wolves, and no birds any more than we can say that chartreuse equals magenta, or aquamarine, fuchsia. We can spend centuries trying to chase down and quantify those relationships, but in a wild and healthy landscape there will always be vast quantities of unknown relationships, and immeasurable consequences. Even with all of the science and learning available to us in the twenty-first century, we have trouble viewing the land, really seeing it in anything but the broadest and most brilliant strokes of color. I do not think it is coincidental that such discoveries — such illuminations of interconnectedness — are emanating from the tableau of one of our largest and wildest remaining wildernesses. So significant is the degree of our not-yet-knowledge, our unknowingness, that we could make major discoveries — witness major illuminations — in any environment, no matter how fragmented and compromised that system might be. But it is in our last few big wild landscapes, I think, where the potential, the opportunity, for discovery remains strongest, and might be most easily or readily encountered.

Like neither saviors nor infidels but simply (or not so simply) like wolves, they returned to their home, bringing great color and breathing a life-force that some, in an upside-down world, view as destructive — as if we have become so estranged that we can no longer really tell one from the other. In this regard, the wolves are instructors, and in this regard, we are watching them with fascination, with our senses as well as our returning knowledge — like hunters ourselves — re-engaged and keenly alert.

Rick Bass is the author of over thirty books, including most recently, With Every Great Breath. He is a winner of the Story Prize, the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, a PEN/Nelson Algren Award Special Citation for fiction, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. He has served as contributing editor to Sierra, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Big Sky Journal, Amicus Journal, Outside, Orion, Field & Stream, The Contemporary Wingshooter, and many other publications. He currently serves on the editorial board of Whitefish Review and teaches at the Stonecoast MFA low residency program. He was born and raised in Texas, worked as a petroleum geologist in Mississippi, and has lived in Montana’s Yaak Valley for almost thirty years.