Day 9: Living with Wolves in Yellowstone

With our discussion surrounding John Shivik’s Predator Paradox book fresh in their minds, the students were eager to head out to Paradise Valley to the Davis Ranch.



At the Davis Ranch in Paradise Valley. Photo: Melanie Hill


We pulled into the Davis Ranch and were immediately greeted by a medium-sized black dog, who seemed to be shepherding us along to our parking spots. We stepped out and met the owner of the ranch, Mr. Martin Davis, and his old dog, Kit. Many of us were going through some serious dog withdrawal, and upon seeing our excitement around Kit, Davis disappeared…only to return with an adorable, squirming puppy in his arms. Between Kit and Dottie, our visit was off to a strong start!



Photo: Melanie Hill


Martin Davis with his pup, Dottie. Photo: Melanie Hill


Martin, a fourth generation rancher, asked us to join him in a nearby barn so we could talk. He had hoped to take us around his property, but it was a bitter cold day, and the wind would be unbearable. We huddled up in the barn and learned about his experiences with wolves.



Photo: Melanie Hill


Photo: Melanie Hill


He and his brother run cattle on their ranch here in Paradise Valley and were some of the first ranchers to encounter wolves outside of Yellowstone National Park. For the past 20+ years, his family has been learning how to adapt to the presence of wolves. Davis does not necessarily want the wolves around his property or surrounding areas, but understands they are here to stay and is actively finding ways to coexist and protect his family’s livelihood.



Photo: Melanie Hill


Shortly after the reintroduction happened, Davis lost two of his heifers; one of which was confirmed to be a wolf fatality. He was reimbursed $600 for the loss, but had to have valid proof that it was indeed killed by wolves. Although he hadn’t lost any other animals since then, another growing concern was that the mere presence of the wolves was altering the eating habits of his cattle. The wolves were harassing his cattle so badly that they weren’t putting on any weight, which could end up being even more costly to his business than depredation. One thing that Davis has learned is that a more regular presence of humans around the cattle seems to help and makes coexistence a bit easier. However, that too comes with a cost: before the reintroduction Davis and his brother only needed to check in on the cattle on a weekly basis. Now they need to do this roughly every other day, and this takes them about a half a day to get up to the cattle and back.



Martin Davis with Kit the dog. Photo: Melanie Hill


Overall, Martin Davis does not feel the reintroduction was handled right. He did not feel his voice was heard in the process, but now his only option is to adapt and educate people on the realities of living with wolves. He believes it is important to share his story, to build bridges and work together with people to form a solution that works for all.



Photo: Melanie Hill


We were grateful to have spent the morning with this kind, thoughtful man, and appreciated his candidness. There are always multiple sides to every story, and we wanted to hear from all stakeholders. And with that, it was time to meet Dr. Doug Smith, Yellowstone National Park scientist.

Doug Smith is the project leader for the Wolf Restoration Project in Yellowstone and has been with the program since its inception in 1995. Doug has studied wolves for over 20 years. Prior to Yellowstone, he worked with wolves in Michigan (Isle Royale National Park) and Minnesota.

In Yellowstone, his team identified the wolf as a major predator that had been missing from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem since the last pack was killed in 1926. It was proposed that reintroduction of wolves back into the Park would influence species interactions and abundance throughout the ecosystem. We were eager to learn from Doug and to hear his side of the story.



Doug Smith. Photo: Melanie Hill


Smith began by sharing the background to Yellowstone National Park, and explained that the initial purpose of establishing this park in 1872 was to keep its land intact and protect the gorgeous scenery the area had to offer. However back then, people had different mindsets and cultural norms when they were doing predator control; Smith feels they truly believed they had and were practicing the best available science at that time. Once the last wolf pack was killed in 1926, elk numbers skyrocketed. Less than 10 years later the park found itself implementing elk control methods, and in 1968 over 70,000 elk had to be removed. Elk numbers were at an all time high in the late 1980s, and the park realized something needed to be done.

Everyone in our course knew about the reintroduction and many of the results, but we wanted to hear from Smith himself: what were some of the positive outcomes? He confirmed much of what we had learned: elk were no longer overgrazing the area; songbirds came back into the area because there were more willows and aspen growing; riparian zones had made a comeback thanks to the beavers which also returned. Equilibrium was returning to the park, and the wolf reintroduction played a significant role in that process.



Photo: Melanie Hill


Smith also shared a story that touched on the hardiness of Yellowstone’s elk. Now that these ungulates have been living alongside wolves for the past two decades, they too have had to adapt to the changes. Doug told us about this “mugger” who was not familiar with Yellowstone’s wildlife. By mugger, I mean a person who flies inside a helicopter which flies over a herd, and shoots a net out to capture an animal for collaring and other research purposes without having to tranquilize them. This mugger netted an old female elk, and dropped onto the ground to subdue the animal using a technique that is normally quite fast and efficient. The problem was, he didn’t realize how tough Yellowstone’s elk are. This cow was pretty rough-looking; she was quite old and only had one incisor tooth remaining. But, she was used to fighting off wolves, and was stronger for that. Smith laughed and told us that this mugger was not able to get the cow elk down, and after he finally succeeded and was ready to release her, the elk turned around and tried to attack him for five minutes afterwards! She was tough as nails, and that goes to show how nature evolves to having big predators like wolves, grizzlies, and cougars around.

Though many benefits came from this reintroduction, we learned from Martin Davis that not everyone was pleased. Smith talked a great deal about the importance of involving ranchers like Davis in this process, and keeping in constant contact with them. He isn’t able to do it as much these days, but a few years back Doug Smith made a point to get out on horseback and ride with some of these ranchers and outfitters, Davis included, to understand their concerns and ensure that he was there to help. A retired ranger that Smith used to ride the park boundary with told him, no one cares how many papers you publish. The ranger told Doug that he needed to get out there to talk to these people and work to change their minds. To this day, Smith still values that sentiment.


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