Return of the Wolves:The Next Chapter

Rick McIntyre

Rick McIntyre transcript
Wolves2/KUED
 
Interviewer
Rick tell me your name and title.
 
Rick McIntyre
I'm Rick McIntyre and I work for the National Park Service here in Yellowstone as a Biological Technician.
 
Interviewer
You've spent more time with Yellowstone wolves than probably anyone. What have you learned?
 
Rick McIntyre
Well I think looking back over all the years that I've been watching wolves in Yellowstone probably the first thing that comes to mind is their cooperative nature; how much they work together to achieve what they need to do in the sense of how cooperating when they're hunting, trading off duties such as who hunts, who stays with the pups and takes care of them, and there was once an anthropologist that said that there are no two species on earth that are so similar in social behavior as wolves and humans, and that's very much what I see here. Much of the stuff that we see what wolves do to be successful is very similar to what people do as well.
 
Interviewer
#2 You've spent more time with Yellowstone wolves than probably anyone. What have you learned?
 
Rick McIntyre
Well I've been watching wolves for many many years here and I think the number one thing is their cooperative nature--the way in which they help each other when they hunt. They trade off on duties. They divide labors. Some watch the pups while others go out hunting. And years ago there was a famous anthropologist that said, "There's not two species on earth that are as similar in social behavior as well as in humans," and so over the years I very much see the similarities and the way that people work together to be successful, and the same thing applies to wolves as well.
 
Interviewer
#3 You've spent more time with Yellowstone wolves than probably anyone. What have you learned?
 
Rick McIntyre
Well I have been watching wolves in Yellowstone for many many years, and the thing that really strikes me is their cooperative nature; how they work so well together when they're hunting, how they work well dividing labor in the sense that some will watch the young pups while others go out and hunt. And once I read something that a famous anthropologist said where he spoke of how wolves and people are so similar in social behavior, probably more similar than any other species in the world, and that's exactly what I see here too--how cooperative they are to achieve what they need to to survive.
 
Interviewer
You've educated many. How do most react to seeing wolves?
 
Rick McIntyre
In terms of helping Yellowstone visitors seeing wolves, it's a very very rewarding thing to do. Just this morning at the Yellowstone Institute Park Service a naturalist had a group of school kids from Wyoming, from Cokeville, Wyoming. So I guess that the wolves were going to be visible pretty soon near a place where the class was in session, so I went over there. The kids came out and luckily the wolves came out were a really good view for them, and the reaction that I got from them on seeing the wolves is pretty much the universal reaction that I get from anyone, whether it's someone from New York City or Tokyo or some small town in Wyoming, they just were going crazy, and the most common comment from these kids (who I think were maybe 5th graders) was the ultimate compliment that a kid that age can convey. They kept on saying, "This is cool. These wolves are cool," so it's almost at the level that if this was back in 1964 and we were on a tour of London and the bus driver stopped and said, "Hey look at those four guys in that corner. Those are the Beatles." It's pretty much at that level of excitement.
 
Interviewer
How has the return of wolves benefited Yellowstone?
 
Rick McIntyre
Well I think when we look back at the wolf reintroduction and try to examine how that's affected the park, how it's benefited the park, the big thing for me having worked for the Park Service for many many years, is that what we are trying to achieve in managing Yellowstone is to get as close as we can to what this area would look like if there was no human impact, or lets say at least minimal human impact, and to achieve that we had to rectify something that was a wrong that was committed by the early park rangers. It was actually the early Yellowstone rangers that killed off the original wolf population here, so that meant that they really destroyed what was a completely intact ecosystem when Yellowstone was set aside as a national park. So when we were successfully able to reintroduce wolves, that meant that the major predator was once again back in Yellowstone. The wolves were performing the same task, the same job, the same function that the original wolves did, so to me that's the great thing about restoring wolves to Yellowstone. It's now a complete, totally well-functioning ecosystem, and anyone in the world when they come and visit Yellowstone, they're seeing an area that is pretty much as close as you can get to what a wild area of two million acres would be like if it was just left undisturbed by people.
 
Interviewer
Are there other benefits to the reintroduction? Like riparian recovery and that kind of thing?
 
