It was that face.
That face, full of anguish and despair and frustration and anger and sadness and determination. All of it rolled into the grim line of his mouth and his eyes that would barely glance at me, hoping I might not see.
It was that face, sharpened with time even among a sea of forgotten smiles and twinkling eyes, that made me do it.
That face had seen the result of a cow giving birth while wolves roamed the area. In an early dawn visit, the wolves circled as the calf’s nose appeared. They tightened the circle as its eyes caught its first glimpse of the big wide world. It wouldn’t have many more.
The cow stood up, nervous as the wolves circled ever closer. The calf dropped to the ground. Afterbirth swung from the cow as she faced the ever-circling wolves. The calf shivered in the freezing air, always coldest just before daylight. The cow bellowed, stepping across her calf. The wolves nipped and dodged. The calf wobbled to its hind feet. The cow knocked the calf down as she crossed over it, protecting it from the fangs. The calf laid its head on the frosty ground, wet and shivering. Then it tried to stand again, but the wolves kept at it, wearing down the cow as she stepped over her calf in a dizzying circle.
Until the calf, trampled and bruised, took its last breath.
At daylight, that face found the exhausted cow, the dead calf, the circle of bare ground and the enormous foot prints.
The sadness was the worst. That face knew that just as much as the wolves nipped and snapped at that calf, just as much as that cow trampled her own newborn, that public policy killed that calf.
The anguish and despair came from knowing that his neighbors had betrayed him. Although he only wanted to be left alone to face the challenges of ranching in the mountains, his neighbors had set him up to watch him fail. He knew this would not be the last calf to die and he knew this would not be the last year that his neighbors watched and waited.
This man and his wife had stood alone, working with and against the natural forces of nature for more than 50 years. They worked the rocky, harsh land gently and intelligently, until an aerial view offered ample fenceline evidence of their stewardship. Their verdant green pastures fed deer, elk, wolverines, gophers, mountain lions, wolves and grizzlies.
Meanwhile, others came to save the land that he called home.
The saviors recruited people who had millions of dollars to help them pay more than the land could ever return for property all around this man and woman.
They knocked on his door, opened their checkbook and said “we want to save yours, too.”
“What are you saving my home from?” he asked.
“You,” came the answer. “We want to feed the deer and elk, the wolverines, gophers, mountain lions, wolves and grizzlies.”
The saviors eliminated hunting on all of that surrounding land and sold off most of the livestock. The grass became decadent in some places and eaten bare in others. The man’s land stood out even more. The deer, elk, the wolverines, gophers, mountain lions, wolves and grizzlies spent more time at his place because the grass, shrubs and prey tasted better there.
But the wild animals left when the hunters came. They ran to the sanctuary of his neighbors’ land. They stayed there until calving season, when the hunters were gone and the tastiest morsels were being born on the man’s land.
The man is a private man. He doesn’t want me to see that face, that anguish and despair and frustration and anger and sadness and determination. He doesn’t want to admit that his neighbors betrayed him, killed his calves, hoped that he, too, would sell out so they could save his land from his stewardship.
It was that face that made me do it, compelled me to buy a wolf tag. Alone, that tag whispers, but combined with others it howls across the land, tipping the balance back a little more toward equilibrium and against humanity’s injustice toward one another.
It was that face.
Lisa Schmidt and her husband, Steve Hutton, raise natural, grassfed beef and lamb at the Graham Ranch near Conrad.