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Fiction

The dangers of Yellowstone

From the Lab Lit Young Authors series

Sophia N. and Colette G.  15 October 2019

www.lablit.com/article/642

He seemed way too eager for the patience required to work in the field: a recipe for disaster

Editor's Note: We are pleased to present the second story in our Young Authors series, a collection of six pieces of short fiction written by pairs of American eighth-graders as part of a special English class devoted to laboratory literature. You can read all about this interesting project in the accompanying Editorial. Use the navigation buttons at the top right to catch up.

I still remember when I first saw the wolves. I heard the crackling of the twigs behind our farmhouse, and I ran out to see their beautiful pack glide across the forest floor. At only eight years old, I was already captivated by the way that they all worked together in a pack. After that, my entire life revolved around wolves.

I was determined to work with wolves when I was older. Growing up in a family of scientists, I was expected to carry on with a career in the field of science. I went to the University of Utah and later attended the graduate program at Yellowstone Ecological Research Center (YERC). After completing that program, I became the head ecologist there, with my main focus on protecting the gray wolves.

When I first started at YERC, I had no idea that the wolves were in danger. I learned on my first day that they needed my help and that helping them would be hard.

**********

“Hello, I’m Zoe Brown, the head ecologist here at YERC,” I said to the packed audience. “Over the years, Yellowstone National Park has become one of the most visited parks in America. It has everything, the beautiful landscape, the magnificent animals, the devoted visitors. It's supposed to be a safe place for all animals, especially the wolves, right?”

I pause for effect. “When the wolves are in the park, they are protected. They can’t be hunted, they have a home, there are a limited amount of predators, and most importantly, they aren’t afraid of people. But when they cross outside the invisible boundary of the park, they aren’t protected. They can be hunted, they have no home, there are more predators, and most importantly, they aren’t afraid of people.”

As I looked around the room, I saw the expressions of curiosity, fear and concern on the people’s faces. I was giving a presentation to about fifty students, interns and even adults that were interested in becoming part of the ecology team at YERC. I had spent hours working on this presentation, with the hopes of provoking the students to help protect the wolves that live within the park's boundaries.

“There is only one difference between the people in the parks and the people waiting outside, but it makes no difference to the wolves,” I said. “The people inside are visitors or scientists, trying to learn about them and help them. The people outside are hunters, who are just trying to get their fur coats for winter. You all are here because you want to be a voice for the wolves. By joining us, you can help them find their own voice. Thank you, and have a wonderful day at the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center!”

I watched as people filed out of the room, dreading what I knew was coming next. I’d heard through the grapevine that my boss, Dr. Morris, had decided to give me a partner for a new project. I was perfectly fine on my own, but he has a system. When he assigns partners, it’s always a newbie paired with an older resident. He thinks it gives the newcomers more experience, but I always end up pulling the entire workload.

**********

“Zoe? Hey, Zoe!”

Here it comes...

“Hello, Dr. Morris.”

“Come join me in my office for a second. I was impressed with your talk to the graduate students earlier – it was very entertaining.”

“I hope I didn’t bore anyone,” I muttered. “My speech went a little over time.”

“No, not at all,” he replied, as we reached the door of his office. I could see a young man waiting there. “Zoe, this is Logan Miller, the most recent addition to our team. He’ll be your partner for your new project.”

I couldn’t believe it. Of course, I’d been paired with the one guy that every single person on my team had been complaining about.

The young man sprang out of his chair and scrambled over to the door. He was tall, about my age, and had a huge mop of red hair stuck on his head. From what I had heard, depite having earned his PhD, this guy was the worst partner you could ever have.

“Hello, Zoe!” Logan greeted me with an outstretched, enthusiastic hand. I eyed him from head to toe as I slowly returned the favor. His hand shook mine so violently, I thought it might sprain my wrist. He had a huge ear-to-ear smile across his face as he stared at me wide-eyed and excited. He seemed way too eager for the patience required to work in the field: a recipe for disaster.

“Why don’t we talk about the new assignment,” Dr. Morris said, breaking the tension. “Come take a seat, both of you.”

After Logan sat down, the first thing I noticed was his inability to stay still. His knee was jiggling right away, my biggest pet peeve. As his knee bobbled, the entire bench that we were sharing started to shake. I decided to ignore him and just focus on the assignment. After all, I would be doing all the work. That’s the way it works around here.

“Your project,” Dr Morris was saying, “will be to track and study gray wolves near the Park borders. You will need to conduct the same research on the wolves that are inside, and the wolves that are outside the boundaries. We want to find out if there is a difference between the two, and if so, what it is.”

I was entranced. I could work out in the field again, something that I haven’t been able to do in a long time. After my promoted to head ecologist, most of my assignments had been monitoring the rest of my team. I was also in charge of editing everyone else’s the research papers, which was always a chore. I noticed that it was even more unberable when it was someone else’s work, instead of my own.

