Ed Bangs My name is Ed Bangs and I was the former Wolf Recovery Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Interviewer Tell me about the early years leading to reintroduction and why were they so difficult.
Ed Bangs Well the early years of wolf recovery started long before I got here. The Park Service looked at putting wolves in the park as early as '66. There were actually meetings trying to locate wolves in the '70s, and so all the planning theory of wolves started many many decades ago by other people. I actually got to Montana because there was wolves actually denned in Glacier Park and on the Blackfeet Reservation. They killed livestock in '87--extremely controversial. Everything kind of went bad. The Fish and Wildlife Service decided to staff a wolf program out of Montana, and I came down from Alaska in 1988 to lead that effort.
Interviewer Why are wolves so controversial?
Ed Bangs In the land mammals in modern history, wolves and humans have the greatest overlap and the greatest distribution, and so wolves, because their social structure is like us, and sometimes they compete directly with us for livestock and big game animals, it's very easy to see ourselves in wolves, so wolves are the flag or the religious symbol that people use to talk to other people about their values. And so wolves are just basically an animal. They do some good things, some bad things--what people think, but they're highly symbolic to people. And just think of how you heard about wolves. My guess is Little Red Riding Hood when you were three by your mom reading you a fairy tale. So they're so deeply embedded in our culture, we use them just as a symbol of human values, and that's what makes them so special is we find them so fascinating.
Interviewer Some of the earlier meetings with ranchers recorded were extremely volatile. Tell me about them and why.
Ed Bangs*** Well there's a reason we got rid of all the wolves. My agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, got its start to kill the last wolves in the western United States in the 1920's, and the reason for that is that wolves are a magnificent, big-hearted animal, and they're a predator. And so they kill things like moose and caribou and sheep and deer and elk, and they also kill livestock. And so a lot of people in the West came up to me during these meetings and they would say, "My grandfather killed the last wolf in this county, this river bottom, this area, and there were hundreds of those guys," and they would then say, "Are you telling me that my grandfather's values are wrong?" And these are traditional ranching families. And I'm like, "No, I'm telling you that times change." And so our society decided to get rid of wolves because they do cause real problems sometimes, and the thought of bringing them back is not only adding a little bit of extra work to the rancher, an economic burden, it's also saying that values that your family history once held as sacred aren't that way anymore, that maybe those folks didn't have it right. And so I think as a person it's easy to understand why you'd be thinking why does some New Yorker want me to suffer and doesn't respect my heritage and my culture and my family values? That's why it's emotional. It's perfectly understandable.
Interviewer How has the reintroduction effort fared? Was it successful?
Ed Bangs Oh ya, I mean it's important to remember that the reintroduction itself took decades to get going, and the fact that wolves were coming on their own anyway is what caused it to happen politically. Our planning indicated there would be wolves in Yellowstone Park probably within 50 years. (Interruption)
Interviewer How has the reintroduction effort fared? Was it successful?
Ed Bangs*** Well the reintroduction effort had been talked about for a long time. The Park Service mentioned '66. Some of the early recovery plans talked about the potential for reintroduction as part of the restoration program to accelerate it--very controversial, but it took decades of work by hundreds of people to building political support for it. I think the main thing that drove the reintroduction was the fact that wolves were coming on their own anyway. We'd had wolves show up in Northwest Montana. There had been lone wolves seen in Central Idaho, and so people knew that wolves were coming, and the question was no longer, would there be wolves or wouldn't there be wolves? The question is how would the wolves be managed? And so people saw an advantage to reintroducing them and using the experimental population rule to manage problems, which wolves always cause some problems. So the reintroduction effort was amazingly successful. We reintroduced wolves for two years. They took off. When I got here in 1988 there were 10 wolves in Glacier Park. When we did the reintroduction, there were only about 40 wolves in Northwest Montana. There were virtually no wolves, and that population had flattened out. When we reintroduced wolves, they took off. They did great as we knew they would. And when we delisted wolves in 2011 there were about 2,000 wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains in five states, so it was an amazingly successful program. Part of that was you just got really smart by just working on it, but in truth it's because wolves are such great animals. They're very hardy. They got great hearts. The populations are very resilient. They're experts of all time at finding new places to live and to make a living, and so wolves themselves, the reintroduction gave them a boost, but really that's all they needed. They could do the rest on their own.
Interviewer Are there too many wolves?
Ed Bangs For some people there are too many wolves; other people there's not enough wolves, and this all goes back to how people view wolves. If you think wolves are balancing nature and it's cool to have them running around, there's almost never enough--kind of like money in the bank--you can never have too much because money's a good thing. If you're the person that's having livestock problems, or if you're the person that didn't get their elk this year, then you can say there's too many wolves because they're negatively impacting you. So whether there's too many or not enough, it's pretty much solely a function of human values and how people are affected by wolves.
Interviewer Explain the process of transplanting wolves from Canada.
