What it’s like for freed wolves

What was it like for 10 captured Oregon wolves when Colorado Parks and Wildlife opened their crates on a December day last year? The wolves had been chased by helicopter, drugged, blindfolded and collared, then moved to remote public land in central Colorado. One of those animals might have had this experience.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Neal | Colorado Parks and Wildlife) On a cold December this year, 10 wolves were released in northwestern Colorado. They’d been chased by helicopter, tranquilized, blindfolded and collared. Then, the doors of their cages opened, and off they bounded. Writer Clint McKnight, a former national park ranger, shares what he thinks might have happened next.

The grey wolf in the metal crate tenses as the door unexpectedly opens. Through the bright threshold, he sees a field of winter grasses laced with snow and a line of juniper trees. After a moment, he bolts for the trees, disappearing into their shadows. And he keeps running.

Only after his captors are far behind does the wolf come to a stop. Panting with exhaustion, his heart pounding, he sniffs at the breeze and looks about. His pack — his family — is nowhere to be seen.

He throws back his head and unleashes a plaintive howl. The tone rises and falls and rolls across the landscape. Its meaning could not be clearer: “I am here. Where are you?” But there is no answer.

The wolf explores, nose to the ground. He ignores a scolding raven. Of far greater fascination is the discovery of an elk bedding area. Pawing at the flattened grasses, he notes they were there just this morning. This is good to know.

Always alert, he climbs a ridge above a broad tree-lined meadow. He knows he must find his pack, but he has no idea how to start searching when there is no wolf scent.

The short winter day is ending. Now the wolf feels the full weight of fatigue after his sleepless three-day ordeal. He finds a shallow depression next to a fallen tree. He circles, lies down.

And the wolf dreams. He dreams he is running through a forest. Up ahead, he can just see the bounding prey he is chasing but he cannot gain any ground. He yips in frustration and abruptly wakes to a pink sky dawning in the east.

A meadow below is shrouded in fresh snow and stillness. Then — a movement that electrifies his attention. A small herd of female elk is browsing among the trees.

He rises into a crouch and silently descends the ridge on an intercepting path. The elk pause upon reaching the meadow, then begin to cross the open space. One of them has a hitch in her walk and lags behind.

The wolf immediately explodes into a run. Simultaneously, the elk launch into a panicked flight.

The wolf races through the snow-covered grass. As the paths of prey and predator converge, he leaps and seizes the laggard’s rear leg. She kicks and he lets go. He falls back and is startled to see her stop and turn to face him. The ailing elk is already spent. He leaps again, his jaws clamping down on her throat. She stands for only moments before collapsing. In minutes she is dead.

The meadow is quiet again. The wolf is suddenly overwhelmed with hunger as he tears into the elk’s belly, powerful jaws ripping open the hide.

As his own belly fills, the wolf feels the fear of these last days falling away, and in that moment he sees, among the pinyons and junipers, a pair of eyes watching him. It is another captured wolf that had been released, a coal-black female.

She emerges from the shadows, head and tail down, but walking without hesitation. She comes before him and raises her muzzle to lick the blood off his. He does not object.

He turns back to the kill. She comes closer, then pauses to weigh his reaction. There is none, and the black wolf eagerly feeds.

In the weeks to follow, the grey wolf and the black wolf explore their new home. When they hear the howl of another wolf, they reply: “We are here. You stay there.”

They find a location for a den and learn to hunt well together. In time, their prey will learn things, too, and both they and the landscape itself will be better for it.

As winter turns to spring, the black wolf shows signs that a new pack is being created. A family in a tradition as old as the ancient hills themselves — is being born.

Clint McKnight is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is a former national park ranger and natural history illustrator.

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