High Country News -- Printable -- February 26, 2001: Return of the natives
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Return of the natives
feature article - February 26, 2001
by Michelle Nijhuis
The Nez Perce tribe brings wolves back to the Idaho wilderness -- and reinvents its political future
LEWISTON, Idaho - When Horace Axtell was a boy in the 1920s and '30s, his grandmother would take him on
fishing and berry-gathering trips in the Idaho mountains. Like most Nez Perce, they would often work in the
forest for two or three weeks at a time. It was on one of those long trips that he heard a wolf howl.
"My grandmother was hard of hearing, but she heard it, too," he says. "She explained to me what kind of animal
that was, how much it meant to our people in the past and the importance of its being alive."
Years later, he took a hunting trip with a friend to the Selway River in central Idaho. "My friend said, 'Hey, look at
that big dog!' " he remembers with a chuckle. "I said, 'No, I'm sure that's a wolf.' And it was. I got to see one, with
my own eyes."
He didn't see another wolf for decades, as ranchers and federal hunters nearly exterminated the gray wolf in the
West. In 1974, the wolf landed on the federal endangered species list.
Axtell, 76, lives with his wife in a small house on the edge of this placid timber town, 15 miles from the Nez Perce
Reservation where he grew up. He's been a soldier, a convict, and an edgerman at the local Potlatch mill. He's now
an elder of his tribe, a leader of the traditional Seven Drum religion, a teacher, and an author. He's also an expert
And he has lived to see his tribe bring wolves back to Idaho.
In 1995, after the state Legislature barred the Idaho Fish and Game Department from cooperating with the federal
wolf recovery program, the Nez Perce went to the federal government and volunteered to take the place of the
The program has since become one of the most successful wildlife recovery efforts ever. The wolves are
multiplying with gusto - almost 200 are roaming free in the state - and the population may soon reach the goals
set by the feds.
Thanks to the state legislators' stubbornness, the Nez Perce are the first and only tribe to oversee the statewide
recovery of an endangered species. The tribal wildlife department works side-by-side with the federal government,
tracking wolves in the vast wilderness lands that once belonged to the tribe.