to regular view
and schoolkids, sharing the sagebrush
- "Digger" Jerry George
Saturday, November 27, 2004
Here's one for you. I just got a phone call from Mollie. It's 10 o'clock in the
morning. Wolves have been sighted in the sagebrush next to Yellowstone Park School. The
sagebrush is a playground for the school's kids. That's where their dynamic alliances are
formed and re-formed. But not today. Until there is an all-clear for the wolves, the kids
have been told to stay out.
The sagebrush here reaches over my head. There isn't a kid in the school who comes
close to my armpits. They disappear out in the sagebrush. So do the wolves. There could be
an entire pack of wolves among the sage shrubs and you wouldn't see them.
Normally, the people here think little about wolves, though there is a large den across
the Gardner River and another somewhere around Swan Lake Flat above us. I have tracked
both packs and can attest to the fact that they are big and active. But that's to be
expected. We sit in the middle of one of the densest populations of elk in the park, and
elk are like nachos to wolves. They just can't resist them.
Having the wolves show up near the school is not unusual. Last year, wolves killed an
elk calf right next to the school building, less than 50 yards from the main road into the
park. I have a strong hunch that the wolves seen this morning are from the same pack, the
Leopold Pack (named after conservationist and wildlife biologist Aldo Leopold) from across
the river. The elk have been feeding outside my window most of the morning, and the bull
seems a little agitated for this time of the season.
What is unusual is for the wolves to be so near people this early in the winter and out
during the day. For reasons I hope to learn one day, wolves seem bolder and less nocturnal
during the winter. Coyotes often walk through the resident village, but not wolves, at
least not during the day when we humans are likely to see them. Something brought the pack
to this side of the river.
I suspect that the rangers sense things just as I do. They're scratching their heads
and being prudent in closing the sagebrush to the kids. The elk have been on this side of
the river for weeks. Other than going to the river to drink, which Mollie and I found
signs of the whole herd doing when we were out hiking yesterday, the elk have stayed up
here. Under the circumstances, you have to believe this is not the first time the Leopolds
have crossed the river. It's just the first time they've been seen. No, the unusual event
here is them being seen during the day in such proximity to people.
No matter where you go, there are dangers. Wolves are no real danger to people in the
park. Oh, I have no doubt that a hungry wolf pack would take a hapless human wandering
through their territory if the opportunity presented itself. But our fear of wolves grows
more out of the need for drama in adventure stories than biology. There is more to be
feared from being on the wrong side of an amorous elk or a bison that doesn't seem to have
a right side.
I find all of this to be deliciously ironic. Mollie has spent the past three years
teaching in Richmond. There wasn't a kid in her second-grade class who didn't know of
someone who had been the victim of a drive-by shooting. Human-to-human violence was a
life-shaping, everyday occurrence. Here, no one but the rangers has a gun other than those
used to hunt game. Violence is rare and carefully hidden from public view.
In Yellowstone, the danger is chance encounter with bears, elk or bison protecting
their calves, falling rocks and slippery ice. Yes, the kids have been ordered out of the
sagebrush today because of a wolf sighting, and the danger may be real. But does it
compare to the near-inevitability of a drive- by in Richmond or Oakland or San Francisco?
Of course not.
People fear the wilderness far more than the cities. That's curious to me. I have spent
more time in cities than in the wild, yet it is here that I am comfortable. Yes, I am
cautious, but I am far more cautious and, I am sorry to say, fearful in a city than the
How Notes from Yellowstone came to be: We had been living on our boat in San Rafael.
I had just finished a book on the ecology and history of San Francisco and was working on
an introduction to a 100th-anniversary edition of a Jack London book. Mollie, my wife, had
a chance to teach at Yellowstone Park School, a fantasy of hers since she was a young
teenager. After following me from managing natural areas in 13 states for the Nature
Conservancy to publishing the Whole Earth Catalog, with long sailing adventures in
between, it was her turn, so I followed her to Mammoth Hot Springs in the northern part of
Yellowstone National Park, where we now live in a tiny village of Park Service housing.
It's not exactly a raw deal for me. As long as she finds dinner on the table when she
comes home from school, I am free to wander 1 million acres of the most remarkable wild
country on the planet and share what I find with you. -- J.G.Yellowstone
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