30 Years Later, Wolves Still Divide Scientists

By Beacon Staff

Diane Boyd never intended to spark the Northern Rockies wolf recovery effort.

In 1979, as a curious and hard-working graduate student at the University of Montana, she began tracking a wolf that had been trapped and radio-collared earlier in the year after it wandered into the Glacier National Park area from Canada. It was the only identified Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf in the Western continental United States at the time.

Boyd holed up in a remote turn-of-the-20th century homestead cabin just south of the Canadian border and outside of Glacier National Park and remained there year-round until 1993. Volunteers came and went, but Boyd remained.

For 13 years, she lived among the wolves.

“Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think it would be the springboard for recovery that it is,” Boyd said in a recent interview.

Wolf management, one of the most prominent and touchy environmental issues facing Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, came to a head earlier this year when the U.S. Department of Interior removed the Northern Rockies gray wolf from protection under the Endangered Species Act. The issue intensified last week when a federal judge temporarily restored that protection, arguing that the government had not met its standard for recovery. The ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed in April by a coalition of conservation groups, and the same judge will eventually decide whether the injunction should be permanent.

The prospect of delisting has certainly not brought closure. In some ways, it has thrown fuel on a fire that has already been burning hot since wolves were reintroduced to the greater Yellowstone National Park ecosystem and central Idaho in 1995. Before U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy’s preliminary injunction, wolf hunting seasons were being planned in the tri-state area as everybody from environmentalists to biologists to politicians disagreed over whether delisting was appropriate.

But long before the word “reintroduction” became ingrained in Western nomenclature, Boyd and two other biologists, Mike Fairchild and Bob Ream, were providing the groundwork for all future recovery efforts. Nearly 30 years have passed since Boyd first assumed the role of the Jane Goodall of gray wolves. So much has changed since then: the political climate, the vocabulary, the main players.

Boyd never supported reintroduction, but she said she’s pleased with the way things ultimately turned out, with stable wolf populations throughout Northwest Montana, the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem and central Idaho. There are more than 1,500 wolves and at least 100 breeding pairs in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, far exceeding the minimum recovery goals of 300 wolves and 30 breeding pairs for at least three consecutive years.

But Boyd still believes wolves would have recovered on their own and she’s not alone in that thinking among the original Montana wolf researchers.

Nevertheless, with or without reintroduction, both Boyd and Ream say delisting is not only the appropriate step at this time considering population figures, but it’s a significant sign of success for wolf recovery. They have learned to put aside their initial opposition to reintroduction in favor of celebrating the progress of a wolf recovery process they helped to instigate in the 1970s.

Wolf Ecology Project

While a professor at the University of Montana, Ream founded the Wolf Ecology Project in 1973, around the same time the gray wolf was added to the endangered species list. Before moving to Montana, he had spent considerable time in the field in Minnesota with David Mech, widely regarded as one of the world’s top wolf experts and the founder of the International Wolf Center.

At that time in Montana, wolf conversation bordered on mythical. Sightings were rare, if substantiated at all. Wolves throughout the Western U.S. had been effectively abolished by human Westward expansion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

So the first step for the team was finding a wolf.

“We were basically looking for the needle in the haystack,” Ream said.

After investigating a series of sightings, Ream and his Wolf Ecology Project team finally tracked down a wolf in the Glacier National Park ecosystem that had wandered down from Canada. A trapper on the team captured, radio-collared and released the female wolf in 1979. That’s when Ream sent Boyd to follow the wolf. She set up home base in a cabin in the North Fork Flathead River drainage.

Over the next several years, Boyd and Fairchild, with the help of volunteers and Ream who was dividing his time between teaching duties at UM and fieldwork, endured a series of ups and down. They lost track of the wolf and then lost funding for the project. Then, bouncing back and forth across the border, they relocated the wolf along with a male mate, regained funding, followed the pair until they had a litter of pups, and then tracked the subsequent generations of offspring.

That was the beginning of natural wolf re-colonization in the Northern Rockies.

Influence and Reintroduction
The work of Ream, Boyd and Fairchild, along with biologist Daniel Pletscher, played an invaluable role in recovery planning and, later, in reintroduction talks, though neither Boyd nor Ream supported reintroduction. Ream was assigned to lead the Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Team, which worked in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to draw up a permanent recovery plan. The plan was finalized in 1987 and the recovery team was disbanded, much to Ream’s dismay.

“It was kind of weird,” he said. “We all got along. I think Fish and Wildlife would have done better if it kept the team together.”

The recovery team discussed reintroduction frequently throughout the 80s, but Ream always voiced his opposition. He felt, if given time, the wolves would make their way through Northwest Montana into Yellowstone Park and eventually into central Idaho. He also feared for the political volatility reintroduction would create.

In 1984, the recovery team narrowly approved a reintroduction plan, with Ream voting in opposition. Ream concedes now that reintroduction in Yellowstone has exceeded expectations and he marvels at the healthy population today, though he’s still not convinced by central Idaho’s reintroduction.

“In Yellowstone, I refer to it as a grand experiment and the experiment worked very well biologically,” Ream said. “But again, I think they would have gotten there on their own.”

Boyd, who calls Yellowstone’s reintroduction a success while maintaining her support for natural recovery, said wolves are efficient breeders and travel long distances. They would have no problem making it from Glacier to Yellowstone and there’s evidence, she said, that they had already made the trek in the early 90s just before reintroduction.

“It’s nothing for a wolf to traverse 300, 400 miles,” she said. “It’s really nothing.”

Furthermore, in 1982 Congress attached an amendment to the Endangered Species Act providing for the reintroduction of “experimental populations,” which allowed greater flexibility in management by decreasing protection standards. Under this amendment, wolves lost full federal protection when they were reintroduced.

Ream’s concerns about political volatility appear to ring true today. He admits there would be problems between ranchers and wolves no matter the circumstances, but from what he saw in Northwest Montana during the early 80s, he said natural recovery is a much easier pill to swallow than reintroduction.

“I knew it would raise a huge flag with stockgrowers,” Ream said of reintroduction. “That was part of my rationale: Ranchers and other people kind of accept recovery as an act of God or act of nature, whereas with reintroduction it was the whole ‘It’s the damn government coming in again’ thing.”

Delisting and Beyond
Ream and Boyd believe conservationists should embrace delisting as a sign of success. Ream doesn’t support the current litigation by environmental groups.

“I think the lawsuit that’s going on now is kind of misguided,” he said. “We’re way over the population numbers that were established in the plan. You can’t come back later and say, ‘Oh we need another thousand wolves.’”

Pat Tucker, a biologist who was also heavily involved in early recovery efforts in the 1980s, primarily as a traveling educator, agrees that delisting proves the success of wolf recovery, saying, “If we can’t, as conservationists, celebrate having wolves back, we can’t celebrate anything.” But Tucker believes reintroduction was necessary.

“A healthy population in 28 years,” Tucker said. “That’s a success story.”

Tucker, Ream and Boyd reflect on their vital roles in early wolf recovery efforts with nostalgia. They are, for the most part, retired from the wolf business today, though Boyd has been working with a graduate student at UM who is researching wolves in the Italian Alps. So Boyd still occasionally finds herself trudging around the mountains in search of elusive wild canines.

For Boyd, a graduate school project that began 29 years ago has obviously blossomed into something much bigger.

“It was great,” Boyd said. “It was just a wonderful, wonderful opportunity. I just jumped into this thing and followed it with my heart.”