At dusk, no stray lights or sounds of civilization disturb the tranquillity of Jack Lynch's homestead, a log cabin perched near the timberline in the Gallatin mountains of southern Montana. But as the snowcapped peaks in the distance slowly fade to black, a pack of wolves begins circling restlessly just behind the cabin. The pack leader, a hulking male with a magnificent silver ruff and his tail held high, has cornered a female and is snarling and snapping mercilessly. From his living room window, Lynch stares, momentarily transfixed, at the confrontation. Then he opens a door and, like a chiding schoolmaster, wags his finger at the male, who backs off without protest. "These wolves could eat me alive," Lynch jokes, "but I guess they haven't figured that out yet."
Or perhaps the wolves simply accept him as one of their own. Lynch, 65, and his wife, Mary, 57, share a 160-acre section of wilderness with 85 wolves, separated by family groupings in 19 10,000-square-foot fenced enclosures. The majority are buffalo wolves, the fearsome lobos of frontier lore. For the past 27 years Lynch has protected and nurtured three generations of the endangered breed, whose genetic kin are extinct in the wild. "This is the final holdout for the buffalo wolf," Lynch says. "If they die out here, it's the end of the line. There is no Noah's Ark for them, no separate creation."
Wary of strangers, the Lynch's lead a solitary life and are on constant alert for trespassers. "There are a lot of folks in these parts who would love to hang a wolf pelt on their wall," explains Lynch. Like the wolves, Lynch is hypersensitive and can be prickly on occasion. But over time he reveals a quick mind as well as a playful sense of humor. And when it comes to social etiquette, Lynch maintains that people could learn a thing or two from wolves. "Wolves know the meaning of respect," he says, "which is more than can be said of many humans."
A few years ago Lynch inadvertently failed to heed the wolf code of respect, at the expense of a wolf named Lupi. "Lupi had never lost a fight in his life until some other wolves ganged up and really stomped him one night," Lynch recalls. "The next morning he looked pathetic, and I couldn't help laughing, which was a terrible mistake. After that, Lupi felt so put down he wouldn't show his face for five days."
Over the years Lynch has gained as much firsthand knowledge of wolves as any man alive. Unafraid of his charges, he has, on occasion, even slept with the wolves in their lairs. "The first time I crawled into a den, 10 wolves scattered instantly," he says. "Then they realized it was just old Jack, and they started licking me and chewing on my ears. Finally they all laid on top of me, and I discovered they are very fitful sleepers. Somebody would growl. Then somebody would snort. More than once during the night I woke up with a paw in my face."
Though half a dozen wolf-bite scars on his arms are a legacy of times Lynch has been "disciplined for showing bad manners," he says his life has never been seriously threatened. Moreover, Lynch has come to regard some of the wolves as trusted friends. When Lummox, a ferocious pack leader, suffered a heart attack two years ago, Lynch cried as he cradled the dying wolf in his arms.
Living with the wolves, Lynch has found a sense of belonging he says he has never felt in the company of men. Abandoned by his mother as an infant, he was adopted and raised by an Irish immigrant railroad worker and his wife in Champaign, III. "I was a wild kid who didn't care about anything or anybody," he says. In 1940, at 16, he lied about his age to enlist in the Army Air Corps and subsequently flew 132 fighter missions in China and Burma. World War II left him shell-shocked, he says, and back home he drifted from job to job, including a stint as a sulphur prospector in Mexico. By the late '50s he had settled into a lucrative position as superintendent of a large heavy-construction firm in Milwaukee and had begun training and racing sled dogs as a hobby. Then, in October 1960, he read a short article about Dr. E.H. McCleery, a country physician who maintained a sanctuary for buffalo wolves in Kane, Pa.
On a whim, Lynch took a few days off and drove more than 500 miles to meet McCleery, then a frail and impoverished 93-year-old. As a young man, McCleery had fought a government-sanctioned wildlife extermination campaign, aimed at predatory animals who were viewed as a threat to livestock, by offering trappers a bounty to capture live wolves for him. When Lynch appeared on his doorstep, McCleery had 32 buffalo wolves in residence on a 50-acre farm and was racked with worry about who would become their second keeper. "When I saw the wolves, I couldn't believe my eyes," Lynch says. "Here was a vestige of real Americana that would have been destroyed except for this little 110-lb. man. I knew immediately that I had my life's work cut out for me."
Fighting to Save An Endangered Breed,
By David Grogan - People Magazine 1988