Sexy Beasts

Efforts to protect wolves are often undermined by misinformation and myth; biologist Doug Smith is getting out the truth

  • Paul Tolmé
  • Feb 01, 2007

SIX WOLF PUPS spill from their den on a hillside abloom with wildflowers in Yellowstone National Park. The pups wrestle, roll and scamper, then nuzzle their mother to nurse. Yellowstone Wolf Project Leader Doug Smith and assistant Matt Metz watch through high-powered spotting scopes from about a mile away. It is late spring, when Smith and his team rise before dawn to monitor dens and count pups. Forty-three of 69 newborns perished in 2005, and Smith is eager to see how the class of 2006 will fare.

The 41 wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone a decade ago have yielded what Smith calls "a feast of science" about wolf population dynamics and how the predators shape an ecosystem. The wolf project uses radio collars, airplanes, helicopters and teams of volunteers on snowshoes, skis and foot to track wolf pack movements and hunting patterns as the animals shift from summer to wintering grounds in pursuit of elk. "We're simply trying to learn as much about wolves and their impact as we can," Smith says.

Smith has been fascinated by wolves for most of his 46 years and has devoted his career to learning about the predators. Wolf project leader since 1997, he is among the foremost experts on the species. But the longer Smith works with wolves, the more he realizes how deeply distorted people's perceptions of the animals are. "Wolves are so maligned," Smith says. "More than any other animal, people have great misunderstandings about them. Ask anybody on the street their opinion of wolves, and they will have one, pro or con. They're sexy beasts. And sometimes that's a detriment."

To educate the public, Smith has initiated an outreach campaign to debunk the misconceptions, misinformation and mythology surrounding wolves. He and his assistants hold regular workshops around the Yellowstone region to answer questions and present the latest findings. Once content to publish research in obscure academic journals, Smith increasingly pens popular articles. "When I first began working with wolves I was a hard scientist," he says. "I have learned over the years that this other work is just as important as the science. Wolf managers must be sociologists as well." In 2005, he co-authored the book Decade of the Wolf: Returning the Wild to Yellowstone, to inform the public. "I just want to get the truth out."

Elk hunters are the group he most wants to reach. Elk hunting is a multi-million-dollar activity on the public lands that surround Yellowstone, and hunters are a powerful political constituency. Many elk hunters, Smith says, blame wolves for decimating Yellowstone's elk population. Before wolves, the elk population numbered 20,000. Today, the herd is half that size. But wolves are just one factor. Grizzlies and mountain lions, which also consume elk, have increased in number. And in 1996, as wolves were being reintroduced, wildlife officials in Montana increased the elk-hunt quota, specifically targeting cows to control overpopulation. All of these factors, plus a prolonged drought that has reduced forage, have diminished elk numbers, Smith says. 

Getting this information to hunters, however, is difficult. Hook-and-bullet magazines regularly print anti-wolf rhetoric. Misinformation, such as the claim that wolves have a "surplus killing reflex," feeds the myth that wolves are thrill killers that hunt for sport rather than survival. So every fall during hunting season, Smith saddles his horse, packs provisions and rides deep into the Gallatin, Bridger-Teton and Shoshone national forests that border Yellowstone. His objective: meet hunters and talk wolves.

The weeklong "boundary rides" take him into the remotest reaches of the Lower 48, sometimes a two-day ride from the nearest road. Smith visits hunting camps, sits down for campfire coffee and converses. Entering a tent camp of armed men who dislike wolves is hardly for the faint-hearted. "These guys are cowboys to the core," Smith says. "They see me as a bureaucrat, an agent of government propaganda."

But Smith is no "bunny-loving, tree-hugging liberal," as he puts it. In addition to being a fine horseman, Smith hunts and likes guns. More than six feet tall and fit, he stares hard from bluish-gray eyes. He sports a handlebar moustache and wavy black hair salted with gray. "We talk guns and horses and hunting and that bridges us."

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement agent Dominic Domenici, who is based in Casper, Wyoming, and has participated in boundary rides, says Smith is no ordinary scientist. "Doug breaks the mold. He's an excellent communicator. He listens and wants to hear the hunters' stories. He isn't preachy."

