Call Of The Wild - A Wolf Story Thursday 30 Sep 2010 at 12:51 PM
This is a reprint from Cody & Beyond Magazine 2010. We are indebted to them for their good work. Their Website is CodyandBeyond.com.
They are the subject of fairy tales, myths and legends. Over the decades, wolves have been both idolized and vilified, especially in the West where their tale is a long and adversarial one. Since their reintroduction in the mid 1990s, controversy has surrounded them, much of it borne out in the courts, and in heated debates and discussions among local residents around the West. As the wolves' numbers increase, more people are affected - from biologists who manage this wild species to ranchers and outfitters who struggle to manage life and livelihoods in coexistence. This is a collection of their stories.
the keeper of the wolves
Doug Smith, 49,
is the senior wildlife biologist in Yellowstone National Park. His
title reflects the responsibility of his position where he manages
wildlife within the park boundaries ranging from predator to prey, on
the ground and in the sky.
Doug first came to the park as wolf project manager at the inception of the gray wolf reintroduction: "I've been here since the beginning . . . which gets me both accolades and criticism."Since the age of 18, Doug has worked with wolves. His first job entailed noting captive wolf behavior at Purdue University. Following that experience he made a "very important career move" by studying wolf and moose interactions at Isle Royale on Lake Superior starting in 1979.
In 1994 he moved to Yellowstone National Park where his current job has him researching and managing wolves in the park, although he started off in charge of wolves in the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, "but that got to be too much work."
The federal government has since hired wildlife biologists in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho to manage the wolves outside federally protected lands.
"Today my job is more about research than management," he explains. "When you study wolves outside a national park setting it's going to be more management than research because the problems are going to be greater than you know. In the park, we're trying to study the situation to better provide information to those working on the management side of things outside the park setting."
Doug supervises an average of 12 employees who maintain radio collars on wolves so they can track their movements and monitor each pack.
"In addition to that, I try to keep people away from wolves because people can 'love them to death.' We try to protect the wolf denning areas. Wolves in the park are not as wary of people as they are outside of the park so I have to try to keep people from approaching them."
Doug and his crew had to kill a wolf last spring because visitors had fed it and the wolf was approaching people and cars - a definite human/wildlife safety threat. He emphasizes that having to euthanize the wolf was "a really big deal."
Doug also spends a lot of time communicating with other agencies, researching and writing papers on the species, and doing community outreach to make sure people get accurate information.
"A big part of what I do is try to tell the facts about the story because wolves are such a controversial animal and an emotional animal so everybody has their own view about them and people tend to ignore the facts. I think there's no other animal that is so prone to misinformation as wolves."
Obviously, wolves are a major part of Doug's daily life: "Most guys think daily about women. I think daily about wolves!
"I'm happily married. That doesn't mean I don't think daily about my wife, but a constant theme in my life for the last 30 years has been wolves. It's not a typical job. Most jobs you leave work and that's it - that's not the case with wolves. Hardly a day goes by that I don't get a call at home about wolves. Wolves are a lifestyle! You never get a break."
Over the years, Doug has had some pretty remarkable encounters with wolves. His most memorable experience occurred during a canoe trip on his own time in Canada with a buddy where wolves are heavily hunted and generally very skittish of humans.
"We were paddling along a very steep river bank. At the bottom of the bank was a wolf and it saw us. That wolf knew that if it didn't get up the bank we might shoot it, kill it. When it saw us, it started trotting to the next section of the bank it could climb up. We decided to turn the canoe toward the wolf because we wanted to see it. We were on a really big river struggling against the current. The wolf beat us and got up the bank. We decided to beach the canoe on the shore. While we were sitting there trying to catch our breath I thought that was it, we won't see that wolf again. But then the wolf walked out on the bank and looked down on us. If I had a pistol in the canoe I could have shot it, it was so close. It stood there and looked at us in the canoe. I had a camera sitting on my pack in the canoe but I didn't move in fear of scaring it away. That was one of the most memorable moments I've had with an animal in the wild because it was so close and why did it come back? Most people would have killed him. I never ever forgot that moment."
That experience, as well as those he's had with wolves within Yellowstone's boundaries, has helped develop his own sense of character.
collected wolves that have had healed-over abscessed teeth or broken
legs, I've even caught one that only had three legs; I've followed a
wolf in the air hunting a pack of elk that had one of its legs just
flopping to the side. That collection of stories tells me that they
never give up or feel sorry for themselves. They don't think 'how am I
going to do this?' They just go and do it and keep going. That has been a
good reminder in my life to not give up and keep on going.