Rick McIntyre
One of the other specific benefits of having wolves back in Yellowstone has to do with a lot of the plant life and then in tern how that affects the wildlife here. There was a lot of concern before the wolves came back over the damage that large numbers of elk were doing on willows, aspens and cottonwoods. And in many cases large numbers of willows that used to grow along streams and rivers had been killed off by elk and other ungulates, and then very few aspen seedlings were sprouting from the root systems of older trees. But now that the wolves have been back for about 17 years, we're seeing very very dramatic changes in Yellowstone, so the willows are coming back very very well. The aspens and even the cottonwoods are coming back well. In turn what that means is better habitat for song birds, more food for beaver, and it's actually beneficial for trout in a sense that if there is no riparian brush along the creeks and rivers that can cause streams and rivers to be too warm for some trout species, so all that has been very beneficial.
 
Interviewer
How many days have you spent in the park and why?
 
Rick McIntyre
Well I started in Yellowstone in 1994 and I try to be out in the park as much as I can. Since the wolves were first brought in in 1995 I've been out for about maybe 86% of all the days that the wolves have been back over these last 17 and 1/2 years, and I think that adds up to somewhere around 55, 5600 days. I wouldn't want to miss a day. I wouldn't want to miss anything that's happening out there.
 
Interviewer
Why have you spent so much time with the wolves?
 
Rick McIntyre
I think the thing that motivates me to be out there all the time is that their social behavior is so interesting. They're always doing stuff. And in a way it's sort of like a detective story where you're trying to figure out what's going to happen next. For example, currently the main pack that I study, the Lamar Canyon pack, they're under pressure by a rival pack, the Mollie's pack. This has been going on for about ten months, and it turns out that in Yellowstone that since there is no human cause mortality due to hunting and trapping, what we find here is that once a wolf in Yellowstone becomes an adult, the most common cause of death is to die in battle fighting to protect your family and your territory. So that's a real special interest of mine just to watch how the packs that we have interact and how one side deals with another side. Just in the sense of a military campaign, some individual wolves are very good at strategy and tactics and can figure out how to win a battle even if they're outnumbered, so there's just endless stories that are going on that you want to be out there every day. You don't want to miss anything.
 
Interviewer
What have you learned about the personalities of wolves?
 
Rick McIntyre
I think in terms of studying the personality of wolves here, the number one thing that I've seen is, like people and like dogs, all wolves have different personalities. That includes even fathers from the same litter, sisters from the same litter. We've had two sisters that had exactly the same parents. They were born on the same day, were raised exactly the same way, and had totally different personalities. In one sense with wolf #40 and #42, two sisters, #40 had a very very aggressive, unnecessarily aggressive personality, whereas her sister #42 had a very benevolent personality. Two brothers, #302 and #480… #480 was younger, but they had the same parents, #480 was a classic alpha male in that he was totally dependable, totally reliable, just worked himself to death to feed his family and to make sure that they were protected and safe, whereas his older brother #302 had exactly the opposite personality. He didn't want to get in any fights. He wanted to run away if there was any danger to his family, and he pretty much put all of his priorities in romantic areas, so he would just leave the pack during the mating season, visit his girlfriends in all the surrounding wolf packs, and then whenever he felt like it would come back. So to me it's real fascinating when you know for sure who's related to who--who's brothers, who's sisters--how differently their personalities can be.
 
Interviewer
How have the riparian communities changed after wolves?
 
Rick McIntyre
What we've seen with the vegetation in Yellowstone since the wolves were brought back 17 and 1/2 years ago is really a lot of changes. We have a lot more willows now growing along the creeks and the rivers, and we have much much better reproduction for both aspens and cottonwoods. We were very concerned prior to the return of the wolves about how things were changing for the worse in Yellowstone. The wolves were gone for about 69 years, from 1926 to 1995, and during those decades there were many problems with streams and rivers losing most of the riparian brush, which made it very hard for songbirds and species like beaver to survive. It also made it hard for trout in a sense that when there was no shade on small creeks, that increased the water temperatures and made it hard for the trout to survive that. So what we think is happening is, with the return of the wolves the elk are spending less time feeding on those preferred species. They become concerned that the wolves are going to find them if they spend too much time feeding on the willows or the aspens or the cottonwoods. And we think what's happening is they tend to leave much much quicker than they would have during the years when the wolves weren't here, and so just that little bit of difference seems to be enough to really cause a big big changeover for the better in having more willows, aspens and cottonwoods here.
 
