THE TWO WOLVESemerged like specters from the tree line and crossed a field of snow. From thatmoment, and even after everything that followed, no one disputed theirpenetrating beauty. Silver on white.
Two men watchedthem approach. The men—a pilot named Todd Svarckopf and an aviation workernamed Chris Van Galder—worked at Points North Landing, an outpost that serveslocal mining camps in Saskatchewan province, about 750 miles north of the U.S.border. On this particular day in November 2005 a low cloud ceiling preventedaerial surveys for signs of uranium, so the bored men had struck out, walkingtoward a nearby junkyard to kill a few hours looking at a collection ofabandoned airplanes.
They had crossedthe camp's snow-covered airstrip and started across the moss-sprung landscapewhen the wolves appeared. One darker, one lighter. The darker one approachedSvarckopf. He yelled at it, and it retreated a few steps.
"Whatever wedo," the pilot told Van Galder, standing nearby, "we don't turn andrun."
November 24, 2008
Since they stoodjust a few hundred yards from the camp, the men tried to back away towardsafety. As they did, though, the wolves grew more aggressive: The light grayone approached Svarckopf, and he turned to face it; when he did, the dark wolfmoved on Van Galder, the smaller man. He shouted at the animal, but the wolfheld its ground, squatting on its haunches almost within arm's reach. VanGalder called to Svarckopf, who turned toward his friend. When Svarckopf tookhis eyes off the light wolf, it ran at him.
Svarckopf quicklygrabbed two stout spruce branches from the ground and brandished them at thewolves. Prodding and swinging, the men inched back toward the camp. The wolves,pressing forward, held eye contact and swished their lowered tails, as thoughstalking prey. It was a disturbing sight, and yet the men did have onestatistic on their side: In more than a hundred years, only one human death inNorth America had even been tentatively linked to an attack by nonrabid wolvesin the wild.
After about aquarter hour—an eternity, it seemed, with the wolves snarling and snappingtheir teeth—Svarckopf and Van Galder made it back to the camp's airstrip, wherethe animals broke off the hunt and returned to the woods. Moments later, in thesafety of the dreary mess hall, the breathless men related their story to theminers. Van Galder had brought a camera for the walk to the airplane junkyard,and he had managed to snap a few pictures of the wolves at the camp's edge. Heshowed them to his colleagues.
The photographsimpressed one young man in particular. Kenton Carnegie, a shy 22-year-oldgeological engineering student at the University of Waterloo, had flown toPoints North Landing for a temporary work-study job with Svarckopf and VanGalder. He loved animals to the point of becoming a vegetarian, and the storyof the encounter with the wolves intrigued him. Soon afterward he called hismother, Lori, back in Oshawa, the Toronto suburb where he had grown up.
"Oh, yeah,it's a really neat place," he told her about Points North Landing."There's not a lot to do up here, but some of our guys saw somewolves."
A few days later,after the excitement had subsided and as the snow continued to ground flights,Carnegie told his colleagues he felt stir-crazy. He said he planned to take awalk along the lake, the way many of the miners did to stave off boredombetween shifts.
"I'll be backfor supper," he said.
USUALLY WHEN wildanimals change their behavior and become more visible to humans, it is becausethey are diseased or hungry, or they have been drawn out by Dumpsters, dogs orother signs of human development and urban sprawl. These factors explain inpart why there have been so many recent sightings of bears on golf courses orin suburban trees, why a herd of bison wandered into the Canadian village ofFort Providence two years ago, why deer have become a traffic hazard throughoutthe U.S. and why coyotes sometimes show up on Sunset Boulevard.
But over the lastdecade the North American ecosystem has also seen an unanticipated trendupsetting the always delicate relationship between man and wildlife: Thehunters have been going away.
Surveys by theU.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicate hunting in general has tumbledprecipitously, down 10% in the past decade alone. Bird hunting has dropped by aquarter during that time, and small-game hunting by 31%.
Once common fallrituals are fading. In rural New England not long ago hunters walked loggingroads, shotguns in hand, looking for grouse. On the Great Lakes hundreds oncelay in flatboats amid flotillas of duck decoys, waiting for the greatformations of ducks to darken the sky. And in the South men gathered in teamsto hunt wild boar, to be roasted afterward on a spit. Those days are gone, orgoing fast, and traditions like fathers teaching their sons where to place atree stand or how to field-dress an elk are, in many families, dying. Strictergun control regulations have made simply owning a gun far more complicated. Insome communities it is easy to find game on the golf course or your neighbor'slawn but almost impossible to find a place to hunt safely.
The news ofhunting's decline will no doubt cheer those who see it as a cruel pastime. Butwhat the critics do not realize is that as the hunters have stepped back, theanimals (especially predators) have come forward—with potentially disastrousconsequences for all.