"The curiosity of wolves astounds me. Wolves do a lot of things because they're curious. They don't always respond to people the same way. Almost categorically across Canada and Alaska wolves are shot at rather than looked at. This wolf coming back to look at the river was unexplainable. I've seen wolves do things that are unexplainable (because) they're trying to learn how to live better. If it works, they live; if it doesn't, they don't."
Despite heavy opposition in some parts of the West and heightened emotions throughout the country about the wolf reintroduction, Doug believes strongly that it was the right thing to do.
West isn't the true West without the wolves. That's how it was when we
first got here. It couldn't be the true West without the animals that
originally were here. I think the West has changed in a more authentic
way in the last 15 years since the wolves were reintroduced."
However, he is quick to add that he doesn't think that means we need to have wolves everywhere. Instead he supports managing wolves in order to maintain numbers and a balanced ecosystem.
"Wolves need to be managed. They cannot be everywhere like they used to be, but they also can't not be here. I'm not saying you can't shoot a wolf under a regulated hunt; what I'm saying is total eradication in the West again is not a good way to go. A West of just plazas and gardens and facsimiles of wild areas is not the real West to me."
Looking forward to the next 15 years, Doug is hopeful that the divergent sides in the wolf debate can find a common ground.
"I hope the opposing forces of 'you can't shoot any wolf,' versus 'I want to shoot every one' meets somewhere in the middle. There's no question that the reintroduction has been successful. But the two sides are still bickering at each other in an insolvable way."
He explains that a managed wolf population requires three things:
Places where wolves are left completely alone - like in Yellowstone National Park or central Idaho;
Places where wolves are not allowed, period - where there are too many people, ranches and civilization to warrant their existence;
And, the area in between - where human density is low, wild lands are still mostly intact, and problems still can occur. In these areas we can have wolves but we may have to hunt and manage them.
"That's a major middle ground I hope we have reached in the next 15 years."
stewards of the land
Craig and Virginia Griffith know
a different side of the wolf reintroduction saga. The couple raises
cattle on private land with irrigated meadows and forest grasslands
along the Wood River, southwest of Meeteetse. Their livelihood has
changed dramatically since wolves were released back into the Greater
"My life and work prior to the wolf reintroduction was primarily centered in the outdoors, just as it is now," explains Virginia. "Work in the outfitting business and then transitioning into cattle ranching held the usual challenges, but it was up to us to control our own destiny by the amount of money we invested and the time we were willing to put in - just like most businesses."
Since the reintroduction of wolves and their subsequent federal protection, ranching has changed for the couple. Now their challenges include factors beyond weather and market fluctuations.
For many years, Craig and Virginia enjoyed raising cow/calf pairs, a 365-day-a-year job. However, after wolves released into Yellowstone National Park started spreading beyond federal lands, they were forced to transform their business to a yearling operation, working with cattle only six months out of the year.
"We lost so many baby calves due to (wolf) predation in the fall season that it was not economically feasible to continue a cow/calf operation," Craig shares.
The Griffiths pride themselves on raising "all natural" beef but this also has become increasingly difficult in wolf country. Their cattle graze freely on natural grassland, just as cattle were meant to live, Virginia explains.
Yet, if there is an attack on the cattle by wolves and they survive, the livestock must be given a strong antibiotic to ward off infection. Once they receive medications other than vaccinations, the cattle no longer meet "all natural" status requirements and must be sold at reduced prices.
"The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone has been declared a complete success. And maybe it is, inside the boundaries of Yellowstone Park," Virginia says. "Outside the park there are people who are respectfully and responsibly working with all that nature has to offer to provide a product the world has said it wants - beef.
"Since the reintroduction of wolves in 1995, ranching as a family endeavor has become increasingly difficult economically," she asserts. "Land is often sold for development by these families rather than continuing the struggle against poor odds."
The stark reality of coexisting with wolves hit home on Christmas Day 2008 when the Griffith family spent the better part of the day tending to four yearlings that were attacked by a pack of at least six wolves. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Wyoming Game and Fish Department were notified to verify that the livestock deaths were due to wolves so the couple could be reimbursed for their loss. Craig and Virginia estimate they lost $830 per animal on that one fateful day.
Virginia remembers the day vividly: "Helping to skin out dead yearling calves and follow the bloody tracks of wolves is not a good use of my time on any day but especially not on Christmas Day.