Ed Bangs It basically wildlife reintroductions are a dime a dozen--they've been used to restore bighorn sheep and deer and elk. The elk that the wolves in Canada ate came from Yellowstone Park. We've reintroduced wild turkeys, all kinds of fish. Reintroductions are a dime a dozen, but they're tough to do for very controversial species like wolves because the human emotion around them is so strong. So reintroductions themselves are pretty standard stuff. So you usually just grab a bunch of animals, dump them off in a new place, and they take care of themselves. And that's what we did in Idaho and those wolves did great. In Yellowstone we wanted to keep the wolves in the park if we could because the park boundary is pretty close to areas with livestock and people, and in the early years we wanted the wolves, if we could, to stay in the park, and one of the ways to do that is to put them in a pen, let them kind of settle down in that area and then turn them lose, and that was extremely successful. Most of the wolves did stay in the park. But everyone knew if you put wolves in Yellowstone Park there would be wolves everywhere within 500 miles of Yellowstone Park within a few years, and that is where the rubber meets the road. How do you manage the conflicts that real wolves bring? Real wolves cause real problems that need real solutions--that's the tough part of wolf management.
Interviewer Are Alberta wolves a different species than the original Yellowstone wolves?
Ed Bangs No, a wolf is a wolf is a wolf. There is a general rule that as you get close to the equator wolf size gets smaller, and that's certainly true for all mammals, and so historically the wolves that, lets say, lived in Central Wyoming were probably on average a little bit smaller than the wolves that lived in Alberta, but solely as average, so they're the same animal. They go back and forth. We've radio-collared wolves that have gone. Actually a trapper who caught a wolf for us for the reintroduction caught one of our radio-collared wolves back on his trap line in Alberta a couple years later because it naturally walked that far. So a wolf is a wolf. They're the same wolf. People claim that, but only the people that don't like wolves. They try to find a reason to declare them weeds.
Interviewer Any truth to the stereotypes such as bigger, more fierce, etc.?
Ed Bangs Well there are a lot of stereotypes about wolves, and so what you try and do… If you don't like wolves, you try to assign all of the human values to them that are negative, so you talk about them being cruel. You talk about them being wasteful, abnormally large, spreading parasites everywhere, attacking people--all that kind of stuff. So basically those are all just human exaggerations to drive home a value. I hate wolves because… If you love wolves, then you talk about all of the other stuff. Wolves are great family members. They are beautiful majestic animals. They're efficient hunters. They call out the sick and the weak and the stupid. And those are values that people who like wolves talk about because they want to see wolves in a positive light. In truth, wolves are just wolves. They're completely honest who they are. They're big, large predators. They kill big game animals. Sometimes they kill livestock. They very rarely attack people but they do sometimes, but it's very rare. They have parasites and diseases that people can get, very rare but that does happen. So there's always a spec of truth in all these assertions, but what people do is blow them completely out of proportion to support their opinion and their values. So what we did in the program, and I think we did a good job of it, is we use science to put as many facts out there as we could about what wolves really are--the good, the bad, and the ugly, and wolves are just wolves, so independent of themselves they have no good or bad qualities. They're just the way they are. It's people that assign values of good and bad to their behaviors. If a wolf kills an elk that's a good thing if you want to save a willow plant somewhere. If a wolf kills an elk that you were going to shoot and put in your freezer, then that's a bad thing. And so we assign values to wolves. They are just who they are.
Interviewer Should wolves be hunted?
Ed Bangs I believe wolves should be hunted. The goal of the program from the first day we started was to restore a viable wolf population in suitable habitat in the Northern Rocky Mountains, manage wolves so there's minimum conflicts with humans, and transition wolves into the same kind of management that has been applied successfully for many many decades to elk, to deer, to black bears and mountain lions, which includes opportunities for the public to participate in management, either by hunting or defense of property or those kind of rules. I believe that wolves do cause real problems. They need real solutions. And one of the solutions that has proven to be most effective in North America is the North American model of allowing states and tribes to manage wildlife, resident wildlife that isn't threatened or endangered, and to allow for public harvest in that management. I think if you talk to people about mountain lions, which actually kill more big game per animal than a wolf does, people don't have the strong emotions about mountain lions, even though at one time they were called Devil Cats. We had bounties on them and we tried to kill them all. But people can hunt mountain lions. They feel that there's management. They feel that they can participate, so those animals have a value and problems can be dealt with on the local level. I think the best vision for wolves is for people to just think of them, "Oh ya, wolves and mountain lions--we have them around, it's not a big deal," and I think hunting can help make that happen because it can reduce conflicts in an inexpensive way and allow local people to participate.
Interviewer How do you think delisting will affect wolves of the West?
Interviewer I think wolves really don't care whether they're delisted or not. I think wolves are just wolves and they do wolf things and they don't worry about the future, which I think is a blessing sometimes. Delisting really won't mean much, I don't think, for wolf populations. There hopefully will be fewer wolves than there are now because I think the level of conflicts for local people have gone beyond what they really want to tolerate. But I think long-term wolves will be fine, and they'll be managed by the stage. There will be some public harvest of them. Hunters bought $750,000 worth of tags the first time the hunting season came open. The wolf population had a couple of hundred individuals taken from it by hunters. The population still grew ten percent. And so I think wolves will be fine. They key is, how can people view wolves more positively? How can people reduce the cost of managing wolves? And how can people do that in a way that is socially acceptable? And for deer and elk and a lot of other animals, public harvest is a socially acceptable way to help remedy problems that all wildlife cause, including wolves. So I always saw hunting as the ultimate success in wolf restoration