On Red Owl Mountain

By Cristina Eisenberg

In the rural West, geography defines us.

I live with my husband and teenage daughters on the shoulder of Red Owl Mountain, one of the many mountains that make up the Swan Range, which is part of the crazy quilt of ranges that forms the Rocky Mountains in northwest Montana. Our cabin lies at the north end of a shoestring valley between the Swan Range and the Mission Mountains. The Swan River flows through this valley, with the Continental Divide a few miles east, as the eagle flies. The grizzly and wolf populations outnumber the human population here, giving new meaning to coexistence and sustainability.

Since moving here in the mid-1990s, we had heard wolves howl from the shoulder of our mountain. We had found their tracks pressed into the snow outside our cabin door. But we had never seen them — not until one misty August morning while my young daughters and I knelt in our garden, peacefully pulling weeds. A doe burst out of the forest and tore across the meadow, two wolves in close pursuit. One black, the other gray, they closed in on the doe’s haunches. In less than two heartbeats they pierced the woods on the far side of the meadow, leaving a wake of quaking vegetation.

This drama, which unfolded not 20 feet from us, sparked my quest to understand these large predators — both in relation to eco-systems and to human beings. My inquiry has taken me into wolf dens with field biologists and has led me to a wolf kill on my land so fresh the earth was still wet with blood. It has taken me to contentious meetings with hotheaded ranchers and equally hotheaded wolf advocates. It has compelled me to spend early morning hours perched atop a high knoll overlooking Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, observing wolf life unfold in all its drama.

At every turn, the wolves have surprised me — with their courage, with their heedlessness of the politics of humans, with their big hearts and big feet. But far from giving me romanticized notions, my intimacy with wolves has left me with a pragmatic understanding of their feast-or-famine existence and tooth-and-claw role in a biotic community.

Cristina Eisenberg is a Ph.D. student in Forestry and Wildlife, OSU College of Forestry. She is currently at work on a book about trophic cascades, Landscapes of Hope: Trophic Cascades and Biodiversity, for Island Press.

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