Wolf moss

Wolf moss, or Lutharia Vulpina, is not moss at all; it’s a lichen. And vulpina is Latin for fox, so the common name is, at first glance, all wrong. As my sense of the northern hemisphere is largely powered by fairy tales, I imagined wolves sleeping on soft green moss beds in their dens. The reason for the name is much more sinister.

In the mountains, particularly in early spring, when colour has been a long time coming, Wolf moss gets your attention. It is a luminous, fluorescent, green, fuzzing over dark trunks and, sometimes, laying like a gift against the white snow. As is so often the case in nature – and in life – the very thing that attracts, kills.

The luminous green substance in Wolf moss is poisonous: volpinic acid. Wolf moss is so named because it was used to poison wolves. It was mixed with crushed glass and meat and left in the woods so wolves would eat it and die. Apparently, the glass would puncture the gut making it easier for the vulpinic acid to get in and do its dirty work.

Knowledge of the poison probably came from Native American people, some of whom once used Wolf moss to poison arrowheads. They also boiled it, either alone or with grape bark, to produce a bright yellow dye for decorating baskets. Like many poisons, vulpinic acid has medicinal properties in small doses. Wolf Moss was diluted and used to wash external sores and wounds. The Okanagan-Colville people made a weak tea of it to treat internal problems, and it was a Blackfoot remedy for stomach disorders.

Much to my regret, I didn’t see any wolves while I was in Montana, though I was pretty sure I saw their prints in the snow on Mt Jumbo, and their scat on the trail in Blodget Canyon. Locals told me a wolf pack on Mt Jumbo has driven the coyotes down lower, explaining why I saw one so early in my walk.

While I was in Missoula, Congress intervened to delist Rocky Mountain wolves from the protected list in Montana and Idaho, allowing them to be managed by state-based wildlife agencies instead. Apparently they are again becoming a problem to ranchers, coming down from the mountains and taking stock. Yet ranchers can claim compensation for the loss of an animal in this way. Given the past abuses of wolves, and at a time when so many animal species are endangered or already gone, it was a sour moment in my Montana stay to read this news. Local news cited a return to common sense and “Montana values”. That view was not shared among the majority of people I spoke with in Missoula. But is in many ways Missoula is not typical Montana, not politically, anyways. As one local put it, it is “the bluest city in the reddest state.”

The issue has been prominant in the New York Times. The delisting came about as a  rider to the Congressional budget measure,  contradicting a federal judge’s decision forbidding such action. Environmentalists are up in arms about the dangerous precendent set by politicians (seeking relection) making such decisions rather than scientists. It sets a dangerous precedent for other species.

Montana’s wolf population has exceeded established recovery goals for nearly a decade. Part of the motivation for the delisting comes out of concern for declining elk and moose populations. And delisting shouldn’t result in a free for all, or a return to moss-poisoned cruelty. Montana’s plan provides for a quota-based, regulated hunt. These quotas are adjusted for wolf hunting districts based on factors such as wolf numbers, the presence of livestock, and wolf impacts on deer and elk.

Nonetheless, I don’t like the idea one bit. It sounds a step backwards. The reintroduction of the gray wolf to the Rocky Mountains has been a rare wildlife success story. From just a few dozen wolves released in Yellowstone National Park in 1995, numbers are now above 1500 in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Wolf populations returned to healthier levels because they were no longer being shot and poisoned – but this took years to achieve, and balances are easily upset. Our interventions in the affairs of nature rarely have a positive effect.

Wolves not only have a natural and rightful place in mountain wilderness; they are a crucial part of the ecosystem. Wolves also occupy the landscape of our imaginations, symbolising all that is wild and free. The return of wolf packs to the Rockies offered hope in the face of dire forecasts about the future, and redemption for our lack of wisdom in times past.

Wolf moss, with its misnamed beauty, is a reminder of the long history between wolves and men.

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