Ed Bangs has long been a lightning rod for the controversy around the return of wolves to the U.S. Northern Rockies. Based in Helena, Mont., he led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's wolf-recovery effort from 1988, when the region had only a few naturally occurring wolves, through the reintroduction of Canadian wolves in 1995 and '96, until his retirement in June 2011. During those years, the number of wolves in the region increased to more than 1,700. A plethora of lawsuits, alarmist headlines and political maneuvers culminated with Congress removing most of the region's wolves from the Endangered Species List (an action also being challenged by lawsuits) just as Bangs retired.
Throughout the wolf battles, people on all sides of the issue respected Bangs for his unusual frankness and good humor. HCN's senior editor, Ray Ring, talked with the 60-year-old biologist on July 1 about his lifelong interest in wildlife and his reflections on wolves and human society in general. Here are some excerpts:
HCN: While you ran the wolf program for so long, you probably had personal highlights?
I've gotten to travel to many parts of the world, which was really cool: One of the advantages of working with wolves is that in modern times, wolves and people have the largest distribution of any land animals, so I've gotten to go to Italy and Spain, and Hungary and Sweden, Japan and England, Mongolia and China. Most of it was covered by host countries, nonprofit groups and conference organizers -- not U.S. taxpayers.
HCN: You were observing wolf management in all those areas?
Wolf conservation and management. Any time you mix wolves and people, you have the exact same problems. Wolves are tremendous predators, so they compete with people for their livestock and for wild game, anywhere. If you go to Mongolia, and you look at a guy who runs a bunch of goats or sheep, you know how he's going to feel about wolves. If you go to Sweden, the ranchers and the hunters are bitching about wolves, maybe not as much as here, and the urban folks love them just like urban folks here love them. ... Wolves are kind of boring, but people are fascinating. So the really interesting part of the job is conflict resolution.
HCN: You were born and raised in Ventura, Calif., on the fringe of the Los Angeles metro area. How did your upbringing lead you into a career in wildlife management?
I spent most of my youth at the beach -- swimming in the ocean, and bodysurfing and fishing. My whole family was just working-class folks -- my dad was from a big sharecropping family out of Arkansas that came to California, The Grapes of Wrath kind of thing -- so our family recreation was just camping and picnicking with all the relatives. My grandpa, who was a 21-dealer for the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas, was also a semiprofessional world-class trap shooter who traveled all over shooting and hunting. My uncle was in the military stationed in Alaska -- one of those deals where you either go to prison or go into the military -- and he loved hunting and fishing in Alaska. So I grew up hearing stories about hunting and shooting and fishing in Alaska and other places. My dream as a kid was to go to Alaska; that's all I wanted to do.
HCN: Your blue-collar roots –- do you think that helped you relate to ranchers and other kinds of people involved in the wolf battles?
Oh, absolutely. My dad was in the oilfields; he started out on a labor gang hoeing weeds and advanced to working on drill rigs in Utah and then became a drilling superintendent off the coast of California and Alaska. I've been working since I was a young teenager. During school years, I had summer jobs in a chemical plant and on a cattle ranch, and then when I moved with my dad to Utah, I had a summer job as a roughneck in the oilfields in Utah. I think it helps you understand other people if you've ever been in the situation when there's not much money, and you and your friends are all fairly poor -- it gives you an appreciation for a working life. If you look at the people who tend to be outdoors, the people who are hunting and fishing, or ranchers, they're kind of blue-collar, working-class people. Coming from those roots helps you understand what's important to them and what they go through.
HCN: You bounced around for a while -- and you see the influence of good luck?
I had to pay for college, so I went to Ventura Junior College for two years, then Stanislaus State University for a year, and then we moved and I graduated from Utah State University with a degree in game management. Then I got a master's in wildlife management from the University of Nevada in Reno. My dream was still to go to Alaska, and I got a job at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in 1975, just because they needed someone to run their new hydraulic garbage truck -- I had experience with trucks from my ranch job. I worked in Alaska for 13 years, got to travel all around the state doing fieldwork, so I captured and collared grizzly bears, black bears, coyotes, wolverines, lynx, wolves, moose, caribou, eagles and swans. I surveyed goats and sheep, did salmon stream surveys, did some seabird work on offshore islands -- it was amazing. I'm an old hook-and-bullet kind of guy, an old-school biologist, and I got into this job because I wanted to hunt and fish and walk around the woods and be outdoors.
HCN: You moved to Montana in 1988 to run the federal wolf recovery program. Did you know what kind of mess you were getting into?
I did. Actually, wolf stuff in Alaska is pretty controversial too -- just the symbolism of wolves makes people a little nutty about them. But it's been a blast. I got to meet and work with some really great people -- ranchers and loggers, hunters and trappers, my colleagues in the state and federal and tribal agencies, and environmentalists -- a lot of really good people on all sides. I think wolf people are just basically good people, and one on one, most people want the same things; they want a family that loves them and vice versa, they want a good clean environment. And my personal interests are in wild areas and wildness, so it was really nice to share that with people who have common interests and similar values.