It was a bitterly cold winter morning in January 1995 when the convoy departed down the Forest Service road near Salmon, Idaho. The four wolves arrived two days earlier transported inside a commercial moving van and had spent the night under armed federal guard in an airplane hangar on the outskirts of town. Local threats of violence had everyone on edge. The warehouse was well positioned behind a chain-link fence with barbed wire running along the top.
Vehicles approaching the facility were monitored, but we didn’t linger outside in the open. We were quiet, listening closely for any unusual sound. Silent, nearly motionless, the wolves were also on high alert listening and watching our every move. All except one. He was a large male wolf with almond shaped, green- gold eyes and thick golden and gray fur. “Chat Chaaht” was painted on the radio collar around his neck. The name means “older brother” in the Nez Perce language and was chosen by the tribal school students. Instead of cringing at my presence, he stepped forward cautiously and returned my curious glance with a penetrating gaze of his own. I don’t know what I expected but I was instantly struck by the intensity of his gaze. His eyes were bright and deeply intelligent. It felt like he was looking through and beyond me. It was palpable – a weight to it that was both powerful and wild. Something almost alien beyond the experience of the human spectrum. I was humbled by how much spirit and raw self awareness I saw in those eyes. I spoke to him softly, trying to reassure him— and myself—that he was going to be free soon. The other three wolves listened and continued to watch us but didn’t stir.
Sleep didn’t come easy for any of us that night. We heard the bad news early that morning. A federal judge in Wyoming had approved the American Farm Bureau’s temporary legal stay, which meant the wolves could not be moved from their kennels or from the facility. Tensions were growing in town as more signs appeared in local businesses. One sign read, “Kill all the Goddam [sic] wolves and the people that brought them here.” A less threatening sign read, “Get your Long hair, Subaru Driving, Sandal Wearing, Wolf Hugging A*s out of here.” I wondered who would wear sandals in such a cold place. On a dusty, wheeled TV set, the local news was airing a video of the truck and trailer carrying the Yellowstone-bound wolves as they entered the north gate and were greeted by cheering crowds. Seeing those wolves made it safely to their destination was a huge relief. We had yet another sleepless night to go.
Walking to dinner in town that night, we passed the local Farm Bureau office where the late evening occupants were still celebrating their victory. The snow drifted down building a soft shadowy blanket over the town. The smell of wood-smoke hung in the still air. There was no moon to be seen that night. Only gray clouds and deepening snow. Early the next morning, soon after the sun emerged, the judge lifted his order and we wasted no time organizing a caravan of heavy-duty trucks to carry the wolves into the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, the largest forested wilderness area in the continental United States.
It was a daunting task given the dirt road was covered in ice and snow and carved into hills above the ice-choked river. We followed behind a snow plow helping us push forward into the wilderness. I was in the front truck with the lead US Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement agent. We had met just two days before after a press briefing held in a conference room at the hotel. Somehow the job of updating the press had fallen to me as all the other agency staff were in Yellowstone or uncomfortable with being identified as part of the wolf reintroduction team.
It was the third update I had given reporters in less than 24 hours and I was exhausted. We didn’t know if the injunction would lead to orders to release the wolves or to euthanize them. As I shared the only news I had – that wolves had arrived in the states and were being transported to their respective release locations – I noticed the man in black at the back of the room. He was wearing a long trench coat and carried a leather bible case under his arm. Growing up in the southern bible belt, my instinct was this “bible” was a lot heavier than most.
Hours later, the miles of icy road behind us, we arrived at the end of the navigable road at the deserted Corn Creek campground. From here most visitors traveled by foot or horseback. In the summer, local families picnicked and camped here along the edge of the wilderness. But it had been many months since the last campers had gone and no tracks remained of their presence. Unloading the wolves was tricky. Just walking on the ice was risky and several people held tight to the grasp of the vehicles to steady themselves. The crates were heavy – the wolves weigh 80 to 115 pounds each and their cages were unwieldy. We slid and slipped but everyone helped carefully handle each crate until they were lined up in a row with the doors facing the forest. The head wolf biologist shuffle stepped forward and slid the first crate door open.
The first wolf, her radio collar vividly decorated with the name MoonStarShadow by students in Idaho’s Blaine County, was soon bounding away through the snow. Chat Chaat was next. He quickly slipped out of the crate and ran about 15 yards before stopping to make his mark on the world. After a brief glance back, he disappeared into the snow-laden pines at the opposite edge of the meadow. Someday he would break all records becoming the most long-lived wolf in Idaho and the most mischievous alpha male reigning years beyond the normal age of a pack leader. I was still staring at the spot where he disappeared when I realized my name was being called by the lead biologist on the team.
“Suzanne, this one is yours.”
I stepped over to the next crate. Her name “Akiata” was painted in bright colors on her heavy black leather collar. She was a young wolf with piercing green eyes that regarded me with deep suspicion. Another biologist helped me slide open the gate – each of us on opposite sides of the crate – granting her freedom but she didn’t move. She was too afraid to make a break for it. We tried soothing her out by stepping back to give her more space but she still didn’t budge. The other biologist picked up a snare poll and walked forward to prod her out of the cage. She snapped at the poll just as I lowered my camera to take a picture of her. I was wrong. She wasn’t afraid but she would leave the crate on her own terms. A moment later she bolted from the crate and didn’t look back before she sprinted gracefully into the woods. The last wolf, named Kelly, took no convincing and leapt from her crate the moment the door opened.
It was completely quiet for a few long moments as we watched and listened for any sound to indicate where the wolves were moving but we heard nothing. Just the sound of snow drifting down from the trees and our own breaths still heavy with excitement, our misty exhales briefly visible in the cold. I was deep in reflection of what had happened. Wolves were back in Idaho after being absent for decades. The forests would soon echo with their ancient, soulful song. Then we all cried, hugged and opened champagne to toast the wolves. History had taken a new turn.