Valerius Geist, aprofessor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Calgary and anexpert on the behavior of large mammals, calls what is happening "therecolonization by wildlife." The first sign, he says, "was when theherbivores returned," a reference to the overabundance of deer, moose andelk in North America. After the herbivores, Geist says, the carnivores arenever far behind. "We are just now beginning to experience that phase,"he says. As recently as 1994 there were about 50 wolves left in the Yellowstoneregion (Idaho, Montana and Wyoming), but the population there now stands atmore than 1,500; in Minnesota wolves climbed from about 500 in the 1950s tomore than 3,000 today.
The third phase ofanimal recolonization, Geist says, is "the parasites and diseases returningin full force."
ON A sunny Julyday, Adam Walker drives past a stately Long Island home in Westhampton, N.Y.,then eases his white Chevy Malibu to a stop on a wedge of land between the mainbuilding and the water. "That's where I'll set up my shot," he says,pointing to a cedar tree. "Yeah. Good site." By day Walker, 32, worksas an arborist for a Long Island tree company. He moonlights as a deerhunter.
The Hamptons, likea lot of New York State, are lousy with deer, and have been for at least thelast decade. At first the animals presented a sort of graceful nuisance,wandering out of the shrinking woodlands to eat the roses behind the poolhouse.Yet with fewer hunters taking their limit and the likelihood of fewer deerdying in the generally less severe winters, the animal's numbers becameunmanageable. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation estimatesthat Long Island's deer population is 20,000, up from about 3,000 in the late'70s. And the consequences have escalated.
In Brookhaven,N.Y., officials are pondering how to handle the deer carcasses scattered acrossthe town's roadways. In 2006 they removed 265 deer hit by cars. Last year theyfound 282. This year they're on track to remove at least 370 deer, and thecost—at $400 per animal—is straining the town's budget. (Across the U.S.deer-car collisions rose 15% over the past five years, costing annually morethan a billion dollars in property damage and 150 human lives.)
At the same timeLyme disease—the crippling illness borne by deer ticks—has gripped theHamptons. Suffolk County reported an estimated 585 cases last year, up from 190two years ago. In response, some town leaders across the area turned to whatthey saw as the only practical solution: They contracted licensed hunters tostalk and kill deer in the tony beach towns along the Island's North and SouthForks. Some residents ask that men like Walker do their work discreetly, sothat their neighbors, or even their spouses, remain unaware of exactly what'sgoing on in their backyards. But few protests are heard, in part because thedeer, which eat expensive shrubbery and virtually everything else in sight, areoften butchered for venison and donated to local soup kitchens.
"I could shoota deer every night," says Walker, as he stares out at the tree line,waiting for a deer to emerge. He is not complaining. He learned bow huntingfrom his father and his uncle, and he enjoys his night job, to the point ofperforming it as a free "friendly customer service."
THE RELATIONSHIPbetween the hunter and his game is ancient, a give-and-take described in itssimplest terms by prehistoric men drawing on cave walls: They showed figures ofdeer, of man, of deer felled by arrows. The hunting half of the hunter-gatherermodel came about because man's brain—the thing that sets him apart from many ofthose other animals—demanded meat. The brain burns through a quarter of aresting human's calories, and gathering alone couldn't provide enough nutritionto maintain "our most costly instrument," according to Harvardbiological anthropologist Daniel Lieberman. "Hunting made us humans who weare."
But huntingdepends on a healthy regard for the animal population, a point underscored by aprevious ecological crisis. Starting in the late 17th century, commercialhunters and trappers began to fan out across the North American continent,systematically stripping the land of its wildlife. The passenger pigeonpopulation famously declined from probably a few billion in the mid-19thcentury to zero in 1900, when the last wild one was shot. Buffalo, occasionallypicked off along the prairie by men firing from the windows of passing railroadcars, nearly suffered a similar fate. "The game population almostcollapsed," said Nicholas Throckmorton, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish andWildlife Service.
Reform didn't comeuntil the early 1900s, when individual conservationists—led by PresidentTheodore Roosevelt—pushed federal and state governments to begin enacting a setof laws that became known as the North American Wildlife Conservation Model.The legislation restricted the sale of meat and fur from wild animals,effectively curbing the commercial hunting market. Just as significant, in 1937Congress approved the Wildlife Restoration Act, which imposed special taxes onguns, ammunition and other hunting equipment; the revenue is distributed tostate governments and earmarked for state wildlife agencies, the hiring ofbiologists and other expenses related to game conservation. By the middle ofthe 20th century, the animal population had begun to rebound, and our fathersand grandfathers could again satisfy what Charles Dickens called "thepassion for hunting ... implanted ... in the human breast."
