HCN: How about the experiences of handling wolves -- darting, touching wolves?
Oh, yeah, I've been involved in the capture of hundreds of wolves and I've killed a few myself. I'm one of the few people who has been bitten by a wolf; I forget, I think it was in the early 2000s, in Wyoming. At that time, I would drive from Helena to Bozeman, get in a Super Cub and fly into Wyoming, land south or east of the park, get into a helicopter and dart wolves or net-gun them, to put radio collars on them, and then at the end of the day get in a Super Cub, fly back to Bozeman and drive back to my home in Helena. A really long day.
So one day I was net-gunning wolves down by Dubois, with a helicopter crew from New Zealand, and things started going wrong. The wind started blowing and they had trouble catching wolves, so they dropped me off by a wolf and this guy says (in a New Zealand accent), "Hey, mate, can you hold this wolf for me?" I said, "Sure," and I just hold this wolf down, you know, and this helicopter comes to land by me about 10 minutes later, and one minute I'm holding the wolf down from the back of its head, and then in like two seconds, there's an upright wolf and I'm holding it by the front of its face. The guy never told me he hadn't immobilized (tranquilized) the wolf, he was just holding it down, and I thought it was drugged. Wolves are like dogs; if you hold them down, they become very submissive, but this helicopter coming near us again panicked it, and it spun around and bit me. I ended up with a big hole through my wrist from a canine tooth, and I got a bunch of crushed muscle tissue, but there was no permanent damage, not even much of a scar. I'm glad it wasn't a big adult, it was just a yearling. When I let go of it, it let go of me, and it was hobbled, so we knocked it down with a pole and put a collar on it and turned it loose. I was lucky not to get really hurt. One of the memories of the job.
HCN: You have deeper thoughts about collaring so many wolves, right?
We've done way too much wolf-handling and radio-collaring. I've been trying to knock it off for 10 years now and I've been very unsuccessful at that. ... In conflict resolution, there's a predictable pattern people go through: They become distracted from real issues and problems, as the extremes feed off each other, and the use of technology is seen as the fix for everything. So people want to radio-collar a lot of wolves, because environmentalists and ranchers and (federal predator controllers) all want to know about them, and the general public loves knowing what Wolf Number 12 did. Photographers in Yellowstone Park hate the radio collars, because every wolf you see has a radio hanging off it. We call them Robo Wolves. ... Now that I'm older, getting more philosophical, I don't want to know about everything. I want there to be mystery in life. When you have the Robo Wolf, letting us know that this wolf walked here and every hour we get a location, it takes away the mystery.
HCN: What's ahead for wolves in the Northern Rockies?
Wolves will be fine. The only reason we got rid of them (in the early 1900s) was massive poisoning by the federal government and private individuals, plus there was no wild prey for them to eat at the time, just livestock. ... The controversy and human drama, with people running through the streets with torches and pitchforks, all the hysteria on both sides, all that stuff will continue, but there'll be less and less of it, people will get tired of it, and things will settle down. It'll take time -- it's a generational change. In the long run, I think the numbers we have now are probably not sustainable because of the level of damage that they cause. I think about 1,200 is what we'll end up with.
HCN: You've always been a good interview, because you're a frank and colorful speaker, with a great sense of humor. You're not the average bureaucrat, fair to say?
(Chuckling.) That's a very kind thing for you to say, because the thing that wore on me the most was the bureaucracy. The purpose of a bureaucracy is to inhibit change; it's there to slow everything down, sometimes with what seem like mindless rituals and routines.
HCN: You mean the paperwork, the endless processes, and many levels of approval for simple actions, that kind of thing?
Yeah, that kind of thing. My eyes just glaze over.
HCN: Why aren't there more bureaucrats like you?
Well, I'm a piss-poor bureaucrat. I like dealing with people and resolving problems, but not behind a desk. I'm a hook-and-bullet guy at heart.
HCN: I think there's pretty wide agreement, you were the right guy for the job. What are you going to do now -- write a wolf novel, or just wolf poetry?
(More chuckling.) A lot of people told me I should write a book, but I'm not ready for that yet. So right now I'll just continue to do my Christmas letters, and spend some more time outdoors. My old truck was 26 years old, so I bought a new truck as a retirement gift to myself, and I hope to use it to do more hunting and camping. I like working out, and shooting my bow and arrows at a target in my backyard, so hopefully do a little more of that. ... I would like to contribute to conservation in the future, but I'm not sure how yet. If they ever reintroduce wolverines to Colorado, I would like to work on that. Wolverines are my favorite animal, by far. They have this very cool lifestyle, they're very rare, they have a huge home range, they live in places where it's really tough to live, high elevations and peaks, incredibly strong, very tenacious. Their jaw is in their skull, unlike ours, which detaches, so they can crush big bones and actually dissolve bones in their digestive system. They symbolize wildness to me. When you're in wolverine country, you're in a very wild place. ... I would volunteer to be involved in that in a heartbeat.
HCN: Any other thoughts you'd like to share with High Country News readers?
The bottom line is, wolves and wolf management have nothing to do with reality. It's all about humans and their values, and how we use symbols to discuss our values with other people. So the wolf debate is a very good way for us to debate what wildness means for the quality of our life. Wolves force you to face that. I mean, cats sneak around at night and they're by themselves and rarely walk on trails, bears hibernate all winter and they're secretive and usually by themselves, but wolves run in groups, they like to run on the same trails and roads that people use, so they're very obvious, and when they see you, they often just stop and watch you for a little bit, because they're visual learners, not because they're threatening you. People want to feel totally in control all the time, and wolves don't let you do that. That's why we're so hard on them. They don't make room for us quite as easily as other animals do.
HCN: This seems like a pretty good place to sign off.
Oh, good, because I've got to go do Zumba. That's my workout lately. I've always liked dancing, and Zumba is like hip-hop dancing. High energy. The only downside is, often there's like 60 young women in there, and me. It can be a little creepy. So I just kind of do my thing and try not to look around. It's funny, you catch a glimpse in the mirror and you see all these women's heads and there's my big old bald head sticking up above everybody, like a friggin' ostrich. As long as I don't catch myself in the mirror, I imagine I'm pretty graceful.