Thunder on the
Frozen rattlesnakes and wolf politics in the fabled and stunning setting of the Zumwalt Prairie in Eastern Oregon.
Updated April 24, 2015
I’m on my way to the Zumwalt Prairie with my younger brother. We’ve arrived at the Oregon township of Imnaha, population 12, which sits nestled in a deep canyon of exposed yellowish-orange rock along the Imnaha River.
We’re being served a beer and a story at the local Tavern-General Store-Restaurant, which is decorated with rattlesnake skins, pictures of women holding elk antlers, and old-timey jokes about fishing. The Tavern makes no bones about its position on Canadian wolves being introduced to nearby Idaho with signs: “Govt. Sponsored Terrorism: CANADIAN WOLVES!!”, “Canadian Wolf…Tastes like Chicken” and, “Canadian Wolf…It’s What’s for Dinner!”
Eating wolves may sound like bumper sticker banter, but up until a few years ago, Imnaha served barbecued bear along with rattlesnakes at its yearly Canyon Days festival. Animals play a big role in conversation here. Cougar sightings, where the salmon are biting, wolf politics, and of course rattlesnakes. The tavern itself keeps a freezer full of rattlers, ready for the barbecue.
The waitress recently moved here from Florida, and beams with pride about her new home; a place of exquisite beauty, and a simple life. She explains that taking the unpaved road up to the prairie means it’s essential to let someone know you’ll be on the road. “If you don’t come back, they do go looking for you.” About the morel mushrooms on the road, she explains, “Some people just go mushroom hunting from their car. They stick their heads out the window and look for them that way!”
From Imnaha, we leave for the road leading to the Zumwalt Prairie. Hans has been to this far corner of Oregon a handful of times, as a forest ranger, a backcountry skier, a backpacker and a whitewater river runner. But going with his older brother means lots of long hours on the road eating sunflower seeds and stopping for dragonflies.
The road, which winds through a canyon lined with grasses and dense thickets of pines, is rocky at first, but after an hour of driving slowly, we gain elevation, the trees and rocks disappear, and soon we are on bare grasslands, which sway in the breeze under giant cumulonimbus clouds.
This is the fabled Zumwalt Prairie, one of the last somewhat-intact prairies, and the last piece of a unique ecosystem that once stretched as far as Montana and Canada. Since true prairies are North American ecosystems, we usually equate them with grassland and shrubland biomes of the Great Plains. The truth is, those prairies are gone; they exist mostly as restored habitats in the spaces between big farms.
The Zumwalt Prairie, on the other hand, is so high in elevation, so remote, and so generally unusable, it’s avoided the plow. Most of it is used for ranching. Its center, almost 20% of the entire remaining prairie, is preserved by the Nature Conservancy and is an example of the internet’s power of conservation. The Nature Conservancy had been interested in the prairie for years but never had the funds to pay for it. When the property was up for sale, the Conservancy marketed the proposition on the web and secured the funds.
As we drive on a lone dirt road that straddles a ridge of grass, I tell Hans that a friend of mine from Portland had mentioned to me that a Snowy Owl had been sighted on the prairie a week ago, and that I should keep my eye out just in case. I tell Hans that in some winters, Snowy Owls ‘invade’ the United States, moving south from the boreal tundra to places like the coastal dunes of Washington, the bogs near Duluth, or on frozen lakes in Maine; all places that might approximate the white-on-white plains of the tundra, where they specialize in eating lemmings.
“But Snowy Owls are seen in the continental states only in the dead of winter,” I tell Hans. “They leave Canada because the weather conditions make it hard for them to hunt, so they’ll survive by moving south.”
Just as we finish up talking about this, a huge white ghost of a shape launches itself from a fence-post in front of us. There is no question what we have just seen; the extreme coincidence hits hard as we stop the truck and watch the giant bird glide down a field of wildflowers.
“That’s maybe the only Snowy Owl in the 48 States. They only invade in the winter, so it’s really rare,” I tell Hans (only four Snowy Owls would be recorded in the continental United States that summer. “But birds that travel end up in some weird places.” A Snowy Owl was found this winter in Hawaii, which meant it must have traveled over two-thousand miles over the North Pacific, a feat for which it certainly did not evolve to do, before being promptly shot.
We continue to drive along the ranchlands into the evening. The Zumwalt Prairie is so huge, driving across can take hours.
As the sun sets below the rolling hills, we see elk in the hills. “There must be 12 or 14 of them,” I say. “No look, ten more over there,” Hans responds. But it doesn’t stop there. Just further up the road, another hundred-twenty elk are racing along the hillside.
