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?
And you also have a website.
So what has been done correctly with wolf reintroduction?
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?
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.
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?
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?
Have you yourself seen many wolves?
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?
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.
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 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?
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?
Any thoughts about why wolves have been so successful in Idaho, even more so than in Yellowstone?
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.