Champion of the Wild: Exclusive interview with Doug Smith in Yellowstone National Park

By Matthew Pomilia

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down for a Friday afternoon conversation with world-renowned wolf biologist Doug Smith.  For eighteen years, Doug has been the leader of the Yellowstone Wolf Restoration Project, one of the most prominent and controversial wildlife reintroductions of all time.  Since its inception in 1995, the project has produced one of nature’s greatest dramas against the backdrop of the historical and awe-inspiring Yellowstone National Park.  Doug has been there since the opening act and has, over the years, become a key protagonist in this epic tale.

In addition to being the world’s first national park, thanks to gray wolf re-introduction, Yellowstone is now the only ‘intact’ ecosystem in North America (i.e. unchanged, at least in terms of large mammals, since European colonization).  But, as Doug knows all too well, not everyone has heralded the return of the mythical gray wolf to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  In my conversation with Doug, we discuss the science, politics, and philosophy of gray wolf re-introduction and examine what the Yellowstone Wolf Project means in the context of the broader conservation landscape.

Matt: What has been the biggest success of the Yellowstone Wolf Restoration Project?

Doug: One of our biggest successes is that we’ve been able to provide good news on a tough story.  Our wolves tend to get billed as changing the ecosystem for the better.  Our wolves tend not to get in trouble too much.  We have been able to get stories of individual wolves out there that have captured the public’s imagination.  We’re the best place in the world to view wolves.  All of those are real positive sound bites.  When you leave the park, it’s wolves getting in trouble, it’s wolf hunting seasons, it’s wolves in people’s backyards.  It’s a tougher climate to go up against.

Matt: How has your vision of the project evolved over the past seventeen years?

Doug: It’s gotten simpler.  When I first started out, I was a detail guy; I was more sophisticated than I am now.  My role has shifted from being all on the ground to now being an orchestrator, a conductor.  My most important message now is that we need to keep going. We’re in year eighteen; most wolf studies are three years or less.  We’ve learned that every three-year period is different, so your answers are different depending on the time period of your study.  My message now is long-term research.  We just need to be here as long as we can.  People get that; it’s a simple message.

Matt: How has your method of studying wolves changed over the years?

Doug: We’re marking-based and the way we mark the wolves is radio collars.  That’s our bread and butter. But the marking methods have changed a lot.  We’re getting closer to real-time marking methods.  We’ve got four GPS collars out in the population, so most of our collars are still VHF (radio collars).  Though if we can afford to use the GPS collars, we much prefer it.

Matt: How has this project been used as a model for other projects or regions?

Doug: For one, they’ve used a lot of our data on wolf biology.  Though it seems like our problems are less with biology and more with people.  In the southwest (where Mexican gray wolves have been re-introduced), they don’t have a Yellowstone Park.  Yellowstone is secure and comprised of good habitat.  They have no place equal to that.  Also, they’re releasing captive wolves, whereas we released wild wolves.  And human attitudes are worse.  They look to us to try to figure out how to cope with all those things.  I’m on the Mexican wolf recovery team and we’re trying to work through it.

Matt: How has the return of the wolf to Yellowstone contributed to the economy of the region?

Doug: The contribution is about $35 million a year from people coming to Yellowstone just to see wolves, so it’s significant.  There’s a subset of people, which we’re estimating in the area of 135,000 people of year, who are coming here just to see wolves.  They’re passionate, they visit a lot, and they’re very knowledgeable, so they’re kind of a different class of visitor.

Photo’s courtesy of Doug Smith