Return of the Wolves:The Next Chapter

Dough Smith

Doug Smith Interview
Wolves2/KUED
 
Interviewer
Doug tell me your name and your title.
 
Doug Smith
Douglas Smith. Yellowstone Wolf Project Leader.
 
Interviewer
Do wolves have a place in the West and why?
 
Doug Smith
I think wolves do have a place in the West, maybe what you'd call the new West, not the old West. You know the West of legends and romance, wolves were eliminated and had no place, but attitudes have changed. We're trying to protect habitats more. People have realized the value of large carnivores, not just wolves, but bears and cougars as well. We know ecologically they have a place. We know they're hard. It's tough to co-exist with them, but it's a worthy goal I think ecologically and symbolically. We wiped them out. I'm not sure that was right, and we're trying to bring them back, and most of it hinges on how people think about that, and that's tough because many people still don't agree with it, and old stories die hard.
 
Interviewer
How significant was the reintroduction of wolves to American history?
 
Doug Smith
This is hard to hard to talk about--how significant wolf restoration is, because it's something that I do, so it's self-evaluation, and that's really hard, but some people have called the restoration of wolves to Yellowstone the greatest conservation achievement of the 20th Century. Why is that a big deal? Well it's a big deal because people wiped them out and people brought them back all in the same century, so that's an unusual flip-flop of minds, and people don't change their minds very easily. I know that now, but there's enough people on the "we want them back" side to counteract the old side of "no way, no how."
 
Interviewer
Should wolves be hunted?
 
Doug Smith
Wolves should be hunted. It's a moderate position, but what we've got to get away from is this polarization. That's not helping us. Biologically wolves can withstand hunting, a regulated hunt, and so there's an idea out there. It's partially proven, but there is some… people who disagree with it. There's not a lot of data on it, but hunting wolves, killing problem wolves, increases social tolerance, and we've lost some social tolerance for wolves because they've been listed longer than probably was necessary, and that got people angry, and so hunting is a moderate, middle of the road position, and the hope is that people who have to live with wolves will tolerate them more because they're able to kill a few.
 
Interviewer
Describe the loss of the Cottonwood wolves to your research effort.
 
Doug Smith
Probably one of the most important things about Yellowstone's value to wolf science is that it's an unexploitable population, and there's not many of those around. There are some. A lot of them aren't studied, and it's actually pretty rare. So Yellowstone has this place in science of our wolves are not affected by human hunting. The loss of some of those Cottonwood wolves and others since then has made that claim a little tenuous. I don't think it affects our research terribly, but we don't have a completely unexploited population like we had before. We have a lightly exploited population, and I think it's still the same message that we get out of our research, but that does change it a little bit because we lost track of that pack and knowing what the affect of hunting was on that pack would have been valuable for one. And that was part of our research too. I mean both alphas got killed, but we lost all of the collars. We couldn't track it. What was the fate of that pack after four out of ten got killed? That would have been an interesting question. We didn't get that. And then of course the unexploited idea as well.
 
Interviewer
What do wolves mean to you personally?
 
Doug Smith
Well I've studied and thought about wolves my whole life. I think about wolves every day. Some guys laugh at me for that because most guys think about women every day. So they mean a lot to me personally. I think they are symbolic of true wildness. I mean people in this world crave something real. We know that because they come to Yellowstone and things like grizzly bears and wolves and cougars are a sensation. There's no bars there. This is real, and that means something to me. Re-creating that, we took it away. We brought it back. We're losing everything in this world today. This is an example of the opposite. We brought wildness back, and wolves are hard. Really hard. And so those two things are rare. That's important to me. I feel like that's a contribution, not just to science, not just to making Yellowstone wilder, but to kind of the connection humans have in nature. Heck, we're losing that. We're all about this now--bringing real things back, real nature, is very significant. It's great to be a part of that.
 
Interviewer
Have the elk herds in Yellowstone declined and why?
 
Doug Smith
The elk herd in Yellowstone have declined. That's probably our biggest issue. We have a grant now to locate just that--why have elk herd in Yellowstone declined. It's a complex issue. The best available science right now would indicate that wolves are a part of that, but not the sole source of that. The word on the street, barstool biology is it's all due to wolves. It's complicated. Yellowstone is as predator rich right now as it has been in 100 years. Remember, we didn't just kill the wolves off. We killed the cougars off and the bears were reduced. Over the last 30 to 40 years all those carnivore populations have increased. We've protected them. We introduced wolves. Cougars restored themselves. It's as predator rich as you can find in North America in terms of diversity and density, and the state of Montana was managing for fewer elk. They disagreed with us on elk management. They felt we had too many. They were harvesting cows. So we're in a period of time when elk couldn't do anything but go down, and with this fully restored suite of predators, you're just going to have fewer elk, and that's hard. I'm a hunter. When you live next door to Yellowstone Park you're going to have to deal with predators. I admit that's tough, but the policy of the Park Services is preservation. There's few agencies in this country, possibly none other, that have that as a goal. If you live next to it, that's a part of life.
 
Interviewer
How have wolves changed Yellowstone?
 