Smith believes he is making inroads little by little. During his first backcountry trip, in 2000, one outfitter refused to shake Smith's hand. Smith met the same guy five years later at a public meeting and exchanged pleasantries. "At least now we can talk. That's all I'm after. On a lot of issues we actually see eye to eye. They want to keep the West wild, and I agree."

Human hatred of wolves began with the domestication of livestock. The Bible contains references to wolves as contrary to human dominion over the land, and the ancient Greeks put bounties on wolves. The Massachusetts Bay Colony offered the first wolf bounty in North America in 1630, beginning a centuries-long eradication effort. Government agents known as "wolfers" shot, poisoned and trapped wolves at the behest of ranchers and hunters, including Theodore Roosevelt, who called them beasts of "waste and desolation."

The federal government even sought to wipe out wolves in Yellowstone National Park, beginning in the 19th century, and by 1926 had done so. Beginning in the 1940s, as biologists came slowly to understand the role of predators in the wild, a strong constituency built up in favor of restoring wolves to some areas where they had been extirpated. Despite legal protections and current public sentiment in favor of wolves, however, the animals are still in the crosshairs. At least 21 reintroduced Mexican wolves have been shot illegally in New Mexico and Arizona. There are dozens of unsolved wolf killings in Idaho, where they have also been reintroduced. Alaska wildlife officials have resumed aerial gunning of wolves to maximize moose and caribou for hunters.

Many members of the ranching community, another powerful western interest group that sometimes conflicts with conservationists, feel that wolves threaten their livelihood. A century ago, livestock predation was a serious concern. Today, however, wolves account for a small fraction of livestock deaths. Of the 104 million head of cattle raised in 2005, wolves killed 4,400, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. By contrast, digestive problems caused 648,000 deaths and domestic dogs 22,000. Moreover, ranchers who lose livestock to wolves are compensated with state and private funds. 

Even so, protecting livestock is stressful, and ranchers complain that sheep and cattle raised in wolf country gain less weight because they are nervous. "Finding common ground on the livestock issue is difficult," Smith concedes. Ranchers value the land as a place to raise livestock, and wolves are simply a hassle. "Wolves can live with people," says Peggy Struhsacker, NWF wolf project leader, "but people just can't seem to live with wolves in our country." Then there's the issue of human safety. Some people still see wolves as bloodthirsty killers that crave human flesh. At public meetings, parents in the Northern Rockies can be overheard saying that it is only a matter of time before a wolf snatches a child waiting for a school bus. The notion of wolves as human killers is deeply ingrained, researchers say, and dates to medieval Europe, where wolves ate battlefield corpses and bodies piled up during plagues. Stories such as "Little Red Riding Hood," "Peter and the Wolf" and "Three Little Pigs" reinforce this mythology. "The wolf is a species that continues to create fear and hatred," Struhsacker says. "But in fact, Little Red Riding Hood lied. Wolves rarely kill people." The 20th century tallied only 16 documented attacks on humans in North America. None were fatal, and all involved rabid wolves or wolves habituated to humans. Bears, mountain lions and even domestic dogs are far more dangerous.

But presenting the facts can be painful. Smith has been called a liar at public meetings. People harass him at the supermarket and in restaurants around his hometown of Gardiner, Montana. His inbox is clogged with nasty emails. "Nobody who works with wolves can lead a quiet and peaceful life," he says. Scientific colleagues sometimes criticize him for being so vocal. Even wolf lovers are a problem. "The animal rights people hate to hear it, but wolves that kill domesticated animals must be shot," Smith says.

Wolves remain a bogeyman today, as illustrated by the death of a Canadian man in 2005. When Kenton Carnegie's mangled corpse was discovered near the remote Saskatchewan mining camp of Points North Landing, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police immediately blamed wolves. The story made headlines around the world. But when noted wolf biologist Paul Paquet of the World Wildlife Fund investigated, he recognized immediately that a black bear killed Carnegie. "The problem was bias right from the start," Paquet says.