“When do we start?”, I asked. “And how long will Logan and I be partners?”

If I have to spend more than a month with Logan, I thought I might run away and live with the wolves instead.

“You guys will be together until we have conclusive findings. However long that takes you, that’s how long you two will be working together. Any other questions?”

“Just one.” I couldn’t take any more of Logan’s fidgeting – I couldn't work with him, and that was that. “How do you expect us to be productive in the lab if he can’t stay still for five minutes?”

I stood up. “If you need me, I’ll be in my office, trying to figure out how to do this by myself.”

I stormed out of the room, and I’m not going to lie: the look on Logan’s face made me feel a little bad. I probably was a little too dramatic, and I started to wonder if I’d stepped out of line. Maybe he couldn’t help his fidgeting. I considered giving him a try, but first I needed to find out how bad this guy really was. I asked various colleagues who’d worked with him before. The consensus seemed to be that he was too loud, and couldn’t sit still. But almost everyone acknowledged that he was very dedicated to his work, and clearly cared a lot about the wolves. I finally decided on giving him a try, but first I had to lay down the law.

**********

When I got to Logan’s desk, he was furiously typing something on his laptop.

“Hey, Logan,” I said. “I’m really sorry about earlier. That was unprofessional, and definitely out of line. I hope you know that it’s nothing against you – I just used to working on my own.”

That was not totally, but he didn’t need to know that.

“It’s ok,” he said. “I know my reputation around here isn’t the best. I’m trying to change though, I don’t want to be known as someone who is impossible to work with.”

So he isn’t completely clueless, I thought to myself. “I want to work with you, but I have some rules. Firstly, we need to share the work equally – I will not be doing more than my fair share. Second, you need to take it down a notch.”
He smiled. I guessed it wasn't the first time he’d heard that. “If you’re loud, not only will you scare the wolves away, but it’s hard for the other scientists to focus and get work done. If you follow these rules, I’m sure we will have a great time together. But if not, you probably don’t have much of a future here at YERC. Looking forward to working with you!”

As I sauntered out of the room, I was pretty sure I’d made my point.

**********

The next day, I was up and ready at 4:30. I had gotten all the materials ready the night before, and all that remained was to take them out to the Jeep. YERC had some of the best equipment available for just about any research project, including making a very energizing cup of coffee. I made two coffees and walked down the hall to go get Logan. Surprisingly, he was awake and had already moved most of the equipment to the truck.

“Good morning!” he said. “Thought I’d get a head start so we would be good to go as soon as you were ready. If there’s one thing I learned from my mom, it’s to always be more prepared then your partner is.”

Pleasantly surprising. “So your mom was a scientist too?”

“Yeah, and she was super interested in the wolves as well,” Logan said. “She even had Dr. Morris as a partner. Apparently, they helped bring the population of gray wolves up in the park. My mom was definitely one of the reasons I became an ecologist – she inspired me to learn about and help the wolves stay strong as a species.” He stood there for a second, then unlocked the doors of the van.

“Me too. I come from a long line of relatives in science-related fields. I was pretty much forced to become some sort of scientist.”

“Sounds like we have more in common than we thought.” Logan slammed the trunk of the van shut. “We’re all packed up, and ready to roll.”
As he hopped into the driver's seat, I gave him a hard stare. He immediately scampered out of the car and into the passenger seat. He tossed the keys into my hands and I started off towards the research station. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Logan was silent. He was staring out the window, seemingly in awe of the beautiful scenery.

I looked in front of me again and pounded on the breaks. The van came to a halt as Logan and I took in the giant herd of bison that was right in front of us. There were hundreds of them grazing in the fields, not caring that we were there. Logan quickly grabbed his camera from the back where all the equipment was and started taking photos of these majestic creatures. They had a thick reddish-brown coat that covered their faces and chests and a large tuft for a beard. They had horns too, some larger than others, and big dark eyes. I would have loved to watch them all day, and Logan seemed to feel the same, but after a few minutes, we went on to try to spot the wolves.

As we continued to drive down the winding path, a fork in the road appeared, revealing two smaller hiking paths. To our right was a dryer, mountainous part of the park, and to our left was a large forest. I knew the wolves would be in the forest, but something else caught my eye. I looked to my left, and to my dismay, I saw a large yellow sign that read “GAME SEASON”. We had reached the park boundaries, meaning that the wolves were no longer safe. This was where Christopher Grey lived, the most violent hunter I have ever met.

**********

Chris and I had grown up together, best friends. We used to talk for hours about how we were going to live with the wolves and went to the zoo almost every day for two years to watch them.

Then one day, he changed. He didn’t care about the wolves, didn’t want to go to the zoo anymore, and even talked about killing them.

