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Yellowstone and USFWS wolf biologists on reintroduction, hunting quotas and retirement

An adult grey wolf walks at waters edge in Montana in October 2018. Twenty-five years ago, federal wildlife officials reintroduced wolves to Idaho. Recovery went well enough that in 2011 the animal came off the endangered species list. Since then, hunters have legally killed hundreds every year.
Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
An adult grey wolf walks at waters edge in Montana in October 2018.

In January, it will be 28 years since 41 wolves were released into Yellowstone National Park, relocated from Canada by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Wildlife biologist Ed Bangs was the recovery coordinator for the project. He and his team were responsible for delivering the wolves to the park.

Yellowstone’s senior wolf biologist Doug Smith was on the receiving end.

Both men joined Yellowstone Public Radio’s Orlinda Worthington on Zoom for a conversation on wolves, politics, and retirement.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Orlinda Worthington: Doug, as we speak, you are just three days into retirement now. You actually began getting ready for wolves in 1994, right?

Doug Smith: That's correct. I was hired ahead of the reintroduction so we could get things ready.

What all did that entail?

Doug Smith: Well, we built three pens and we needed to make sure that they were worthy of holding the wolves that they couldn't get out. Yellowstone was a pretty big bureaucracy. We had an incident command structure, so there was a lot of people to organize. We knew there'd be a lot of scrutiny.

So just kind of making sure the pens were in good shape, that the wolves would come safely to the park, that the visitors would be able to see them, but not bother them. Starting to work on what we were gonna do after, what the acclimation was gonna look like, how we were gonna feed 'em, where we gonna monitor them, where we were gonna do research. Those kind of all those questions. You'd be surprised at the details and how much time the little things take.

Were there any wolves at all in or around Yellowstone at that?

Doug Smith: No, nothing but transients going through. There was no wolf population in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, the whole place.

Why was it important to reintroduce wolves to the park?

Doug Smith: When the system is altered due to human intervention, and that's kind of our clearest path forward. We're supposed to intervene and restore it to its natural state, and there's abundant evidence that wolves were eradicated from Yellowstone by humans. So really, it's our baseline policy. Put wolves back and let 'em do their thing. Ed, anything to add to that?

Ed Bangs: No, I think the bottom line was restoring natural ecosystems. Wolves were historically here, and a lot of people thought they should be here again.

Ed Bangs poses with his dog while hunting
Courtesy Ed Bangs
Retired wildlife biologist Ed Bangs was the project coordinator when wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park almost three decades ago.

Now at times, both of you have been revered by ranchers and sneered by environmentalists and vice versa.  How did you deal with all that public attention?

Doug Smith: A lot of the times I followed Ed's lead. He, he's quick on his feet and he's amiable and that was required. Ed was a fantastic recovery coordinator. Um, because with wolves you have to have give and take. And so, I think the best way to answer that is compromise.  You know, I was raised kind of in the country, a nature lover idealist, and that kind of doesn't work with. But you know, they're tough for society to deal with. You know, they do kill. They do best when there's not many people around. And so, to live with them, you've gotta reach, compromise. You know sometimes wolves have to be killed and other places they need protection.

It's finding that middle ground, that's key. The other thing is being willing to talk about it with people. It's painful, it's hard. People get upset. They're very emotional on both sides. And I think a key for wolves is to be open and like, hey, I know this. I don't know that. Hope it goes well. It might not.

What do you think, Ed? Doug says he kind of followed your lead, so how did you deal with people on both sides of the.

Ed Bangs: Yeah, I would never recommend anyone follow my lead. (laughter) The bottom line is wolves do need a lot of compromise and so I wrote the regulations that help introduce wolves and that killed 1,500 wolves to reduce livestock degradations.

And that all is a pretty tough thing. And when both sides kind of don't like you, that's probably a sweet spot. And we did pretty good with that cuz I was widely hated on both sides.

And widely respected too, I would add. Are there any situations that were particularly challenging over the years?

Doug Smith: You know, in the park, no one really thought they'd be visible. And, and they are. And it's a sensation. And it's still a sensation. The thing that got the most attention though was this kind of these ecosystem effects public realm was should we have 'em, or shouldn't we? And the scientific realm, it was what was their role and how did they fit in? We just didn't expect them to be that visible and to spawn the kind of scientific debates. What do ecosystems look like and how are they supposed to be? I think all that was unexpected.

