'Wolf man' Doug Smith studies Yellowstone's restored predators
'Nature without wolves is not nature,' says the field biologist and project leader
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Rick McIntyre, a biological technician on the wolf project, has worked closely with Smith since 1998. He's witnessed how Smith deals with researchers, anti-wolf folks, and park visitors, and he's impressed with the combination of Smith's scientific and people skills.Skip to next paragraph
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"He's very good at understanding what needs to be done," Mr. McIntyre says. "He's always thinking about what we don't know about wolves and how can we get a better understanding." It's a rare trait to be so accomplished as both a scientist and a communicator, McIntyre says.
It's commonly assumed that the US government foots the bill for the wolf project. In reality, the park pays only for Smith's salary and half of his assistant's. The nonprofit Yellowstone Park Foundation (YPF), started in 1996, has put more than $4 million into wolf research.
"It's been a marquee project with a lot of eyes on Yellowstone and this wildlife experiment," says Nina Jaeger, YPF's director of development. "I'm sure it's a bit of a burden at times, but [Smith] manages these expectations very well."
For hunters and ranchers, wolves represent a threat to their livelihoods.
"In general, it's harder for [ranchers] to live with wolves than without," Smith concedes, from the cost of killed livestock to the cost and emotional toll involved in protecting their animals. "But the conflict with the hunters isn't so well defined."
When Smith takes off on horseback in search of wolves, he makes a point of dropping in on backcountry hunting camps, visiting with antiwolf hunters in an effort to diffuse hostility.
Others say wolves are a threat to human safety or that they spread diseases, both of which Smith says are extremely uncommon occurrences. "There are a vast number of people who hate [wolves]. I mean dedicate their lives to eradicating them," Smith says. "And then others love them."
Smith is a self-proclaimed moderate, in favor of delisting wolves as an endangered species and hunting them. There are places to aggressively protect wolves, such as Yellowstone, and places to manage them, such as closer to ranchlands, he says.
His team just killed its first wolf within the park. It had become a threat to humans after being introduced to human food.
As long as funds keep coming in, wolf studies will continue at Yellowstone, adding to people's understanding of the wolf's role in the ecosystem, he says.
And Smith will continue to argue on their behalf. "No one gets the facts about wolves straight," Smith says.
He doesn't call himself the wolves' caretaker. After all, he says, "How can you be a caretaker over anything in the wild?"
But he does see himself as their advocate. "I am trying to give them a voice," he says. "They need a defender, and someone talking about what they're really like."
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