Doug Smith was alone, setting traps in the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park, when he got that eerie feeling that he was being watched. He looked up directly into the piercing eyes of a female wolf, just feet away.
As project leader of Yellowstone's wolf reintroduction program, one might assume Dr. Smith has this type of encounter all the time. But in 16 years on the job, he's rarely been face to face with the wolves he studies. He usually views them from afar, through a telescope or from a helicopter. If they're close up, the wolves are tranquilized so he can put a radio collar on them.
Smith has studied wolves since he was 18, and credits his father's love of the outdoors as an influence. After earning a PhD in ecology, evolution, and conservation biology from the University of Nevada, he studied with leading wolf researchers.
He signed on with Yellowstone's wolf project in 1994 as a field biologist, and two years later became the project leader. It's been an opportunity to study wolf behavior while restoring an essential component to the natural world, he says.
"Nature without wolves is not nature," he says. "I have a deep-seated, fierce love of nature, and I'm very afraid that slowly, piece by piece, we're losing it all. The most important thing to me in life, outside of family, is preserving wild nature. And wolves are in the center of that."
This year marks the 15th anniversary of the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park. The last wolf was killed in Yellowstone in 1926, as the Park Service eradicated all predators except bears.
"The mind-set was 'good animal' and 'bad animal,' " Smith explains. "Bad animals killed what we liked to hunt."
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 provided for wolves to be reintroduced. After more than 20 years of heated debate, in 1995, 14 gray wolves from the province of Alberta were released into Yellowstone.
By 2007, there were an estimated 1,500 wolves in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, 171 of them inside Yellowstone. Today, wolf numbers are declining, which Smith attributes to a number of natural circumstances, including a smaller population of elk, their favorite prey.
Smith has become more than a field biologist. His roles include researcher, interpreter, ambassador, advocate, caregiver, tranquilizer dart-gun wielding scientist, peacekeeper, and communicator.
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.
"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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