Interviewer
Some think there are too many wolves. What do you think?
 
Rick McIntyre
Well on the issue of how many wolves are in Yellowstone, we have about 105 right not. At any given time we tend to have an average of about ten packs. Yellowstone is 2.2 million acres. It's about 3500 square miles. Anytime you have a large, powerful predator like the wolf, you always have a relatively low density, so about 100 wolves over 3500 square miles. Going back a few years ago we actually had quite a few more. We had two separate years in Yellowstone where the numbers got up to 174. Before the wolves were brought back we consulted a lot of wolf biologists and they predicted that once things settled out the wolf numbers in Yellowstone would even out at about 100 and about ten packs. So for awhile we thought that those estimates were way off base, that we were going to have way more, but now 17 and 1/2 years in it looks like those original estimates were pretty much right on, and as far as we know that's a real good density for wolves in an area of this size.
 
Interviewer
You've seemingly dedicated your life to educating people about wolves. Why?
 
Rick McIntyre
Well much of my job here is to help people see wolves, and along with that explain what they're seeing, which willows they're watching, what the name of the pack is, the story of that particular pack, who the ancestor's are of the wolves that they're seeing. And I think to me the big thing that we see accomplished here in Yellowstone is people come here from all over the world. It's the best place to see wolves anywhere there is, and so almost everyone that comes here and sees wolves, it's the first ones that they've ever seen. And it can really change a person; if nothing else in the sense that they really see what wolves are truly like, what real wolves really are. And this may not be the best comparison in the world, but it may be a little bit like a situation where a kid grows up in a context where, lets say, the kid has been told by other people in town that people of a certain religion are no good, or a certain race are no good, or a certain ethnic background are no good, and then the kid grows up and gets into a situation where suddenly he's around those people, but he had always been told they were no good, and he sees for himself what the truth is, and probably what the kid is going to conclude is, "Well he's really pretty much the same as us, what's the big deal?" So I think in a lot of ways that's what happens in Yellowstone. When I help people see wolves I don't really worry too much about giving them a lot of facts and statistics and a big explanation of what's going on. They can pretty much figure things out for themselves, so I think it's really a huge turning point in the lives of a lot of people. When they come here they see wolves for themselves, and they can just make their own conclusions about what the real truth is about wolves.
 
Interviewer
Why do you think people are so enamored by wolves? So attracted to them?
 
Rick McIntyre
Well on the issue of why are people so taken with wolves, why are they so attracted to wolves, it is a fascinating thing to consider. To me I think a lot of it comes to the relationship that people have with dogs. I mean every person in the world loves dogs. They've had either dogs of their own, or they've had many experiences with neighbor's dogs, relatives dogs etc. They know a lot about dogs, (excuse me). They understand a lot about dog behavior, and whether it's on a subconscious level I'm never quite sure, but there's some connection going on there between people and dogs and wolves in the sense that everyone understands that wolves and dogs inside are the same animal--that whatever dog they've ever had, whatever dog they've ever known, if they go back enough generations, the ancestors of that very dog would look exactly like the wolves that they're seeing here in Yellowstone. So I think that connection, that three-way connection between a person, his or her understanding and experiences with dogs and then what they see with wolves, I think that's the thing that really makes things exciting. They start to understand dogs more, and just from their experience with dogs they already have a pretty good way to understand the behavior of wolves as they watch them in the wild.
 
Interviewer
What do you see for the future of wolves in Yellowstone?
 
Rick McIntyre
When it comes to the future of wolves in Yellowstone I think that is a very very optimistic situation. What we notice here is that more and more we have private businesses that have started around Yellowstone whose primary thing that they offer to the public is to take folks out and help them see wolves, and so we're really excited about the fact that having wolves back in Yellowstone is having a very positive impact on the local economy. There was a professor at the University of Montana a few years ago that did a survey of Yellowstone visitors, and found that so many of them had chosen to come to Yellowstone to see wolves that he had estimated that that impact in the local community is probably worked out to be about 35 million dollars a year. So we're very excited about seeing that aspect of returning wolves to Yellowstone that it has become very beneficial to the local people. Now that the wolves are back for so many years and they fit in so well, I'm very confident that all of the natural behavior and the inter-relationships between the wolves and the other animals will continue to go as well as it has, so I'm very optimistic about the future.

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