Reweaving Relationship: On Stewardship, Wholeness & Wolves
Updated: Mar 5, 2020
By Molly Murfee
This November 2020, Coloradoans will vote on the Colorado Gray Wolf Reintroduction Initiative to bring the gray wolf back to its historic homeland. Colorado is the last holdout in the Rocky Mountain chain to be absent of wolves after their eradication in the 1940s. Surrounding states such as New Mexico, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana have wolves, either through reintroduction or natural migration. Success of bringing the species back to this section of the Southern Rockies will create a continual genetic thread through its traditional territory in the Rocky Mountain states, further strengthening its ability to thrive and succeed.
I believe one of our most important relationships we can have with our home, is that of being a good steward.
When the west was being “settled” by the true torrent of immigrants coming over from Europe in the 1800s there were a lot of intentions, but unfortunately, as a whole, stewardship to the land, plants and creatures wasn’t one of them. Our ancestors came to this “new world” understandably seeking a better life for themselves. They fled religious persecution and financial hardship. They left famine and disease. Here was a veritable wealth of “free” land. Folks could start over. America signified hope.
In my home in the southwestern corner of Colorado, in the mid-1800s, there was still no road nor rail that extended from coast to coast. Colorado wasn’t a state until 1876. What it was, however, was home to about 10,000 Utes, 3,000 of those of the Tabeguache band that occupied the Gunnison and Uncompahgre Valleys. It was home to grizzlies and wolves, mountain lions and wolverines, and millions upon millions of acres of very wild land.
Life at this time was hard, and the American character was perceived as literally being carved out of the wilderness. The culture of these early days believed that in the wild lived a whole host of evils – predatory animals of mythic proportions, “hostile natives,” life-threatening weather, the devil himself. Civilization, on the other hand, was where sanity and safety lived, and they fought tooth and nail to create the very civilization they dreamed of.
The carving of this civilization, however, had a price. Coinciding with those rushing to capitalize on the discovery of minerals in this land’s rock; those taking advantage of the Homesteading Act offering free land in exchange for cultivating and improving it; was a decimation of both other humans and other species seeming to threaten the success of these endeavors.
In this epoch we were at war with other European nations to claim this territory, with ourselves in the Civil War, with native people, and with the very nature that surrounded us. We were literally doing battle with everything. Our hackles were raised, our defenses up.
The quest for minerals encroached on Ute territory. As Gunnison and Crested Butte became incorporated in 1880, the U.S. government consecutively forced the Tabeguache Utes further west to smaller and smaller reservations, eventually completely removing them from Colorado in 1881 and sequestering them to Northeast Utah.
Governmental focus was also on agriculture. As homesteaders worked to establish herds of cattle and sheep, wolves were seen as a threat and their eradication began with government backed practices to kill every wolf in the country. The wolf once existed in almost the entirety of North America. Yet aside from a small pocket of wolves in northern Minnesota, by the mid-1940s, the fear for survival - a now outdated relic of the 1800s - had subsisted, and the wolf had been entirely removed.
We have thus inherited a very deep-seated and demonizing mythology that preyed on fear in a time of uncertainty. It no longer serves us, if it every did.
I don’t believe all our mistakes we made as a people were done in pure spite or hatred. But I do believe a lot of them were made out of unwitting ignorance, a driving self-interest, and a cultural tide so strong it must’ve felt inconceivable to swim against it, or to even see it. At the time of the wolf eradication, ecology, with its terms such as keystone species and trophic cascades, had not risen to the forefront of understanding. We didn’t know the interrelated web all the creatures and plants wove together. We were trying to eke out a new life in what I’m sure at times felt like a horrifically scary place.
Facing real or imagined threats makes humans do a lot of crazy, misguided things. We should not have taken land from native people. We should not have eradicated species that naturally occurred in this place because we perceived them as a threat. Life, by its very nature, will never be danger free. Predators and diversity are valuable pillars in both a healthy ecosystem and society.
We now have an opportunity to correct at least one of these historic wrongs.
Our goal in the past was our own survival. As modern humans, we are not quite so threatened anymore. We are not eking out our meager existence from a land that seems to want to eat us at every turn. We have the privilege of hindsight and a greater depth of knowledge and understanding about ecology and wolf behavior.
Humans are not the center, we are merely a strand in the web, albeit a powerful and influential one. Our goal now must be facilitating a life where all of us can exist together. We must become a collaborative part of the systems in which we live, rather than a destructive force for our good, and our good alone.
Doing the right thing will take a lot of conversation, a lot of listening, a lot of compassion. We must delve into open minded education with a goal of deepening our understanding. We have neighbors all around us – New Mexico, Arizona, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Oregon, Washington, Canada and Alaska – that can share their stories and expertise on living with wolves and help us in our journey.
We will have to figure some things out. Some of it might be difficult. We may have to sacrifice a little, make a little more effort, for a greater purpose outside of our immediate personal sphere.
We must support each other, melding our human needs with those of the natural world in a synergistic relationship that allows room for both. This, truly, is the crux of the state of our world today. And so rather than a threat, I see this as an opportunity.
Even in a time of such divisiveness in our country, I know we can do this. We are smart enough. We are strong enough. We are creative enough.
Nature intended for wolves to be a part of the ecosystem here. As human beings today it is our responsibility to restore the landscape we have historically harmed – from the devastations of mining on our wetlands, to the reestablishment of wild species that once roamed these hills.
We must foster the values of coexistence and stewardship rather than dominance and destruction. We must evolve and move forward, own up to and learn from our mistakes, and set them right again. Restoration is one positive way to heal both our colonist past and envision a more symbiotic future, reweaving our relationship to this land, its creatures and ourselves, whole again.