Ralph Maughan Interview

Ralph Maughan is president of the Wolf Recovery Foundation and hosts a website called Ralph Maughan’s Wildlife News. This interview was conducted in June of 2009.

How did you get involved in wolf recovery issues?
People started to talk about it, and I was interested in it mostly because I felt that it would restore balance to the other wildlife and to the other ecosystems in the area. At the time I believed that Yellowstone was being overgrazed by elk, and in particular I thought it was then important to restore the natural elk regime in Yellowstone Park. Make the elk more wild, get them out of the riparian zones, maybe reduce their numbers some.

Ralph MaughanAnd you also have a website.
I do. Ralph Maughan’s Wildlife News. It started out as Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report, but as time went by, it was clear that wolves were connected to everything else, and there were so many issues, and it changed to a broader thing. Now it’s become a pretty major site; it gets about 3,000 visits a day. And if you think back in time, that’s when the Internet was just getting started, about 1995, and somebody took my email and actually built me my first webpage.

So what has been done correctly with wolf reintroduction?
What they’ve done right is they’ve not gone out and they haven’t reduced the wolf population. They’ve allowed it to continue to grow, and a lot of that has to do, of course, with Idaho’s rugged backcountry as much as the state government. So, that’s what they’ve done right.

Do you want to know what they’ve done wrong? I think more than any other thing which has put those who believe in wolf conservation on the defensive was Governor Otter when he first came into office and that dramatic speech he made saying he was going to kill the first wolf and reduce the population down to a hundred. That scared the heck out of a lot of people who were ready to see the wolf delisted.

And I think now most people who follow this issue closely, certainly in our group and a lot of the wolf conservation groups, believe that there are plenty of wolves in Idaho. That’s not really the issue. People ask us that question all the time. “How many do you want?” Well, what we’ve got is just fine, but the big question is what is Idaho going to be like after they’ve been managing it for a full year and there’s been a hunting season and Wildlife Services has not been restrained in the way they go out and control wolves who’ve done some damage to livestock or something.

So what about having a hunting season on wolves?
I think it has good and bad. So much of it depends on the details. It’s not a question in my mind at least about whether there should be a season or not. It’s about how it’s going to be done. Idaho says they want to manage wolves just like they do elk and deer and bighorn sheep and other game animals. But that’s not really what they’re talking about.

It seems like when it comes to a hunt – for example, if they announced an elk hunt and said, “Well, we’re going to reduce the population for about 120,000 down to about 20,000,” people would say, “What kind of a hunt is that?” They’d be up in arms, and that’s kind of what they’re saying about the wolves.

A closeup of a white wolf's face

They’re saying, "We’re going to reduce the wolf population." In my mind, a real hunt is a hunt where you have about the same number of animals the next year after the hunt as you had the year before. Kind of a sustainable thing. It may vary a little bit... The truth of the matter is, there’s so much support for a hunt in Idaho among people who don’t like wolves and wildlife managers that I think there needs to be a wolf hunt of some kind, politically speaking, but not a wolf hunt of any kind.

Among wolf advocates is there now animosity toward Fish and Game?
Yeah, it has resulted in some harsh criticisms of the department, but I’d save my criticisms for the Commission, because the department doesn’t have a free hand. It’s the Commission that tells them what to do, and the Commission is strongly influenced by the Governor and the lobbyists and the sheep industry and the cattle industry.

And so, if they want to keep their jobs, they have to do what the Commission and the Governor say. And so that’s, I think where the critique should be aimed. If it was up to, I think, the department itself, we wouldn’t have to worry so much about the issue. But personally, I don’t think Idaho has a very good Fish and Game Commission. They’re not nearly as good as, let’s say, over 30 years ago when I first came to Idaho and got into these issues and started hunting and fishing and doing all the other things that I’ve done.

I think wolves are the least dangerous of the large carnivores we find in North America or in Idaho.

I mean, we’ve seen how powerful the livestock industry is in Idaho with the controversy over the bighorn sheep, where the bighorn sheep or ram can be worth $100,000 to $150,000, boy they give way to small domestic sheep just like that. Wildlife just has to go if there’s any kind of conflict. And I think you see that by the people who are on the committees, on the Senate Resources Committee, all but one of the members are a rancher or somebody supporting ranching in some way.

What about the Legislature?
The legislature, when it comes to these issues, I don’t think is particularly representative of the population in Idaho. That’s really true in every state, but I think in Idaho it’s in so many ways pretty extreme. I mean, who’s the average person in Idaho? Probably a 35-year-old woman. Who’s the average legislator? Probably a retired farmer. So the legislature strongly affects the Commission and of course the appointments come to the Commission and they have to be approved by the legislature, so the system kind of sustains itself.

