Wildlife

40 Years of Wolf Recovery

Longtime wolf biologist Diane Boyd says wolves are here to stay, even as a suite of legislation raises problematic management concerns

By Tristan Scott
Diane Boyd captures and collars wolves near Spotted Bear last summer. Courtesy Photo

In 1979, when Diane Boyd arrived on the doorstep of Glacier National Park to study wolves, the species’ erasure from the landscape provided the young researcher with something of an ecological blank slate, as well as a cultural one — wolves represented a mere blip in the biota of Northwest Montana, and hadn’t yet become the easy-to-loathe avatar of government-mandated wildlife management policies.

At the time, the 24-year-old University of Montana researcher had no inkling that the species she was about to dedicate her entire career to studying would eventually become the most successful recovery story of an endangered species in the United States’ history of wildlife management, nor did she realize it would become one of the most reviled, figuring prominently into a political debate that has never been more strained.

In fact, when Boyd first arrived more than 40 years ago, she didn’t know much at all about the nascent work of wolf recovery, other than it was her job to help track Kishinena — the first wolf ever captured and radio-collared in the North Fork drainage, whose descendant “Magic Pack” would go on to repopulate the region one litter at a time — and that she was to do so from a primitive cabin tucked away into the northwestern corner of Glacier Park near the Canadian border.

“I arrived on the scene with the first wolf and managed to stay with the recovery program until now,” Boyd said recently during a forum hosted by the nonprofit Glacier National Park Conservancy. “Now we have about 2,000 wolves in the western United States.”

That wasn’t always the case.

Through hunting, poisoning and habitat removal, humans had effectively eliminated wolves from the Mountain West by the 1930s, and by the time Boyd left her Minnesota homeland and headed west to begin tracking Kishinena, the species didn’t possess its polarizing political powers that it does today.

According to Glacier National Park’s historical data, early rangers used guns, traps and poisons to eliminate wolves from the park by 1936, and aside from a few scattered sightings — the head of a black wolf shot in Big Prairie 1953 still remains on display in park headquarters, while another wolf was confirmed shot in Polebridge in 1970 — signs of wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains were infrequent until Kishinena.

Working diligently, Boyd observed Kishinena’s movements from a distance, so as not to disrupt the wolf’s natural behavior, tracking the radio-collar signal on foot or in her pickup, by skiing or snowmobiling in the winter, and by aircraft. She plotted the findings on a map and learned that Kishinena and a three-toed male had a litter of seven pups. At some point, something happened to Kishinena and Boyd lost her radio-collar signal, although another female wolf, Phyllis, assumed her position in the pack, which by 1986 began denning in Glacier National Park just north of Polebridge.

It marked the first time in a half-century that wolves had denned in Glacier Park, according to records.

“And that was the Magic Pack,” Boyd said. “These wolves walked down from Canada on their own and they recolonized the area. They were not brought here, they were not dumped out of trucks, they were not reintroduced here. They are incredibly resilient.”

Boyd’s emphasis on these points is due to the common misconception that wolves in Montana were reintroduced from a source in Canada, an erroneous point often raised by opponents of wolf management policies and their attendant recovery goals, who believe the current wolf population in Montana of approximately 1,136 animals is far too many, and that the species should be hunted down to something closer to the minimum threshold, identified by federal researchers as 150 wolves.

In 2019, Boyd retired from a 40-year career spent studying wolves, both for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But in recent months she’s been carefully observing the current legislative cycle and its unprecedented volume of wolf-management measures, which she predicts will do significant harm to the wolf population and perhaps other wildlife species.

“It’s been a very hard session on natural resources,” Boyd said. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding.”

For example, she said, the oft-repeated argument perpetuated ad nauseam by sportsmen groups that wolves are decimating ungulate populations in Northwest Montana, leading to below-average harvests, is unproven. Instead, research shows that mountain lions are the top killer of both elk and mule deer, while moose are dying in greater numbers due to tick-born disease, particularly as the region’s winters become milder, allowing ticks to survive the cold and spread illness.

“You can talk to sportsman groups, hunters and ranchers, and you can tell them about all this data, that there’s three times more mountain lions in Northwest Montana than there are wolves, but they still claim the wolves have killed all the deer and elk,” Boyd said. “I don’t know how better to reach people than to give them good information and science in a format that they can look at and grasp, but opinions still don’t match reality in a lot of cases.”

Even so, those widespread opinions are propelling a glut of measures through the Montana Legislature, many of them sponsored by lawmakers from Flathead and neighboring counties, including two that have already been signed into law — one that allows the use of snares to trap wolves, a practice that has never been allowed in Montana, due in part to the likelihood of incidentally trapping grizzly bear cubs, and another that provides compensation to hunters who trap wolves.

“It is called a wolf-compensation bill, but it’s a bounty bill,” Boyd said. “Montana is going to be paying bounties on wolves that are trapped.”

Still another proposal would allow hunting wolves at night, using spotlights and infrared scopes, while yet another eliminates the bag limit of five wolves per licensed hunter and extends the wolf-hunting season by two weeks on either end — also problematic, Boyd said, as warming climate trends force bears into their dens later in the year and out of them earlier.

“These are all new laws,” Boyd said. “The good news is wolves are incredibly resilient in figuring out ways to keep rebuilding their population. But I think the most effective way to keep wildlife on the landscape is to create value for them. Right now, to most people, wolves have no value. None. As a matter of fact, they probably have a negative value, and when that happens there is no reason that people want them on the landscape.” 

To the wildlife watcher in Glacier National Park, or the lodge owner in Gardiner, wolves have immense value, as they draw throngs of visitors to the region, providing an economic driver. And to researchers, such as Boyd and her colleagues, they provide a valuable glimpse into the rarefied ecosystems of the Rocky Mountains.

“The future for wolves given all this is still pretty bright, and I am not just wearing rose-colored glasses,” Boyd said. “But social tolerance is the only way that we are going to have wolves on the landscape. And the best way to do that is through collaboration, not legislation.”

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