Rocky Mountain wolf recovery leader was not your average bureaucrat

by Ray Ring

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. 

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.

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