Have you yourself seen many wolves?
I have run into wolves head on. I ran into the alpha male of the Teton pack inside of Grand Teton National Park when I was hiking by myself, and I’ve seen wolves up around Clayton and up around Stanley in the wild. Of course, I’ve seen them in Yellowstone many times, but I’ve actually encountered them face-to-face when I’ve been by myself. So I think I know quite a bit about their behavior, and a lot of the things I thought at first were not correct really.

At first I thought that wolves really were a little bit dangerous, and I thought we’re going to have to be pretty darn careful about that, but every time I’ve encountered wolves, they just kind of look at me and trot off. Or ignore me. And a lot of people think that means they’re dangerous because they ignore what you’re doing. It’s kind of like people have to think every animal in the world is greatly concerned about them.

And then other things have been learned about wolves as well, such as they have multiple litters, not necessarily just one litter in a pack, but also most of the multiple litters don’t survive, so that doesn’t mean the pack is going to grow three times as fast as people thought it was going to be. And I’ve also learned that they are susceptible to disease, and if you lose your pups in one year, the population can crash just as fast as it grew. And that happened in Yellowstone where there used to be close to a hundred wolves on the northern range a few years ago, and now there’s 40. And that’s all due to pup survival because of disease. So that’s another thing that I’ve learned.

Do you think wolves are dangerous?
I’ve written quite a few hiking guides and a lot of them were in grizzly bear country, and I’ve always thought more about grizzly bears, personally, than any other animal. And they’re the most dangerous, but you can do things to greatly minimize that. And I’ve got all my arms and everything, and so grizzly bears are the most dangerous, I would say.

If you go to a place like Yellowstone, I think the bison are probably the next most dangerous animal, and out in general country like this, there aren’t any wolves. We’re standing here in the Bannock range; probably the cougar is the most dangerous animal. But wolves – I don’t think people are just in very much danger at all with a wild wolf. The only danger would be if they were hanging around somebody’s place, and they started to feed them, and they started to expect food from people; and in a few cases I think that’s happened a little bit, and those wolves need to be removed immediately, and I think they generally have been.

Two wolves running through the grass

But I think wolves are the least dangerous of the large carnivores we find in North America or in Idaho. There haven’t been any attacks of the wolves that have been reintroduced. There hasn’t even been anyone bitten.

Do you think the wolves reintroduced into Idaho are a different kind of wolf than the ones that were here years ago?
They got the wolves up in Canada, which were similar to the wolves as possible which were originally here. They got them in places where they were eating the same kind of animals they do here, and about the same proportions. And they got them in country that looks like the country around here, so that the wolves wouldn’t somehow respond to different typography or something like that.

They used to believe that there were many, many more subspecies of wolves than there really are. Since they’ve moved heavily into genetic analysis, now when it comes to classifying animals, it turns out that there are only four or five subspecies of wolves, and the wolves of southern Canada, I’m not talking about those white arctic wolves, but the wolves of southern Canada are exactly the same wolves genetically as the wolves that were in Idaho 150 years ago.

And it makes sense because the Rocky Mountains don’t end at the Idaho border. There’s no ocean or anything in Canada that sets it apart, so over the hundreds of years before we hunted wolves, wolves have been going up and down the spine of the Rockies. And going from Idaho to what would now be Jasper National Park, would be no big thing for an individual wolf to do. In fact, some which have been tracked have actually done that; have actually gone that far.

What are the two biggest PR problems for wolves?
I think probably the two biggest problems in public opinion have been the notion that somehow the wolves that were reintroduced were different than the ones that were originally here. And the second one is that wolves are depleting the herds of ungulates that are hunted, especially elk.

The wolves of southern Canada are exactly the same wolves genetically as the wolves that were in Idaho 150 years ago.

They kill individual elk and eat them, and of course, that elk won’t be around any more; but you know, elk are born, and elk die every winter without being eaten. And so a lot of the mortality is compensatory mortality. In other words, the wolves nail an elk which was going to die anyway. They tend – and this is a statistical generation – but they tend to get the elk which are old or weak or there’s something wrong with them. That doesn’t mean that they don’t take a perfectly healthy one every once in a while, but statistically speaking, they get wolves that generally aren’t going to live much longer anyway.

Which is the more important wolf to the pack, the alpha male or the alpha female?
It depends on the pack, but it seems like the most important cohesive element in a pack is the alpha female, not the alpha male. But they’re both important, and sometimes when one of them dies, the pack will split apart. But often times a member of the pack will move up, or a new wolf that was in the area will come in and take the role as the alpha. That’s been seen; that’s happened in Yellowstone a number of times, where a brand new wolf comes in and takes over that role. If both the alphas are killed, I think the pack usually splits apart.

