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Week of 8.18.06

Doug Smith on Making Room for Wolves

Biologist Doug Smith and a gray wolf Doug Smith has worked with the Yellowstone Wolf Project, which he heads, since its inception in 1994. A biologist, Smith has studied wolves for 27 years. David Brancaccio sat down with Smith to talk about his experiences reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone National Park. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.

BRANCACCIO: What challenges did you face in bringing wolves back to Yellowstone?

SMITH: Wolves were eradicated from this area, and a lot of people felt that was for a good reason. Many people have grandparents that were doing some of the eradication, and they felt that the West was settled on the idea of eradicating predators; primarily, wolves. That was in the twenties, and the thirties, and the forties. The idea of bringing wolves back was an insult to many people.

BRANCACCIO: So, there was lots of pushback on this notion of, "What should we do about, perhaps, reintroducing them?"

SMITH: A lot of pushback. I don't think this is an overstatement. Given the mythology of wolves; the stories of wolves; the culture of animosity that goes back, not hundreds, but thousands of years, I would say that wolves are one of the most controversial wildlife species in the world ... To some, wolves symbolize waste and destruction, and killing. To others, they symbolize wilderness and a healthy ecosystem.

And wolves just want to be wolves, like other wildlife. So, their biggest problem is the baggage that comes along with them. The further I travel; the more I read; the more I talk to people, the more that's apparent to me. The distribution of wolves goes across the top of the globe, the Northern Hemisphere. So, they are a lot of places where people are. And almost every place where they co-exist there are problems. And so, you cannot overestimate or overstate the problem that we faced trying to bring this animal back.

"To some, wolves symbolize waste and destruction, and killing."
BRANCACCIO: What is the argument for bringing them back, given that kind of animosity?

SMITH: The argument for bringing them back is rooted in the Endangered Species Act ... That states, simply, we don't have the right to, through our human actions, to completely destroy, eradicate, eliminate, another plant or animal species. In other words, it is trying to strike a balance between human activities, and other life forms.

Wolves were literally eradicated and they roamed all of the U.S., except a few places in deserts, and the tip of Florida. They were eradicated from everywhere except the extreme northern portion of northern Minnesota. The population went from millions to 500. The Endangered Species Act ... gave us the teeth to bring back wolves in a suitable habitat.

BRANCACCIO: What is the role of wolves in the ecosystem?

SMITH: Wolves are a top carnivore. They sit atop of this food web, or chain, that we learned about in grade school. And scientists believe that ecosystems are structured by forces at the top, like predators. [They believe] that their influence trickles down to the bottom. Others feel that ecosystems are structured by the food at the bottom and that it flows up. Still others feel that it's both. And some others, yet, feel that it can switch back and forth; or operate simultaneously. Regardless of whose right, wolves have something to do with that ... They're the top carnivore in North American ecosystems. We wiped them out and it has to have had an influence.

BRANCACCIO: What was involved in getting them reintroduced?

SMITH: Wolves are actually really easy [to reintroduce]. They adapt very well and are opportunists. We brought in wild wolves, not captive ones, from Canada. Other programs that have used captive stock have had trouble. Our wolves were masters at life in the wild. We acclimated them a brief period; then turned them loose. Yellowstone provides a great core habitat [as] we don't have poaching in the park. That got the population established solidly. From there, they could move out and establish in other areas and that's what they've done.

"Wolves are actually really easy [to reintroduce]. They adapt very well and are opportunists."
BRANCACCIO: And how has it worked?

SMITH: It's worked extremely well. We are in the twelfth year and have more wolves than we thought we would. They are here in enough numbers that they are being integrated into the ecosystem. They interact with the other animals. We didn't think we'd be here ten years into it. We thought post-five years we would even be struggling, getting the population established.

BRANCACCIO: Can we say that it's now a permanent thing, that the wolves have reestablished their presence in the U.S?

SMITH: I think so. There are about 3500 wolves now in the [contiguous] U.S. Thirty years ago, there were about 500. That's a tremendous success story. That's excluding Alaska where there are probably seven to nine thousand wolves. Wolves have increased their numbers and range. Wolves are in Michigan, Wisconsin, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico. Red wolves are in North Carolina. Those are all great success stories. So that's the good news.

The bad news is, every one of those places I mentioned, wolves are still a struggle for humanity. We can't seem to accept them fully and embrace them like other wildlife ... Wolves raise the emotions of people like no other animal does.

"Wolves raise the emotions of people like no other animal does."
BRANCACCIO: That's one of the challenges here. Is that the wolves can't read the sign, as to where the park boundary is. And so, they go out of the park boundary. And increasingly, they're mixing with ranches, and other populations, who do not want them around.

SMITH: That's true. And the reintroduction was designed to be boundary-less. We did not expect the wolves to pay attention to the boundary. And we told everybody that. And that's a point of contention. Because many, many people have said to me, "I have no problem with wolves in Yellowstone Park. But, when they come out of it, I want them moved back in, or killed."

BRANCACCIO: You have a lot of experience talking to ranchers, some of whom just hate these wolves. What do you tell them? They have a point that wolves do kill some of their cattle, which costs them money.

SMITH: The ranchers do have a point as wolves do occasionally prey on livestock. There are a couple of things that I tell them. For one, I acknowledge their problems. One of their biggest problems is not what the wolves kill, but just having wolves around. The sleepless nights. The stress on the cows. The stress on the families. The extra money it costs to spend more time with your livestock, because the wolves are around. You need to guard them more. All those are intangibles that the compensation system doesn't pay for.

In areas that are heavily 'agriculturalized,' we shouldn't have wolves. They should just be killed. And on the flip side, in wild land areas, like national forests, wilderness parks, wildlife refuges, we should vigorously protect wolves and other carnivores. The tough part becomes an attention zone in between.