But in the decadessince, attitudes have shifted and hardened, and the very idea of hunting as"sport" has come to imply something cavalier. Among animal-rightsadvocates it indicated indifference to wildlife. In two generations the lonehunter—once exemplified by Teddy Roosevelt—found himself accused of enmitytoward nature. Hunting had become a question of morality.
IN 1998 thevenerable outfitter Cabela's entered the business of virtual hunting."Cabela's video games [like Dangerous Hunts 2009 and Legendary Adventures]let you go hunting instantly," says spokesman Joe Arterburn, "so it isvery appealing to hunters or hunting-minded gamers to experience the thrill ofhunting as soon as the game is turned on." That thrill is, apparently,strong: To date Cabela's has sold more than 13 million copies of its games.Many people also watch hunting shows on television. They buy waxed-cottonjackets from British outfitters, or sturdy boots from Filson, that they neverwear in the field. Some people—to widespread public revulsion—pay to huntthrough the Internet, aiming a remote-controlled gun in some distant place, andfiring a bullet by clicking a mouse.
It is not justhunting; outdoor activity in general is decreasing. Americans are becoming anindoor people. Visits to national parks have dropped steadily since 1987.Twenty-first-century Americans talk much about the environment, but theynavigate websites, not rivers.
"What we'reseeing among young people is, in a phrase, nature deficit disorder," saysThrockmorton. "People are growing disconnected from the outdoors." SaysLieberman, "We've become so disassociated from our roots that we're shockedby things that should be natural and normal," like killing the animals thatwe eat. Once a year Lieberman butchers a sheep with his students to remind themwhere meat comes from. "Some of the students are appalled and aghast,"he says, "but they think nothing of buying meat on a Styrofoam tray wrappedin plastic."
THESE ARE boomtimes at the Black Bear Lodge. But that is not good news for the huntingindustry, because the Black Bear Lodge is a bar on Third Avenue, in theGramercy Park section of New York City, and young men gather there for a videogame called Big Buck Hunter Pro. The manager of the place, Belle Caplis, sayscustomers come in "absolute droves" to play the game—which involvespumping and firing a shotgun at a screen, where an assortment of deer, elk,bears and other animals die electronic deaths—on the bar's two huntingmachines. There is even, Caplis notes, a "huge Big Buck culture." Somecustomers wear full camouflage and DayGlo orange for an evening of videohunting and organize complex online tournaments. "I've seen business guysstanding there in their suits after work, or even during their lunchhours," Caplis said. "They untuck their shirts and start firingaway." The game appeals to city dwellers at a psychological level that eventhe president of the company that designed the game, George Petro, calls"strange."
But is Big Buck'sappeal really all that surprising? Lieberman describes a euphoria thatovertakes humans at the moment of killing game: riveted attention, heightenedsenses, quickened pulse. That feeling, or even the high-tech approximation ofit, may be worth the dollars that so many young Manhattanites have foundthemselves pumping into Big Buck Hunter Pro.
DEPENDING ON howyou count them, there are still at least 12.5 million hunters in America whoannually generate $22.9 billion in total revenue. Whole armies of men stillrise before the sun, spray their boots with deer urine and climb trees,breathing steam, to wait for an approaching buck. One of them is Gordon WymanJr., of Mobile, who recently discussed the finer points of deer rifles with hisyoung son and reflected on the family tradition. "My father, Gordon WymanSenior, taught me," he said, placing a hand on his son's shoulder. "AndI'm teaching Gordon Wyman III."
Several stategovernments are trying to encourage hunting. Alabama opens deer season two daysearly for children under the age of 16 (accompanied by an adult), so they'llhave a better chance at the animals and maybe get hooked. Maine calls itsversion Youth Deer Day: bow hunting for children ages 10 to 16. In Illinoiswildlife managers, mindful of the increase in fatherless families have begunholding hunting lessons for single moms. A nonprofit company in California runsa similar program called Becoming an Outdoorswoman, and in the past couple ofyears hunting-license sales there have actually risen by 3%. The federalgovernment sees the urgency as well. In September the House of Representativespassed the No Child Left Inside Act, which aims to funnel half a billiondollars into environmental education. It awaits passage by the Senate.
A few weeks agoWyman and his son packed up and traveled across Mobile Bay for the grandopening of the Bass Pro Shop in Spanish Fort. The store, like its competitors,Cabela's and Gander Mountain, is a huge, theme-park-like emporium, completewith indoor waterfalls, shooting ranges and enough stuffed bears and deer topopulate Yellowstone. Three days after the Bass Pro Shop's grand opening eightpolice cars were still required to direct traffic, as thousands of peoplestreamed into the store. Wyman and his son marveled at the selection of guns,suitable for every kind of hunting. Deer, duck, dove, boar and the categoryknown simply as "varmint."
The father pickedup a deer rifle. "Nice," he said.
THIS IS the truckwe used that day," says Mark Eikel, an owner and assistant manager of thePoints North camp. He climbed into a white pickup, turned the ignition key andsat a moment, staring at the steering wheel.