What aspect of the job did you love the most?

Ed Bangs: I'm really fascinated by human behavior and humans and how they interact and everything. And so, wolves are like the prime way to see that firsthand. And I think dealing with people through all the controversy and the debate was the most interesting thing to me by far.

Doug, how about you?

Retired Yellowstone National Park senior wolf biologist Doug Smith
National Park Service
Retired Yellowstone National Park senior wolf biologist Doug Smith

Doug Smith: I find wolves to be infinitely fascinating. You know, this is a sappy story, but I've been interested in them since a small boy. To me, they represent true wildness and kind of unlocking their secrets was a lifelong pursuit of mine. And so, I find, human stories kind of boring myself. You know, the dramas the, he and she, and I'm interested in the wolf stories. They're much more interesting.

It's a different approach too. Ed's gonna laugh at this, but you know, the best part of the job for me, uh, was just being out in the field with them and all of nature. I like that the most. Under Ed's tenure, I learned how to helicopter dart them.

And, you know, a few times I get left alone in the middle of Yellowstone with a wolf while the helicopter flies back to get somebody. When I was sitting there with a drugged wolf in the middle of nowhere, it was a cool feeling.

The most recent ruling from a Lewis and Clark County District court judge upheld this year’s less restrictive wolf hunting regulations.  I’d like to get your reactions to that. Ed, would you like to go first?

Ed Bangs:  The latest stuff that's been on the court is just an example of waste, fraud, and abuse when the Legislature ignores science and just promotes political soundbites. The state of Montana was doing a great job of wolf management before the legislature got involved during the last session, so the population's gonna be fine. This is just raw politics, showing people that you know, you're in power, you don't care what other people feel.

Doug, your comment?

Doug Smith: We worked really hard to compromise. We wanted to work with the state to talk with them about what we could do that would meet their mission and we could meet ours. And we had largely done that for about 10 years, but they wouldn't go from complete protection to, you know, unlimited harvest.

You know, we worked through that for a decade, and it was going very well. And then it was taken away. People got angry, lawsuits were filed, and as Ed said, all this is really unnecessary. And so, this reinstitution of the quota, I think is a step in the right direction. We asked for a lower number. They gave it to us. We talked about it. There was good dialogue. That's a sign of progress, not this kind of stonewalling, uh, pendulum swing. We got the power and we're gonna play our hand going forward.

What do each of you hope will happen for wolves in the Yellowstone region in the future?

Ed Bangs: I'm hoping the politics around wolves goes away somewhat. It makes me sad sometimes to see stuff made up wolves persecuted as strict political distraction, so I'm just hoping that people get over it. And they actually do treat wolves just like they do deer or elk or bears or other.


Doug Smith: Well, compromise, you know, and respect for each other's mission and, and you know, Yellowstone was unique because it was a protected population that at the same time was being studied.

And so, I think the combination of that's really important because wolves continue to be a societal issue and we need that, that baseline information. So, you know, last winter when we lost 18% of our, the population for wolves that live 96% of the time in the park, you know, that's not a compromise. So, I really want to see compromise going forward where we can, you know, balance the mission of the park service protection with the mission of the state, which is conservation. And we could kind of see each other's values and policies. And somehow avoid situations like last winter. I think that's a key for the future.

Doug, earlier in our conversation you mentioned the wolf approach to life. I'm going to give you both an opportunity to expand on the “wolf approach to life.”

Ed Bangs: For me, the people thing were the most fascinating, but wolves are a pretty fascinating animal, and if you like dogs, you can see it. Just the other day I was out hunting. I heard a lone wolf howl. I looked for it. I saw it about 300 yards away, scent marking a tree and it looked kind of bored and lonely. And then some other wolves howled up the valley. It looked that way and then wagged its tail and lopped off for 'em. And I think we can all relate to how great it is to have friends and family and hear their voices and them acknowledge us. And so that kind of stuff with wolves, that whole social nature is, uh, a direct link into human nature.

And Doug, for you?

Doug Smith: Well, keep going. I mean, wolves never give up and don't feel sorry for yourself. No matter how bad things are you just gotta survive. You know, watching wolves and studying them, that's really apparent. You know, in the last day of their life, they're trying as hard as they can. Right up to the end.

Orlinda Worthington hosts “Morning Edition” weekdays on YPR. She brings 20 years of experience as Montana television news anchor, producer, and reporter.