Interviewer Dave tell me your name and your title.
Dave Mech My name is Dave Mech. I'm a Senior Research Scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey.
Interviewer What is the status of wolves in North America?
Dave Mech In North America the status is quite good. I mean there's probably 60,000 in Canada, somewhere around 10,000 in Alaska, and then they're recovering the Northern United States, somewhere around 4,500 in the upper Great Lakes area: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan. And somewhere around, well the official estimate right now in the Northern Rockies is about 1,750. My guess is there's more like 2,000. It gets really hard to get a good count the more you have, and so anyway somewhere between 1,750 and 2,000.
Interviewer What have you learned about wolves over the last decades?
Dave Mech Well we've learned a lot. One of the most important things is just how well they do when you translocate then and put them in a new place, and how they're able to repopulate very quickly and settle into their new areas. This has been very successful, for example, the Yellowstone reintroduction.
Interviewer What is the biggest misconception about wolves?
Dave Mech Probably the biggest misconception by the general public now is that wolves are dangerous to humans. And you know they do take a human now and then… very very seldom. Like we have two good examples in North America in recent years, that's it.
Interviewer Why are wolves so controversial?
Dave Mech Well I can't tell you why wolves are so controversial. You know there's a lot of guesses. They're kind of like the wild dog--everybody has a dog and they know dogs, and so they like wolves as being sort of the original wild dog. And wolves live in packs and they howl, and all these things seem to grab the imagination of the public, sometimes in a good way. A lot of people see wolves as quite charismatic, but others see the wolves as quite evil because they have to kill animals for their living, but that's about the best I can do on that.
Interviewer What makes a great research biologist?
Dave Mech What makes a good research biologist? Well, and when it comes to research on wolves, persistence is a good trait to have. Wolves are very difficult to study because first of all they, in the last 30 years most of them have been in the wilderness, and so you have to get into the wilderness and study them, but they're very elusive in most places. So we've had to catch them in traps and put radios on them and follow them from aircraft and that kind of thing. In Yellowstone it's a lot easier simply because it's an open area and wolves are less elusive here probably because they're protected from humans.
Interviewer What are your feelings regarding delisting and hunting?
Dave Mech I don't have any feelings about delisting and hunting. I think the states now have management responsibilities for the wolves, and just like states manage other species like bears and cougars and deer and moose and elk and all that, they'll manage wolves. So I think both populations are doing well, and their management is in good hands.
Interviewer How is the West changed biologically with the coming of wolves?
Dave Mech I think the main way that the West has changed biologically because of wolves really has to do with their predation on livestock. Now that's not a huge change because cougars and bears and coyotes and all prey on livestock here, but for some reason the public really looks at the wolf as more demonic than all these other creatures put together, and that's sort of changed the outlook of the ranchers and the general public residents in the western areas. It doesn't mean it's a valid fear really, because if you look at the number of livestock killed each year by wolves it's a tiny tiny fraction of the total livestock in wolf range, and it's even a tiny fraction of those that are killed by anything. But the perception of wolves being really very very hard on livestock is quite real here.
Interviewer Is the wolf population recovered and are there too many wolves?
Dave Mech The wolf population is recovered both officially, that is there were some official criteria for wolf recovery, and the wolf population both here in the West and also in the upper Midwest have long ago met those biological criteria and exceeded them greatly. For example, in the West the recovery criterion was about 300 wolves, and as I say we have 1,750 or so now minimum. So they have recovered very well and their population is probably going to continue to increase.
Interviewer Are there too many wolves?
Dave Mech The question of, "Is there too many wolves?" is a matter of judgment. For some people there are not too many wolves. In fact, for some people there is not enough wolves. For other people there are way too many wolves, and it just depends on a person's perspective.
Interviewer What do you see for the future of wolves worldwide?
Dave Mech I think the future for wolves is quite good worldwide. I mean all of the places where they have been harassed and actually persecuted and even exterminated, in most of those places wolves are recovering now. I'm talking about not just in the Northern U.S., but for example in Italy their numbers have quadrupled or quintupled in the last couple of decades. They've moved on into France. There's some coming into Switzerland. They've moved from Poland into Germany. They're really doing quite well. Spain has over 2,000 wolves and even India has probably a thousand. And they were never really reduced in areas like most of the ex Soviet Union. So I think the future is quite good. I think the tendency to try to exterminate wolves is sort of gone now in the world, and that's why even though wolves are considered dangerous to livestock by a lot of people and all, I don't think there's going to be the outright total persecution that there was in the past.
Interviewer Tell me about the status of the Alaska wolves.