"I have seen wolves, but only at a great distance. They are elusive and nocturnal," she continues. "But I have seen the ravages of wolves. They have left cows half-alive with their entrails trailing."
and Virginia continue to lose livestock due to wolf predation on their
private land and fear they cannot continue in the cattle business
without a better way of managing the situation. Their livelihood and
time in the cattle business is controlled by monitoring wolves.
"We don't enjoy raising livestock like we used to," Craig laments. "My memories used to include watching and caring for our baby calves and that is no longer possible with wolves in the picture."
Both Craig and Virginia have a somewhat austere outlook on the future of cattle ranching considering the situations they have faced with wolves.
"In the future, I see the Cody area going the route that has taken over the front range in Colorado and has made its mark on Jackson Hole," Virginia says. "The open grasslands where cattle range will become extinct."
She continues: "I believe that there are many sides to the wolf issue and that it has become, like most other issues of controversy, a mostly political issue. What a shame . . . for the wolves as well as the rancher."
Craig believes wolves have taken away the couple's freedom to operate as individuals in business and in recreation in the West. He forecasts that "Wyoming people will stand together and realize that wolves have their place in Wyoming. That place is not on private land nor is it to the demise of individual freedom."
preserving the wild
Nic Patrick, 61, is a local contractor and sits on the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) board of directors. He became interested in GYC 25 years ago because he believed the group's mission to preserve this unique area made sense.
Nic grew up on a cattle ranch along the South Fork of the Shoshone River and has made his living building and restoring log structures in the region. He enjoys observing the natural world through horse packing, hiking and hunting, and has his finger on the pulse of life and its many cycles.
Although he has only seen two wolves at separate times in the wild outside Yellowstone, it is theirtracks and songs that remind him they are there. He vividly reminisces about a family outing last summer in Crandall.
"My wife, daughter, son-in-law and I spent my daughter's birthday at our cabin in Crandall. That night the resident pack put on a concert in our meadow and fortunately another neighbor recorded it."
He first took notice of the wolf issue when the Cody area was hit with a far-ranging drought. In 1987, when the dry spell started in earnest, Nic observed more and more elk calving in his fields and river bottom. Then followed the grizzly bear who knew easy pickings when they saw them.
"About seven years ago two wolves spent a few days reminding the elk they belonged in the sagebrush. The elk visit now but don't stay nor do the bears and rarely wolves," he shares. "The benefit the wolves have added to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is teaching the elk and deer and moose what their position is and ensuring that the vegetation is not over stressed."
emphasizes that the wolves' constant, "24-7" vigilance provides a
balance to the ecosystem by culling the weaker of the prey species and
relieving pressure on aspen and willow communities that have been
overgrazed by ungulates. He also believes wolves are necessary to the
ecosystem because their leftovers provide food for smaller predators and
"All species benefit - from magpies to insects - because of the food provided by a wolf kill," he explains.
"The (wolves are) not devils and they're not deities. They're just wild dogs and they're trying to make a living the best way they can. That doesn't always fit into other people's ideas. They're always going to be in the way as far as somebody is concerned but they're a very valid part of a healthy, complete ecosystem . . . a necessary part."
Although Nic was raised on a cattle ranch, he admits his family did not have to contend with large predators like grizzly bears or wolves. This upbringing definitely has affected his current outlook.
"My opinion today might be different if my livelihood was ranching. (When my family was ranching) we also didn't have subdivisions and energy development in prime wildlife habitat. I believe large ranches are one of the best ways to preserve private habitat and they should be able to have help controlling and mitigating their losses."
Nic adamantly believes the stresses of land and energy development are more damaging than those of the four-legged variety.
"Since (the wolves) have been here there has been a lot more pressure from mineral and residential development which has really impacted wildlife habitat and ecosystem integrity. That has caused a lot of fragmentation and on-the-ground effects on water and air (quality), from sage grouse to snow melt. It's affecting everything."
the recent economic slowdown, the rush to harness these resources and
develop rural communities may have abated some but Nic is concerned
these stresses have a much farther reach on residents and wildlife. He
notes these impacts are ones the ecosystem does not recover from easily.
"You can't shoot a drought or a subdivision. It's real easy to hang all the problems of the world on this dog - to say that's why the elk aren't here, that's why that happened. But in reality there's a much bigger picture playing out, not just the wolf.
