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Illusions of wilderness.

There was no question that the guys in the airport lounge were heading for Montana too, what with their cowboy hats, camouflage suits, and camouflage backpacks. (One was even wearing camouflage sunglasses.) Every other male in Montana--and one of five females--is a hunter; every year they are joined by 54,000 out-of-staters, all come to harvest a carefully husbanded bonanza of deer, elk, and antelope.

This wildlife bounty attracts predators from Canada as well, not all of them on two legs. It was hunting these hunters that brought us to a clearing on the western edge of Glacier National Park in the broad valley of the North Fork of the Flathead River. Anyone--or anything--watching from the woods would have found us a queer sight: lanky University of Montana biologist Mike Fairchild, swinging an unwieldy antenna from side to side like some backwoods video pirate trying to capture MTV for his cableless cabin, surrounded by six amateur but eager assistants.

Presently Fairchild caught a faint beep, beep, beep from down along the river. (In Montana human hunters have to buy licenses; animal hunters have to wear radio collars.) The electronic tone told us that a mile and a half away was Wolf 86-53 of the North Camas Pack. (Wolves have been designated by number since 1984, when the University of Montana decided that the Wolf Ecology Project's practice of giving them names like Sage, Aspen, and Phyllis was "unprofessional.")

While it fell somewhat short of the shiver brought on by a howl in the night, the proximity of the ancestral bogey still produced an adrenaline kick. We took off in pursuit up a little-used trail.

Overhead, downy woodpeckers prospected snags for dinner. Underfoot, the trail was littered with wolf scat. (Since a wolf is as apt as any traveler to take the easy route, Montana's trails, dirt roads, and railway tracks increasingly double as canid highways.) This was as close to a wolf as we were likely to get, and the photographer from the Spokane daily who had joined our party insisted that Fairchild pose next to a pile and probe it thoughtfully with a stick. "That's a $200 picture!" he exclaimed excitedly. The scene was repeated at every turd we found, to the point where those leading the way started kicking them discreetly into the beargrass.

While hunters and ranchers rue its return (see "Still a Long Way From Home," September/October 1991), the wolf is being greeted with open arms by the Montana tourist industry. Tourism is now more important to the state's economy than timber, and the old hook-and-bullet crowd is becoming increasingly irrelevant; 96 percent of the visitors to the state come to look at the critters, not to kill them.

"Montana tourism promotion had to realize that we have a product," says Steve Shimek of the Glacier Country Regional Tourism Commission. "That product is the illusion of wilderness. Let's face it--a lot of the people who come to Montana in Winnebagos may never set foot in a 'big W' Wilderness, but it's the illusion that brings them here." Glacier Park naturalists now get more questions about wolves than about any other subject, and the tourist shops of Kalispell and Whitefish are stuffed with lupinalia.

Glacier has more than a million acres of "big W" Wilderness (which the vast majority of its visitors see only from the road). Here one can encounter bald eagles, grizzlies, and wolves all in one place, a "wilderness experience" human visitors intrepid enough to visit the backcountry will find nowhere else in the Lower 48.

But Glacier isn't enough. "Wolves and grizzles are being used to create an aura of wildlife to promote tourism, but there's just not enough wilderness habitat left to preserve them as viable species," warns Fairchild. "If we relegate wolves to wilderness, then we won't have any wolves."

Wild animals have no illusions of wilderness; for them there is just the world. "Wolves are effective predators," warns a pamphlet issued by the Glacier Natural History Association. "Their methods of killing for food are repugnant to people who like to believe that nature is gentle and bucolic." Inevitably, wolves lacking the good manners to remain within designated wilderness areas will wander outside, past the summer homes of soap-opera stars and the 20-acre "ranchettes" of retirees lured to Big Sky Country by the promise of a toothless wild. Wolves from the park are killing dogs and cattle, the penalty for which is often summary execution. Montana is still wrestling with how to live with wolves in the "big W" World.

Tracking our elusive prey in the Flathead Valley, we eventually came to a popular wolf rendezvous in a broad meadow punctuated by a lone 600-year-old Doug fir. To the west, the Beaver Corps of Engineers had constructed a major dam on the river; surrounding aspen trees were marked by the claws of climbing black bears. The wolves having moved on, we appropriated their bucolic spot, lolling in the afternoon sun like lazy dogs--content for the moment with our illusions.
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Title Annotation:wilderness habitat
Author:Rauber, Paul
Date:May 1, 1992
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