Dave Mech The status of wolves in Alaska is that they're doing extremely well. The population estimates there range between I think 8,000 and 12,000 something like that. And they are managed by the state of Alaska. There is public hunting and trapping for fur and that type of thing, and there's about… I don't know what the current records are, but roughly 1,500 to maybe 1,700 a year taken out of those roughly 10,000, which is a totally sustainable amount.
Interviewer Tell me about your Ellesmere Study and the status of that pack. Tell me how long you've been following those Ellesmere wolves and then what their status is.
Dave Mech I started studying on Ellesmere Island, which is far northern Canada; it's about at 80 degrees north latitude, in 1986. And I was up there on an assignment from National Geographic Magazine to do a story on the island itself and ran into these wolves that turned out were totally tame. They were tame because nobody hunts or traps them there. They're about a couple hundred miles north of the most northern Inuit Village, and so they never have been persecuted there, and were totally tame to people. That's the only place in the world that there's any population like that. And having discovered them I realized the research potential. Every place else we had to study wolves we'd have to look at them in the winter from an airplane or put radio collars on them and that kind of thing. But here I could live right with these wolves, and so every summer from 1986 until 2010 I went to Ellesmere Island and lived with a pack of wolves. At the time, these were always in summer, and the pack ranged around maybe six adults and five pups roughly. I mean it varied with the years. Sometimes there were hardly any there. During the winter… Well there's a weather station on Ellesmere year-round, and during the winter the people in the weather station see wolves, and the pack sizes that they see in the winter are much larger. For example, I just got a report… I actually got a picture of wolves from that island where there's at least 22 wolves in picture in that one pack. So it's a very large pack in the winter. I don't totally understand what's happening there between summer and winter. I do know that the wolves there sometimes have two or three different dens. I only studied then at one den, or a couple of dens over the years, but mostly at one, and because it's very tough to get around in that area underground and the dens are far apart, but I did discover a total of three I think in 2010. And those dens, each one seems to have a pack of wolves and they're raising their pups in the den, and then what must happen is in the fall all those wolves get together into one great big pack, and then they operate like that all during the winter as one big pack of wolves, which is not something we see down here, and I don't really fully understand it yet.
Interviewer Can you talk about the subarctic wolves around the Great Slave Lake? We did some filming up there. That's why I'm asking that question.
Dave Mech The wolves in the subarctic are in, that would be northern Canada, but not as far north as Ellesmere Island. That would be like around sixty five degrees north latitude--something on that order. The wolves there are doing quite well. Their main prey is caribou. The wolves, for example farther north on Ellesmere Island are preying primarily on muskoxen because that's what's primarily there, muskoxen and Arctic Hares, in the Northwest Territories in the subarctic area. It's basically the same wolf. In fact a lot of them are white, just like on Ellesmere, but their main prey there is caribou, but they do prey somewhat on muskoxen, but there just aren't a lot of muskoxen up there and so their main prey is caribou. They're doing very well. Many, if not most of those wolves migrate to the south during the winter. They follow the caribou herds. Caribou herds migrate as far as 300 kilometers south, and wolves follow them for the winter and then move back in the spring.
Interviewer What would you say are the greatest threats to wolves?
Dave Mech Humans are the greatest threat to wolves most places in the world. That is, the highest amount of mortality anywhere where there are wolf populations near people, the greatest mortality is due to human causes. There are really not many natural causes of wolf mortality. There are not really many natural causes. They kill each other. Some of them starve to death, and there are scattered diseases that take wolves now and then, but not in great numbers.
Interviewer I'm just going to ask you that one more time. Tell me what the greatest threats to wolves are.
Dave Mech I'd say that the greatest threat to wolves worldwide is really the human being because wolves do get into trouble in areas where there's humans, and humans won't tolerate that and so they kill a lot of wolves that way. But in terms of natural causes of mortality, those amount to wolves killing each other is one of the greatest causes. Scattered diseases like Parvovirus in some areas, Mange, K-9 distemper, that kind of thing--but they don't take out large numbers of wolves.
Interviewer Can you talk about that Druid Peak pack here in Yellowstone and the disease that took them and how they were once one of the top packs now dwindled to zero from what I'm told.
Dave Mech Ya there was a… quite large pack here in Yellowstone Park, the Druid Peak pack. Very many people saw them. They did live close to the road and all and their numbers were often in the twenties and all, and they flourished for many years and then I would say maybe 10, 12 years, something like that, maybe more. And then gradually the pack dwindled and they were attacked by other wolf packs and some of the key animals in the Druid Peak pack were killed off, others dispersed, as happens in most packs--the young disperse--and eventually all that was left was one or two survivors that moved into other packs or started their own so that currently really there is no formal Druid Peak pack anymore.