We Must Control Ourselves, Not Wolves

IN THE early morning darkness of this Alaska land where daylight waits until early noon to show its slight winter glow, we walked a plowed path between 6-foot snow banks and pickets carrying signs: "Wolf Management, not Wolf Worship!" "Iraq - Want Some Wolves?" "Eco-Nazis Go Home!"

Many of the wolf-control proponent pickets were dressed head-to-toe in bear, fox, a few wolf skins as they passed out orange arm bands to crowds already clothed in orange hunting vests and hats. Far fewer in numbers were the signs, "Don't Kill Wolves on My Public Land," "Respect the Wolf!" and several sled dogs bearing signs "The Wolf is my Sister."

I was walking into the Wolf Summit in Fairbanks, Alaska, with my father, Max Peterson, who was slated as a summit speaker representing International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and a marine biologist friend, Fran Stefan.

My father, himself part-Native and a longtime hunter who raised us on national forests where we kids ate deer, elk, and moose long before we'd learned about hamburgers, was working hard to maintain his observer status amidst a sea of wild and stormy opinion.

My friend Fran and I, who considered ourselves whale and dolphin people, were still trying to figure out how we'd gotten swept up into this howling wolf clan debate. It wasn't until we were leaving the Seattle airport and found the book "People of the Totem: Indians of the Pacific Northwest" and read that the Nootka Indians, just north from the Makah Indians on the Pacific Coast off Canada, believed that when the orcas went walking on land they did so as wolves.

The orca in the sea, the wolf and man on earth are all top predators, the stuff of legend.

"We're wolves in sheep's clothing," I commented to Fran as we took our seats among the 200 invited participants at the Wolf Summit. The ratio was about 80 percent men to 20 percent women, with only four women speakers among the 30-odd male presenters.

"No," she laughed, "we're whales in wolves in sheep's clothing."

All day long before this summit began we'd moved between the worlds, trying to translate the many languages spoken here: first there was the biologists' dialect of population densities and distribution, of "predator pits" and prey collapses, of ungulates (hoofed mammals such as caribou and moose) and habitat conservation; then there was the language of the wildlife managers who spoke of "harvesting the wolves," of "caribou calf crops," of "wolf control."

It was during one of these managers' off-stage meetings that I remembered reading in my symbols dictionary about the Nordic myth of the wolf as a great monster shut up in the bowels of the earth for fear that he would devour the sun. It was only through the "temporary shackling of the chaotic and destructive power of the universe" that the Nordics hoped to preserve cosmic order.

Listening to the professionals from fish and game agencies, almost exclusively male, I heard beneath the language of "control" and "lethal management," and "sustainable yield" a subtext that speaks of what is not said: that our traditions train us to fear the wolf as evil, that our human need to control nature for our own purposes comes from some ancient, at times religious terror of the "chaotic" and "destructive" animals and world around us. It's as if some part of our psyche is still entrenched in the world view that we are little humans, victimized by a brutal, uncaring natural environment. We humans try to control what we believe is out of control -whether it's nature or her wild animals.

Isn't it possible that nature might be in control of itself, that the natural order we so believed must be chained like the Nordic wolf, is in fact already controlling the wolf, already setting the cycles of salmon or whales migrating, and actually shaping the cells of every living organism here? Perhaps the control we so seek might simply be self-control.

During one of the summit gatherings, a fish and game manager reacted to Wyoming-based Wolf Fund speaker Renee Askins' poignant appeal to stop the wolf hunting; she compared it to a holocaust against this much-maligned animal who since 1960 has shed 1.45 million of its valuable skins to U.S. and Soviet hunters or trappers. The wolf's territory has shrunk from our North American continent to Alaska, and a few other states.

Shaking his head in confusion and true bewilderment, the man said, "The way she talks, you'd think she thought wolves had souls or something!"

The Eskimos certainly believe in the souls of animals - and they still hunt them to survive. The difference is that instead of assuming attitudes of management or control over animals, the Native shamans respectfully asked the inua or animal spirit to sacrifice its life to feed the village. In return, the villagers, whether they were Pacific Coast whalers or wolf, caribou, and moose hunters, gathered in seasonal ceremonies to praise and acknowledge the survival debt we humans owed the animals. There was a relationship between humans and animals, predator and prey, a kinship born of equality.

In the light of this old tradition, the Wolf Summit can be seen as a diluted but important gathering of tribes where clans come together to debate, celebrate and meditate on the wolf. Though stripped of much of its sacredness, the gathering still calls us to confront this predator who is our equal. That equality and the remnants we still carry of mutual respect explain why aerial hunting with its disconnected sharpshooters beading down on a prey as if there were no history, no relationship between our species, has provoked a public howl as great as that heard over the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

An astute observer at the Wolf Summit told me, "It's not just wolves. Have you heard about the orcas? With the herring depleted, which makes the sea lions starve and disappear, the orcas are coming into shallow waters that are not their territory to prey upon gray whales. It's from the bottom of the food chain up that's the really scary problem here. We've overfished, overhunted, and overkilled - we human predators. Now we're trying to fix it by taking out the other top predators such as the wolves. Soon it will be bears and orcas we'll try to kill so they won't compete with our needs. Who's the predator out of control here really? It's us. And until we admit that we've depleted the prey from the bottom to top; until those fishermen and hunters admit that we've overkilled and until we voluntarily limit or stop hunting, to let nature catch up to itself - even if it takes 20-30 years - our whole ecosystem will not recover."

During the Wolf Summit there was an earthquake in Fairbanks, our government again sent aerial bombers into Iraq, our country changed leaders - and my brother saw the birth of his fourth daughter. On the phone, hearing his announcement, I stared out my hotel room at the Fairbanks Moose Lodge under more snow than I've ever seen and listened as my brother said, "Look, sis, I'm a hunter. Right now I'm stirring stew made from caribou and elk burger. My new daughter is coming home today. What I want to know is this: Will we allow the wolf to take back its rightful role as a top predator, equal to us? Will my new daughter ever eat caribou? Will she ever see a wolf in the wild? What about some balance here?"

On the last day of the wolf summit I sat in a bar and listened to someone tell a story of his father, an Alaskan trapper. "The wolf is so much like our species," the man said. "They have families, a social structure that's complex and highly organized. They're top predators who even kill their own kind, although never like our human wars. They are our mirrors. Maybe that's why we've killed so many of them, just like we've killed our own kind. But the wolf and us, we recognize each other."

Then he told the story: Seems his trapper father came back to his trap lines and found a fierce wolf, his paw clamped shut and broken in the metal trap. "He just looked at me, that old wolf," the man said. "Maybe he thought after suffering like that for days that I was going to help him. Don't know why, but that creaturestared at me and wagged his tail. He wagged his tail like that, until I shot him."

The wolf, the orca, the bear, the human - we are all top predators here and our prey is disappearing. It's disappearing most because we humans have forgotten our own relationship, both spiritual and equal, with the natural world.

We have taken more than we have given back; we have forgotten to give thanks and praise and yes, worship to what keeps us alive.

Let us manage most our voracious predation. Let us now learn limits and patience; let us wait upon the call, the howl of the wild to truly find our mutual survival; let us respect and restore our prey, not by taking out the competitive top predators, but by controlling our hunger. Then we can again truly hunt alongside and with the wolves.

Brenda Peterson is a Northwest author whose latest book is "Nature and Other Mothers," published by HarperCollins. Her most recent novel, "Duck and Cover," was a New York Times notable book of the year. She lives in Seattle.