Doug Smith
There is no question that wolves, that Yellowstone is different with wolves than without. Many people disagree about the details, but predation is one of the strongest ecological forces out there, and that force really was not in effect, for the most part, through the whole middle part of the twentieth century. Bringing wolves back, bringing cougars back, having more bears, has restored the affect of predation on Yellowstone. It's changed it. Scientists call it a Trophic Cascade. What that means is wolves affect prey, prey affect plants, plants affect many other forms of life. That's the simplification, but we feel those processes are going on. There is some disagreement about the details, but we feel the introduction of wolves, with these other predators coming back, have kicked off a change of events that make Yellowstone very different now than say it was 30 or 40 years ago, and will continue to change Yellowstone for another decade or two to come. So Yellowstone is different. It is in accordance with Park Service policy, which is to restore natural conditions. Wolves and other carnivores have done that. Heck, wolves were the last mammals to be put back to Yellowstone when Christopher Columbus arrived in North America. Wolves were the last missing mammal to restore the same suite as what he found when he came in 1492, so very very significant in terms of park management as well.
 
Interviewer
Why are wolves darted for research? Describe the process.
 
Doug Smith
The Yellowstone are arguably the best-studied wolves in the world, and I get criticized for that routinely. Why do you do this in a national park setting? A national park setting is supposed to be preservation and you're hanging these collars off wolves. Well the point is we live in a controversial world and wolves are among the most controversial wildlife species that you'll find. So all the wolves we reintroduced were collared, and we've maintained collars in every pack since the reintroduction. So this is probably our best opportunity to really learn about wolves. We've advanced our knowledge of them as good as any study in the world, possibly more so. That's important. This is a tough road. We've got to have baseline evidence. As soon as we stop putting information out there, the myths, the fables, the legends take over. Misinformation plagues wolves worse than fishing and hunting stories. People make up stories in the absence of solid information, and knowledge and data are power. I realize it's controversial, but science is still our best way of knowing, and that's what the Yellowstone wolf program is routed in--a scientific understanding of wolves and the ecosystem they live in, and in this day and age you got to have that because there are mighty forces opposing that science and those species and this management paradigm--the Park Service idea of preservation. If you don't have pushback, you will lose ground, so the radio collars we use are well anchored in an understanding that is tough for people to buy into, but you got to have it.
 
Interviewer
Can you describe the process of darting and collaring?
 
Doug Smith
I mean darting and collaring is tough. You know adrenaline rushes are the biggest thing to control. We do it from helicopters, because if you do it with leg hold traps you might catch a grizzly bear and we can't drive up to our traps like you can outside of national parks, so we try and keep collars in each pack. That allowed us to find those same packs each winter, and we freshen up the number of collars in each pack. We try and minimize the amount of time that we do it in, sometimes as low as four or five days a year that we're flying helicopters in a national park, and so we track the packs. When they get in the open we fly over them, take the door off, pull out a dart gun, and shoot them with a tranquilizing dart. In two hours they're back up and with their pack. It doesn't hurt them. It really has helped us a lot to understand wolves. That's our main tool. You got to be able to follow them around. If you can do that, you can get the data. If you can get the data, we might (underline "might") be able to live with them.
 
Interviewer
Is Yellowstone a wilderness?
 
Doug Smith
Yellowstone is a wild land. It is as wild a place as you'll find. I'm not sure anyplace left on the planet really is a wilderness. I mean what does wilderness mean? I think we create these definitions in our head, and they're largely violated in some way or another. Nothing is pristine anymore. There's airborne pollutants. There's global warming. We fly into just about every place. I think Yellowstone is as healthy and protected a landscape as you will find. The wildlife is protected. The vegetation of geology. I think it's as close to a wild, good landscape as you'll find. What's wilderness really, other than that?
 
Interviewer
Is there a place for wolves in this modern era, without distinct travel corridors?
 
Doug Smith
Wolf populations need to be at a certain size or they are going to suffer through things like inbreeding depression and other threats. You can't just have a population of wolves isolated and not connected to other populations. There maybe threats in one place that aren't in place to another, so if this population declines, this one might be able to rescue another. You've got to have wild lands connecting these different populations, and you know it's hard enough to protect the core well lands. Humans are moving in on that. They're choking off these thin threads between recovery areas even more. So that's as big a worry, and I'm on the Mexican Wolf Recovery Team, and we're trying to find three areas of connectivity like we did in the Northern Rockies, and boy down there it's even tougher because the habitat isn't the same. It's dry. There's slightly more people, and finding those threads of connectivity in this day and age and in the future is getting to be daggum tough.
 
Interviewer
Why do wolves get in trouble with ranchers?
 
Doug Smith
Wolves compete with people. They're like us. We're like them. They're hunters. We're hunters. They live in families. But ranchers have a hard time with them because wolves learn what to eat from their parents, but they can learn other prey. You'd be surprised how often they live along side people with livestock, but the fact is they do prey on livestock. It tends to be relatively infrequent, but ya if you're a rancher it can be a problem, and so you've got to deal with problem wolves swiftly. There are nonlethal techniques you can use. The best thing is probably to visit your livestock more. That's tough. That's asking a lot out of people who are already spread thin. But, you know they're hunters, they're not stupid. Livestock can be easier to kill than wild prey. I mean wolves are 80 or 90% of the time not successful at attacking wild prey, so they're looking for a break. Sometime livestock can provide a break. It's tough.
 