Any thoughts about why wolves have been so successful in Idaho, even more so than in Yellowstone?
There’s a lot of road kill along Idaho’s mountain highways, and those tend to be eaten by coyotes and wolves, and other scavengers. And so an awful lot of meat is disposed of that way, which doesn’t involve the wolves in any way reducing the herd size.

Another thing which I think has resulted in the vigorous wolf population in Idaho is the elk hunt every year, because the hunters dress out their elk and their deer and they leave the remains, and that’s exactly what wolves like. And it’s been noted north of Yellowstone Park, where they have a hunt, some of the packs there actually stop almost hunting for the period of the human hunt going on there. And they just live on what’s left around.

So they get an awful lot of protein at a time of year which is the most difficult for the wolves, and I think that’s one reason why Idaho wolves have been so successful as compared to, let’s say, Yellowstone wolves, which seem to be on the decline in terms of numbers right now. It's the hunting season which they benefit from.

Wolves have gotten a bad reputation for killing animals they then don’t eat.
Well, it’s really pretty funny, I mean wolves kill elk and deer and eat them, and that involves dismembering them, which doesn’t look really attractive to a lot of people. But are wolves supposed to be there with steak knives and napkins around their neck?

Another thing is they say, well, they left the carcass. Well, most wolf packs can’t eat an elk in, shall we call it, a sitting. And so what they do is they eat as much as they can, and they go over the hill and they sleep it off, and they come back again, and they eat some more. So, if some person comes along with a camera in the meantime, they say, “oh, look, there’s a half eaten elk and it’s been abandoned.” Well, it hasn’t been abandoned at all.

The bulls that are beaten up in the rut, of course, they fall into the category of weak and vulnerable elk, and some years quite a few of the bulls are taken. And that confounds people because they think of a bull elk as some animal which is always strong, always resistant. And they say, look at the wolves taking down the mighty bull elk, when it’s not mighty at all that time of year.

Most of the time, the elk get away. I think – it depends on the topography- but about one chase out of 10 for the wolves is successful. I’ve seen chases where the wolves have gotten kicked in the head, and there are a lot of wolves that have died, that were killed by injuries from the elk, from the moose, or something happened to the wolf while it was running along. It ran into a sharp stick or something, impaled itself.

Have you come to like wolves more than other animals in the forest?
I’ve been a conservationist for pretty much my entire adult life. And really, overall, there isn’t any large animal that I like better than the others. But I just happened to have learned a lot about wolves. I don’t think there’s anything special or supernatural or mysterious, nor do I think there’s anything terrible or awful about them. They’re a big animal that are out there trying to make a living like the other big animals.

And what I’m interested in really is having a natural outdoors in Idaho. That’s the real thing that has always driven me in my conservation efforts.

The big question is what is Idaho going to be like after they’ve been managing it for a full year and there’s been a hunting season and Wildlife Services has not been restrained.

Since wolves travel in packs, can they manage wolves like they do bears and lions?
You’ve got to manage every animal a little bit different because they are different, and they do have to think about pack structure. And that’s one of the things they need to be looking at when they have a hunt. For example, they learn from their pack what’s good to eat. So if they start eating cattle, it’s usually because they learned it from the pack. Often times, what will happen is, if both of the alphas are killed, the pack will disperse and the pack is much smaller then, and so they don’t have as much help bringing down an elk.

If a wolf pack is disrupted and a number of its members are killed and it splits apart, the remnants of it might be so small that they’ll turn to the easier livestock, which they don’t really know, but it looks easier, than to something they do know. So one of the things that needs to be monitored, and I don’t know if it’s going to be, is whether the hunt really reduces the number of livestock incidences or whether it increases them. It could increase them.

I would like to see the wolves migrating to adjacent states like Utah, Oregon, Washington, and setting up populations there. Colorado especially, I think would benefit from wolf restoration. And so I’d like to see the restoration expanded because, it’s turned out, despite all the controversy, that wolves do very little damage to human interests. It’s really a cultural controversy.

By changing elk behavior, do wolves affect the landscape somehow?
They get the elk out of the riparian zones, and that makes it so the willows can grow, and the aspen can grow, and so you can see them starting to restore in Yellowstone. And so they make the elk and the deer into a wilder animal, and that does make them a little more difficult to hunt, because if you’re used to hunting one way, just like you’re used to doing anything one way, and you have to change, you often times don’t like to do that.

And so you might say ah, well, the elk are all gone. I’ve been going to this place now for 30 years, always got my elk. I went there, there wasn’t a single track. Well, of course, they’re somewhere else now. And if you’re an outfitter, you could tell them, well, you’ve got to go somewhere else, but they have assigned territories.

You know, they’ve got reason to be upset if the elk herd moves out of their territory because of what the wolves have done. And if you’re an outfitter who has had elk move into his territory, of course those people are just going to smile and not say anything. So I think there’s just kind of a sub group of the outfitters who are making all of the noise.