Brian Kahn is the mainspring of the Artemis Foundation in Helena and has a local NPR interview program over Yellowstone Public Radio in Bozeman/Billings. You could stream it: Tuesday nights at 6:30 PM. This Tuesday he interviewed Doug Smith, the wolf guy for Yellowstone Park. Brian is from California, so sometimes he gets up my nose, but he’s married to an artist, which somewhat redeems him. He does know wildlife issues.
This was rapid-fire Q&A, far beyond the usual polarized hatred or worship of the charismatic mega-mammal in question. The keynote was complexity: thousand-year biological and climatological cycles, the “landscape” differences between one section of the park and another and what they implied, assumptions about animal behavior, and a surprising specificity about numbers. This is a place that is continuously surveyed.
“How many elk are there?”
“You mean in the north range? We think about 10,000 or so right now.”
“How many wolves there?”
“Probably 60 to 70.”
The relationships are complex. Yellowstone is a “six-predator” situation: grizzlies, black bears, cougar, wolves, coyotes, and people. In Alaska in some places there are only two: wolves and brown bears. Back a few years ago there was a feeling that the caribou, already vulnerable because of environment, were being decimated by wolves. This is called a “population pit.” The worry is that it could snuff the population entirely. People in airplanes went in and shot a lot of wolves. I’m impressed that there is almost a hundred year history of things that have been tried, assumptions that have been tested, technical nicknames invented for patterns.
In Yellowstone the earlier cry was that there were too many elk and that they were destroying the vegetation. (That was before the fire.) In fact, there was a story in the NYTimes just a week ago about how the elk were nipping off all the aspen sprouts. This was one of the arguments for protecting wolves. So is the vegetation coming back? Depends. Trees or grass, you mean? Among the trees the aspen seem about the same (for the sake of the beavers) but the willows on the slightly higher elevations seem to be healthier -- not because of elk kills but because of global warming. Because the willows are doing better, the small songbirds who like to inhabit willows are increasing.
Grass-and-browse-wise, more forage means healthier elk that can survive the winter better, depending on the winter. If snow is deep, wolves do better and so do the grasses. The big cry is that wolves kill calves, but if there isn’t enough feed for the bulls to get fat enough to survive the rut in good shape (they fast for the whole time), they will stagger and starve and the wolves will get them in preference to the cows, who keep eating. Everything is attached to everything else, just as the ecologists are always telling us.
Except I wonder whether the people themselves are not becoming detached. This morning I was in the dimestore in Cut Bank when an elk bugle went echoing around the store. I don’t know whether you’ve heard an elk bugle. In a store it is a loud and disturbing noise but in the wild it is a high, free keening sound that sends chills down your spine, a little like a wolf howl. Learning to imitate a bugling elk is a big part of hunting them and Bob Scriver always devoted considerable time and effort to inventing elk bugles in the fall. He could make one on the spot from a hollow cow parsnip stalk (very organic) or he got quite attached to one he invented out of the chrome tube leg he sawed off of a kitchen chair. The best part, of course, was going out into the mountains to try them out. The disturbing thing about this dimestore call was that it was entirely mechanized -- a person didn’t even have to blow into it. I didn’t go close enough to see how many batteries it required. I hope the buyer intended to just keep it at home in his bedroom for inspiration, but he’d better choose his “harem” carefully. They might decide he’s a wolf. (Battery-operated elk calls make me silly.)
We are so inclined to flatten, simplify, overlook or never look, that most people go along “hurrying through Yellowstone” and never see most of what is there. That’s a truism by now. What I value to the highest degree are people like Brian and Doug who are always saying, “How do we KNOW that?” “Might that just be an artifact of measurement?” “Was that always the case?” “How would you prove that?”
An old roommate of mine (actually, I guess she’s my age) forwarded me an email from an organization begging for money to save the wolves. The roommate is a Jungian journal-keeper who has made her living all these decades by editing a gynecological journal for a university medical school. She’s also a poet and now wishes to retire to a career as a stained glass artist. She asked whether she should move to Montana. I said ABSOLUTELY NOT! It would destroy her world-view.
Wolves are not wolf-units. They are individuals who respond to their surroundings in unique ways, some helpful and some not. Doug Smith knows them the way a mom knows her children, having had responsibility for them since the first individuals were brought down from Canada. It was he who figured out how to release them so they survived, what to do with the ones who developed into being bad apples, how to design strategies that would yield the information necessary to go forward. He’s a tall lean fellow with a big mustache, judging from the Google photos I could find, and I expect office time is not his favorite thing.
I also came upon websites with wolf howls. Ah! Where are my Paul Winter tapes? Remember how he took his saxophone out to a wolf pen and played a duet with a female wolf? No batteries. Call and response. He used that wolf's melody for the Kyrie Elieson in his Missa Gaea. I just learned recently that Paul Winter was in the same year as me at Northwestern University. At the beginning of this Brian Kahn interview with Doug Smith, they mentioned the Muries. Martin Murie just sent me an issue of the Moab Zephyr for which he writes a column.
Everything is connected.