Meet Doug, the wolf watcher of Yellowstone National Park

8 Jul 2015

It’s been a full two decades since the US National Park Service decided to reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone National Park. We spoke with Doug Smith, senior wildlife biologist at the park and the man who has been there since the start.

At 54 years of age, Doug has been working with wolves for 36 years. And now in his 21st year at Yellowstone, he can look down with pride on an operation that sees 11 packs roaming free.

Wolves were pretty much hunted to extinction in the 1800s and early 1900s, leaving the whole park largely void of what is now its most iconic animal from 1926 to 1995. No more.

Tracking the 100 wild wolves incessantly, his team collar up to 20 a year, keeping tabs on the animals’ movement, hunting habits, pack traits, biology and disease.

With prey including elk, deer and bison also monitored and tracked, it’s a mammoth operation and one which relies on swathes of data, dozens of pairs of eyes, helicopter flights and a radio frequency with a troubled history.

But for Doug, a life’s work is a life’s work.

“Our goal is to protect them,” he says. “That’s the goal of the US National Parks Service, to provide a sanctuary for animals, plants and geology.”

Doug Smith, senior wildlife biologist at Yellowstone National Park | Yellowstone wolves

Doug Smith, senior wildlife biologist at Yellowstone National Park

By checking bloods regularly, and ensuring every pack is accounted for, Doug and his team’s work is aiding conservation and reintroduction efforts globally.

You could say it’s the most extensive wolf research operation on Earth. “I would say intensive,” he interrupts.

“Intensive and extensive are different things. We may be the most extensive too, but… Yellowstone is big, but it’s not that big.”

Doug feels he is working with the most in-depth data on wolves anywhere in the world, thanks to a range of techniques.

Around 40pc of the park’s animals are situated along the road network that traverses the park – which helps researchers observe their ways – with constant flights in helicopters allowing broader views of what’s going on.

Elk in Yellowstone Park | Yellowstone wolves

Elk in Yellowstone are prey for wolves

Then there are the collars, which aren’t as straightforward a tool as they may seem. GPS collars yield far better data for research, for example, but they are less reliable than basic tracking collars, don’t last as long and can break at any moment.

“So we use other collars, too, that we can track,” says Doug, adding that these work as a safety net.

Another safety net is the need to collar more than one wolf per pack, with a number of reasons causing the devices to lose their usefulness at any moment.

“We collar two or three per pack. We’ve collared over 500 since the programme began. Wolves die, they leave the pack… these things happen,” he says.

All we hear is radio ga ga

Other ‘things that happen’, surprisingly, are issues with radio frequency contracts – something Doug and his fellow researchers discovered to their cost recently.

In what was not much more than an oversight, the frequency used at Yellowstone on the tracking collars was bought by a private company after park staff didn’t realise the contract had expired.

“It was one of those things we just didn’t think about,” he says. “We lost our licence unbeknownst to me or anybody else, we never thought of it. So that frequency band went up for sale and an energy company purchased it and started using it.”

This could have proved monumentally costly, with the collars becoming relatively useless as interference made the tracking pretty difficult to achieve – one option discussed was to recapture all the tracked animals and reapply new collars, something that would have set the team back an age.

Compromise is key

That was not feasible, though, and luckily an agreement was reached whereby Doug – who put his own name on a new radio licence (the previous one was under a now-retired staff member, thus the confusion) – helped negotiate an agreement to make the particular frequency workable with the park until the collars expire in 3-5 years’ time.

“The company that bought the licence turned down their frequency… I don’t know the science behind that side of things,” he says. “It’s a pain, but it’s a switch over that takes time and effort.”

Although it seems like this whole project boils down to time and effort. Every wolf that is caught – by tranquiliser, from the safety of a helicopter – has its blood taken to test for canine distemper and canine parvovirus.

Park researchers also take bloods to learn how the wolves are evolving, how they adapt to Yellowstone and how they survive.

“A lot of that is based on condition, but we also want to get information on disease. We have a robust disease-monitoring programme,” he says.

“Disease interplays with condition, so we’re trying to develop measures to assess condition. Some animals live through disease better than others. We’re not sure why… but we think we know why, so we’re testing that.”

Yellowstone wolves

A wolf eating its prey in Yellowstone

The current tally of around 100 wolves is not a peak figure for the programme, with 174 in the park 12 years ago, but that was “a bit of an overshoot”, he says, with today’s figure more naturally sustainable in the park.

And numbers are key. Yellowstone is designed for tourists, meaning any animal introduced into the park has to accept that it will interact with humans at some point.

There’s a road network and hiking trails dotted around the near 3,500 square miles of land. That means the animals must tolerate humans, “but not be habituated to them” says Doug. In instances like that, the animals are “hazed”.

“We don’t want to bother them but if they walk up to people and beg for food, we have to haze them.”

With so much work done on wolves, and so much experience garnered by Doug – just one member of the whole operation – it’s obvious why other efforts to manage wolf populations seek out Yellowstone for answers.

Doug thinks many look towards Yellowstone for discoveries, “new things”, with him speaking to me soon after a conference call with one of the world’s top canid geneticists.

“We probably know more about the genetic relationships and the disease dynamics of the wolves in Yellowstone then any other wolf population,” he says.

“What we’re learning, other people rely on. We have a very in-depth knowledge of what wolves do to their prey. That’s a big question on management concern, I believe. A lot of people are looking to us for answers on that.”

No better person to ask, so…

Main image of wolf eyes, the Yellowstone elk and the wolf eating are all via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic