The Howling Wilderness
Doug Smith Tells The Truth About Wolves, But Will Anyone Listen?
The Sun Magazine
This month marks the twenty-sixth anniversary of the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park. Nearly a century after they were exterminated there, it is a wildlife success story, but in 1995 the proposition of wolves in Yellowstone was fraught with political and cultural rancor, and it continues to stir up controversy.
Biologist Doug Smith has been overseeing the project from the start and is unswerving in his commitment to the welfare of wolves. As senior wildlife biologist in Yellowstone, he is the spokesperson for all things wolf, but speaking to crowds and cameras is not his favorite part of the job. He would rather be studying the behavior of these fabled creatures that have fired his passion since childhood.
Smith walks a delicate, often uncomfortable line in Montana, a state where you can find bumper stickers with a wolf framed inside a gunsight alongside the motto “Smoke a Pack a Day.” It is also a state where dedicated wolf watchers follow the fortunes of wolf packs as if their lives were a soap opera. Public meetings are often tense and confrontational. Ranchers vilify wolves while others, whose livelihoods depend on tourism, see the wolves as an asset. Outfitters who lead guided hunting trips have added wolf-watching tours.
Smith’s work with wolves began with a senior project in high school. He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Idaho and a doctorate from the University of Nevada, Reno. He has written four books, including the Montana Book Award winner, coauthored with Gary Ferguson. In addition to his fieldwork, he has taught classes for the Yellowstone Forever Institute, Earthwatch, and on college campuses.
I’ve known Smith for a long time. For years we both lived in Bozeman, Montana, and our children were involved in competitive Nordic skiing together. We also both enjoy canoeing. One unseasonably warm winter weekend, I talked Doug into a canoe trip down a section of the local East Gallatin River. Girded in winter boots and wool coats, we shared a canoe on the dark ribbon of water and talked at length about his work with wolves. It dawned on me that his story would make for a fascinating interview.
Smith and I later met at my dining-room table (before the pandemic) and spoke for hours about his work, conflicts, beliefs, and experiences. He has thought deeply about the pragmatic and ethical issues surrounding wildlife management in general and wolves in particular. He spoke directly and carefully, his hands cradling a coffee mug, his blue eyes meeting mine.
Kesselheim: You’ve said your love of wolves grew out of your love of nature. Where did that love come from? What experiences led you down this career path?
Smith: I grew up in Ohio. My father bought an old farm that he turned into a camp to introduce children to nature. It sure worked on me: I spent a lot of time there. My dad was not a helicopter parent. He left me alone to explore in ways that I haven’t been able to replicate with my own children. When he and I would get to the camp, he wouldn’t ask where I was going, wouldn’t say when we were leaving. He’d go do his thing, and I’d do mine. I spent immense amounts of time in the woods there, either alone or with my dog.
My father also loved horses and used to take me for rides. He’d sit me in front of his saddle, and we would ride around the woods and talk. He would point out the sugar maples and tell me how the beech trees protected them. His favorite birds were the cardinal and the pileated woodpecker. I had a charmed upbringing.
And then he died when I was fifteen. That is a loss I’ve never gotten over. He was a soft-spoken person who loved nature and horses and introduced me to all of it with no agenda. He never told me what to do or what to pay attention to.
Kesselheim: What led you to wolves in particular?
Smith: When I was twelve or thirteen or fourteen, I read a magazine article about wolves. The thing that got me was how they had been persecuted, and that we had wiped them out except for a few remnants in the far north. I was enchanted by the North Woods and the tundra, and of course I read Jack London, who had a lot of wolves in his stories.
I took my first wolf job when I was eighteen.
Kesselheim: Did you feel like you’d hit the bonanza, or were you too young to realize what it meant?
Smith: I was giddy to get that job. It was my calling, and I knew it even then. I get tons of letters now from young people, and I try to answer them all personally, thinking back to that first job. I had this idealistic notion of wilderness. A lot of that idealism has gotten knocked off over time, but back then I didn’t care about money. I didn’t care about a career track. I didn’t even care about women. I mean, obviously, I was eighteen, so of course I thought about women, but I was just that passionate about wolves.