"When I looked at the photos, I immediately saw bear tracks," Paquet says. He examined Carnegie's corpse and noted characteristics common to bear kills. The clothes and skin had been stripped away, indicating the so-called banana-peel eating technique common to bears. The corpse was dragged about 100 yards--another trait common to bears. Carnegie's heart and liver--"the most desired morsels for wolves," Paquet says--were intact. Lastly, the body had extensive claw marks (wolves attack with their teeth). "The circumstances link closely to what we know of bear attacks," Paquet says. "That said, we can't completely rule out wolves." Paquet filed his report with Saskatchewan's chief coroner, who is expected to release a final cause of death in the coming months.

Debunking misinformation is key, Smith says, because misguided notions about wolves can lead to poor management decisions. Public support is crucial to the long-term effort to restore wolves to the Northern Rockies. This is especially true as the federal government moves to delist wolves under the Endangered Species Act and turn over management to Montana, Wyoming and Idaho--all home to vocal and politically powerful wolf opponents. "Conservation groups need to explain to people that wolves aren't dangerous and are necessary to the health of our ecosystems," Struhsacker says.

Hoping to build on the success of the Yellowstone reintroduction, wolf advocates are urging recovery efforts in Colorado, where overabundant elk are ravaging Rocky Mountain National Park, and in the forests of northern New England. "I don't think it's possible to change someone's mind about wolves," says Domenici. "All you can do is give people the facts and let them make their own decisions."

Paul Tolme recently wrote for National Wildlife about the challenges faced by raptors in the Great Divide.

NWF Takes Action: Restoring the Northeastern Gray Wolf

Although the focus of wolf recovery has been in the West and the Great Lakes region, adequate habitat and prey-base exists for wolves within the 26-million-acre Northern Forest, which encompasses much of New England and parts of New York. Wolves already are coming from Canada into parts of that region. Experts have documented the accidental killing of endangered northeastern gray wolves in Maine. The source of these wolves is likely southern Quebec, where several wolves have been killed since 1998. As recently as spring 2006, a wolf was killed in Quebec on a highway that probably serves as a travel corridor for wolves dispersing into the United States.

Biologists believe the dead animals came from a wolf population north of the St. Lawrence River. Confirmation of resident wolves in Maine would trigger a federal wolf recovery plan under the Endangered Species Act. NWF is leading an effort to determine if Maine and neighboring states are home to resident gray wolves.

NWF gains the most valuable information about wolf movement by involving citizens living in and around communities identified as key locations for recolonizing wolves, such as Pittsburg, New Hampshire, and Rangely and Statton, Maine. With support from state wildlife agencies and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) northeast regional office, NWF has developed a rapid-response project for speedy follow-up on wolf sightings. Tracking surveys also are certain to be major factors in the eventual success of wolf recovery in the Northeast.

Challenged with budget cuts, staff shortages, the remote northern location of wolf sightings and strict time limitations for responding to reports of wolves, FWS and the state agencies are relying on NWF staff and trained tracking volunteers to take the lead in following up on wolf sightings. NWF continues to build on the success of past tracking and monitoring experience in the target area. In addition to continued work with a coterie of seasoned trackers, Peggy Struhsacker, NWF wolf project leader, proposes to recruit at least four new citizen volunteer trackers who will train in Wisconsin with expert tracker Jim Halfpenny. Struhsacker will work with volunteers to conduct initial surveys in the Northeast and to log possible sightings. Each volunteer will make at least 10 scheduled solo surveys from January to April 2007 and respond to all possible wolf sightings. In a project funded by Chase Wildlife Foundation, Struhsacker also will place and monitor remote-access cameras in an attempt to capture wolves in photographs.

For the past eight years, NWF has cultivated a social and political base of support for wolf recovery among wildlife agencies, hunting groups and key private forest landowners as well as among state, federal and Canadian provincial decision makers. NWF has been successful in this work but feels a greater sense of urgency in regard to wolf protection now that evidence suggests the animal may be roaming the Northern Forest. For more information on NWF efforts to protect wolves and other vulnerable species, go to

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