By Mark Davis
2020 will mark the 25th anniversary of the reintroduction and subsequent recovery of gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park.
“We should be excited,” said Doug Smith, Yellowstone’s senior wildlife biologist. “We should have a float in the Fourth of July parade in Cody.”
But, after decades of researching wolves, he knows there’s little hope of any kind of local celebration.
“I thought if people just had all the information — the data — they would see the light. They would get that wolves aren’t that bad. That they could be managed like other wildlife,” he said. “Was I ever wrong.”
Smith has been studying wolves for more than 40 years. He’s closely followed them in Yellowstone since Jan. 12, 1995, when the first eight wolves arrived from Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada. Forty-one wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone over a three-year period, starting not long after Smith began working in the park. There are now about 10 times that many wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
During his time as a biologist, Smith has pulled pups out of dens and driven adults from a kill for research. There’s little he doesn’t know about the species, both through extensive academic studies — earning a doctorate in the field — and practical experience gained from the back of a horse or through the air. But now Smith is turning his attention to the social science of wolves — how humans react to and manage the largely maligned species.
“The biggest problem for wolves is people. There’s no hiding from that,” Smith said in a recent lecture at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. “If I was to start my career over, I’d probably study wolves again, but the future study of wolves is studying people. What we do on the landscape, how we think about wolves, how we manage wolves are all people issues.”
In the absence of scientific research, Smith said people make up stories about wolves that are rarely true.
“The number one wolf yarn is they kill for the fun of it; they’re bloodthirsty killers,” he said.
Many people in the area don’t believe evidence and data that counter those stories, Smith said, adding that “nature always loses to economics.”
“If you think the world is here for us to do as we please, you’ll probably think [reintroducing wolves] is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. But if you have a worldview that you are just one species among many, and you’re here to coexist, you’re going to think this is a great idea and it’s about time we corrected a long-standing wrong,” he said. “And there ain’t no changing your minds.”
But wolves are here to stay. Even if the species wasn’t reintroduced, Smith believes they would have eventually moved back into the area.
Smith said his efforts to show the advantages of having predators in the ecosystem is “a tough sell.”
“Wolves eat the same things we eat. They need the same things we need (i.e. space),” he said. “And that’s where the rub starts.”
Populations rise and fall
One of the big ticket issues with the reintroduction has been the species’ impact on elk, Wyoming’s iconic big game target.
The elk population in Yellowstone is down to just under 6,000 animals this year, dropping from a high of about 19,000 elk in the mid 1990s. Smith said the drop is concerning to many in the area — especially hunters — and many blame wolves.
However, “in nature, more is not necessarily better. Sometimes less is more. That’s the message here,” he said. “Without predators, prey species will move beyond carrying capacity and you end up with big time environmental damage.”
Wolves help keep the herd size at levels below the carrying capacity of the environment. Smith offered evidence showing wolves are generally killing older elk — individuals above 12 years old that are less capable of yearly calf production. And wolves aren’t the only predator out there. Mountain lions have made a comeback in the past three decades and grizzly populations have gone up about 500 percent (in conservative population estimates) since receiving protection under the Endangered Species Act. Meanwhile, the population of wolves and elk in the park has remained steady since about 2008, Smith said.
Between Yellowstone and the rest of Wyoming, there are currently about 350-400 wolves. The estimate is a preliminary figure as scientists can only accurately count wolves when they move in packs during the winter, Smith said.
Last year there were about 80 wolves inside the park boundaries — down about 20 percent. Both 2016 and 2017 were bad pup years; Smith mentioned diseases (like distemper) and possibly infanticide as reasons for the decline.
“Wolves are at their natural density here, unlike many places outside the park,” he said.
Two different worlds
Outside of Yellowstone, the leading cause of wolf mortality is humans — who kill wolves in hunts and in protection of their animals.
“Wolves rarely kill livestock,” Smith said, “but when they do they get killed.”
He said the question is how to mesh two distinctly different worlds: “One world, where wolves are part of a preservation process in the nation’s first national park, and another world, where wolves and people live together,” Smith said. “That’s what makes us move forward: good spirited yet intense debates on what should be done. And disagreement is at the center of that.”
The biologist has spent the better part of his career sharing his experiences, like his speech at the Center of the West’s Draper Natural History Museum earlier this month. He was in Cody as part of the museum’s Lunchtime Expedition lecture series.
“[Smith] is responsible for the wolf, bird and elk programs [at Yellowstone], formerly three jobs now combined as one,” said Corey Anco, assistant curator at the museum. “When it comes to long-standing conservation impact, few biologists have made such a lasting impression.”
Smith accepted the offer to speak, like he has often done, because he knows he has a better chance to get his message heard in person.
“If I talk to you, looking you straight in the eye, I have a little bit better chance changing your mind,” he said. “I don’t know if I really want to change your mind; I just want you to hear me out.”
Smith is currently working on his fourth book on wolves, which Anco said will explore issues between wolves and humans.