"The wolf is not a big issue. It belongs here; it's doing its job. There are big issues we probably won't do anything about, like climate; and there are big issues we should do something about like zoning and development."
He adds: "Wolves will continue to be vilified and blamed for every ill. Hopefully society will increasingly cherish those wild lands and keep the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem healthy and unfragmented."
Nic is a proponent of the wolf reintroduction although he explains the animals were making their own way back to the states.
"(The wolves) were on their way down from Canada naturally, the reintroduction sped up the time frame dramatically. Regardless of how you feel about it, this is what we have."
Despite this reality, Nic readily supports managing the wolf populations which at times may require legalized hunting.
"They are canines. They breed prolifically and they get along well, but all canines need to hear the word 'No!' With wolves that 'No!' might need to come with a bullet. If they become a problem they do need to be controlled. But they definitely have a place in this ecosystem."
a modern-day mountain man
Lee Livingston hates to use the word "reintroduced" when talking about the Canadian Gray Wolves that were brought to Yellowstone National Park in 1995. He prefers to say that the wolves were "introduced" because he says that that species wasn't the one originally eradicated from this area for predator control. That wolf was the Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf.
owner and operator of Livingston Outfitting, based in the Wapiti Valley
30 miles west of Cody, Lee has been guiding hunters and pack trips for
25 years in some of the wildest country left in the lower 48 states. Lee
figures he spends more than 100 days a year in the backcountry - "As
much time as humanly possible," he says.
evidence of an increased concentration of wolves is apparent to the
outfitter. Lee says that while the growing wolf population hasn't had a
noticeable effect on his summer pack trip business, it has definitely
left its mark on his hunting trips.
One of the effects he attributes to the wolf's presence is that the elk aren't reproducing like they did before, and thus the number of calves born each year is decreasing, leading to a reduced elk population.
"The decline in elk herds has reduced the number of elk [hunting] clients and therefore a decline in the outfitting industry has resulted," Lee explains.
At its pinnacle, Livingston Outfitting was taking out 60 elk hunters a year. This year, Lee has voluntarily reduced the number of elk hunters he will guide to 45, partly due to Wyoming Game and Fish issuing fewer licenses and mainly to ensure a quality hunt for his clients. Lee predicts that seven outfitters in the next two years will go out of business because he says wolves are making such an impact on game numbers.
is also keeping a close eye on his horses and mules because he has seen
wolves near his home in the Wapiti Valley close enough to concern him
about the safety of his animals, which are a huge part of his
livelihood. It puts him on his guard.
He adds, however, that wolves are not the only culprit in the decrease in elk numbers.
have taken a hit for some of what can actually be attributed to grizzly
bears," he explains. "What wolves have definitely done that grizzly
bears have not is increase the stress factor (on prey such as elk)."
When wolves were brought into the Yellowstone region in 1995, the grizzly bear population was just gaining strength again after having been on the endangered species list for several years. Wolves took the blame for the increase in elk calf deaths although, according to Lee, the reality was that the grizzly bears were also preying on the elk.
Lee believes that the hunting methods of wolves versus those of grizzlies put more stress on elk herds, further reducing the elk's ability to reproduce. He explains that when a pack of wolves is hunting, they get the animals all worked up as the pack tries to separate the herd, whereas bears hunt alone.
Lee is adamant that the negative effects on the outfitting industry and the relationship between the wolves and this ecosystem are "100 percent attributed to poor management." He believes that when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first instituted the plan to reintroduce wolves to the Yellowstone area, they relied too heavily on single species management practices.
"When dealing with wolves, it doesn't work to consider only one animal," he says. "A sound management program needs to be implemented that recognizes all facets of this ecosystem. So many people think man is excluded from this, but that's not the case. Man is part of the ecosystem, too. Without a sound management plan we risk seeing our wildlife herds disappear."
He continues: "When you hear a wolf howl, you don't have to ask 'Is that a wolf?' When you see a wolf track in the snow or mud, it sends a chill down your back. That to me means there has been a symbiotic relationship between man and wolf for thousands of years.
"I don't hate the animal. I hate the bureaucracy that put (the wolves) here. They wanted wolves here no matter what the cost."
Amy Quick first came to Cody more than a decade ago and enjoys discovering and sharing local lore and spending as much time playing outside as possible. She is very active in community and environmental affairs.
René Huge, mother of 3, enjoys playing in the great outdoors all year long. She has lived in Cody for 15 years. She is a journalist for the local paper and a free lance writer.