Friday, May 22, 2015

What are mountains good for?

Gospels, as well as children’s, folk, and pop songs, sing the praises of mountains. Just think of  “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” “Mountains of Morne,” and “Rocky Mountain High.” The list could go on until our voices falter in pleased exhaustion. Obviously people love to sing about their mountain. What about wolves?
    Ah, when it comes to wolves, questions tumble from one’s brain. Are mountains good for wolves? Are wolves good for mountains? And do they sing about their mountains?
    At one time wolves were widely distributed all over Asia, Europe, and North America. In North America native populations found creative, beneficial ways to cooperate with wolves and so maintain a balanced ecology. Wolves weren’t confined to isolated sanctuaries, today so often found in mountains, like the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho or Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina, or zoos in urban areas. But once official and unofficial programs of extermination drove the wolf from the lower 48 states of the USA, no mountain was safe for the wolf. Today, a very few wolves find that with a lot of help from their friends mountains are good for them—if they don’t mind being fenced, or shot at, or poisoned—no matter how much their friends work to keep them safe. In truth, many do not welcome the reintroduction of wolves, even if they are fenced or electronically monitored.
    But are wolves good for the mountains? In R. R. Carroll’s The Big Lost: a Novel, two biologists comment on the benevolent effect of wolves on the mountain environment in Central Idaho. A missing swath of trees between mature timbers and newer growth gives evidence of the extinction of wolves in the 1930s. As one commented, “When man took one of the prime predators out of the environment the balance that nature had for thousands of years created between plants and animals was suddenly thrown away” (p. 154, 4T2 Brand, LLC, Neosho, Missouri, 2011). As a result the elk grazed on young trees until they were gone. Of course that affected the bird population, diminished, and the bug population, greatly increased, and the other wildlife that depended upon a healthy growth of trees and underbrush. Eventually the streams and fish were compromised. Newer growth and the return of a balanced ecology corresponded to the gradual return of the wolf about sixty years later. The biologists were happy about that, not so the cattle ranchers.
    But do wolves sing about their mountain homes? Jamie and Jim Dutcher who lived with,
studied, and recorded the wolves of the Sawtooth Mountains, later renamed the Wolves of the Nez Perce, verify that wolves have a rich vocal vocabulary (The Hidden Life of Wolves, Living with Wolves, and The Sawtooth Wolves). But what wolves “say” in their calls is a matter of debate. It seems readers are left with Sonsie’s songs in Eye of the Wulf, as one conjecture that wolves, indeed, love their mountains. Someday we may find out if those songs are more truth than fantasy—if wolves allow us the privilege of understanding their songs.