I’m fifty-eight now, so I’ve had forty years studying wolves. I’m starting to think that I know less about wolves today than I thought I did when I first started! I’ve handled more than five hundred. I fly over and track them and still see them in the field regularly. I saw one yesterday. It’s exciting every single time. But it all started with that camp in Ohio, which wasn’t exactly the wilderness but could still be pretty wild and magical.
Kesselheim: Was there a particular experience there that stands out?
Smith: We had a cabin in the woods, and sometimes I would go there and spend the night alone. There was a big tree out front, and a field, and a trail leading to the tree. There was also a creek where I would catch crayfish and salamanders for hours. I had read in a book that if you ever pick up a rock, you should always put it back exactly as you found it, because you could wipe out animals’ homes if you don’t. That has become a broader ethic for me, about treating other life carefully.
All this was burned in harder because of my dad’s death. He died suddenly, of a heart attack. We’d been out hiking two weeks before. Then boom: my youth ended, like a curtain being drawn. What I still had was the upbringing he’d given me. There were many times that I’d been a failure as his student, but I loved nature and wolves so much that I was dogged about pursuing it. Perseverance is the most important life skill; just keep at something, and eventually you’ll get a break, or maybe two.
Kesselheim: So how did your career as a wolf biologist begin?
Smith: I started writing to wolf biologists when I was fifteen, asking for a job, and of course they all turned me down. My high school had a monthlong senior project, so at eighteen I wrote all the biologists again and told them I was doing a project on wolves. A guy named Erich Klinghammer at Purdue University had a pack of captive wolves that he was doing behavioral research on, and he wrote me back and said I could do odd jobs for him and sit with the animals. Klinghammer was an ethologist from Germany, and I learned a lot from him. He believed in separating captive pups from the mother very early, so they would learn to socialize with people. A college-aged woman and I took turns being wolf mothers. I literally slept with four wolf pups every other night for a month: bottle-feeding them, comforting them, playing with them. Their names were Sasha, Sergei, Faust, and Mephisto.
Being in a position to see life from the perspective of these young animals was profound. I slept on a mattress with the pups curled up next to me. Just like any other infant mammal, they get up several times a night to nurse. I remember holding two bottles, and the pups would put one paw on my chest and the other on my hand. I would take the nipple of the bottle and rub it in my armpit, because it was good for them to relate your smell with food. Then, during the day, I’d go outside with them in an enclosure. It was exhausting.
Three or four years later, on a break from college, I went back to visit. The four wolves were fully grown at that point, but if an animal is with you long enough as a baby, that connection will be set for life. They won’t ever forget you. I was invited into the pen to interact with Sasha and Sergei. It was a little nerve-wracking, because they were lurking around like they couldn’t quite place me. Then Sergei came up and — I’ll never forget this — he jumped up and put his paws on my shoulders. Stretched out, he was probably more than six feet. He looked me right in the eye. I wasn’t sure what this wolf was going to do. Was he going to bite me? Finally he plopped back down on all fours. The researcher said he’d never seen Sergei do anything like that before. The wolf kind of backed off then and roamed the pen, but there had been this intense, face-to-face moment between me and this animal I’d known for a few weeks as a young pup.
Kesselheim: After being a wolf mother for a month, what did you do next?
Smith: That led to my first real job, with wolf researchers on Isle Royale after I graduated from high school. I also worked in northern Minnesota. They were both classic North Woods landscape, like I’d imagined as a small boy in Ohio: a trackless wilderness. My job was to be out all the time looking for wolves. I’d go out for a week at a time and camp on a high point. After dark, around ten at night, and again at 2 AM and 4 AM, I’d get up, go outside the tent, and howl. There I was in the middle of the North Woods, standing in my underpants, getting eaten by bugs, and howling out over this immense wilderness. We had a methodology, a protocol, but sometimes I’d howl just for the pleasure of it. And every now and then a wolf would respond. It was a from-the-bowels-of-the-earth kind of thing. I’d be howling into this darkness, and a wolf would answer, and we’d go back and forth. That has stayed with me my entire life: I have talked with a wolf. We’ve had a conversation.
A handful of times they came in close. I will never forget one August night I was howling, and a wolf answered. It kept coming closer. I heard her or him approaching, heard sticks snapping. The wolf hit the edge of a meadow. It was right there in the shadows, but it never stepped into the moonlight. I never saw it. It came close enough to tell I wasn’t another wolf, then took off.
