The Mountain Journal also honored many members of the local conservation community with the organizations first Conservation Courage Award.
by Joseph T. O’Connor
When Mike Phillips cupped his hands around his mouth on Jan. 10, 2023 and began to howl, the theater erupted in a chorus of wolf howls, bringing two storied guests to the stage for a conversation that won’t soon be forgotten.
The sold-out event, a Mountain Journal production called “Night of the Wolves” and hosted at The Ellen Theatre in Bozeman, Montana, featured three preeminent wolf experts in Greater Yellowstone. They took the stage with MoJo founder Todd Wilkinson for a conversation about wolves, their critical role in Greater Yellowstone and the mythology that continues to divide proponents and opponents of lobos.
What emerged was a clearer picture of the true wolf. Phillips, a former Montana senator and representative who served as project leader for the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction, was joined on stage by Doug Smith, Yellowstone’s chief wolf biologist for nearly 30 years and Pat Byorth, who recently served on the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission. Each has been around the block. Indeed, Smith was present with Phillips in 1995 when the first eight wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park. They studied under L. David Mech, the foremost wolf biologist on the planet, and as part of the Yellowstone Wolf Project laid the groundwork for what is now a healthier wolf population in the area.
In addition to the main event, Mountain Journal brought to the stage a number of prominent members of the conservation community. Wilkinson and new MoJo Executive Director Jessie Wiese presented the organization’s first Conservation Courage awards, recognizing Smith and Byorth
L-R: MoJo Courage Award-winners Dorothy Bradley, Pat Byorth, Holly Pippel and Doug Smith. Photo by Joseph T. O’Connor
for their many contributions to the world of conservation, but also citizen-photographer Holly Pippel, who has been documenting elk and wildlife near her home in Gallatin Gateway through powerful imagery, and Dorothy Bradley, who served in the state Legislature for eight terms, taught at Montana State University, and has worked tirelessly in her career on water issues and in Indigenous communities.
The nonprofit conservation journalism group also honored fine-art painter and illustrator John Potter, a MoJo contributing cartoonist who was present at the ’95 wolf reintroduction and at the time offered a prayer for wolves and bison in the Lamar Valley.
Then, Conrad Fisher of the Northern Cheyenne/Tsėhéstáno and his nephew Shane Doyle, who sits on the MoJo board, led two ancient songs honoring Smith, Byorth and wolves and were, in fact, inspired by wolf howls. In his introduction, Fisher talked of the connection we have to wolves and the earth.
“We call our scouts ‘wolves’ for a reason,” he said. “But they’re also part of our cultural institutions … they’re imbued in almost everything we do.”
The conversation itself on stage was far reaching but a theme emerged that wove its way through the entire evening: perception.
“We want to get at the real wolf tonight,” Wilkinson began. “Not the fabricated wolf. Not the wolf that flies across the landscape on angels’ wings nor the one that is the incarnation of the devil.”
Laying the groundwork for the conversation was critical, Wilkinson said.
Wolves have never attacked a human being in Yellowstone National Park, Smith noted, adding that while some wolves have become habituated in the tri-state area of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, and the park has put down two wolves since 1995, no one has ever been hurt.
“There have been no fatalities and no injuries in Yellowstone,” said Smith, listing the Northern Rockies and Great Lakes states as further
Doug Smith, kneeling, and Mike Phillips during that winter of 1995 in Yellowstone. Phillips was the original on-site coordinator of wolf recovery in Yellowstone and handed the reins off to Smith when he cofounded the Turner Endangered Species Fund with Ted Turner. Photo courtesy NPS
examples. Myths also abound that wolves kill a large number of cattle and sheep. According to data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, annual livestock depredation in the States due to wolves is between .02 and .03 percent of available livestock.
In terms of wildlife populations, wolves have never eliminated a species, Byorth told the crowd, adding that elk numbers in Montana, for example, sit at approximately 94,000.
“Elk populations haven’t dwindled,” Byorth said. “Elk populations like most wildlife populations are set by habitat. We’ve had a couple districts where wolves have had a profound impact in terms of changing distribution and changing numbers, but even those districts alongside Glacier or Yellowstone parks, those elk populations are at what was considered an objective that was established back in 2005.”
“[We’ve] stated the data, but data doesn’t win our battles. It’s perceptions [and] feelings and when those folks out there are feeling they’re not being listened to.” – Doug Smith, former chief wolf biologist, Yellowstone National Park
Byorth also called up data from 2019 looking at wolf depredations in Montana when they killed 50 cattle and 25 sheep. That year, he said, 75 wolves were removed from the population to balance out the numbers.
The panelists recognized that wolves can create issues for some ranchers but, as Phillips pointed out, they are not the main driver of a successful or unsuccessful operation.
“Insofar as ranching is concerned,” Phillips said, “there are many things that drive the industry: bad weather, bad luck, bad marriages, bad kids, bad finances. Gray wolves don’t drive the industry. Gray wolves can cause a problem on occasion for individual producers, and that is something to take seriously.”
Smith took it a step further, empathizing with folks on the ground. “When you are that rancher, when you are that hunter, they feel that wolves have been foisted on them: they are another mouth to feed, they are another predator, they do things to wildlife behavior, they do kill them.
On this day 28 years ago, Jan. 12, 1995, wolves were brought back to Yellowstone and passed through the historic Roosevelt Arch. Photo by Jim Peaco/NPS
So, in their minds, that’s a significant effect,” he said. “[We’ve] stated the data, but data doesn’t win our battles. It’s perceptions [and] feelings and when those folks out there are feeling they’re not being listened to. Yeah, I’m a wolf advocate … but I’ve changed my stance a little bit to say, ‘what can we get that’s reasonable?” Not everyone is going to get what they want …but managing with both groups in mind is the way forward.”
Byorth brought up that ranchers are financially compensated for livestock predation, but said it means more than just a check. “Ranchers and wool growers are deeply concerned about their livestock,” he said. “They’re not quite pets, but they’re not just an economic force. It’s a very personal thing when the livestock that you take care of day in and day out is taken away from you by something as emotional as a wolf predation.”
“Elk populations like most wildlife populations are set by habitat. We’ve had a couple districts where wolves have had a profound impact in terms of changing distribution and changing numbers, but even those districts alongside Glacier or Yellowstone parks, those elk populations are at what was considered an objective that was established back in 2005.” – Pat Byorth, former Fish and Wildlife commissioner
The conversation lasted about two hours, though the discussion about wolves is ongoing. It may never be simple but understanding where each side is coming from, and when arguments are based in fact, we can empathize and have straightforward discussions about the topic. As Byorth mentioned in quoting Aldo Leopold during the event, “The art of intelligent tinkering is maintaining all the parts.”
Mike Phillips howls and the crowd howls back summoning Doug Smith and Pat Byorth to the Ellen Theatre stage. Photo by Joseph T. O’Connor
When the night began, Wilkinson spoke of the rights we have in Yellowstone and the luck we in this area have to be a part of this special landscape. “Think about how lucky we are to be here. We’re here with wolves back in Yellowstone National Park,” he said. “All of us are stakeholders in Yellowstone. It is a national treasure. It belongs to us as citizens; it’s part of our birthright.”
At the end of the evening, after the MoJo Courage awards were handed out, Dorothy Bradley took the podium to speak about the responsibility we have and the courage it takes to stand up for the planet and its wild lands and wildlife.
“I find that the question most frequently asked today is whether I have hope … that our planet can survive,” Bradley said. “My answer is: Wrong question. It’s simply a matter of a job to be done and I would rather fight then watch. As would you. But I want you to know that every one of us is absolutely essential.”