Wolves, Wilderness and the Last Grizzly Bear

There are places on the land where events and ideas take place that are more significant than the landscape itself – places like Gettysburg, Thebes, Monticello.

Places like Escudilla (ess-coo-dee-ya) Mountain. The third tallest mountain in Arizona at 10,912 feet, beautiful as it is, is not as impressive or majestic or even as noticeable as some of its neighboring peaks in the Apache National Forest in Eastern Central Arizona.

Even so, you know there is just something about this place long before you start up the west slope of the mountain. Even the name Escudilla is one of the sweetest words in any language.

The last grizzly bear in the state of Arizona was shot and killed on Escudilla. And it is in and around the Escudilla that Aldo Leopold, a co-founder of The Wilderness Society, worked for the US Forest Service in the early part of the last century. It is here also that he learned to “think like a mountain” and as a result helped change a nation’s way of thinking about its wild areas. He is credited with convincing the Forest Service to establish the first Wilderness Area in the country in the Gila National Forest just over the line from Escudilla in New Mexico.

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The mountain is the centerpiece of the Escudilla Wilderness Area and is incredibly rich in wilderness lore and mystique.

Old growth fir and Engelmann Spruce surround huge prairie like meadows and mingle with some of the most expansive aspen groves you will see anywhere.

The single most poignant statement I have ever read in defense of wildland preservation in wilderness literature was penned by Leopold after coming upon a mortally wounded wolf here. In A Sand County Almanac he recounted that he got there “in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes”.

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Mexican Grey Wolf

It is fitting that the Escudilla country is central to the Blue Range Mexican Grey Wolf Recovery Program. The on ground program began in 1998 when 11 wolves were released into the wild. If there was ever a place that wolves should freely roam, it is Escudilla. It even resembles the Yellowstone meadows and fir forests, where wolves are once again an important part of the landscape. If I were a wolf, I think I would welcome being kicked out of the back of a US Fish and Wildlife pickup truck in the Escudilla country. On the other hand, maybe not, as the program is sadly plagued by a high mortality rate, mostly from wolves being shot.

I spent a day and an evening on Escudilla but did not see or hear any wolves. I was a little disappointed at first, but given the tenuous status of the animals, it was actually good to see they remained elusive. Just knowing something is out there is sometimes good enough. Even though the population has dropped to less than 50 wolves in the region, there is no question in my mind that a couple of them were up there on the mountain that evening.

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Escudilla Mountain rises up next to Highway 191 in the Apache National Forest. It is accessible by driving east from the highway on Forest Road 56. A 3 mile moderate hike from FS Trail 308 at Terry Flat leads to the rounded summit of the mountain. I haven’t been up the trail, as I prefer cross country hiking, but the trail looked well maintained. I instead hiked up through the aspens on the south flank to a meadow below the summit. The only thing missing that afternoon was my ragged copy of A Sand County Almanac to thumb through and maybe a couple of ravens.

You can find information on Escudilla and the Apache and Sitgreaves National Forests at http://www.fs.fed.us/r3/asnf/

If you are interested in the status of the Grey Wolf in the west or just want more information on the recovery program, visit http://www.fws.gov/southwest/es/mexicanwolf/ .

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