Another time I was out howling, and nobody replied at first. Then a group of adult wolves, who were probably out on a night hunt, came right through my camp. It was pitch-black, no moon. I heard them coming through the grass, and I pressed my face to the bug netting, because I’d gotten back in my tent at this point, and a wolf passed just a few feet from my tent — several wolves. They slipped right by in front of me. I understand now what was going on: By chance I’d camped right between these wolves and their pups, who were waiting for them to come back from the hunt. Once the adults got to the pups, they all started howling.
Experiences like that are what made me the person I am. Those experiences don’t fall off of you. Working with wolves in the West, I get a lot of abuse from wolf haters. There are many days I ask myself, Why the hell am I doing this? It all goes back to those nights with the wolves.
Kesselheim: I want to talk about the challenges you faced bringing wolves to Yellowstone in the 1990s and how your work has evolved since.
Smith: The problem wolves have is people. I was on the phone yesterday with a wolf researcher in northern Montana, and she’d just talked to a packed hotel conference room of four hundred people in Kalispell. Every single person in that room wanted to kill wolves. That’s the age-old problem wolves face everywhere.
Kesselheim: What’s behind that attitude?
Smith: Prior to the agricultural revolution, about ten thousand years ago, humans held wolves in high regard and looked to them for advice about how to hunt. There was no animosity. But then, after we domesticated livestock, having wild animals around became a liability, because they would kill our sheep and cattle. That’s when our hatred toward wolves started. The only reason we didn’t wipe them out is that we didn’t have the technology to do so, and we weren’t yet everywhere on the planet. Once we had poison, steel traps, and guns, we wiped them out across most of Europe and most of the continental United States. Their range receded to the far north. Only pockets of wild country had any wolves left.
This conflict started so long ago that it’s become part of our mythology. That mythic quality has made promoting the truth about wolves really hard.
Wolves are a lot like us: They’re mostly monogamous. They’re good parents. They live in families. They’re hunters. They’re very social. And they need space. In some respects they compete with us head-to-head, and we think there’s only room for one animal at the top.
Then there’s the more abstract human attitude that the world is here for us; that everything in nature somehow exists for our benefit, so it’s OK if we overrun or pollute the earth. This is in conflict with the alternative view that humans are a part of nature, just one creature out of millions, and that all life has value. You can almost divide humanity into these two camps. And if you’re in the first camp, you believe wolves have no place in “our” world: They take our livestock. They compete with us for game. Why are they necessary? People tell stories about “bloodthirsty” wolves killing for the pleasure of it. At a public meeting one woman told me that wolves were a “creature of the devil” and needed to be eradicated by any means necessary. I didn’t know what to say to that.
This wolf hatred is deep-seated. I’ve tried to educate people and explain the science behind wolf behavior, but it doesn’t work. This debate is about how you view the world. Facts and science and evidence have nothing to do with that. People have their minds made up about wolves. So my objective these days is just to listen. It’s tough.
Wolves are a lot like us: They’re mostly monogamous. They’re good parents. They live in families. They’re hunters. They’re very social. And they need space.
Kesselheim: Do you see these antiwolf attitudes being stoked right now?
Smith: I do. I hate to say it, but I’ve been an avid reader on the topic of human psychology, and the fact is that we are not good at logical, rational thinking. We’re emotional. We aren’t objective judges of reality. When something doesn’t conform to our picture of how we want things to be, we make it conform. Wolves aren’t bad if you look at them objectively, but they have such a bad reputation that most of us believe they are problematic. I just want wolves to be treated like other wildlife. It isn’t that hard.
Wolf stories tend to get twisted by people’s biases. The other day I was flying around and saw a “wolf kill” [the remains of a wild animal killed by wolves — Ed.]. Later I ran into a local preacher and told him what I’d seen. He told his daughter, and when she came back to tell me what her dad had told her about this wolf kill, the details were not even close.
So even though most of the stories people make up about wolves have been debunked, all it takes to revive them is one rancher saying, “Oh, yeah, they came into my ranch. My cattle haven’t been the same since.” Or a hunter saying, “There’s no more game due to those wolves.” Never mind that there is far more mountain-lion predation of game animals. I’m not trying to blame mountain lions — I like them, too — but wolves are always the ones who get blamed. There’s the run-of-the-mill predator hatred, and then there’s wolf hatred, and there are orders of magnitude between them.