I didn’t learn until years later that one of his favorite lambs had been killed by a wolf. His family eventually moved away, and I didn’t see him for years. Then, four years ago, I encountered him in the field. I recognized him almost immediately, and we talked for a while. I then left to go look for the wolves, when I heard a rustling in the bushes. It was a baby wolf and its mother, the perfect research subjects. I moved back to study them, and before I knew it, a gunshot made me jump out of my skin. I whipped around to see Chris, holding a gun, and looking at the baby wolf, who was no longer breathing. I couldn’t believe what I had just seen, thoughts racing through my mind as I ran back to my van.

After that, the game season was not only a time to worry about the wolves, but also to worry about Chris.

**********

“Why did we stop?” Logan asked.

I quickly snapped back into reality. “Oh, no reason – just reading the sign. Let's go, we have a to get through before sundown.”

I hoped I was hiding my mood from him. Even though I have been working with wolves for many years, I have never been able to feel completely safe in the forests, with the memory of Chris haunting me.

I pulled over on the side of the road, and we retrieved the equipment from the trunk. I locked the van and we started toward the tall, dense forest ahead. We had to be especially careful not to talk, which might scare the wolves or other animals. I was pleased to learn that Logan was extremely good at his job and noticed things that even I didn’t see. When we finally saw the wolves, they were drinking water from a small brook in a clearing of the forest. He pointed out how one wolf was slightly limping, and how another had a flesh wound that turned his beautiful silky coat red with blood near his neck. Throughout the day, he gave me cause to be impressed by his knowledge, and I found I was actually looking forward to doing more work with him.

But I was relieved that the game season had only just started. If Chris had been there, we might have had a very different experience with the wolves that day.

**********

Three weeks later, after spending hours in the forests, we had gathered some conclusive data on the wolves. We learned about all the harmful situations the wolves were in, with hunters never far behind. We learned that during game season, wolves were being shot down and hunted every day. Sometimes, they were only wounded by the bullets and left injured. In those situations, they slowly starved because they were not able to hunt for food or search for water. Logan and I worked hard on the project day and night, trying to find ways to restrict the hunters in any way, shape, or form. Every solution seemed hopeless. Once the wolves unknowingly wandered outside the invisible boundary of the park, they were fair game for the hunters. The best solution we could think of was putting up a fence, which we could not do, as it defeated the purpose of the national park.

After yet more research, we finally found something that might work. If we couldn’t restrict the wolves inside the park, we might try to keep the hunters as far away from the park boundaries as possible, using a buffer zone – a stretch of land around the park boundary that restricted the hunters from getting too close to the park border. This left a stretch of land where the wolves could still wander outside the park boundaries and could not be legally harmed by the hunters. This buffer zone also had its flaws; if the wolves wandered out of the park boundaries and then outside the buffer zone, they were compromised. Still, we thought we had something great, and took it to Dr. Morris.

“It’s a great idea in theory,” Dr Morris said with a sigh. “But there is one major setback in your plan. Montana law doesn’t allow the creation of a buffer zone. The best we have is the hunting limit.”

Logan and I couldn’t believe it. We had spent so many hours on a plan that we thought would work, only to find out that it wasn’t a possibility. We had to do something to help these wolves, or we would have failed our mission. We headed back to our desks, now in the same room, to brainstorm some more ideas. We were silent for almost an hour until Logan finally spoke.

“I just had a thought. What if we start a GoFundMe for the wolves? That way, we can get the public aware, and raise some money while we are at it!” He had a glimmer in his eye, like a toddler staring at a new toy.

“Great idea,” I said, quietly impressed by his creativity. If we couldn’t save the wolves with a buffer zone, we could still spread the word. Almost four million people visit Yellowstone National Park each year, and I knew most were the sort who would care about animals. They would understand the wolves needed help, and if we were lucky, we could raise awareness wider still.

After several weeks of hanging flyers around the park and giving many presentations interested visitors, our GoFundMe page had grown in popularity. One of our frequent visitors, Karol, even created a FaceBook page for us. The page she created was made in remembrance of the wolves that were slaughtered by hunters for recreational use. I was overjoyed with our progress: the public was on our side at last.

**********

A few years later, all of our hard work had finally paid off. With the money raised from the GoFundMe, we took our issues to the courts and, after a lot of persuasion, got a buffer zone placed around the park. We also extended the boundaries of the park on one side, to allow the bison to have a larger field to graze in, and for the wolves to have more space to roam without the fear of getting shot.

As for Christopher, I haven’t seen him for two years. Karol found footage at YERC of him hunting young wolves and their mothers. After she posted that online, and it got over 10 million views, Chris left Montana, and never came back.

Logan and I became good friends, and we meet up every once and a while in our free time. Together, we helped change the course of many gray wolves’ lives – it wasn’t a permanent solution, but it was a start. And who knows: maybe one day all our hard work at YERC will end up making the hunting of grey wolves illegal, finally securing their safety once and for all.