Seeing this huge herd of elk reminds me why the gray wolf was reintroduced into Idaho and Montana in the first place, and which have now established populations in Oregon; keystone species are fundamental to natural balance in vast, unmanaged wildernesses. Their primary purpose: keep out-of-control elk populations in control.
But the importance of gray wolves in these wildernesses has become more defined in recent years. Studies have linked wolves to healthy forests, for example. Too many deer, too many elk means willows and aspens get nibbled, vegetation cover declines, habitat for diverse mammals diminishes. When wolves reappear and large herbivores are brought into check, the forests themselves grow more healthy, increasing biodiversity and even bringing local water levels up, as better tree cover keeps the water tables buttressed against drought.
I wanted to know more about the bumper stickers in Imnaha; why some people in this part of the country didn’t see eye to eye with conservationists who were making a good pitch for the reintroductions.
Anti-wolf sentiment has been spreading even to the Zumwalt Prairie, where signs on ranch fence-posts are starting to appear: "New Wolf Management Plan: Implementation of Plan requires the use of these tools - Beretta, Browning, Colt, Glock, Marlin, Mauser, Remington..."
There are real concerns about wolves in both Idaho and here in the Northeastern Oregon ranchlands, as wolves can and do kill ranchland livestock, and certainly create a sense of fear among ranchers about what might happen any night to their animals. But in Idaho, the issue has progressed beyond the genuine fears of ranchers, and into an over-extended, internet-fueled rage.
An email, featuring bearded, muscled hunters holding dead, huge wolves, urged its readers to consider the extreme danger these unwanted immigrants would bring to Idaho: “They sure do look cuddly and cute. I wonder if our city dwelling tree hugger society that never has left a city really understands the impact of these killing machines. I wonder if a Trantasaurus-Rex was somewhere to be had that they would want to put them back in the wild.”
The email, of course, was a hoax. The huge wolves featured in the photos, from Siberia. Wolves killing people? Only one poor human has been killed by wolves in the United States in the last hundred-twenty years. Compare that to poodles, or goldfish. But it was enough to unite ranchers, hunters and anti-environmentalist libertarians of the Mountain West into a fever with a filter of events, their own iconography, and soon, a wolf reintroduction was a federal ploy to reign in the Wild West, to force their will.
The irony in all this, as we roll across these ranchlands, reports across the country are starting to roll in: the summer is going to be hellish for western ranches. No, it’s not the wolves from Canada, but the unprecedented drought and wildfires, brought on by climate change.
I couldn't find a sound argument against the wolf reintroduction. Actual confirmed livestock kills are few and far between; even coyotes contribute to more livestock deaths than wolves. But wolves keep coyote levels in check. I couldn't find the meat in the anti-wolf argument, only reasonable fears and questions weakened by wild threats and internet hoaxes.
At night, we drive back to Enterprise, Oregon, population 2,000, home of the Terminal Gravity Brewery, which distributes microbrews cold around the state. Enterprise, like nearby Joseph, is not draped in Wild West motifs like so many other out-west towns.
These towns also sit on the Zumwalt Prairie. A hundred-fifty years ago, this prairie was the seasonal hunting grounds of the Chief Joseph band of the Nez Perce. Stalked and hunted by whites in the 1870’s, the Nez Perce were forced on a military retreat that led them 1,200 miles to seek support from other tribes. Much of the history of this area centers around Chief Joseph – that’s his Christian name. His native name translates, “Thunder Rolls Down the Mountain.”
Chief Joseph’s nephew, Yellow Wolf, was a vital strategist in the retreat. He never converted to Christianity, and like some other Nez Perce, followed a revivalist tradition called the Dreamer Faith, which was deeply rooted in the environment of Eastern Oregon, and a call to return to indigenous traditions. The religion infuriated the oppressors of the turn of the century, because Nez Perce of the Dreamer Faith acted like, “Indian and nothing else.” They prophesized that one day, the Europeans would disappear, and they would inherit a land returning to its natural state.
There is something unique about these Oregon towns on the northeastern edge of Oregon. There is no Walmart for seventy miles, no Wild-West motifs. The connection to the past feels real, with all the early twentieth-century homes and farms spreading across a vast, green prairie. It is how I imagined a people should keep their land, close to its natural state.
But I don't understand the hunter who says that wolves should not once again populate the land on which they hunt. What kind of a hunter would not want vast wildernesses returned to their natural state, only because doing so keeps elk populations artificially elevated for his benefit? I have a feeling that a bigger conflict is coming over the value of restoring wolves to northeastern Oregon, and that it will begin right here on the prairie. Yellow Wolf will revel in his grave when that storm comes.