That’s what we faced when we brought wolves back in Yellowstone. Wolves were put on the Endangered Species List in 1974, and we didn’t get to reintroduce them in the wild until 1995. It took us twenty-plus years to get past the opposition. Conrad Burns, U.S. senator for Montana, was dead set against it. He stormed into the wildlife offices and pounded on people’s desks.
Wolves represent what’s called the “howling wilderness,” a place inhabited only by wild beasts. We Europeans came to North America loaded with stories about evil wolves — “Little Red Riding Hood” and the like. We wanted to civilize North America, and wolves were antithetical to our notion of a civilized society. As we moved west on a campaign to conquer the wilderness, we brought cowboys on horseback with guns to protect livestock. Even today the cowboy is symbolic of the West. We’re still in love with that worldview, and there’s no room for the wolf in it.
Kesselheim: After you finally got the go-ahead to bring wolves back to Yellowstone, how did it go?
Smith: We were worried at first about poaching. We had twenty-four-hour surveillance on the wolves’ acclimation pens. We were also worried that they were going to travel beyond the park. As it turned out, neither of those things happened. What happened was we had extreme political opposition. We were supposed to have three to five years to reintroduce the wolves to Yellowstone and get them acclimated to their new surroundings. We ended up getting only two, and those two years were a constant battleground of behind-the-scenes negotiation. But it turned out two years was enough. The wolves just needed half a chance, and we gave them that. They did the rest.
To this day the biggest problem for wolves remains humans’ bad attitudes, and those attitudes have made a resurgence lately. My colleague from Kalispell is pulling her hair out. People are poaching wolves out of anger and hatred. It’s a big problem.
Kesselheim: What do you think is causing wolf hatred to flare up now?
Smith: The last couple of decades have seen wolf populations increase. The mid-1950s was the low point, when people were really trying to eradicate wolves from the continent. Now, with the help of legislation, wolf populations are creeping back, and those people who thought they had won feel betrayed. They resent that their voices are being ignored. Politicians have given them a new voice, and their anger is growing. I understand the disagreement, but some of the civility has gone out of the debate. They don’t want wolves and grizzly bears in their world, period. Their position is “My granddad was killing wolves to make Montana a better place, and now you’ve brought them back. You’ve made this a worse place, and I hate it.” You can’t argue with Granddad.
Inside the park we’ve been able to protect wolves, but they occasionally cross the park boundary, and a few get shot. Two to 4 percent of Yellowstone wolves are killed each year by humans. One year we had twelve shot. Our population over the last ten years has hovered at around a hundred wolves in ten packs. So that year we lost 12 percent of the entire population. Just this week we had a wolf wander north of the park and get killed. A no-hunting zone around the park would help maintain the population, but, given the forces at play, we’re never going to get that.
As we moved west on a campaign to conquer the wilderness, we brought cowboys on horseback with guns to protect livestock. Even today the cowboy is symbolic of the West. We’re still in love with that worldview, and there’s no room for the wolf in it.
Kesselheim: The reintroduction process took place sort of secretly, bringing the wolves to these pens and getting them acclimated.
Smith: There was really nothing secret about it. I don’t have secrets. When hunters and ranchers ask me questions, I am always deliberate and direct about my answers, because I know they hate bureaucrats and government officials. They assume we’re lying to them or withholding information. So I tell them everything I know. The only thing that trips me up is that science can’t put an absolute number on anything in nature. When someone asks, “How many elk does a wolf kill in a year?” I give him an estimate. The next year, when our information is better, I give a different estimate, and the same guy calls me back and says, “Last year you told me this number, and this year you say another number. You lied to me.” I try to explain that our knowledge has improved.
In fact, I came close to taking some of our biggest critics up in the airplane to let them do a count with me. It turned out I wasn’t allowed to do that, but I have always been as transparent as I can be. There are certain details, however, like the location of a wolf den, that I’m not going to share, because who knows what that might lead to.
Getting back to the pens: We kept the wolves there under twenty-four-hour surveillance for ten weeks to acclimate them, which we felt was necessary. In Idaho they had released wolves with very little acclimation, and the wolves had ranged widely. The longer acclimation dampened their homing instinct, which was to try to get back to Canada. During that ten weeks I got to know the wolves well and went into the pen with them.
