Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Wolf Runs in the Family

Rehydrating one of the wolves bound for Yellowstone in 1996. 

By Bob Ferris

In 1994 I joined the staff of Defenders of Wildlife heading up all their species conservation programs. This was on the eve of the first reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone. Within a few weeks of taking the position I was told that there was an upcoming board meeting and asked did I have a “big” idea to present. Hmmm.

The next day it came to me, Yellowstone was a wonderful effort but far removed from most folks who support wolves. So my question to myself was: Is there a place in the East that had road and population densities low enough to support wolves? The answer to that was: Yes, the Adirondacks. At 6 million acres it was roughly three times the size of Yellowstone and I even had our slogan: NY ♥ Wolves. At the board meeting the Adirondack idea drew head nods and the slogan groans, but Defenders’ efforts to return wolves to the area within the fabled Blue Line were born on that day.

Sixteen years later and there are still no true wolves in the New York wilderness; do I see that as failure? The simple answer is: No. The New York idea was soon supported by a conference in Albany to look at this issue as well as other wolf issues. That initial conference was such a success that it eventually morphed into an internationally recognized biennial carnivore conference that is still a popular and impactful event today.

Likewise, the thinking that led to looking for other places spawned the idea behind Defenders’ award-winning publication Places for Wolves in 1999 that looked for similar areas throughout the US. Now in its second edition, the publication is often used in college classrooms and was instrumental in helping folks open up their thinking on potential wolf recovery sites and their views on the possible. I think it is safe to say that wolves are likely in more places and in larger numbers because we expanded the vision and planted flags in the dream areas.

Do I still think that wolves should be returned to the Adirondacks? Yes. And, yes, I understand about the brush wolves and all the complications and muddiness of wolf genetics. Obviously there has been some niche overlap and swapped genes between coyotes and wolves in the Northeast, but the fact remains that some of these same or similar arguments were made in Yellowstone. Yet we have lived to see the wondrous benefits of their reintroduction and we have not seen any hints of the Armageddon painted by wolf restoration opponents.

So why is all of this on my mind? Last month my wife and I went to see Drums Along the Mohawk a classic John Ford film depicting the battle for American independence in New York’s Mohawk Valley. Pretty standard fare for 1939 with Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert, that also portrays the social ecology of the Dutch, English (Tory and Rebel), and Indians of that time. It moves me because in a very real sense it is my history too. My father’s family is from New York and is a Dutch-English soup that has been brewing for nearly 400 years. Our family tree sap flows with Van Rensselaer and De Peyster blood as well as that of Morris and Chandler.

But what ties this all together for me are the Douws. My ancestor, Petrus Douw, was born in the late 1600s and married Anna Van Rensselaer in 1717 when he was 25. In 1740 he built a country estate on the eastern side of the Hudson across the river from Albany. Family histories describe the house as a wonderful place but also very much frontier with gun ports and surrounded by a tall wall of sharpened timbers. It was a place of love and respect also as Petrus and Anna carved their initials in a stone that was still visible early in the last century and Petrus never remarried in the two decades following her death. The marriage produced nine children and established the estate as the home for my branch of the family for many generations.

Life was lively there with horse races on the frozen river in winter and frequent interactions with Indians who often “slept inside the stockade wrapped in their buffalo robes.” The site teemed with wildlife including wolves that apparently used the Douw property shoreline so frequently as a place for drinking water that Petrus and Anna named their country estate Wolvenhoek or Wolf Point.

Who knows how much this act of honoring of the wildness of wolves influenced their great-great-great-great-great grandson roughly 250 years later, but I suppose on some level it did. The interesting thing is that I did not learn about Wolvenhoek until I stumbled onto it while looking through a pile of genealogical material five years after that initial board meeting. It is funny how life turns out.

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