Interviewer
Tell the story of wolf #10.
 
Doug Smith
Wolf #10 was a remarkable wolf from the day he came into Yellowstone. We put him in the pen and he looked at us in a way that the other wolves did not look at us. Most other wolves ran to the back of the pen. They ran away from us, and he sometimes would come right out front. He would stop. He would look at you. He would circle around you. He would approach you not threateningly, but boldly and curiously like no other wolf did. He was a big wolf too. He was just a big male who was confident and had a strong personality to go along with it. So he had that… you know they're advanced enough and intelligent enough of a critter that you'll get those personality differences, and he just had that look through you kind of persona. He did. And it was enthralling to go into the pen with him. It really was because he was that pinch in this day and age when everything is tame--world civilized. He was true wild. It was what that feeling people get out of wolves. He had it in spades.
 
Interviewer
Describe what happened to him as well.
 
Doug Smith***
Number ten was our first casualty. I mean holding down a personality like that, you're not going to do very long, so he came out of the pen right away. He was bold. He waited for his mate--his mate that he paired with in the pen, wolf #9. He didn't take off. He wanted to lure her out and then go on with her, and finally she moved out. Her daughter, #7 went her separate way, and 9 and 10 took off. I mean there was no holding him down. I think I'm anthropomorphizing, but for whatever the reason he moved, and he moved out of the park and he moved to near human civilization and the old attitudes reared their head--the attitudes that are out there every day… shoot, shovel, shut up. He was our first casualty. Spring bear hunt; a guy saw him and took him down. That was it. That was the end. His mate was pregnant. She had eight pups. We had to go rescue her and grab the pups, bring her back to a pen, raise the pups in the pen over the summer, turn then lose that fall. It turned out to be a success story, but it started off, "I'm not sure this thing's going to work." Six weeks into it we got a casualty--mortality. It was bleak, and it was an awesome wolf.
 
Interviewer
What do you see for the future of wolves in the West?
 
Doug Smith
The future of wolves in the West very much hinges on compromise, communication, discussion. Those things are tough right now. People. Wolves are one of the most studied mammals in the world right now. People got to get together, and you know I'm in my 18th year here in Yellowstone right now. I thought this stuff would have died down and been mostly figured out by now. It ain't, and that's worrisome. In fact, it's getting worse. People are, you know both sides gather their power, gather their politics, and are still going head to head on it, and that's not going to get us anywhere. And I'm disappointed about that. So this hinges on public attitudes, discussion, and moderation.
 
Interviewer
How many wolf packs are in Yellowstone? And what number was planned for?
 
Doug Smith
We have about ten wolf packs in Yellowstone now. It's fall. We count our packs in early winter. That's about what it was last year. We've had about 100 wolves for three years. The park really doesn't shoot for a certain number of wildlife for any species. We allow nature to take its course. We've had as many as 16 packs, so 10 is a low ebb. We've been below that. But, you know we're going to let nature take its course. That's a wonderful vision. The Park Service is the only place you'll find that. I think the long term is fewer packs. I get asked that question all the time for management purposes. You know 10, 20 years out we could have as few as four to six, because you know Yellowstone has been a place of roller coasters or instability for decades, and right now, year 18, we do see wolves coming to equilibrium with prey. That's good. Hunters have a hard time with that because Yellowstone used to function as an elk farm. It's not doing that as much anymore, so we could have fewer wolves as they equilibrate with the prey resource. But right now we're sitting at about 110 packs.
 
Interviewer
Why is there such a thing as a feeding frenzy?
 
Doug Smith
Well "feeding frenzy" is kind of a human phrase. I mean wolves are in an evolutionary arms race. I mean elk are darn good. Sheep, moose, bison, deer getting away from wolves, and most of the time they win. Almost every wolf, and I've handled hundreds of wolves. Almost every wolf I've handled in North America has been thin. Rarely do you get a fat wolf, because they're just eking it out, going head to head with their prey. It's hard to kill prey. So they've been programmed by evolution to kill everything they can kill, because if you don't get programmed that way by evolution--take advantage of every single opportunity you got--you're going to starve. So every now and then, a very small amount of time, they get a situation where it's belly-deep snow, it's a hard winter and prayer a week, and they can make more kills than they need to just get by. A better term than "feeding frenzy" is surplus killing. It's rare, but it happens because of the programming in wolves. So they get into a herd of sheep and they kill 15 at night. Same thing, but they'll eat it all. The reason they don't eat it all is people bump them off. They kill in the morning, especially if it's livestock. But we had a wolf pack kill five elk in one day. They cleaned up every bit of that because we left them undisturbed. Now keep in mind scavengers ate a lot of it too because they couldn't get to all the kills, but they will clean those kills up. So maybe it's not surplus killing. It's just opportunistic killing, and you got to do that in nature because life is hard and you're going to take advantage of the breaks you get.

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