Kesselheim: What was that like?
Smith: I didn’t know what to expect. My previous experiences with adult wolves had mostly been chasing the vapors of where they had been. Suddenly I had wolves in pens. That was new. I fed them twice a week. We also had to catch them and collar them inside the pens. We would corner them and throw a net over them. Cornering a wolf is intense. Wolves can read body language. They would avoid me because I’m tall and had a look of confidence. So I would draft people to help me who had no experience with wolves. The wolves would run right by people who were afraid of them, and that’s when they would get caught in a net.
Kesselheim: You said you collared all the wolves. Is the collaring important?
Smith: We collar them for two reasons. One, we want to know how successful the program is, and two, it’s the scientific opportunity of a century: to see where they go and what they do. Next week I’m supposed to go out and collar more wolves. We’ve collared about five hundred — probably the second- or third-largest collaring project in North America. Minnesota’s done the most. Five hundred is a lot of wolves, and it’s enabled us to learn more about wolves than ever before.
Kesselheim: To collar animals, you net and tranquilize them. I’ve heard Native people say those practices show a lack of respect. Others have said it inflicts trauma on the animals. Is that an issue for you?
Smith: I wholeheartedly agree. A friend wrote me an e-mail this past week saying that he was totally against collaring wildlife in national parks and wilderness areas. He’s ridden my ass about it for twenty years. Indigenous people feel that there is something sacrilegious about it, akin to stealing an animal’s spirit. I respect all of that. Some people have accused me of collaring wolves for my own job security, just so that I have something to do.
The reason I do it is because I believe that if we don’t provide real data, people will make up stories about what wolves do. The information we provide has been used to help wolves worldwide, and it all comes from radio-collaring. I hate to use this phrase, but it’s a necessary evil. These long-term studies have given us profound insights into species and ecosystems. We need that knowledge to save them.
I am passionately in favor of leaving wolves alone, and I’m guilty of not doing it. I accept that blame, but there’s a reason why I do it.
Kesselheim: So for twenty-five years you’ve been keeping track of hundreds of wolves. What’s happened in that quarter century?
Smith: For one thing, the wolves are fully restored now. They are part of the ecology and ecosystem of Yellowstone. We’re one of the few places where wolves live at their biological carrying capacity, which is the number the environment will support. For wolves, biological carrying capacity is based primarily on how much food there is for them. In Yellowstone that’s mostly elk, deer, and bison. They rarely kill and eat a moose. Wolves are also fiercely territorial, so sometimes numbers are limited by competition among packs.
In almost every other place in the world, including northern Canada, wolves live at their social carrying capacity: the number that people will accept.
I wasn’t brought up to believe that humans should control the world, but we do control it. And wolves, perhaps more than any other species, live at our pleasure.
My work has brought home vividly to me just how much we humans put ourselves first. I did not grow up thinking that way. I grew up with a coexistence mindset. When I see another creature in a forest, I think, Isn’t it nice to be here together? But that is not the mindset most people have toward wolves. It’s either exterminate or manage. Rarely is it appreciate and leave alone. Yellowstone National Park is a very rare place — and a small place — where wolves are completely protected.
What we’ve found in Yellowstone is that these animals are social. Their packs are really families, and if you pull out the lead female, the alpha, the pack becomes destabilized. That loss can cause the pack not to persist, or maybe persist but not reproduce. So, sure, we can kill a few wolves, and the rest will survive, but what are those deaths doing to their social fabric? One of my biggest goals in Yellowstone is keeping those packs whole.
Kesselheim: What’s the longer history of wolves in Yellowstone?
Smith: The park was established in 1872, and predator control was an immediate policy of the Park Service. By 1926 the wolves in Yellowstone had all been killed. Wolves are what’s called a “keystone” species. The keystone is the stone in the arch without which the whole thing collapses. People think that Yellowstone is pristine wilderness, but it’s actually been quite disturbed historically. We had the fur trade, predator control, fire suppression, bison ranching, control of elk. Humans killed off cougars, too. Now that the wolves are back, they are subtly restructuring the ecosystem, a process that will take decades.
Kesselheim: What are some effects of having this keystone species back?
