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One night in Minnesota, Dave Foreman woke up in his tent to a wolf howl, a desperate, aching sound that freezes time and makes domestic dogs try to hide under beds.
At first, he thought it was the wind as he sat up in his sleeping bag. Then, when the hair went up on the back of his neck, he realized it was a wolf. "It was an incredible thrill," he says.
He saw a wolf once in Alaska, he says, "at a considerable distance, and I watched it through binoculars for about a half-mile." In the wild, wolves are so shy of humans that one rarely sees more than a gray tail disappearing into the brush out of the corner of an eye, or a distant speck across a frozen lake.
Foreman, the rangy, twangy co-founder of the radical environmental group Earth First!, has never seen a wolf in Arizona. Except for a few stragglers that wander north from Mexico, they have been gone for more than 40 years.
Historically, Mexican wolves--a subspecies of the larger northern gray wolf--ranged the high grasslands and higher forests of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and northern Mexico, until, at the beginning of this century, the federal government wiped them out at the behest of the livestock industries. The last documented killing of Mexican wolves in the Southwestern United States took place in 1970, though most of them had been long gone by the 1950s.
No sooner had the feds killed off the Mexican wolf than they decided that they should put it back. The Mexican wolf was listed as an endangered species in 1976. Six years later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service drafted its Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan. According to its current schedule, wildlife managers will release zoo-bred specimens back into some of the higher elevations of Arizona and New Mexico within the next two years--which has raised a stink in rural cattle communities, as much for fear of environmentalists as of livestock depredation. Foreman, of course, is a rancher's worst nightmare. Whereas the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the main agencies charged with the wolf-recovery plan, expect to keep the released wolf populations within strictly defined boundaries, Foreman envisions a wider range--in fact, several populations scattered over Southwestern wilderness areas. And each wilderness area would be connected to the others by wildlife corridors that would ensure the genetic viability of the wolf and other predators.
"The fabled wolves of Isle Royale, Michigan, and the Boundary Waters in Minnesota lasted until today because they, too, were directly connected to an unbroken tribe of wolves stretching to the Arctic," he says.
Foreman's wolf plans fit into a larger scheme he calls the "Wildlands Project," a rethinking of wilderness areas in all of North America. Historically, such areas were set aside for their scenic value; now they are looked upon as the last depositories of biological diversity. Foreman stands at the forefront of this new field of conservation biology. Legislators are taking note. And despite Foreman's radical credentials, the passage of time, the inevitable slouch into middle age has rendered him respectable even in the eyes of the field biologists and managers of the state and federal land and wildlife agencies.
"We're not crazed radicals with AK-47 rounds on our chests," says Rod Mondt, program coordinator for the Wildlands Project. "I think people are starting to see that we're soundly based in science."
Foreman has not yet gone so far as to share his wolf vision with the Arizona Game and Fish Department or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He says he's not ready. One wonders whether they are ready for Foreman.
@body:"The wolf is as good a symbol for wilderness as anything," Foreman says, speaking in the abstract from across a conference table in an office park in Tucson. Seating the godfather of monkeywrenching at a conference table seems an abstraction in itself.
Wilderness, he explains, is a concept that is alternately alluring and terrifying. As the pioneers carved their way west from Plymouth Rock, the wilderness was the limit of civilization, a horrible place of frightening beauty that needed to be domesticated. The word comes from the Old English, meaning a place of wild beasts, but it has lost that connotation.
Like the wilderness itself, wolves have a yin and yang nature, characteristics that are both alluring and repulsive. They are monogamous, heroically loyal to their young and their pack. Male wolves even share in child rearing. They so closely resemble man's best friend as to look cuddly.
But they are also efficient and vicious predators. Wolves kill with the precision and teamwork of an Israeli SWAT team, one wolf crippling the haunches of its prey, the others taking it down.
When prey is plentiful, they are choosy about what they eat. "I watched from an airplane in Wisconsin as a pack of six wolves walked right through the middle of a cow pasture with calves present," says Dan Groebner, a newly hired wolf biologist with Arizona Game and Fish. "There's no question they could have had a calf down in no time at all. But they either didn't recognize it as prey or they weren't hungry."