When KentonCarnegie didn't return from his walk in time for the evening meal, hiscolleagues alerted the camp staff. Eikel took Svarckopf and Van Galder in histruck to trace Carnegie's path. The student's footsteps stood out plainly inthe new snow, heading around the lake. They showed a meandering stroll, veeringout sometimes onto the frozen lake, then back. The men feared for Carnegie'ssafety from the elements; he had worn a T-shirt, a hooded sweatshirt, a linednylon warmup suit and jacket, but now the sun had set and the cold deepenedevery moment.
Eikel, followingthe path again one day in September of this year, slowed his truck."Somewhere around here," he said, "you could start to see wolftracks."
Several wolvesmoved on a track parallel to Carnegie's path as he entered a stand of trees. Alone wolf closed in behind him, cutting him off from the camp in the mannerSvarckopf and Van Galder had described from their encounter a few days before.The small search party found a spot where the wolf tracks began to converge. Itappeared that Carnegie had recognized his danger and had tried to gain a clearline of sight to signal to the camp along the lake shore. He stood no more than600 yards from safety, but no one saw him.
He doubled back onhis steps, making a push toward camp; then the wolves attacked, probably bitinghis heels and calves first. Carnegie apparently fell for a moment, fought them,then regained his feet and ran.
Beneath the snow,the spongy mix of peat and moss the locals called muskeg broke away under hisfeet, making progress difficult. The snow in a rough way recorded the storythat evening, a testament to human will: Carnegie fell and rose again. Fell androse again. Fell and rose again.
Fell and roseagain.
"See theseberries?" Eikel bent down and plucked one. He pinched it between thumb andforefinger, and a shock of red fluid dribbled out. Redness of another sort"was everywhere, on the snow" that evening, he said. "I couldn'ttell what I was looking at."
Then hisflashlight swept across something just below the path, among the trees.
Eikel had recoiledand told the other two men, "Don't look."
A short whilelater, as Eikel led police to the scene, he saw reflective eyes hovering in thedark. When the search party built a large bonfire, wolves howled and the menfired shotgun blasts into the air, to drive the animals away.
The governmentgranted temporary license to shoot wolves around the camp, and within a day anda half a worker had shot two. A necropsy revealed what seemed to be human hairand "plasticised nylon" in the digestive tract of the wolves. Two yearslater a government inquest officially ruled that wolves had killed KentonCarnegie.
What this meansbeyond the obvious symbolism is unclear, but it is a good place to stop andthink about the return of animals into a world that is increasingly too smallfor them.
Geist has thoughtabout that subject a lot. Until recently, he says, "I was very much of theopinion that wolves were a fairly harmless group of predators." But thenthe wolf population exploded. "When I walk my dog now [on Vancouver Island,B.C.], I carry a gun," he says. "My wife has been threatened by wolvestwice."
THERE'S A wholeindustry that depends on wolves," said Kim Carnegie, Kenton's father, fromhis house in Oshawa. "People love wolves. Guides lead people out into thewilderness at night to listen to the wolf howls. Do you think they wanted toacknowledge [wolves] had killed a human being? Of course not."
After his son'sdeath an obsession with wolves gripped Kim Carnegie. For a while he wasplanning a trip to Saskatchewan, he said, to shoot any wolves he could find. Heresearched the animals and their habits at great length, with murder on hismind. But in the end he called off the vengeful journey. "Wolves arepredators," he said. "I don't hate them. They were following their ownway."
Wolves do not makemoral decisions, he decided. They simply hunt.
WITH DEER CAUSING TRAFFIC ACCIDENTS AND SPREADING LYMEDISEASE, TOWNS ARE HIRING HUNTERS TO THIN THE HERDS.
SCIENTISTS SAY ANIMALS ARE "RECOLONIZING" NORTHAMERICA. A CLASH OF CULTURES HAS BEEN THE INEVITABLE RESULT.
AS AMERICANS HAVE BECOME INCREASINGLY CUT OFF FROM THEOUTDOORS HUNTING HAS BECOME A MORAL ISSUE.
ARMIES OF MEN STILL RISE BEFORE DAWN TO HUNT, AND STILLTEACH THEIR CHILDREN THE SKILLS THEIR FATHERS TAUGHT THEM.
CARNEGIE'S FATHER IMAGINED TRAVELING TO SASKATCHEWAN TOSHOOT EVERY WOLF HE COULD FIND. HE CHANGED HIS MIND.
NOW ON SI.COM
BREAKING NEWS, REAL-TIME SCORES AND DAILY ANALYSIS.
LEGENDS OF THE FALL
SI has covered hunting since the magazine's inception, including stories by JimHarrison, Ernest Hemingway, David Mamet and Thomas McGuane.