Smith: One of the main effects is that the elk population has declined, which is a good thing. After the wolves and cougars were killed off in the twentieth century, the elk population grew too big. Park managers had to start controlling elk. Roughly seventy-seven thousand elk were removed between 1935 and 1968, either by the park or by the state of Montana. They stopped controlling elk in 1968, but there was still little or no natural predation, and the elk population skyrocketed. They were having a significant impact on woody vegetation. The elk browsed down the willow, aspen, and cottonwood. Those trees weren’t regenerating for decades.
Once we restored the wolves, the cougars came back on their own, and bear numbers increased, too. All those forces together caused the elk population to decline. In turn, willows and aspens have come back, which has led to an increase in songbirds and beavers. A whole plethora of species have come back largely because of the reduction of elk. I think Yellowstone Park might be closer to a pure wilderness today than it’s ever been.
I wasn’t brought up to believe that humans should control the world, but we do control it. And wolves, perhaps more than any other species, live at our pleasure. . . . When I see another creature in a forest, I think, Isn’t it nice to be here together? But that is not the mindset most people have toward wolves. It’s either exterminate or manage.
Kesselheim: You told me once about a ranger who accused you of screwing up. What was that about?
Smith: Arguably the most legendary ranger in Yellowstone history is this crusty old-timer named Gerry Mernin. I looked up to him, and I still look up to him, even if I’m getting a little crusty myself. He loved horses the way I did, and because my father was older — he was forty-eight when I was born — I’ve always had a predilection for old-timers. Once, when I was maybe in my late thirties and feeling pretty good about how the wolf recovery was going, Gerry told me, “You’re fucking up.” I was shocked. I was trained as a scientist, which means you go out and observe and collect data and then write about it in scientific journals. Gerry said he didn’t give a rip about my scientific publications. He didn’t care about magazine or television interviews. The people I needed to reach didn’t pay any attention to that crap, he said. What I needed to do was ride into hunters’ camps during hunting season and spoon-feed it to them. They weren’t going to come to me. I had to sit down with them and endure their yelling, their abuse, their hostile looks. Never have a meal, he told me, because if I did, they would say I was a moocher. Maybe have coffee and a cookie, but that’s it.
So starting in 2000 I made three trips with Gerry where we did just that, riding the eastern and southern boundaries of Yellowstone. He knew where all the camps were, and we visited those hunters, and they did chew my ass out, and it was uncomfortable. But, you know, by the time we left each of those camps, I think there was a smidgen of progress.
I’ve had some outfitters [hunting guides] who weren’t very nice to me at the start, but once they found out that I wasn’t just a tree-hugging, bunny-loving environmentalist, they became more cordial. When we see each other now, we’ll exchange pleasantries. Maybe that’s as good as it will get.
Gerry died a few years ago, sadly. I have to say he was right. Science is important, but you have to communicate with the people. Reaching a person who’s riding the mountains with a gun is arguably more important than reaching a professor at Harvard. Gerry opened my eyes to that. I’ll never forget riding with him, spending nights in backcountry cabins. He never let me feel too good about myself. He’d always say, “There’s nothing better than a good day, a good horse, and good company. . . . Two out of three ain’t bad.”
Kesselheim: When someone confronts you with a statement about wolves that you know is wrong, how do you handle it?
Smith: At first I would go into a public meeting or an outfitter camp thinking about what I wanted to accomplish. You can’t do that. You have to feel them out. These are cowboys. There are guns leaning up against tents. There are horses tied up outside. I don’t go in with my mental list of goals anymore. I just want to have a conversation. I try to let them lead it and to be open to their stories. I can relate to some of these guys despite our differences. Riding the mountains on horseback in the fall is something we can agree on. I would love to live like that.
One time I rode into a camp, and an outfitter who’d heard I was coming said, “I want a piece of this son of a bitch.” He wouldn’t shake my hand or look me in the eye. We went into the tent and sat down, and he read me the riot act. My objective was just to hear him out. Whenever he would say something I thought was questionable, I’d say, “That’s really interesting. I’ve never seen that. I’ll look for it.” If you throw science at them, they’ll harden right up.
I do hunt, so we can talk about guns. And I grew up with horses. I would never say I’m a great rider, but I can hold my own. And believe me, they are watching how you tie the horse to the hitching rack. They’re watching how you get on and how you ride off. If you blow that, you get labeled a government bureaucrat. And, one more thing, when I ride into those camps, I make sure it’s a shitty day. If it’s a beautiful day, they’ll think I’m just a desk jockey out for a ride in the sunshine.
Kesselheim: How does that approach translate to a public meeting?
Smith: In the early days I was all about data, data, data. I had graphs and tables and pie charts. I thought if my audience just knew the truth about wolves, they’d see the light. Wrong! I go in now with very little data. I go in with stories. I use one or two scientific slides, but mostly I’ll tell stories of getting into trouble in the backcountry on a horse. That makes me one of them. And they all have dogs, so a dog story will resonate, too. Then I’ll tell them what they came to hear: I’ll tell them exactly how wolves kill and how much they kill. I’ll tell them what we think the wolves are doing to the elk herd. I don’t dance around their concerns. That disarms them and gains me a little respect. They live in a world of direct consequences, where if you do something wrong on a horse, you’re going to get bucked off. My talk may not be everything they want to hear, but if it’s direct and honest, maybe, in the back of their mind, they’ll grant me a little bit of integrity.
There might be one person in a crowd, sitting in the middle with their head down, listening. They are not going to raise their hand, but they might think, He made a good point there. I try to reach that one person. There’s no use trying to convince the loudmouths — the tough, unemotional cowboy types — though they do appreciate my showing up and being straight with them.
Kesselheim: What are their arguments against wolves?
Smith: Simply put, that life is better without them. For starters, we compete with wolves head-to-head for wild game. What wolves do or don’t do to game populations is an immense topic. Game populations generally fare better when some of the animals are thinned each year, but almost all hunters argue that they are competing directly with wolves for deer and elk.
Then there’s livestock. Wolves do occasionally take livestock, but not much. Wolves predominantly live in wild places, so their biggest impact is on wild game. When you look at all the causes of death for livestock — disease, weather, accidents, being hit by trains — wolves account for less than 1 percent.
What ranchers will say is that losses to disease and weather are unavoidable, whereas all losses to wolves are avoidable. Ranchers also tell me that they’re always worried about the next wolf attack, that they lose sleep over it. If we didn’t have wolves, that anxiety would go away.
The last argument they’ll use is that wolves are a threat to human health and safety, although that’s way overblown. Wolves do have a tapeworm that can be defecated out and could potentially cause cysts on human lungs and kidneys, but it’s extremely rare. The only known case of human transmission was among people living with sled dogs.
There were just twenty documented, nonrabid wolf attacks in Canada and Alaska in the entire twentieth century, and no fatalities. Then, in the last few years, there have been two fatalities: one in Alaska and one in northern Canada. One was around a dump, where wolves were eating human food. The other was a slight woman running on a road that led to a dump. A dog or a wolf or a bear will chase something that’s running. She had earbuds in, which isn’t a good idea in wild places. It’s still exceedingly rare that wolves pose a threat to humans. Statistically they are the least-dangerous carnivore in all of North America.
Kesselheim: Do you ever feel sympathetic to the people arguing against wolves?
Smith: Yeah, I do. They are salt-of-the-earth people. They live an outdoor life. They are tough-minded and tough-bodied. To make a living off the land is something I hold dear and respect. I mean it. It’s a hard life. I get why an outfitter might not like wolves. When a client pays thousands of dollars to come shoot a bull elk, and you just rode by a fresh elk carcass with wolves feeding on it, it pisses you off. I get that.
Kesselheim: You’re a scientist, but have you experienced moments with wolves and nature that you would categorize as spiritual?
Smith: That is actually my great flaw as a scientist. Most days I fall short of true objectivity because I’m prone to emotions, to spirituality. To me nature is what makes me who I am. It’s not intellectual. I just feel it. That’s been a guiding force throughout my life. Some of those moments I’ve had with animals — wolves and others — are what drive me to try to save wild places and wildlife.
One time, in my younger days, I was canoeing with a buddy of mine on the Peace River in Wood Buffalo National Park, up in Canada. On the shore we saw a wolf at the base of a high bank. The wolf saw us and started trotting along the bank, looking for a way up it. That’s my soul animal over there, I thought. I had to go to it. We started paddling hard toward shore and hit the sand beach just as the wolf escaped up the bank. I was thinking, Shit, we missed it. Then the wolf came back to the edge of the bank and looked right down on us. There’s nothing special to that behavior biologically, but I knew right then what I was going to do with my life. After the wolf turned and trotted off, my buddy gave me a leg up the bank. I wouldn’t do this now, but I wanted to see the wolf again. I only heard him crashing away in the brush. I was twenty-three or twenty-four. To this day I wonder why that wolf came back. I think about what would have happened if I had been a hunter with a gun. But I wasn’t a hunter, and we made eye contact.
Wolves are an odd species. We have persecuted them more than any other wild animal, and yet they will stop to look at you, and occasionally take a step toward you. To me those moments are spiritual. That’s what we’re losing today. People don’t have those experiences anymore. I want to get that connection back. That contact is powerful, and without it we’re untethered. We’re designed to have a strong connection with nature. Nature is impersonal and uncaring, but it gives you that calm energy.
If you study wolves, the one thing that comes through is a message about death. They kill other animals, and they have short lives themselves. The prospect for them to die is there on any given day. Yet every wolf you see looks perfectly happy. What I get from that is: Don’t worry about death. Make each day a good one.
Approximately 1 percent of all charity in the U.S. goes to animals, and a big chunk of that goes to dogs and cats. When it comes to wildlife and nature, charitable giving is minuscule.
Kesselheim: Should we leave nature totally alone or manage it for our benefit?
Smith: I think places like Yellowstone have to exist. We need to set aside more places where there is no hunting, or perhaps only light hunting, and where animals are left alone to do whatever it is they do. In populated areas, where wolves are butting up against people, we may need to allow hunting, because people’s resentment only grows if you don’t. And then there are middle-ground places, where you can use wildlife-management practices. But we don’t have enough places set aside, outside of national parks, where wildlife can be wildlife. That’s the problem. I don’t want everything to be taken over by people. We have to have nature for nature’s sake. We need forests that are decadent, where the trees are allowed to come down and rot, which is great for wildlife. Not everything is a crop.
Kesselheim: You’ve talked about places like Yellowstone as “island ecosystems.” Are there places in the world where there’s hope for larger-scale sanctuaries?
Smith: Northern Canada right now is the best candidate — not Alaska, which has kind of a scorched-earth approach to wildlife management. Human density is low across northern Canada, and the boreal forest is largely intact. Far-eastern Russia might be the wildest place on Earth. There are a lot of wolves there, but the people aren’t very forward-thinking about wildlife management. I don’t know the actual size of the Peel River watershed in the Yukon and Northwest Territories, but it’s largely untouched and pristine. Getting those places set aside — or, at least, keeping them as intact as possible — is really important. We have a chance there to hold on to some of that wild character.
I worry about the future for nature and animals. I’ve heard that approximately 1 percent of all charity in the U.S. goes to animals, and a big chunk of that goes to dogs and cats. When it comes to wildlife and nature, charitable giving is minuscule.
I try to be a voice for preservation. I work for the National Park Service, despite all the bureaucratic frustrations, in part because our mission boils down to one word: preservation. I can get behind that. But, given the reality of where we are, the way forward is probably more along the lines of conservation.
Kesselheim: What’s the difference between conservation and preservation?
Smith: Preservation means no human interference. Whatever happens, happens. The only time we intervene is when a problem is human caused. For example, after wolves were killed off by people, the park’s mission became restoring them, but then it’s hands off.
Conservation, on the other hand, is wise use. That means that we’re the gardener, the shepherd. A conservationist is often a hunter, a fisherman, a logger, a farmer. I’m a hunter, too. Every time I kill something, though, I feel bad and think, I can’t do this anymore. I don’t like wildlife management that’s geared around hunting, that says we need wildlife so that we can hunt it.
My hope is that, in the future, there will remain a few people who respect nature enough just to let wildlife be. We will need large chunks of land to pull that off. Yellowstone is 2.2 million acres, and with the national-forest lands around it, I think we’re on pretty firm ground to pursue preservation and let nature run its course. In smaller parks I’m not sure that philosophy will work, because they aren’t big enough to provide a fully functioning ecosystem. I hope the American public rises up and says it wants more places like Yellowstone. And I hope we do it before it’s too late.
Kesselheim: And even within that preservation philosophy, part of the Park Service mission is also to allow people access to wilderness.
Smith: True. There are people all over Yellowstone. But if you get a mile off the road, it’s pretty easy to not see anybody. Maybe you’ll see a wolf!